Thank you for wanting to know the story behind the story of Those Who Save Us. The number-one question I hear is: “Where did you get the idea for this book?” This isn’t easy to answer. Novels are born from entire constellations of impulses, memories, and experiences. But sometimes you’re lucky enough to be able to pinpoint a few of these to share with readers and even be able to describe when, exactly, a character was born. That’s what I’ll do here.
Most readers assume Those Who Save Us is autobiographical—they often look surprised when they meet me and see I’m not an eighty-something German woman or embittered fifty-something German history professor. I take it as the highest compliment when my readers think my characters and their situations must be real.
But in fact, I invented their stories. I was born in this country, and I have a great relationship with my mom—who was also born in this country, as was her mom, in southern Minnesota. It was my mother’s grandparents who came from Germany and Norway. My Jewish dad and his parents, likewise, were born here—in New York City. My dad was raised in Westchester and worked in Manhattan as a newsman his entire life.
So how did a nice half-Jewish girl like me, from bucolic Montclair, New Jersey, come up with this Holocaust-era novel about a German emigrant and her daughter?
I was always interested in the Holocaust, and it started because my parents were big readers. I grew up in a house surrounded by books, and when I was five I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, about a German-Jewish girl whose family was forced to flee the Nazis. This novel upset me deeply, and I demanded of my parents why the “Nay-ziss” and the “Jest-a-po” were so mean to the Jews. Once my parents figured out I meant the Nazis and the Gestapo, they tried to give me an honest answer: Jews were persecuted because of their religion. But this didn’t make sense to me—and three decades later, having spent a good deal of time studying the Nazi era, I can cite all sorts of demographic, economic, and historical reasons for the Holocaust, but I still can’t provide an emotional one.
Also, after I read The Diary of Anne Frank, I asked my dad whether any of our family had perished in the Holocaust. He said two of his great-aunts had been murdered at Babi Yar, the Nazi killing pits. But he didn’t know their names. He had no photographs. Their histories had been vaporized along with their bodies.
As Elie Wiesel’s rabbi explains in Night, “Every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.” My unanswered questions helped inspire Those Who Save Us.
On the flip side of the coin, in 1993 when I was fresh out of college, my mother announced we were going to Germany. I was underwhelmed at the prospect. “Why Germany?” I protested. There were so many more pleasant places in the world to visit—Spain, Italy, France, Canada, Arkansas….any destination whose people had not helped murder six million Jews, some of them on my father’s side of the family.
But my mother wanted to investigate her own heritage. She’s a concert pianist, and for years she’d been reading about the Nazi era, trying to understand how a country that had produced so many great composers and musicians had also engineered history’s most atrociously efficient mass genocide.
So I soon found myself hurtling through the German countryside in a rented car with my mother. We didn’t speak the language. We had no plan. We visited where her people came from—Wallhausen, a little farm town. We drank a lot of schnapps. And we asked each other over and over, “How could the Holocaust have happened here?”
One day we were driving from Buchenwald to Weimar. Buchenwald was the first concentration camp we visited, and we’d been stricken into uncharacteristic silence. As we descended the Ettersberg mountain into meadows full of purple flowers, I reflected that from the camp, you could see Weimar. So, I reasoned, from Weimar, the Germans must have been able to see the camp. What did they tell each other and themselves about what was going on up there? What did they say to their children when ash was falling from the sky in May? I wouldn’t have had a chance to make those choices; I would have been classified a Mischling, a half-breed, and, if discovered by the Nazis, sent with my Jewish father to the camps. But my mother was full-blooded “Aryan.”
I asked her, “If you’d been living in Germany during the war, what would you have done?”
She was silent for a moment, smoking, contemplating. Then she said, “I don’t know what I would have done. I’d like to think I would have been brave enough to help my Jewish friends, my neighbors. But if the Nazis caught you, the punishment was death. And if I had you kids to care for…. Well, I can only hope I would have been brave enough.”
That was when the character of Anna came to me, on that road from Buchenwald to Weimar: a young, quiet, beautiful German woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. An ordinary woman forced by a crucible of circumstance to make extraordinary, terrible decisions. Anna dwelled in my head for the next ten years, softly but insistently demanding that her story, that of the average German woman, be told.
When I got home, I began to research. For the next decade, I read everything I could get my hands on about the Third Reich, its causes, victims, and citizens. I read dozens of survivor accounts. I engaged in what one reader kindly called “method research,” although you could also refer to it as insanity: watched German films and documentaries; listened to German music; took German classes (at which I was a total failure). I baked everything appears in the novel, because I wanted to know Anna from the inside out. (That Christmas Stollen took me 48 sleepless hours to make, and I swore like a trucker the whole time, but it lasted several months afterwards, like a Teutonic fruitcake.) And for a short period of craziness, while I was writing Anna, I dressed like her: in a dirndl skirt, my hair in braids. I did this only when writing, at night, not outside the house. Much. Only on Halloween.
The most important research I did, however, was to interview Jewish survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. I was living in Minneapolis then, in the mid-1990s, and my mom, who lived across town, pointed out an announcement in the Star-Tribune that the Foundation was seeking interviewers. I protested I couldn’t possibly apply for the position; I didn’t have survivors in my family; I didn’t have the right. My mom said, “Go.” I went.
I auditioned in Chicago with maybe a thousand other people for an interviewer’s position, and the Foundation did grant me that honor. For the next four years, I interviewed dozens of survivors in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. I specialized in couples: survivor pairs who had met each other after the war, in Displaced Persons camps overseas or here in America or, in a few instances, during the war itself.
Readers often ask what survivor testimonies I used in the writing of Those Who Save Us. My answer: nothing. Survivors’ memories are earned at a cost the rest of us can only imagine. They are hallowed ground. But the survivors I was privileged to interview did inform the novel’s emotional atmosphere, allowing me to create the emotional spectrum along which my characters dwell: from guilt to shame to denial to anger to a fierce, abiding hope. Most survivors, when asked for their testimonies’ final statements, said, “The world should know what we went through so it will never happen again.” I wanted, in writing Those Who Save Us, to respect their wishes by refracting some of their anguish and horror through a fictional lens. That is another reason I wrote the novel: to pay survivors an homage.
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Believe it or not, that’s the short answer to “How did you get the idea for this book?” I hope it has satisfied your curiosity. If you have more questions, please visit the Q&A section of the website. And if you have more after that, please write and ask me.