When I first set out to write my book (which I’m still writing, by the way) I thought it was going to be fiction. My mother-in-law, who was born in a concentration camp three weeks before it was liberated by U.S. troops, gave me permission to write her incredible life story. But I got scared and decided to fictionalize. First I was going to do it from a teenager’s point of view, growing up in Communist Czechoslovakia, using my mother-in-law as the basis for the character. I abandoned that idea when I wised up and realized her story is so amazing it almost reads like fiction. There’s no reason to make things up when the truth is beyond normal comprehension. And, for once, it’s a Holocaust story with a happy(ish) ending.
So, when I read this review on NYT.com about a new movie based on the bestselling book, Sarah’s Key, it got me thinking about fictionalizing Holocaust stories. That and the fact that Rubino Romeo Salmoni, the man whose Holocaust survival story inspired award-winning film Life Is Beautiful, died recently at age 91. I remember how much I enjoyed that film when it came out (1997) and also how guilty I felt for enjoying it since it was a movie about the Holocaust. Which reminds me of how hard I laughed at Europa! Europa! (1990), especially the scene on the train where the main character loses his virginity.
Laughing at stories about the Holocaust seems so incongruous, and yet, it happens. And why not? Wry humor. Black humor. Gallows humor. That’s what got many people through the camps and gets many people through trying times everywhere. It certainly got me through difficult moments in my own childhood.