Occasional Notes from a Practicing Writer

A few days ago, a writer contacted me with a question.

I shared with this writer some of my own thoughts, but I emphasized that I was aware that there are a range of opinions about this subject. And I offered to post the question here, hoping that some of you might be willing to share your takes, too.

The writer accepted my invitation.

Here’s the question:

I wrote a short story about an aging Jewish Holocaust survivor who wishes to tell his young grandson about the Holocaust from the point of view of someone who was there. He feels compelled to do so as soon as possible due to failing health. He knows his grandson will hear hateful things about the Holocaust later in his life and he wishes to instill fact and truth before that happens to give the boy courage and knowledge facing adversity. The short story is intended to sympathize with the grandfather (and all survivors). I am not Jewish, but I have spent my entire adult life (I’m 67 now) being appalled by the Holocaust, admiring the strength of the survivors who were able to move on and lamenting those who couldn’t. My question is this: as a non-Jew, if I seek to have this story published, am I misappropriating?

Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts!

a mass of question marks

16 thoughts on “Occasional Notes from a Practicing Writer

  1. First, this story has to be something special, because it’s an all too familiar trope. Secondly, as I tell students in my Holocaust lit class, anyone can write a Holocaust story but that writer must do due diligence in terms of research, inhabiting the characters, and having the story vetted by historians or other Holocaust experts.
    Often, a non-Jewish author does not inherently know how a Jewish character will react. In juvenile literature, a book came out a few years ago that demonstrated this point repeatedly. In THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE, the main character didn’t think Jewishly, and it was clear the writer was American, because the character showed American sensibilities.
    I’d be glad to talk about this more.

  2. A couple of things the writer says in her message make me think she’s wanting to write a “it was a bad time but look how great things are now and can’t we leave it behind us” story and that would DEFINITELY not be received well coming from a white person who I assume has no Jewish family history. She needs to choose another difficult time to write about. Maybe the potato famine? 🙂

    I’m glad she asked, and I hope she takes your suggestions to heart.

    1. Suzanne Reisman says:

      I agree with Barbara that the author should have a compelling reason for being told and integrate real research. I am shocked at the factually incorrect things I read – even from Jewish writers – because people use hazy sources and novels and other priblematic records rather than actual documents. For example, I have read in the last year or so more than one story mentiining Jews in Warsaw wearing yellow stars, except that they didn’t. Jews in Warsaw wore white arm bands with a star printed on it. Even a cursory look at photos of the Warsaw ghetto clearly shows this. The whole Holocaust has become muddled into one experience when it was a tragedy that played out differently across Europe with the same end result of dead Jewish people. Anyway. I’m grateful that the writer reached out to you.

  3. Howard Lovy says:

    Empathy for survivors and sorrow for the victims does not necessarily equal true understanding. I’m Jewish and most of my family was murdered in the Holocaust, except for scattered relatives who survived and immigrated to America or Israel. I grew up listening to stories about the Holocaust from survivor relatives and can even claim a kind of inherited trauma. What I feel about the Holocaust goes beyond the surface horror of it and is an integral part of who I am as a writer and a human. Can a non-Jewish writer capture this below-the-surface trauma? It’s possible, but to do that effectively, the writer needs to talk to survivors and their descendants, absorb what they say, and possess the skills to communicate it to readers. If they do that, then, no, it’s not “misappropriating.”

  4. She should read all of Lawrence Langer’s books first. Then she can decide if she is equipped to tell the story she wants to tell.

  5. Pamela Wa says:

    It seems to me that the authentic story that this writer needs to tell is about her 67 year old self being asked about atrocity by a younger person. Let her draw from her own experience rather than from that of a survivor.

    1. Laurie Rosen says:

      Yes, Pamela. I agree with you wholeheartedly. This could be a very strong and important story if told from a non-Jew and how a non-Jew might handle the subject with their own grandchildren. We shouldn’t have to experience a tragedy to pass on empathy to our children and grandchildren. There are so many creative ways to handle this subject and make it fly off the page.
      As an American Jew with no known relatives that endured the Holocaust ( at least none that our family talks about) I don’t even feel comfortable writing about the Holocaust as though it is personal to me.

    2. Gayle Meyers says:

      I agree with this for two reasons. First, I think that if the writer taps into her own feelings (as a person with grandchildren, as a sort of bystander to this piece of history or to whatever else is going on around her, as someone who heard about the Holocaust all of her life) she’ll come up with something strong and authentic. Second, I am concerned about the statement that she wants to instil “courage … in the face of adversity” and “admires those who were able to move on.” Dara Horn’s “Everybody Loves Dead Jews” makes the case beautifully against drawing on the Holocaust for inspiration and lessons of any kind.

  6. First of all, I am very happy that this non-Jewish writer wants to be an ally to the Jewish community and I appreciate their asking how to do so sensitively. The world already contains many, many, many Holocaust narratives. The problem is not a lack of Holocaust stories. Instead, the problem (as we know from studies that show widespread ignorance about the Holocaust) is that these stories are not reaching readers who need them. If this person wants to really make a difference, I’d suggest that they direct their efforts away from publishing their own short story and towards advocating for Holocaust education in their community, using the many authentic materials that already exist.

  7. Bill Teitelbaum says:

    Dear Colleague:
    Because I sympathize with your concerns, I thought the following observations might help you clarify your options.
    In principle writers should feel free to write whatever they believe needs writing. But politically there’s no question that minority issues are widely held to be minority property and ever since the William Styron debacle over his novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, attempts by non-minority writers to dramatize minority experience have been considered a kind of cultural colonialism, regardless how skillful and responsible those attempts have been.
    Naturally not everyone feels that way but the objectors are always vocal, militant and consequently influential, and the fact that you find it necessary to ask at large for encouragement or permission to engage those objectors is not a promising sign.
    Bottom line, the decision to incur resistance is yours to make. Does your Holocaust story really need telling, or, for example, is it merely an effort to get some mileage out of your interest in the subject?
    With best wishes and the hope that I’ve been helpful,
    Bill Teitelbaum

  8. Others have commented on the positive and problematic aspects of your pursuing this story as described. Given your motivation to show support for survivors, what if you alter the plot line to sidestep the appropriation issue? What if your protagonist was a non-Jewish person your age who grew up learning about the Holocaust, admiring the survivors, and then one day hears one of her or his college-age grandchildren minimizing or denying the Holocaust, or espousing any number of antisemitic sentiments that are becoming increasingly common on college campuses? (The ADL should have examples.) Caught between wanting to keep family harmony and being appalled by a returning evil, what does your protagonist do? Would this or a similar plot and character change allow you to focus on the story, and not stumble into the thorny issue of who wrote the story?

  9. Zeeva Bukai says:

    I appreciate that this writer reached out and asked the question, and I understand why this writer might feel the pull to engage in this subject; however, I do find it problematic. I agree with the folks here who suggest the writer enter the story not through a Jewish grandfather/Jewish lens, but through a non Jewish narrator who might push back against Holocaust denial, and continuing antisemitism. I can see many ways that this might be a stronger storyline and would feel less like appropriation, less gratuitous, and would not flatten this history and pain.

  10. Jaime says:

    I appreciate you asking and giving it thought, but please don’t write this. Your statement about admiring those who had the courage to move on and lamenting those who couldn’t….big red flags to me that make it clear that this is not your story to tell. Like many Jews, I grew up around survivors. Many friends had grandparents with numbers on their arms. Teachers had numbers on their arms or fled after Kristallnacht. I’m not sure any would say they “moved on.” Ask survivors’ descendants about intergenerational trauma.
    If you still feel compelled to write this, I’d take the advice of the person who said write it from your own perspective, or a character with your own history (and do a lot of research and interviews first). But I would say we don’t need more “inspiring” Holocaust stories. (As someone else also mentioned, Dara Horn has written about how problematic this is).
    Your due dilligence in asking about this is much appreciated.

  11. Amy says:

    Two answers:
    Yes it’s appropriating unless you feel you can reach an audience that a Jewish survivor couldn’t reach (like an Appalachian publication).
    Maybe not the question but I’m truly if writing seems didactic units it’s part of a larger story or character.

  12. Lynn L. says:

    Hello All,
    I am the asker-of-the-question. I will wrap this up later by saying how your responses have affected me, but first this: Embarrassingly, as a writer, I made an incredible mistake in my question. I said “move on”. I meant to say “move forward” as in “rebuilding lives”; trying to focus on keeping the question concise, I wrote the first “move” that came to mind. I read and re-read the question because this is such a weighty topic that I wanted to make sure that the respect I hoped to convey was properly expressed. And each time, I missed the move “on”. So please, forgive me for pain I’ve caused with this stupid oversight and if possible, try to believe that I could not, would not ever suggest that any Holocaust survivor (including those who suffer from intergenerational trauma) should “move on”.

    Briefly, something about me: I write and aspire to be published one day. I am a Canadian Indigenous woman who sadly, because of the history of our people in Canada, is very familiar with atrocity and intergenerational trauma as a result of many residential schools sprinkled across the country that were operated and/or managed by government and/or Christian-based religious institutions in the past. I am not a residential school survivor. I am finalizing another short story that speaks to my own culture.

    The story: It’s a short story, fiction, not a novel. A few people have read it and the reaction was favourable. They thought my approach was very unique and some said they were left feeling emotional. I felt hope that I was on the right track. About a year ago, I discussed the propriety of being a non-Jew writing a story to do with the Holocaust with a mentor. She said, as others have, that there seems to be quite an array of opinions amongst Jews surrounding that issue and many of those are expressed in your responses. She was not Jewish, though, so recently I approached Dr. Dreifus for her take and she suggested we go to you folks with it. Hence, the question. I’m grateful to her.

    Here is the most important part of my response to the posts: I am completely astounded by the kindness and generosity of your responses. Selfless people you are, speaking of painful experiences, sharing your expertise, attesting to the effects of the Holocaust in your own lives even to this day, expressing your important and touching opinions. You advised, you gently admonished. You suggested alternatives. You recommended authors and reading materials to educate myself further. And throughout it all, I felt respected. It seemed that coveted and protected drops of wisdom were showered upon me, each one a gift.

    So the elephant in the room, so to speak, is: will I try to have it published? I don’t know. But now, thanks to you, it will be a much more heavily considered question. If I do submit it somewhere, I will certainly take the oft-offered advice to have it read by Holocaust experts and they would be, obviously, Jewish. If I don’t, I will keep it in my personal collection because it really is, more than anything, a loving tribute to a people I admire greatly.

    Thank you, immensely.

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