A friend recently interviewed author Ghita Schwarz on her book Displaced Persons for the Brooklyn Rail. It’s a really interesting conversation about writing and reading and telling stories about the Holocaust, and on dealing with trauma and its effects as it’s passed down through generations. Here’s an excerpt:
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.