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Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome

The new Tim Green novel—title and publication date to be revealed any moment now—had two chief sources of inspiration. The first was a reader who wanted more of Bernie, Tim’s music-writer father. As discussed last time, thinking about what a Bernie story might look like led me down a logic trail to a conclusion that was both startling and daunting: Bernie’s father Max was a Holocaust survivor.

Next came a pitched battle with imposter syndrome.

Who was I to retell this, the central story of modern Jewish experience, a singular trauma almost unimaginable in its scope and repercussions? My father was Jewish, but I was raised by my Episcopalian mother after my parents divorced while I was still a toddler. I’ve been to Italy more times than I’ve been to synagogue. My first two novels had plowed some heavy psychological ground at times, but the Holocaust?

It’s not a subject matter you just casually drop into a story. And if you do choose to go there, you’d damn well better get it right—the right tone, the right characters, the right historical facts framing and filling out the background of your narrative. It’s a grizzly bear of a story element and you’d best be prepared to wrestle it with your bare hands.

I brooded about this for weeks. I can’t. It’s miles outside my comfort zone and would take months of research to stand any chance of doing it justice. And the writing itself? Finding the right words and moments and scenes to convey what Max would have gone through? Describing places I’ve never visited, infamous places, as they were nearly a century ago? It’s too much. There’s no way. No way.

Except, of course, there was.

The first step was reconciling with the simple truth that Holocaust stories need to be told. As the last survivors pass into history, as neo-Nazis and their fellow travelers try to minimize or outright deny this history for their own evil purposes, it is more important than ever to present Holocaust narratives. It is not just right to tell stories that keep the Holocaust in our collective consciousness—it is necessary.

The second step was realizing that my doubts about my capacity to tell such a story were unfounded. First of all, storytelling is about imagination. I’ve never been the 15-year-old, pierced-and-tattooed visual-artist daughter of a rock star, but I’m as proud of young Jane Saunders as of any character I’ve ever created. And while I still haven’t been to any of the notorious death camps, Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or Buchenwald, I realized at a certain point in my ruminations that I had been somewhere that could feature in the story that was rapidly taking shape in my mind.

In 2016 Karen and I took a tour that brought us to Berlin, Prague, Vienna and various points in between. It was a trip that left strong impressions, as evidenced by the essays “The Hug” and “John Lennon and the Velvet Revolution”—but until recently I had never written about the place we went on that tour that left the deepest impression: Terezín.

Located in the Czech countryside an hour north of Prague, Terezín is a Nazi concentration camp with a unique history. While the death camps and their gas chambers were kept hidden from the outside world, Nazi propaganda spotlighted Terezín as a model camp, at times describing it as a “resort town” for Jews, despite the extreme deprivation and overcrowding its inmates experienced. When the International Red Cross demanded to inspect the camps, it was Terezín the Nazis showed them, after a six-month campaign of “beautification” that included shipping tens of thousands of older, sicker prisoners onward to Auschwitz and the other camps. We spent half a day at Terezín, walking in the gate past the barbed wire, shuffling through the desolate barracks, shuddering at the descriptions found in the camp’s museum, wandering through long rows of headstones in the Jewish cemetery just outside its walls.

Remembering what we had experienced that day was when it all came together in my mind: Max was indeed a Holocaust survivor—and more specifically, a Czech Jew who had been imprisoned at Terezín.

As for my lingering questions about Jewish identity, they ended up being woven into the story, in the form of Bernie’s and Max’s ruminations about their own often-tenuous connections with their heritage. On the far end of that spectrum of belief and self-identification is Tim’s Aunt Ruth, a minor supporting character in both Believe in Me and Never Break the Chain who steps forward in the new novel as the narrative linchpin of the story.

To this day, imposter syndrome still lurks at the edges of my consciousness. Who am I to tell this story? it demands. In the end, though, the answer is simple: I am a storyteller. This is what I do. And this is a story I could not fail to tell.

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