“Mischling,” by Affinity Konar, Lee Boudreaux, 339 pp., $27
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Affinity Konar’s powerful and imaginative debut novel “Mischling” focuses on the particularly sadistic Holocaust activity of torturous medical experiments on pairs of twins by the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. A morally stunted geneticist, Mengele was especially interested in mischlings ("mixed blood," in German) – Jews with German ancestry or “Aryan” looks. By means of drugs and surgery, he apparently tried to find ways to permanently destroy in humans the need for attachment. And what more challenging a target than twins?
At Auschwitz, Mengele wooed children with candy and special privileges in order to inject them with “substances” and perform gruesome operations, most of which led to death or life-long physical and psychological damage. There was a 90-percent mortality rate among several thousand sets of twins, but some survived, and, even with irreparable ailments, went on to live productive lives.
Eva and Miriam were among the survivors and are featured in the nonfiction book “Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz,” by Lucette M. Lagnado and Sheila C. Dekel. Inspired by “Children of the Flames,” Affinity Konar has created Stasha and Pearl Zamorski, a fictional set of Polish-Jewish twins. The 12-year-old girls, transported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Auschwitz, narrate alternating chapters in which they demonstrate strength and sensitivity.
When bread, for example, was finally available, Pearl – who had learned from an older inmate that the dough was full of bromide and that “all it took was a day’s worth of crust lining your stomach to make your mind mist over” – gave the bulk of her portions to Stasha. “One of us should be encouraged to forget as much as possible,” Pearl had decided, while she, with the help of other inmates, would find other ways to sustain herself.
Konar’s stunning rendering of these resilient and resourceful twins may help younger readers unfamiliar with the graphic details of concentration camps grapple with the terror of Mengele’s atrocities.
The twins know that they are mischlings not only because they have blue eyes or blond hair or some other “Aryan” trait, as Mengele would have it, but because they share so many different parts of each other – including an apparent mutual consciousness of their similarities while still in their mother’s womb.
Thus, on the opening page, in a beautifully written, but unfortunate example of Konar’s overuse of magic realism, Stasha “remembers” her birth:
“Pearl was formed and I split from her ... For eight months we were afloat in amniotic snowfall, two rosy mittens resting on the lining of our mother ... Pearl wanted to see the world beyond us. And so with newborn pluck, she spat herself out of our mother.
“Though premature, Pearl was a sophisticated prankster. I assured myself that it was just one of her tricks; she’d be back to laugh at me.”
But when, after 10 minutes Pearl failed to return, Stasha lost her breath. “Have you ever had to live with the best of yourself adrift, stationed at some unknowable distance? If so, I am sure you are aware of the dangers of this condition. After my breath left me, my heart followed suit, and my brain ran with an unthinkable fever. In my fetal pinkness, I faced this truth: without her, I would become a split and unworthy thing, a human incapable of love.”
This preamble foreshadows much of what will happen to the twins in Auschwitz. Almost immediately after arriving, along with their mother and grandfather from whom they are quickly separated, the girls realize that they will have to divide between themselves the responsibilities of emotional existence.
“Such divisions had always come naturally to us,” Pearl thought, “and so there, in the early-morning dark, we divvied up the necessities.” Stasha is put in charge of “the funny, the future, the bad,” while Pearl becomes the keeper of “the sad, the past, the good.” Stasha thinks, “We had no choice but to share our sufferings, and I knew that in this place we’d have to find a way to divide the pain before it began to multiply.”
In the meantime, the girls take refuge in their nearly identical personalities, assuaging some of the horror around them with a private language and shared games known only to them. Stasha also comes to believe that she could actually murder Mengele, thus surmounting her suffering more directly. If she were clever enough, “turned herself into the closest of flatterers, a false protégé,” she could make the evil doctor think that he had control over her bond with Pearl, that he was undoing their twinhood with his experiment. She could then “get” to Mengele, “undo” him and set the captives in his self-named “zoo” free.
Pearl “found this belief,” which Stasha holds on to desperately until the end, “strange territory ... nothing less than terrifying.” Still, for quite some time she also craved vengeance. “Stash,” she said, “you can play nurse all you want ... I can only be a killer.”
After she is separated from her sister precisely because she succeeds in becoming Mengele’s student, it becomes evident to Stasha that she was yet another kind of mischling, a “hybrid” powerfully “forged” by her suffering, and “now composed of two parts ... loss and despair” on the one side, and on the other “wild hope.” And no one, she believed, could extract that hope, “burn it from my flesh, or puncture it with a needle.”
When the real twins, Eva and Miriam, were taken to Auschwitz they were confronted with filthy barracks infested with vermin. More horrifying yet, Eva found the scattered corpses of three children in the latrine. She made “a pledge that Miriam and I would never end up on a filthy latrine floor.” From that moment, Eva said, “I did everything instinctively ... I never doubted that Miriam and I would survive.”
That same spirit moves the twins Konar has created. Stasha’s confidence will waver when she is separated from Pearl and shares by the magic of extra-sensory perception the pain being inflicted on her sister. But Stasha never gives up. “This is my belief,” she reflects. “Auschwitz would end when Pearl returned.” Then the sisters would be whole again.
It is apparent from the start that the search for “wholeness” is Konar’s central theme. And when Auschwitz ends before the sisters are reunited, the search continues.
Beauty and ugliness
As American bombs fall and the Russians approach the extermination camp, the surviving Auschwitz prisoners are taken on what amounts mostly to a “Death March” across the frozen fields and forests of Poland to other camps closer to Germany. In this part of the book, we accompany those able to escape the march in groups or pairs. Stasha flees with Feliks, an older boy who desperately seeks revenge for the death of his twin, and they progress slowly – much too slowly – toward what they think is Warsaw.
Here Konar brings in more elements of mysticism and magic realism, making it difficult at times to distinguish between wishful thinking and actuality. How many escape? Who is still living, and who is already dead? How much time is passing? There are also too many episodes that require suspension of disbelief. For example, even if drawn from accounts of survivors, it is difficult to believe that Stasha and Feliks could overcome injury, hunger, forbidding weather and hostile villagers in a devastated Poland to arrive safely in Warsaw. And would Stasha, no matter how many times she tip-toed around Mengele’s operating room, have been able to perform Caesarian surgery on a failing Gypsy woman with only a knife – even if done “with care and the remnants of her love?”
Konar’s ability to write poetically and with luminosity gets us past some of this, as does her skill in combining beauty and ugliness:
“I wondered what I might tell him someday about his mother, how she’d made me kill her, how she’d guided my hand with the knife. I tried to invent prettier, more scenic deaths for her. Something with a snowfall. Something without a blade. But in Warsaw, my imagination had left me ... I wanted the death of my imagination more than anything. It had no place in this world after the war. Once, I told myself I was happy to live for another, to continue for her sake. But without her, I was just a madman’s experiment, a failed avenger, a girl who didn’t end when she should have.”
For me the most powerful, indeed heartbreaking scenes had less to do with the horrors of Nazi experimentation on humans than with loss – of freedom, of family, of hope. Near the end of the book, a group of boys and girls led by a tender and care-giving man, himself a former prisoner, approached a house. A woman on her front step “winced” with hope.
“Do you have a Hiram,” she asked. “Little Russian boy?” “I do!,” the leader said as he turned and shouted, “Hiram, to the front.” A snippet of a boy was pushed to the fore by the rest of the children, and then another small Hiram followed. The woman scanned both Hirams and then sank to her knees. “Not mine,” she whispered, “Not mine.”
Anne Frank’s last entry in her diary reads: “I keep my ideals because in spite of everything I still believe people are good.” Stasha, too, “believed in the world’s ability to right itself, just like that with a single kindness.” But neither Anne nor Stasha had yet experienced Auschwitz.
Stasha and Pearl may have had hope even in the darkest moments in the ghetto, but they and their mother had stopped praying in “the late fall of 1939. November 12.” The day their father disappeared. Prayer, otherwise, is never mentioned in the book, nor is God. Post-Auschwitz, Pearl and Stasha knew they faced the onerous burdens of an unforeseeable future pretty much alone.
How will they live in the world again having experienced its most hideous evils? The name Pearl means precious, something truly valued. And Stasha means resurrection. I doubt Konar chose these names casually. When the girls, against very high odds, are reunited again, they utter no words at first. They sit, as they had done more than a year earlier, back-to-back drawing almost identical pictures, not of flowers and trees now, but of “planes and boats and skies that would protect us our whole lives through.” Only when they finish drawing do the twins speak, each reading the other’s mind: “We had to learn to love the world once more.”