Survival is fierce and so is vengeance. The “Mischling” is a fierce novel, because at its core the subject is pure evil.
It was painful for me to read this book. Not because it is poorly written. It is astonishly well written; but not fable-like or lyrical as some have described it. I would read ten pages and then not read it all for a couple of days. Not because it was graphic in its description of what Dr. Mengele did to the twin twelve-year-old girls, Stasha and Pearl, that are the principal characters of the novel. It was the thought that someone could torture children in the pretext of science or otherwise. Some children torture small animals as a form of entertainment. They might not know better (but should be taught).
Ms. Komar is of Polish Jewish descent. She knows that the venal anti-Semitism that existed within the confines of Auschwitz-Birkenau, existed outside the gates in Poland and among members of the Russian Army that would be their saviors. Surviving the camp and escaping the death march, the crippled children had to find means to survive and to avoid being killed by the local population.
In an analogy to the Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel and the Russian’s Baba Yaga, a local old woman entices the starving twin and her companion with food only to turn them over to those she perceives as Nazis soldiers. In a dramatic literary embellishment these Nazis ask the twin’s captor to sing one of their favorite songs: Zog Nit Keyn Mol. It is the song of the Jewish resistance which she belatedly realizes immediately upon her execution.
Never say you have reached the very end
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend;
For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive
And our marching steps will thunder: we survive.
Unlike the conclusion of the book which is needlessly sentimental, the resistance fighters are harden young people who realistically only offer what is minimally necessary for the twin and her companion to temporarily survive.
The twins divide up life between them. Stasha is responsible for the funny, the future and the bad. For her, unlike her torturers, Mischling meant she was one part loss and one part despair. Her twin Pearl is responsible for the sad, the good, and the past. On march with other twin survivors from the camp Pearl comes across a forest of mothers hiding behind trees. They are awaiting word of their missing children. It is a forest of love wrapped in hope and despair.
“The woman sprang from the trees and it was then that we saw that each trunk they had learned against bore a message, a name, a plea. They would have covered the whole forest with the words if they were able.”
I am well versed in both Holocaust literature and fact, but this fictionalized version of Auschwitz and of Dr. Mengele, as told from the perspective of children, was more gripping for me than non-fiction.
The twins play a classification game by naming the animal kingdom from phyla on down. I don’t know where, if anywhere, Dr. Mengele would find a biological home. The sadness, for those lucky or unlucky to have survived this monster, is that they were children once.
You have to be in a certain mood to read this critically acclaimed book. Maybe I was not in this mood and this made it a harder, but very worthwhile read. You might find it less bothersome.