Tag Archives: Holocaust

Becoming a Writer of Jewish Fiction

Can a novel be taught as history? Author Sharon Hart-Green shares her experience as a writer of Jewish fiction, and argues that fiction readers not only acquire factual knowledge, but emotional affinity. Here’s why her poignant new novel belongs in classrooms this fall.


I must admit that before writing Come Back for Me, I felt a sense of trepidation about writing a Holocaust novel. Since neither my parents nor grandparents are Holocaust survivors, I did not believe that I had the “right” to do so. At the same time, I was caught between two opposing pulls: the feeling of obligation to somehow give voice to those who were brutally murdered, and the knowledge that no book could ever do justice to what they suffered. How could I possibly resolve what seemed to be an impossible dilemma?

I believe that I was able to negotiate a solution to this impasse by taking what I would call an “indirect” approach:  writing about the lingering effects of the Holocaust on two generations of Jewish families, rather than trying to write directly about the Holocaust itself. Since I had grown up in a neighbourhood full of Holocaust survivors and their children, I felt well equipped to undertake this task. This allowed me to explore the event through the experiences of those who survived as well as how it affected their offspring. History, after all, is composed of many layers of experience, and if I could approach it from this indirect angle, then perhaps I would be able to unearth some truths about it that could not be otherwise revealed.

Indeed, one of the most effective ways to teach about history is through fiction. Why? Because fiction beckons the reader to enter another person’s life – to “live” that life on an emotional level – even if only for a short while. That is not to underestimate the value of learning from history books as well; to be sure, reading about the rise and fall of great leaders and analyzing the causes and effects of historical change is vital. However, historians rarely tell stories about ordinary people. Fiction has the unique ability to draw a reader into the personal life of everyday individuals. In fact, this might be the best way for readers to learn most deeply about a historical period. When reading about characters from other eras, they not only acquire factual knowledge, but also emotional affinity.

Yet teaching about the Holocaust through the use of fiction is a particularly complex matter, partly because the enormity of the Holocaust itself makes it a difficult subject to convey in any form. How can any of us fathom that it was only seventy-five years ago that a regime arose which attempted to systematically murder every man, woman, and child of Jewish descent in all of Europe? The victim toll alone is so massive that most people who read statistics like “six million” can barely grasp what that means.

However, I think that if a work of Holocaust fiction is written with historical accuracy, it can serve as an invaluable resource for teaching about this dark period, especially in schools. By this I mean that a writer of fiction must be absolutely unwavering in representing the brutal facts of this event before taking on this task. I say this because some novelists in recent years have tried to commercialize the Holocaust, and in doing so, misrepresent it, sometimes in grossly distorted ways. For example, there have been some novels that inject elements of romance into their storylines in order to make their plots more exciting. (The Tatooist of Auschwitz is only one such example.) What does this convey to the reader? It gives the impression that the Holocaust “wasn’t all that bad,” which of course is not only a contemptible distortion of history but it also trivializes the suffering of the victims.

I hope that writers continue to write fiction about the Holocaust – about the factors leading up to it, the people who were destroyed by it, and the world that allowed it to happen. My main hope however is that they do so with caution and with a deep sense of duty to represent it with accuracy. It is the least we as writers can offer as a gesture of respect to those who perished.


Sharon Hart-Green has taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the University of Toronto. Her short stories, poems, translations, and articles have appeared in a number of publications. Come Back for Me is her first novel.

Why History Matters Today

In the past few years, I have become fairly passionate on the topic of whether history matters today. Of course, my job reinforces that point daily, but I find that the constant knee-jerk reactions to events on social media, the immediate rush to panic about anything that happens in the Middle East, and the inability to celebrate when positive change occurs (because we either don’t know or don’t care about what a situation looked like previously) have made me even more committed to publishing accessible history for today’s students.

But not just to students. Recently, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto, three of my authors participated in a new series called Why History Matters Today. This series, a partnership between the JCC and the Higher Education Division of University of Toronto Press, offers stimulating lectures on fascinating historical issues to the Active 55 Plus demographic. Steven Bednarski, author of A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, A Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner, talked to the audience about the relationship between changes in the environment and pogroms against Jews during the Middle Ages. Franklin Bialystok, who is in the process of writing a history of Canadian Jewry, introduced a series of key Canadian Jewish personalities and explained how each settled and adapted in their own diverse way to Canadian society. Kenneth Bartlett, author of several Renaissance books on my list, spoke about Palladianism and its impact on today’s world. The audience, mostly people over fifty, hung on their every word.

Each author began his talk by considering “Why History Matters Today.” For Steven Bednarski, history shows us that we haven’t changed much over the centuries. Sometimes we are good to each other and sometimes we are not. Personally, I find that comforting. I believe that knowing history stops the knee-jerk overreaction because you can look to the past and say: “I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen Sunni/Shiite conflict, I’ve seen Donald Trump before. I’ve seen millions of refugees fleeing in unseaworthy vessels before.” Knowing that we have been here before should calm you down and then you can begin to ask the important questions: What did the world learn from that experience? What can I learn from it now?

History as a calming influence was reinforced by Franklin Bialystok who chided those who angrily opposed the recent Iranian arms deal and who offered up the comparison to 1938 when England and France appeased Hitler by allowing Germany to seize the Sudetenland. As a teacher of the Holocaust, Bialystok could rely on his knowledge of European history to remind his audience that today’s Iranian leaders are not yesterday’s Nazis and that twenty-first-century Israel is not twentieth-century Czechoslovakia. History, then, prevents one from making weak comparisons and the resultant hysteria.

For Kenneth Bartlett, the continued existence of buildings constructed according to the principles of Palladianism shows that we remain connected to our past, and so knowing something about that past enriches our present not just in the areas of current events but in art and architecture as well.

Who Is the Historian?Given my preoccupation with the importance of studying history, I was thrilled when Nigel A. Raab from Loyola Marymount University sent me his manuscript entitled Who Is the Historian? which we recently published. This essay-length book had its debut at the recent American Historical Association meeting in Atlanta. In his book, Raab provides a thoughtful response to the question often expressed by students: “How is taking a history course going to help me after I graduate?” Raab explains what historians do, the skills that history courses impart, examples of people who use their historical education in other environments, and demonstrates how history enriches our present experience. Given the book’s success at the AHA, it has clearly struck a chord with history professors.

History matters very much today. As individuals, we are aware of our upbringing, our genetics, our childhoods. Our past informs our present. Why would we ignore our society’s history, our country’s history, or our community’s history? Their pasts inform their present too.

For 2016, we should commit to reading more history books. If we have extra time, we should take a history course or attend a lecture at a community centre. History is a teacher, albeit an imperfect one. We should listen to it more often.

-Natalie Fingerhut, History Editor

Author Footnotes with Sean Kennedy

Sean Kennedy discusses his new book, The Shock of War: Civilian Experiences, 1937-1945, now available from UTP.

“Everything considered I wish I had ended up dying during the bombings. If only there weren’t a war, we wouldn’t have to pretend we were happy.” These words, written in the diary of an eighteen-year-old Japanese teenager on July 21, 1945, were among the many stirring passages written by ordinary people that I encountered as I wrote The Shock of War: Civilian Experiences, 1937-1945, the second book in the UTP / Canadian Historical Association short book series on “International Themes and Issues.” To me this particular passage is especially striking for two reasons. First, it highlights how many civilians faced great danger during the conflict and the despair which could ensue from trauma. Furthermore, it alludes to the fact that ordinary people sometimes faced intense pressure from their governments—in particular authoritarian governments—to display patriotic spirit regardless of the situation.

Other individual stories I mention in the book are most positive in tone, stressing, for instance, the jubilation experienced in the Allied nations as the war came to an end. By noting the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds, and by situating those experiences within the political and social context of the time, I am hoping that The Shock of War will convey to general readers and students the profound yet complex impact of the Second World War upon civilians in a wide range of societies.

I wrote this book because of my teaching experiences at the University of New Brunswick, in particular a third-year course entitled “The Generation of World War Two.” Over the years I have encountered many excellent books and articles on topics such as civilian experiences on the home front in different countries, what it was like for ordinary people to live under foreign military occupation, and the horrific cases of genocide and other atrocities during the war. I have tried to introduce my students to at least some of these admirable works, but over the course of time it seemed to me that a short book that compared the wartime experiences of different societies in a broad way, while trying to convey a variety of individual experiences, could make a useful contribution in the classroom, and for a wider audience.

I’m very excited at the prospect of now seeing the book in print. I have tried to synthesize a variety of works by very talented scholars, and I am hoping that The Shock of War encourages readers to explore the subject in more depth. Some of these topics, such as the Holocaust, can be very difficult to read about, but it is vitally important that we understand the horrors of the past. We do not live in a peaceful world: there are many conflicts around the globe which shatter the lives of ordinary people in different ways. Mobilizing for, and fighting in, wars have complex and even contradictory effects: the process can bring citizens of a nation together, but it can also expose, and even intensify, existing tensions within a society. I hope that the book helps us to understand these processes today, in light of the tumultuous global conflict between 1937 and 1945.