What’s So Romantic About the Holocaust?

It’s a classic. Girl meets boy. They fall in love. But their love is forbidden because their families hate each other. This powerful romantic trope is constantly reinvented so as to avoid cliché. For example, brand-new Christian fiction author Kate Breslin figured out the ultimate way to bring a sense of novelty to this (at least) 400-year-old device: to set the story in 1944, make the boy a Nazi, and the girl a Jew in a concentration camp.

For Such A Time is a freaky Nazi Christian propaganda novel that just won the RITA, the “highest award of distinction in romance fiction.” It centers on Hadassah Benjamin, a blonde and blue-eyed Jew who is saved from execution at the Dachau camp by SS Colonel Aric von Schmidt, who’s certain that she isn’t actually one of these hook-nosed, baby-eating Jews he spends 40 hours a week murdering. Benjamin disguises herself as a gentile, becomes his secretary, and struggles through her suffering only with the help of the New Testament of a Christian bible. They slowly fall in love, and Hadassah eventually convinces von Schmidt that maybe the Jews aren’t all that bad. They begin to rescue Jews, which completes Aric’s character arc, but Hadassah’s arc only concludes when she astoundingly converts to Christianity to find “redemption.” For more, consult the publisher’s official description:

In 1944, blonde and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin feels abandoned by God when she is saved from a firing squad only to be handed over to a new enemy. Pressed into service by SS-Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the transit camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, she is able to hide behind the false identity of Stella Muller. However, in order to survive and maintain her cover as Aric’s secretary, she is forced to stand by as her own people are sent to Auschwitz.

Suspecting her employer is a man of hidden depths and sympathies, Stella cautiously appeals to him on behalf of those in the camp. Aric’s compassion gives her hope, and she finds herself battling a growing attraction for this man she knows she should despise as an enemy.

Stella pours herself into her efforts to keep even some of the camp’s prisoners safe, but she risks the revelation of her true identity with every attempt. When her bravery brings her to the point of the ultimate sacrifice, she has only her faith to lean upon. Perhaps God has placed her there for such a time as this, but how can she save her people when she is unable to save herself?

There are so many problems with this premise that I could write a thesis on it. For starters, the word “Jewess” is a slur. It dehumanizes and fetishizes Jewish women and plays into offensive ethnic stereotypes.

Also, Hadassah could never consent to a relationship with Aric. He literally saved her life, and the neat little Nazi “SS” on his lapel reminds her at all times that he has the power to take that life away with a snap of his fingers. This is Stockholm Syndrome at best, but more honestly, it’s a Christian woman who has no way of conceptualizing the Holocaust from a Jew’s point of view writing an unrealistic-bordering-on-impossible romance.

Subsequently, Aric is written in such a way that we are asked to forgive him. He really is a lovely man, the text implies, and his later rescuing of Jews proves this. That he voluntarily signed up to torch them in the first place is conveniently forgotten by the end of the novel. Hadassah is in love with a man who made mistakes, we’re told, not a man who committed atrocious war crimes.

Hadassah’s eventual conversion to Christianity is just as offensive. From a surface-level analysis, that she is redeemed by her conversion sends the despicable message that she was sinning by being Jewish. But the conversion actually hits deeper than that. Conversion to Christianity has been a defining feature of the Jewish experience for the past 2,000 years. At times, Jews have been forced to convert under threat of death or expulsion from their homes. At other times, Jews have converted not due to any explicit or overt menace, but simply because of the realities of living in Western Christian society. Conversion is another way of hiding Jewishness to protect ourselves.

At the end of the day, Kate Breslin’s book uses the Holocaust as a romantic device, strips her main character of her Jewish identity, and then forces her into a disgusting romance with a man who is literally murdering her people on a daily basis. And instead of facing universal condemnation, the book won several prestigious awards. This, however, is not incredibly surprising. After all, For Such A Time is not the first award-winning book to use the Shoah for novelty and romance.

John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars infamously features a scene in which two white Christian characters share their first kiss in the Anne Frank house, to the romantic soundtrack of Otto Frank discussing his dead daughter’s diary. (Green, predictably, is Christian.) Amazingly, after they finish their kiss – or numerous passionate kisses, as the film depicts – those present begin to applaud.

I take issue with a lot in that scene, but what to me is most shocking is the way Green has responded to questions about it. In a 2012 interview, he was asked why he decided to involve Anne Frank in his novel in the first place. His response:

Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants—she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable—but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people. And so I wanted him to go with a sort of expectation of her heroism and be sort of dashed.

On the Frequently Asked Questions page of his website, Green also goes into more detail about his choices in regards to Anne Frank:

[The Anne Frank house is] a sacred space, but it’s important to remember that real people lived there. Our usual way of honoring the dead–by freezing them in time and mythologizing them, by building the marble statues Shakespeare rails against in that sonnet–that’s not Hazel and Augustus’s way of honoring the dead. As Hazel notes, Anne Frank made out with a boy in the Anne Frank house. I think Hazel wants (and I wanted) to reclaim that sacred space for doomed people who are nonetheless still alive, and still full of desire.

Generally, I wanted both of them to take back the weird, empty, quiet, sacred space that is the Anne Frank House (and more generally is the reverent but distant way we are always thinking of the dead) and find a different way to honor her life.

Augustus and Hazel, for those that don’t know, are the two main characters struggling with terminal illness in The Fault In Our Stars. That Augustus – and by extension, John Green – would see Anne Frank as having a “heroic arc” is extremely problematic. First, the idea that she had an arc implies that she was a character, not a real human being. But, let’s forgive him that thoughtless error. Anne Frank’s perceived heroism, however, cannot be forgiven.

Anne Frank is a hero. But she’s not a hero for terminally ill people. She’s not a hero for every teenage girl. She’s a hero for Jews, and Jewish women specifically, but over the years she’s been depoliticized and whitewashed for the pitying Christian audience. Today, Anne Frank has been made into a metaphor for frightened girls of any background.

She’s just a normal girl, who “just died of illness like most people.” Of course, that statement is not only false, but incredibly erasing. Anne didn’t just contract typhus while playing with her friends in the park. She wasn’t “most people.” “Most people” don’t catch typhus in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. And even if she hadn’t caught typhus, she almost certainly would have been killed by the Nazis in the final months of the war. Anne Frank’s terminal illness wasn’t typhus, it was being Jewish in Nazi Germany.

Green further erases the role Anne Frank’s Jewishness (and the Nazis) had in her death when he seeks to “reclaim” the house for “doomed people.” To reclaim something is to take it away from someone else. Here he strips the Judaism from the Anne Frank house, making it even more palatable for the white Christian audience and enabling himself to use it for his romance.

Brilliantly, he disguises all of this as an attempt to “find a different way to honor her life.” Apparently, that way is depicting two goyim making out in her house.

Lastly, Green’s criticisms of the “weird, empty, quiet, sacred space that is the Anne Frank house” miss the point entirely. Every Holocaust memorial, every museum, every monument has that eerie quiet quality. That’s intentional. The rooms full of Jewish children’s shoes in various Holocaust museums are deafening in their silence – you expect, you want, you need to hear the laughter and play of those children, but know piercingly that the moment these shoes were stripped from their owners was their last moment of childhood.

The word “Holocaust” comes from two roots – “holo” means whole, and “caust” means burn. The word “Shoah” is Hebrew, and today means catastrophe – its root word meant destruction in the middle ages. These monuments and memorials are not “weird, empty, quiet,” because they are sacred spaces. No, we are not afforded the luxury of sacred graveyards. They are silent because they are ashes, the ashes from the burning and from the ovens. They are the ruins left by the destruction, and no matter how much we build them up, they will never fill the void left by those children’s feet.

So no, these spaces, these narratives are not appropriate for romance. Honestly, I struggle to see what’s so romantic about them anyways. What, John Green, is romantic about the stench of fear? What’s romantic about the chance that, at any moment, you could be found and caught and killed?

What, Kate Breslin, is romantic about the cast iron gates proclaiming “Work Will Set You Free?” What’s romantic about the yellowed gas chamber walls? What’s romantic about “the little faces of the children whose bodies [Elie Wiesel] saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky?”

What, romance writers, is so romantic about the Holocaust?