At the beginning of this year, I had completed nearly 80% of a novel, part of which traces the fate of a Jewish family in Germany – from Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the beginnings of the mass deportations.
Then my father died, followed by my mother’s death roughly six weeks later. And suddenly I found I could no longer continue with the novel.
Writing about the Nazis means reading about the Nazis; and reading about them means those cruel, petty, loathsome little turds are constantly knocking around somewhere in your consciousness on a daily basis.
When the double-death hit me, I found I could not bear to live with this condition, so I switched to a more neutral subject matter and began writing a local history project.
Six months later, I am now in an emotional space where I can begin work on the novel again. But the subject matter horrifies me in a way it did not before. I now possess a true understanding of what grief and loss means; and when I write of the fate of my characters, I am struck by the stark reality of what millions must have truly suffered due to the Nazis’ actions.
If it hurts beyond belief to lose a loved one in the peaceful surroundings of home or hospital, what must the grief have been like for those who saw their loved ones beaten to death in front of them? Or saw them herded into concentration camps, where they would be worked to death? Or forced into cattle trucks and transported towards the gas chambers and crematoria of the extermination camps? How did they deal with the grief caused by the deaths of entire extended families?
Stalin (another enthusiastic practitioner of genocide) once famously said, ‘A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic’. Life experience has now taught me to see each of those many millions killed in history’s genocidal outbreaks as an individual – an individual who was a father or mother, a son or daughter, a brother or sister, whose death would have caused ripples of terrible, inconsolable grief to spread through dozens of people.
How on earth did they deal with it? The fact that survivor guilt caused thousands of suicides many years after these losses occurred is testament to the fact that many simply could not; and I thank God I was spared this hideous off-shoot of the normal grieving process.