To celebrate the paperback release of of her novel Mischling Affinity Konar agreed to take part in a Q&A and answer some of my questions about her fantastic book. My review might be a tad long, but in my defence, this was such a good read I couldn’t stop talking about it.
About the Author
Affinity Konar was raised in California. While writing Mischling, she worked as a tutor, proofreader, technical writer, and editor of children’s educational workbooks. She studied fiction at SFSU and Columbia. She is of Polish-Jewish descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles.
She dearly misses writing about Pearl and Stasha, and is grateful to any reader who might find the company of the twins.
About the book
Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past. Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.
It’s 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.
As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele’s Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.
That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks–a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin–travel through Poland’s devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.
Before we get started on the Q&A I would just like to say how much I enjoyed Mischling. At times I felt as if I was with those children in the camp and could feel their despair, which is truly the mark of a great storyteller.
It must have been incredibly difficult to immerse yourself into the subject matter of the Holocaust, and perhaps even more difficult, the medical experimentation. Thank you so much Cheryl—it’s always very rewarding to hear such things, but to know that the emotions were very present for you is deeply meaningful to me with respect to this particular book, and its many challenges. So thank you, and thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed, and the lovely, thoughtful questions!—AK
What was it that made you want to write about this particular heinous part of 20th century history? My family was able to leave Poland in 1932, and one of my grandfathers served in WWII so I always felt naturally drawn to the period as a child. It was a fixation that was unhealthy in many ways, but couldn’t be helped. In the course of touring, I’ve been fortunate to meet many scholars who have devoted their entire lives to the preservation of this history; they often describe this as a choiceless pursuit, one often informed by a personal sense of crisis. While my engagement has been less intense, that description is something I can relate to. All I really know is that when I found the story of the twins in “Children of the Flames” by Lucette Lagnado, I started hearing an imagined echo, a kind of conversation between a pair of twins who were determined to survive. But I didn’t imagine that it would be a book, and I didn’t consciously set out to write it for years.
Do you believe that despite great outcries of ‘We shall never forget, always remember and let’s not make the same mistakes again’ that the world needs books like Mischling to remind people of those sentiments? I very much believe that this is so; I think fiction’s great gift to us is its ability to collapse distance. The testimonies of survivors and witnesses, the art that came from the camps, all the nonfictional accounts—these will always be the most vital warnings. But I like to think that fiction can serve a purpose in this attempt, that it can effectively trail behind history as a kind of shadow, because it can provoke empathy on a level that can force one to imagine this suffering differently, and with a nod to the fact that genocide is not limited to a certain time, people, or place. Such work can remind us to check our language, our actions, and encourage a kind of vigilance; it’s easy for remembrance to become a passive act, even while “never forget” is something that remains a fixture of our consciousness.
You have researched and written extensively in great detail about the Holocaust and Mengele’s atrocities, has it taken its toll on you in any way? I was uncomfortable speaking about this for some time, because I felt that the personal effects of this research had no place in this conversation. But while touring, I’ve been approached by generous people who express concern after hearing me speak. So I guess I don’t hide it very well, especially when Mengele’s crimes are addressed. I suspect that I’ve begun to block certain facts and images, but there are those that will always remain, and should remain. I went into this process with an immense respect for survivors and their descendants–they carry an unimaginable burden–and when my immersion was complete, that respect enlarged to include journalists, social workers, therapists, criminal investigators—anyone whose work requires a relentless attention to trauma, because it forces you to live a double-life, mentally, in order to remain functional.
In a lot of the scenes the reader feels the strange intimacy and bond between the children in the Zoo and the twins. You also described the way each twin dealt with the emotional and physical torture in their own way, which makes their individual status more evident in the story. Was it important to you to show readers the effect on their bonds as twins, and also on the girls as individuals? I love this question, because the portrayal of these bonds, and the individual natures of Pearl and Stasha, was one of the significant challenges of the book. Twins are so symbolic, a built-in cheat—I worried that I might end up fetishizing them in a super-literary way that felt unacceptable within the novel’s aims. My big fear was that one would end up serving as a kind of foil to the other; I was most concerned about Stasha’s very elaborate voice overwhelming Pearl’s. But strangely, this began to fall away as I explored Pearl’s burden to bear witness to these events in a precise fashion. Her personality arose from that need, and met, rather naturally, Stasha’s own posture of lament. I wanted two distinct personalities that joined each other in the need for remembrance, their resistance against Mengele, and their love of family. It’s funny because I often hear from readers that they wished that they had a twin growing up—I always felt that way too. But there’s also a complexity to this bond that we often overlook. So I wanted to allow it all the beauty that such a relationship deserves, while being careful to explore how painful it might be too.
On a lighter note, were and are you surprised by the success of Mischling? I was surprised that I even finished the book at all! It was an intensely private thing for years, so to have it find anyone, much less my agent Jim and my editor Lee—that was hugely disorienting. And I’m disoriented all over whenever I see a translation venture out. “Success” is a hard word for me to relate to, especially with respect to this novel—I tend to think of it just as this object that I started writing when I was really lost and had dropped out of high school. But I find it deeply gratifying to receive letters from people about their families and their histories, and it’s probably the sweetest thing to hear readers refer to Stasha and Pearl with the same affection I’ve had for them for so long. I never expected the book to be real, much less for it to receive such a kind welcome, and I’ll always be shocked by that.
Mischling is a fictional story based on, or rather Konar took inspiration from, the true experiences of Holocaust survivors.
In particular on those of the twins, who made up the majority of the 3000 children unfortunate enough to end up in the hands of the sadistic Dr. Mengele, also known as the Angel of Death.
He was known to pick twins, triplets and any other people with specific abnormalities, because of his interest in genetics. He shared his findings with his mentor and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the predecessor of the Max Planck Institute.
Only a small number of those children survived the experiments and the concentration camp. Many of those have suffered from numerous medical problems, were mutilated and have subsequently succumbed to the repercussions of the experiments inflicted upon them, including eyewitness and survivor Miriam Mozes.
Tragically the medical manipulations have possibly also been passed down to future generations. A few of the very small number of these particular survivors, who are still alive, and their offspring have willingly participated in research to try and understand the future consequences of those experiments and the possible genetic changes caused by the them and the trauma (epigenetics).
The survivors have had to live with the nightmares of being part of Mengele’s sadistic human zoo. They have beaten the odds to survive and tell their tales only to be struck down by the same man at a later date, and the fact his actions may also be making their offspring ill, is truly diabolical. Luckily he isn’t here to pat himself on the back.
Mengele managed to evade any form of punishment for his actions. He lived in comfort with his family for many years in Argentina, as did many war criminals from the Nazi regime.
Mengele used the platform of the concentration camp to live out his cruel, sadistic tendencies all in the hypothetical name of science and research. Fact of the matter is he enjoyed and took pride in the pain he inflicted on others. His victims were nothing more than subjects in his mind. Aside from the horrific and inhumane experimentation, he also often abused, tortured and killed for pleasure, during his reign in Auschwitz.
Pearl and Stasha are the main characters in Mischling. They are Jews with fair hair, hence why Mengele thinks they are Mischlinge (of mixed race). Each twin tells their own story, switching from chapter to chapter. Stasha believes that Mengele views her as special, which is why he makes her immune from death. This belief and her retreat into a world of imagination and denial, is how she deals with the trauma. Whereas Pearl is a realist and remains resourceful throughout her time with Mengele. Stasha seems oblivious to the abuse and experimentation both she, but especially her sister has to endure. The disappearance of Pearl is pivotal in the change in her behaviour. The fact she doesn’t want to accept the death of her twin is ultimately what saves Stasha from giving up. Denial is her coping mechanism.
Stasha connects with a young boy, who has lost his own twin. The loss of the twin was very important to the survival of any the remaining twin in Auschwitz. When one died the other would soon be killed, so Mengele could compare and autopsy the corpses.
So, imagine you are faced with death or collaboration. The type of collaboration that kills you inside bit by bit, forced to commit abominations under duress. How guilty does that make you? There is a huge difference between those that collaborated with the regime and helped willingly, and those that had no other choice but death. They tried in their own way to help fellow prisoners. Many children, often not even related, were passed off as twins, in an attempt to give them a greater chance of survival.Pearl finds herself drawn to the Jewish doctor who assists Mengele, albeit unwillingly, and the Czech soldier in charge of the admin. Both of them struggle with the guilt of their actions. One of elements of the Holocaust that Konar alludes to in Mischling is the culpability of those people forced to become part of the systematic extermination. In a life or death situation you make a choice, and in this instance those choices weren’t always about self-preservation. There were family members and fellow victims to consider and the majority wanted to make sure the world knew what the Nazi regime had done.
To be completely frank it isn’t an easy read, if you look at it on a purely emotional level. Even after all these years, having read, watched and listened to many survivor’s relate their stories, I can still can’t fathom the depth and range of the inhumanity of the Holocaust.
Although I loved the read, despite the horrific nature of the topic and the fact it is based on true events, I did feel as if the last few chapters didn’t do the rest justice. I can imagine that even as an author both the writing and the research of not only the Holocaust, but specifically the atrocities committed by Mengele, would take a toll on anyone. Suck the heart and soul right out of you. It felt as if Konar had been weighted down and burdened by all of it towards the end. As a reader and as a Mensch I can completely understand that. Kudos to the author for this powerful, insightful and extremely poignant read.
It is not only a read I highly recommend, it is also one I will be gifting to others.