Magazine article The Christian Century

Mischling: A Novel

Magazine article The Christian Century

Mischling: A Novel

Article excerpt

Mischling: A Novel

By Affinity Konar

Lee Boudreaux Books, 352 pp., $27.00


Affinity Konar's harrowing novel invites us into the world of twin sisters Stasha and Pearl Zamorski, a world whose portal is a crowded journey in a cattle car, their coming days a trudge toward terror. The girls, at 12 years old, are delivered into the "care" of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and entered into his collection of genetic curiosities. Their delivery is perceived as a privilege, for the relative safety of their families has been promised. Of course, promises are often meant to be broken.

It's easy to forget that the protagonists of this well-researched story are children, if in name only. Their measured and thoughtful narrative voices belie their youthfulness, raising the question: Could one possibly retain one's innocence in a place like Auschwitz? Nevertheless, the children rely upon games to pass the time. They fashion creatures in the clouds during stolen glances at the sky. Their comprehension of the cruel "experiments" in which they are involved is questionable.

For instance, Stasha believes that she has been rendered deathless thanks to one of "Uncle" Mengele's injections, a fanciful notion that disturbs more than it comforts. This childish idea eventually leads Stasha to a nuanced, wise-beyond-her-years observation:

   My blood was thick with the thwarted survival of masses; it
   carried the words they'd never say, the loves they'd never
   know, the poems they'd never make. It bore the colors of the
   paintings they'd never paint, the laughs of the children
   they'd never bear. This blood made living so hard that sometimes
   I wondered if it was good that Pearl was spared deathlessness.
   Knowing the fullness of what I had chosen, I would
   not have wished her this fate --to live alone, a twinless half,
   forever burdened by the futures torn from others.

She recognizes the inherent obligation of survival and the sacrifice it entails. Even as Stasha believes death is denied her, she becomes encumbered by the lives others have lost. This is not a gift, but rather a life sentence.

Mischling was a vaguely offensive term referring to a person of mixed ancestry. The girls' grandfather, Zayde, tries to neutralize the concept, teaching them a game he calls The Classification of Living Things. He identifies and celebrates the pronounced variation in all of life. Stasha in turn reclaims the term of her own accord. "I was a hybrid of a different sort, a powerful hybrid forged by my suffering. I was now composed of two parts. One part was loss and despair. Such darkness should make life impossible, I know. But my other part? It was wild hope."

This novel is just such a hybrid. It is one part abject despair, loss compounded with each passing day. It is another part wild hope, almost reckless in its enthusiasm. It's the very worst humanity has to offer, set against the very best.

A quiet longing lies beneath the suffering and sadness of Auschwitz. It finds a voice in unexpected venues, like the haunting music that greets each arrival to the camp. The music lulls those who hear it into a false sense of normalcy which quickly becomes repugnant. Yet as Pearl stands with her friend Peter she welcomes the discordant chords "because it was the sound of what we'd lost--the strains of those years that should have happened and now never would. I wanted to approximate a piece of those years. I wanted to understand what music meant when two people held each other and moved through the minutes with affection. …

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