There are circumstances in world history that are difficult to utilize in a work of fiction. No matter what an artist’s approach, the audience expects him to respect the cardinal facts, as well as the dignity, of a historical event and its constituents. When handling something as sensitive as the Holocaust, or 9/11 (Thank you, Miracle Mattress, for representing Texas so well), an artist needs to take care with his work. In his 2014 novel, The Auschwitz Escape, Joel Rosenberg balances fictional license and respect for historicity in an admirable way. Some elements of his story about the young Jacob Weisz, a Jew captured and sent to the notorious death camp, vary a bit from historical fact—several reviewers point out discrepancies with dates and names. However, Rosenberg handles the Holocaust, in respect to the Jews especially, in a fashion not nearly as insensitive as some accuse him of using.
I actually had the privilege of personally meeting Mr. Rosenberg about a month ago. He spoke at a Colorado Christian University chapel: his message was on storytelling as a Christian, and I could feel my adrenaline rushing the entire time he spoke. Jesus is a storyteller, Rosenberg told us; and it’s our responsibility as His followers to take note of the signs in our time—the life we’ve been allotted—and speak into our world with the wisdom and creativity He’s given us. Afterwards, I spent probably a little over a minute gushing to him about writing and inspiration. Mr. Rosenberg was approachable, encouraging, and authentic about struggles and joys of producing writing. It was an honor to speak with him.
In this novel, Jacob Weisz, a member of the Jewish resistance, is captured while attempting to free Auschwitz-bound train cars full of other Jews. Alone, without connections, he must learn to adapt to and rise above the circumstances in the merciless Nazi “death factory.” The historical setting was painted well—names, places, and dates are presented, not just from Germany and Poland, but even in occasional short chapters dedicated to U.S. officials. Christopher Lane did a superb job reading: each character, the majority of them possessing distinct accents, has a unique register of voice. The reading was slow, Lane’s voice is calming, and this doesn’t take away from the intense scenes at all.
Rosenberg handles the camp setting with integrity, yet also expands the world of the camp in a creative way, giving the reader inside looks at venues such as a medical clinic, storage warehouse, bakery, registrar’s office, and others one wouldn’t normally associate with such a setting. The camp’s atmosphere is not handled lightly; nor do characters get easy paths toward objectives. Normally, obstacles in the plot are believable, and rarely do characters seem to have too easy a way out of trouble.
The major problem I had with The Auschwitz Escape is the narration: there is so much blatant telling of facts, emotions, and thoughts, that it’s jarring. The lack of showing distances the reader emotionally from the story. It’s so heavy, in fact, that the protagonist didn’t end up appealing to me, because all his feelings and decisions were dryly enumerated in third person, matter-of-fact narration that, for the most part, wasn’t colorful enough to be considered free indirect discourse. Most characterization happens this way: rarely do actions reveal traits without that voice explaining unnecessarily what they’re meant to signify. One redeeming element here is that, on an inferior level, Rosenberg manages to make his characters sympathetic, and evoke emotion. However, this would have been remarkably more effective if the narrator had not been intrusive.
In terms of Jacob, the other nettling flaw is his constant sense of naivety. When conflicts or hard decisions pop up, Jacob converses with other important characters in the camp. These conversations are supposedly between a young man who’s trained for years in the rebellion, and operatives of the underground resistance movement in Auschwitz; yet, for all that training, it’s astounding how many dumb questions Jacob persists in asking throughout the novel. “What do you mean?”, “Who?”, “Do what?”, and the like are the essence of constant inquiries he poses to people who supposedly trust him. What, I wondered, do they see in a near-twenty-year-old who needs clarification on practically every subject of conversation? At one point, a man sitting with Jacob gets off the phone after explicitly speaking to someone at the White House. “They’re sending a car,” the man says (this is near the end of the book). Jacob responds, “Who?” Seriously, man? You’ve survived this long, and you can’t put two and two—no, one and one—together? I’ll step off my podium now; but the fact remains that a protagonist must live up to the strengths the author attributes to him. And Jacob Weisz, though he does develop, is decidedly not as shrewd as he is presented to be.
Other good points: Rosenberg’s pacing and utilization of time is good. He switches among characters every so often, in third person, and this is smooth. He skips years sometimes; yet it isn’t jarring. And he’s courageous enough to enumerate his faith through his characters: this is something I want to talk about, because this was the thing torn apart by the brunt of the negative reviews I read.
Rosenberg’s Gentile Christian character, a pastor, presents the gospel eventually. Many people saw this presentation as a blatant disregard for the dignity of the Holocaust—presenting Jesus as a solution, or a reason the Jews should be “grateful for surviving,” they asserted, cheapens and exploits a grave historical event. But Rosenberg doesn’t present Jesus as an insensitive, “cheer-up” solution to the horrors of the Holocaust. He doesn’t paint Christians as perfect, or even mostly in the right. Most Christians in his story do nothing. There are still German pastors preaching Reich methods. Martin Luther King Jr.’s late rantings against the Jews are candidly mentioned. The Confessing Church is the minority of believers in Germany. There still exist the irreversible, inexcusable actions of the Nazis. The Gospel presentation doesn’t attempt to negate or cheapen these elements. Rather, it offers hope in the midst of a suffering, as well as reasons to love the Jews and to keep striving.
At one point, the Christian pastor, Jean-Luc LeClerc, tells Jacob, “Good Christians—real Christians—do their best to love their neighbors and serve their Savior, even if that means being arrested; even if that means being sent to a concentration camp; even if it means death.” Rosenberg’s argument isn’t for a demotion of the existing atrocities of humanity: it is a call to Christians to present their faith through action. There’s nothing insensitive about advocating action against evil; one could say, instead, that writing a Holocaust novel without honoring the faith that many sufferers clung to is an incomplete presentation. If an author truly believes Jesus is the only true way to eternal life, then presenting the gospel of Christ in the midst of indescribable human suffering, while still respecting historicity and the Jewish people, is the most loving way to handle telling that story.
Many people treat Christian media derogatorily; sometimes, the quality of Christian productions deserves this criticism, in part. We live in a world hostile to Jesus. Does that mean we need to cloak our Gospel messages to be unrecognizable for the sake of man’s reception? Well, will we stand before man to give account for our lives? Whatever you create in the name of Jesus, do it excellently, with all your heart, and do it for Him. It’s true that considering feedback we will receive is daunting: we are promised the world will disdain us for it. Yet, there is a reason you’re here, and God knows precisely what it is. There are lives you will touch for Christ you haven’t even glimpsed yet.