Caught in the World of Fiction

Posted on February 13, 2010. Filed under: Books, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , |

I feel I’ve been rather preoccupied with my reading lately, so much so that I haven’t done much work on my most esteemed scrapbook, which was to be the highlight of this month. Ah well, needs must; I’ll finish it sometime.

As I was reading today, I remembered books as a child that took me to unexplored worlds. Following historical fiction into places I’ve never been was worth the trip and all the words of every author whose prose I read. I suppose I’ve been groomed to want to travel through my love of the written word.

While I adored such tales as that of Narnia and Middle Earth, I also purchased as many books as I could get my hands on about certain subjects. It seems ironic to admit now that my first debut into the world of historical fiction was lodged firmly in the realms of World War II Germany, specifically stories about the Holocaust.

No, I didn’t start with The Diary of Anne Frank; though I did read that in middle school. And yes, I tittered with the other children over the more illicit references Anne managed to throw into her timeless diary entries.

No, my interest was more on other books offered through the perennial favorite, the Scholastic Book offerings that almost every child in my years was favored with growing up. While some wadded the flimsy papers up and tossed them in the trash before they reached home, I painstakingly read through every single title, author, and synopsis, choosing all the books I wanted. By the time I arrived home, I had the choicest of books circled, usually in a brightly colored pen. (In later years, I learned to pick based on which ones I simply couldn’t live without and color code them for good measure, with the hopes I’d get more than just the most important ones.)

For whatever the reason, and I honestly can’t remember now under what impulse I decided to go down this route, I unerringly chose as many books on the Holocaust as I could. Usually these were stories of survivors of concentration camps and other horrors, dumbed down and lightened enough for children to read. I starkly remember a biography I read titled I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson, a bleak account of a 13-year-old survivor of Auschwitz if I’m recalling the details properly. In fact, I believe I still have my copy of that book floating around somewhere.

No matter, the point of this rambling is to make clear that as a child, I decided that I wanted to travel. And because my earliest interests were in learning about the Holocaust, I pursued books on the subject for several years (mostly through late elementary and middle school) and ended up taking German for my foreign language elective in high school.

Today I rarely read Holocaust fiction. Not that the subject doesn’t appeal anymore, but it’s one that I have to be in a certain mood for. Despite that, I still desire to travel to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, to see the places of infamy that such a time created. And to be quite honest, if I had the opportunity, I’d go in a heartbeat, even to see the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

I believe the reason is simple: seeing is believing.

I’ll give a related example. After growing up on Holocaust fiction, I was able to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. in high school. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers exhibits that are straight out of time, exploring just what tortures were inflicted on those unfortunate enough to be targets of Nazi Germany.

One such exhibit was almost my undoing in the museum. I clearly remember walking from room to room, much slower than everyone else in my party, reading every inscription, looking at every picture. But the entryway to one of the rooms was quite different from the rest: the museum had created a ‘hallway’ out of an old cattle car used by the Nazis to ferry human traffic from one concentration camp to the next.

I stepped inside and was swamped with memories of stories. I couldn’t believe that so many humans could be cramped inside these small cars. I stood there for several minutes, taking in the darkness and the lack of any discernible holes offering light or oxygen.

The world of fiction can only do so much to make history come alive. But having a background in it? When confronted with the evidence of historical cruelties I’d only read about, I was swept back into time with every hero and heroine I’d spent hours studying in the pages of my books.

Perhaps I’ll write more later about how my desire to travel has developed through my love of fiction, but I do believe this gives you quite an intense picture. Does anyone else have similar stories? Comments? Thoughts? I’d love to hear it.



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3 Responses to “Caught in the World of Fiction”

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I remember reading a Stephen King story about a Nazi who had escaped, and it talked about how numbers were tattooed on the arms of the Concentration Camp inmates. I was a candystriper at the time, and I remember distinctly the moment I left some water for a hospital patient. He reached out to grab the glass, and when his sleeve pulled up I saw the numbers tattooed on his arm. I knew about the Holocaust, but it didn’t seem REAL until I saw those numbers.

Great post, Rae.

I hope you get a chance to go to Europe. I’ve been to Germany, but I only saw Dresden, though that has a WWII significance of its own. I don’t know if I could handle the full Holocaust tour, so I admire those who can.

Hmm. I guess you could say that I’m similar in that it was fiction (although primarily in the form of graphic novels) that originally inspired my interest in East Asia and Japan. And now I’ve been to some of the places that I once only knew in stories. Which is a really cool feeling by the way, because now when I read stories that take place in Beijing or Japan, I can read about these places and remember being there. It opens a whole fun new perspective.

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