Adding to the canon of Holocaust literature is a daunting prospect for anyone. For a first-time novelist, even more so.
But with Displaced Persons, Brooklyn local Ghita Schwarz has added a moving, original, and surprisingly humorous book to this genre. Unlike much that has been written about the survivor experience, Schwarz does not focus on the gruesome events of the war but rather on the day-to-day life of survivors post-1945 as they try to move on and start again. As a former mental health professional and a current litigator specializing in immigrants’ rights, she provides a unique perspective, establishing the links between the refugee stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors and the contemporary migrant experience.
This past December, we caught up at Schwarz’s local coffee shop in Fort Greene.
Bec Zajac (Rail): There’s a lot written about survivors’ children being obsessed with documenting things. I remember how, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, there’s a real joke made of the main character’s need to document, collect, and record. Do you relate to that idea? Do you think your writing comes from that place?
Ghita Schwarz: I definitely wanted to document some part of their experience, but, honestly, I didn’t feel this desperation to document the actual Holocaust, because when your book comes out in 2010, there’s already a ton of stuff. I did feel a need to document the refugee experience as opposed to the war trauma experience because I felt it was sort of underrepresented. On the other hand, I don’t think that for an artist or a novelist there’s quite the same obligation as there is for a historian. And a novel, to me, has to do something different than what a history book does or what a movie does or a letter to the editor does. It has to be about something that only the novel can really do.
Rail: What I found to be unique about your book was the way you chose to focus on the subtle aspects of trauma that pervade the characters’ lives after 1945, rather than depicting the more horrific details of their war experience which we’re used to reading in a Holocaust narrative. This is a challenging thing to do. One of your characters, Sima, says herself that “sometimes Americans lost interest if one did not say the words ‘concentration camp.’ As if what gave the experience its importance was the form of torture one had endured, rather than the loss of everything…They preferred violence—‘the gory details’…to grief.”
Schwarz: One of the primary motivating feelings I had when writing the book was this weird feeling of being both turned-off and interested in the gory details myself, and noticing how in so much that’s written about not just the Holocaust but any sort of major historical, horrible human rights event, people really do focus on the machetes cutting off the arms, and the gas chambers, and it has a way of erasing the experience and making it into a horror that ends, rather than something that people go through and live with. When I used to hear stories, my father didn’t focus that much on a horrible thing he saw. He really focused on how he never saw his father again after this one time. So I wanted to equalize it a little bit and make the grief and the loss the focus of the book rather than the actual mini-events.
Rail: And you are able to make something as abstract as the characters’ grief into something very tangible. How did you research the specific way survivors experience their trauma? Was it from being the child of survivors, or did you read psychoanalytic literature on post-traumatic stress?
Schwarz: I have read a lot of psychological literature, in part related to this but also because I used to be a mental health worker. I was in the public mental health system and most of my clients had been through a severe trauma. I was 22 and really unfamiliar with a lot of the things I was encountering, so I started reading a lot so I could just sort of manage my job. And a lot of it seemed very familiar, even if people’s experiences were historically completely different. So I did do a lot of reading in that way and just over time you interview enough people even for your immigration job—people from China, from Afghanistan—you have a sense of how people think about it.
Rail: The characters each respond very differently to their war experience, but one thing they all do to some degree is pretend. There’s this idea that if they don’t talk about the pain, if they pretend it’s not there, it will go away.
Schwarz: One of the things I wanted to do in the book is have basically two different generations of children. So Pavel is about 15 years older than Chaim, and their children are at least a decade-and-a-half apart. And it makes a big difference. When I was in Hebrew school I was given a book by a Hebrew school teacher about children of survivors, and it was basically about people who’d been born in the late ’40s and early ’50s and had grown up in the ’60s, and their experiences were completely unfamiliar to me. They experienced these secretive parents who pretended nothing happened and these “monsters under the bed.” But I didn’t have that experience at all. So one of the things I wanted to capture was not just how much they pretend for their children, but how much the culture is telling them this is better for your children in the ’50s. And it conforms to ’50s culture generally. You didn’t talk a lot about ethnic pride and you didn’t go into your ancestry that much in a public way. And in the ’60s—with the civil rights movement and lots of different political movements trying to honor non-mainstream groups and histories—it suddenly became much more discussable.
Rail: Although most of the characters pretend to not be affected by their trauma, it still comes out in these strange ways. There’s an episode in which Fela is unable to leave her daughter, Helen, alone at the pool. After she finally does, Helen has a small injury, which Fela becomes hysterical about. Where does that hysteria come from?
Schwarz: I think that’s a very common phenomenon. I mean, soldiers go through it. Lots of people go through it. You’re actually being shot at; you’re not going to burst into tears, or you’re not going to start yelling at the Nazi. You’re just not going to do certain things because you have no power in the situation. It won’t help you get through it. But sometimes the very things that enable you to really do well in a crisis situation are either not very good strategies for dealing with everyday problems or you sort of lose your sense of how to evaluate an everyday problem. People who’ve gone through trauma can be explosive about really silly little things, so I was trying to capture that feeling.
Rail: It seems so counterintuitive. You would think that someone who’d survived such a terrible ordeal would “not sweat the small stuff.”
Schwarz: You know, it does seem counterintuitive, but the reason it seems counterintuitive is nowadays, I think we do have this sort of false idea that trauma makes you stronger, and it doesn’t. It frequently makes you weaker. And it’s not, for a lot of people, a really character-building exercise. It’s something that weakens them. The same way that if you break your leg, it’s always going to be harder to walk even if it heals. It doesn’t make your leg stronger. So that’s part of what I’m trying to get through. You know we have these sayings—“Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” And it’s like, “Well not really, whatever doesn’t kill you could also almost kill you.”
Rail: The book reminded me of the idea of displacement in psychoanalysis: that people are forever transferring feelings of loss onto other things. Is that partly what you are referring to with your title Displaced Persons?
Schwarz: I didn’t intend it to reflect the psychoanalytic term but I think that is part of what the book is trying to do. A lot of the American sections are in very boring situations—you go to a concert, you go to a lecture, you go grocery-shopping, you go to the city pool, you go to work—they’re very routine things, in which there’s a lot of opportunity for that displacement to express itself rather than the inherent drama of the scene. It’s supposed to be coming from their psychological drama.
Rail: One of the psychological elements you really captured for me is the unique way that survivors experience relationships. There is love in the book, and some sex, but neither one is romanticized. Can you elaborate on how the feelings of love and desire survivors have may be different from the kind others would have?
Schwarz: I think in some ways it’s both more intense and less intense. It’s more intense in that you’ve lost so much that if you lose this new bond or this new marriage or this new friendship, it’s going to be this horrible disaster. On the other hand, they are very practical people—all of them. And that’s a huge priority for them just as much after the war as during. I don’t know if you’ve read the book The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak? It wasn’t widely distributed and when you read it you understand why. It’s about this young man in the Lodz ghetto. When you read Anne Frank, she’s an incredible writer and there’s a story and action and characters and drama, but huge sections of the Dawid Sierakowiak diaries are like Gertrude Stein—Bread. Bread. Bread. “We had 300g of bread then we split it into 200 and then we split that.” It’s really just prose poems of bread for pages and pages and pages. Then on page something-or-other his mother dies, and it’s very upsetting but it goes right back to bread. It’s astonishing when you read it because you think, “Yeah, this was what people felt.” There is a way that, when you’re going through this experience and you’re just trying to survive, you can’t really linger on a certain kind of thing that you definitely linger on when you’re not hungry and freezing.
Rail: They don’t have the luxury to have those feelings.
Schwarz: Well, it’s an impediment. If you sit there and let yourself be in love or let yourself be incredibly shocked and horrified that a close person has been killed right in front of you, you can’t flee. It’s not a useful survival technique.
Rail: There are a lot of characters that do end up doing immoral things—some for survival, some just for upward mobility. It seems that in a time of lawlessness like this, it’s difficult to negotiate what’s right or wrong.
Schwarz: It was a very lawless, weird environment in the displaced persons camps. There were four different occupying armies. Germany is divided up into these crazy multilingual zones. There weren’t really established government entities and what there were seemed sort of arbitrary and random. So people were really negotiating these things on their own. They are also coming from an incredibly repressed, terrifying imprisonment, even if they weren’t technically in prison, and it’s very hard to decide whether you’re doing something in order to survive now that your life might not be imminently in danger, or you’re doing something to make your life better. And those are two different things. It’s one thing to steal someone’s food when you’re starving, and it’s slightly different to take it when you’re a little bit hungry.
Rail: I think there is a tendency in the Jewish community not to discuss those who pushed others down to get ahead, but you shed light on that in a bold way. Could you talk about your choice to do that?
Schwarz: I wasn’t really trying to do one thing or the other. I was just trying to represent actual people. But part of it, also, I read a lot, because of my parents’ experience, at a relatively young age about the Holocaust. But I read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz pretty late, and I was astounded by how almost nothing was about Nazis. I mean really almost nothing. It was really about people in the camp and how they acted toward each other. And Primo Levi really doesn’t buy into this idea that because you’re in a concentration camp, you have no moral choices to make. They’re very warped and they’re horrible choices and there may be no way to make a good choice the way you might in a free life. But he judges people. He judges people who are starving in the bed right above him and I was very impressed by that. And it seemed to me that if people can represent camp life that way they surely should be able to represent post-war, free life that way.
Rail: The idea of revenge comes up quite a bit. That’s something I hadn’t associated with survivor narratives before. But it reminded me a little bit of some of the conversations I heard going on around Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which I remember was being referred to as the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy.
Schwarz: A few years ago some book came out about a small group of postwar Jews who carried out acts of revenge. I don’t know too much about that but I think there is this sort of fantasy about the meek Diaspora Jew rising up and actually being a tough guy afterwards. That may sound like a fantasy to a younger American, but for most of those people their priority really was, no matter how they really felt, to get married, build a new family, make a new life, get to some other country. Revenge is a lot of work. It interferes with your ability to build something new.
Rail: Do you think the characters are successful in building a new home, or do they remain forever displaced?
Schwarz: I guess I don’t feel that they’re mutually exclusive. I mean they all got what they wanted, which was to move to America, and they all have much better lives in America, but the displacement is really something that every immigrant experiences through their whole life. Actually, I hadn’t really told my colleagues about the fact that I was having a book come out, and when it did, one of my colleagues said, “Oh your title is Displaced Persons—is it about the Latino clients that you worked with?” And I was fascinated that she thought that, because to me it means postwar European Jews, but obviously it is a very universal experience. Even if the immigration experience is a happy one, you always feel displaced, and that does follow them forever, and it’s not just because of what they went through but because that’s what immigration is.
Rail: And I love that with that title it felt like you were making a link between Jewish postwar refugees and immigrants today, because that’s a link that I think is rarely created.
Schwarz: In the United States there was an enormous amount of anti-Semitic debate about how many postwar Jews to let in. And nowadays you just assume, “Oh the Holocaust. It was so bad. Obviously America really helped those people.” And they did. America did. But it took a while, and some of the same debates that we have now in Congress you saw right then. It wasn’t just about people from Latin America. It was about Jews. So part of me wanted to resurrect that.