Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Patrick Hicks, The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth Press, 2013). 252 pages.
Also available for Nook and Kindle.
Reviewed by Tom Kessler
The Commandant of Lubizec by Patrick Hicks is a novel set in occupied Poland during 1942 and 1943 within the context of the Nazi Operation Reinhard. While the story of Lubizec and Commandant Hans-Peter Guth is a work of fiction, Operation Reinhard was a horrific reality.
The history of Nazi concentration and slave-labor camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau is, at least to a rudimentary degree, widely known. Who can forget the black and white scenes in documentaries of the camps? Lubizec is based on the lesser known camps of Sobibór, Bełżec and Treblinka. The distinction of the Operation Reinhard camps from the concentration camps is that they were strictly extermination facilities, each approximately the size of three football fields, and constructed for the sole purpose of killing thousands of people daily with industrial efficiency. Between 1941-1943 over one and a half million Jews were murdered in the Operation Reinhard camps. No known movie images of these three camps exist, and the facilities themselves were destroyed and plowed into the ground by late 1943.
The novel immediately drew me in, and by the middle of the second page I had to remind myself that I was reading a novel rather than a historical account. Adding to my reading experience was the opportunity to hear the author Patrick Hicks speak at the University of Northern Iowa at an event sponsored by the UNI Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education. Hicks described how he came to write the novel and the extent of his research, and he showed pictures from his trips to the sites of both extermination and concentration camps. He said two things he hoped to accomplish with the novel were to “add color” to those black and white mental images we carry of the concentration camps, and to balance what happened in the camps with the “normalcy” of real life. To my mind Hicks accomplished both intents, and I would go so far as to say that he was successful in transcending the line between fiction and nonfiction so that the reader grapples with deeper issues of truth and human nature.
The Commandant of Lubizec is an accessible and relatively short novel which presents readers with a wide sweep Holocaust related facts, issues, and themes: the incomprehensible magnitude of the death and destruction; the extent of the brutality and cruelty to the “other;” the cold logistics and “learning curve” of Nazi efforts of human extermination; the humanity of the victims and the perpetrators; vivid details of personal experiences in the camps ranging from months/years to a few minutes; the “banality of evil” and associated controversies; the dynamics of collaboration; courage and heroism; moral choice; religious meaning in the face of overwhelming evil; family life and love in the shadow of unspoken evil; lives of victims and perpetrators after the camps; and on and on.
On occasion I found myself wishing for more individual character development. As the story unfolds the reader is confronted with many different perspectives - Commandant Guth, his wife Jasmine, their children, Jewish camp prisoner/workers, Nazi officials, guards and gas chamber operators, murderers and those murdered. Thousands make appearances for the few minutes between cattle cars and the gas chambers, and are reduced to aggregate numbers: August 21, 1942 - 3,837; August 22, 1942 - 3,914; August 23, 1942 - 3,966. In retrospect, the main character of the novel was the Holocaust itself, and it was indeed effectively developed in stark and brutal detail and depth.
Ultimately, to engage deeply with the novel strips one of the shields of objectivity and distance and asks what individual and collective choices we would make in similar circumstances. And no less important, would we individually and collectively even recognize similar circumstances before it was too late? Am I alone in thinking that honest answers to those questions are not as certain or obvious as we would like to think and hope?
During his presentation at UNI, Hicks said that the problem with writing about the Holocaust is how to put it in words. As impossible as that task may be, it is important that there are those courageous enough to make the attempt. Alternatively, the problem with reading about the Holocaust is the understandable reluctance to engage with the magnitude of cruelty, evil and human depravity. As the events of the Holocaust of the 1930’s and 40’s recede further into history, both the courage to write and the courage to read and engage are essential. The lessons of one of the lowest points in human history must not be forgotten.
NOTE: Steven Wingate’s interview with the author can be found at http://fictionwritersreview.com/interview/rich-lives-for-the-departed-an-interview-with-patrick-hicks/.
Friday, January 16, 2015
Colin Adams, Zombies and Calculus (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Also available for Nook and Kindle.
(FICTION - WITH A LARGE DOSE OF NONFICTION)
Reviewed by Edgar E. Morris
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I just finished reading a book titled Zombies & Calculus, by Colin Adams. On the other hand, the book is published by Princeton University Press, so I suppose I should be in pretty respectable company. Wilda checked the book out of the library to review it as a possible Christmas gift for one of our grandchildren and left it in the bathroom. I read the entire book (all 224 pages) in the bathroom over the course of several visits. After reading part of the first chapter, I kept going. For me the hook was the calculus.
The story begins when a student arrives late for Professor Williams’ math class with, as stated in the book, a hunger for something other than knowledge. The student has apparently been infected with the Z-virus (Z for zombie, get it!?) and immediately bites another student, thus contributing to the spread of the virus on the campus of the small liberal arts college where Williams is teaching. The story is rather amusing and is frequently interrupted by forays into the mathematical description of the spread of viruses, the growth of populations, the behavior of predators and prey, etc.
For someone who has a pretty good grasp of calculus, all the mathematical content is easily understood, and for the most part familiar. If the reader has never been exposed to the basic concepts of calculus, the reader must really enjoy stories about zombies not to be frustrated by the lack of understanding of the mathematical ideas.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Linda Sue Park, A Long Walk for Water (Clarion Books, Houghton-Mifflin, 2010; HMH Books for Young Readers; Reprint edition, 2011).
Also available on Kindle, Nook and Audio CD.
(NOVEL- Children’s African History Fiction; based on a true story, recommended for ages 10-14.)
Reviewed by Jason Fernandez (age 11)
The book has two stories, Niya and Salva, both from Sudan. Niya’s story is her having, everyday, to walk for water to a pond, but the water’s not clean and that’s becoming a problem.
On Salva’s side, his town gets struck by the war and he has to hide in the bush. He finds a bunch of people and walks with them. They think he is weak and will slow them down but he really isn’t. He is trying to get to a camp in Ethiopia where he would be safe. You have to read the book to see if he eventually makes it.