A few weeks ago in New York City, Romance Writers of America held their annual conference. The agenda included the RITA awards, the equivalent of the Oscars of the romance writing world, and one of those nominees, for “Best Inspirational Romance” and “Best First Novel,” was a book called “For Such a Time” by Kate Breslin.
“For Such a Time” is a retelling of the biblical book of Esther, but in name only. In reality, it is the story of a Jewish woman (appropriately named Hadassah but hiding under the name Stella)rescued from Dachau by a Nazi commander who is convinced she’s not actually Jewish merely raised by Jews. He takes her to Theresienstadt where, after passing through the gates that famously read “Work Makes You Free,” they “fall in love.” Along with a magically appearing Bible, the main characters decide to set Jews free, which redeems the Nazi commander, but Stella’s arc is only complete when she converts to Christianity.
In short, Breslin’s award-nominated novel co-opts a Jewish text, except the part where Esther’s faith and Jewish identity were her strength, to erase Jewish stories in a genocide where the largest single group of victims were Jews. And it does so to push the author’s narrow agenda regarding her own religious beliefs.
The book, in truth, is an outlier in the genre. There are many excellent historical romance novels with Jewish protagonists (check out the #jhrom hashtag on Twitter for recommendations). Though the national organization has been quiet, romance writers of all subgenres and sales ranks have been vocal about this book and how offensive it is. For once, the organization isn’t broken. Does it have its problems? Sure. But not broken.
But the way we treat the Holocaust in fiction is. Because too often, we side-step the eyewitness accounts, and rely instead on fictional treatments. Fiction is, after all, easier to read because its characters aren’t real. The trouble is, instead of acknowledging that we’re reading Holocaust fiction, we’re treating the Holocaust as fiction. That distinction is critical.
Romantic Times, a major romance industry review site, made this book a Top Pick. Library Journal gave it a star, marking it as a stand-out book. Reviewers at both sites failed to identify a problem with a Nazi-prisoner “romance” or with a story in which the Jewish character converts to Christianity to find “redemption.”
No one considered that the female character’s life at the hands of the male character’s might make it impossible for her to consent. No one considered that this might not be romance but rape. No one considered that after thousands of years of forced conversions, Jewish people might find a novel romanticizing conversion to be problematic.
“For Such a Time” did not win either of its respective categories, thank God. Nearly two weeks after the RITAs, this story gained traction on Twitter and in its aftermath open letters were written, blog pieces were posted and people raged on Twitter. But where do we go from here?
I asked on Twitter where non-Jewish people learned about the Holocaust as I can’t remember. As Jews, we’re raised knowing about the Holocaust often before we can read, almost always before we start school. Most people who responded said that they learned about it through books (“Number the Stars,” “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” “Daniel’s Story,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “The Book Thief”) in Language Arts or English class. Some said they had survivors come to speak to their class and that was life changing for them. Other said their parents told them in late elementary school.
I worry that the teaching of Holocaust literature in English/Language Arts, next to fiction instead of history classes, subconsciously fictionalizes the narrative. And I worry about what happens when we have no more survivors to speak about what happened to them.
It is absolutely vital that we teach children—and adults—about the Holocaust, but if we’re doing so solely through fiction, alongside fiction, how do we separate it from fiction? How do we say that Stella/Hadassah of Breslin’s book is a real woman and her life was not a romance? How do we say that Aric of her book isn’t a romance hero but a war criminal who should stand trial?
How do we tell and honor the stories the victims of the Holocaust cannot tell?
Katherine Locke lives and writes romance and young adult fiction in a small town outside of Philadelphia. She can be found online at KatherineLockeBooks.com and @bibliogato on Twitter