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Anthony Doerr’s Fictional Journey Inside a Jewish Girls’ Orphanage

In “Afterworld,” a novella that closes the new story collection “Memory Wall,” O. Henry Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr imagines life inside a Jewish girls’ orphanage during World War II. The novella tells the story of Esther, an epileptic grandmother in Geneva, Ohio, whose seizures bring her back to the time she spent in the orphanage.

Doerr spoke recently with Sisterhood contributor Elissa Strauss about the powerful inspiration for the piece, the universal appeal of Anne Frank’s diary, and the way made-up stories can preserve real-life events.

How did you come to set this story at a Jewish girl’s orphanage during WWII?

While doing research for another project, a novel I’ve been working on for years, I came across a deportation manifest with the names and birthdate of 13 girls on it. None was older than 16, and the youngest was under 5. All were sent to Auschwitz. I left the manifest pinned to a bulletin board in my office for over a year, and every now and then it would percolate back up in my thoughts. It wasn’t until I started reading about temporal lobe epilepsy, for yet another project, and the visions that some of its sufferers have, that I began to think: Maybe I can make fiction about these two things.

What was the research process like? What is it like to attach fiction to these meticulous war records?

Research for me is a big word that encompasses a lot of different activities, all of them based around curiosity. Research is traveling to places, or studying snowflakes with a magnifying glass, or excavating one’s memories. Research is walking around Hamburg with a notebook. The world is so fundamentally interesting that it makes me fall in love with it a dozen times a day.

Research is procrastination, too, though! You can read and read as a way to keep you from writing something that is hard to write. Here’s something amazing and absolutely horrifying from the Nuremberg Trials — I found this last week: “The removal from Ukraine of surplus agricultural products to provide the Reich with supplies is possible on condition that the internal consumption in Ukraine should be reduced to the minimum. This will be achieved through the following measures: 1. The destruction of the unnecessary mouths, and residents of big Ukrainian cities, such as Kiev, will be getting no food supplies at all; 2. Through cutting to the maximal food quota for Ukrainian urban dwellers…” “The destruction of excess mouths?” Are you kidding me? In three sentences they advocate mass murder and state-sponsored starvation, and all of it worded in that bureaucratic, mindless prose; it’s terrifying, really, when you realize: This was real.

At some point you have to tell yourself, I cannot make a story about the horror. I have to make a story about an individual, one life. That’s the power of fiction, that it can take the collective and make it personal.

The story, as do the others in the collection, deals with the fuzzy way memories are transmitted, and not transmitted, through the generations. In some ways Esther’s experience during the war lives on in through her grandson, who writes his college thesis on her. In other ways, her memories of the orphanage, along with the memory of all the orphan girls who did not survive the war, die with her. What role does fiction play in the transmission of memory?

A wonderful, amazing, impossible-to-answer question. I think fiction is important because it has the power to transport a reader into another life. You open a cover, read a few sentences, and there it is — you’re on a raft, floating down the Mississippi; or you’re riding a whaling ship through the South Seas; or you’re trapped in a dull marriage in the French countryside, and here comes a rakish, wealthy landowner named Rodolphe Boulanger to seduce you. When you’re falling into a good book, exactly as you might fall into a dream, a little conduit opens, a two-way, extra-dimensional tunnel between a reader’s heart and a writer’s, a passageway that transcends the barriers of continents, generations, and often even death. So in many ways, good fiction (and good memoir) is a way to allow memories to live again, inside the minds of readers.

Did the fact that these imagined events were based on real girls color the way you wrote the novella?

Yes. It made me much, much more afraid to get something wrong. If you’re writing a story about fishermen in Montana and you let a species of bird fly over them that hasn’t ever lived in Montana, you made a mistake, but it’s not ultimately a disrespectful one. But if you have a bunch of orphaned girls sitting around a table in Hamburg in a story, and they start eating Pop Tarts or something, then you have failed your readers because you have failed to meet a measure of respect due to those lives.

Have you read the diary of Anne Frank? Did you think about her experience in hiding as you wrote about the girls and teenagers crowded into the orphanage?

Oh, man, not only did I read her diary, but I read it when I was 14, the same age Anne was in 1945. That book absolutely redirected the way I understood the power of books and the magic of reading — the darkness, and the danger, and the little trembling packets of magic that are words. In those sentences, in those paragraphs, a murdered girl still lives.

And why? Because her story is absolutely anchored in detail: ordinary, quotidian detail. It wasn’t her occasional profundity that moved me: It was that she still dreamed of going upstairs with Peter and making out with him. It’s that they are in such desperate circumstances but they still laugh at the joke, “What makes 999 ticks followed by one tock? A millipede with a clubfoot.” It’s a bit uncomfortable, I suppose, to suggest that the diary of Anne Frank brought me pleasure, but it did. A pleasure in uncovering the magic of books, a magic that has transformed my personal geography, cultivated my sense of empathy, and cracked my heart wide open. A magic that turned me into an addict.

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