“Because you had no power over the fact that I was born, you took from me what I was born with—the person who was my love, the half that made me entire—and now I am lessened into this dull thing, a divided person who will live forever, wandering in search of some nothing, some nowhere, some no-feeling, to mend my pain.”
Stasha and Pearl Zamorski are twelve-year-old Polish-Jewish twins who arrive at Auschwitz in 1944 with their mother and grandfather, their father already missing and presumed dead at the hands of the Gestapo. Here they are singled out by Dr. Josef Mengele, who would become known to history as the Angel of Death. Inside Mengele’s “Zoo,” he collects genetic oddities, including giants and dwarves, albinos and people with heterochromia iridium, and most especially twins. The inmates of the Zoo receive special privileges including more food, and are allowed to keep their hair and clothes. The price is the terrible experiments carried out upon their bodies, the purpose of which they are never given to understand. How does someone survive the guilt and pain of such an experience, let alone carve out a new existence in the aftermath of liberation?
Structurally, Mischling is divided into two parts, with alternating chapters narrated by Stasha and Pearl. Part one deals with their arrival and internment at Auschwitz, while part two takes place after the camp is liberated by the Russians in January 1945. The first part is perhaps the stronger of the two, and Konar admits to struggling with the second half, throwing out the draft at least three times while trying to get it right. Stasha and Pearl have voices that are at once similar and distinct. Stasha has the more active imagination, and she sinks into it in order to survive, making up stories and creating games that help them carry on, but which also lend her sections a surreal quality. By contrast, Pearl has a quiet but more honestly introspective voice, less distanced from reality. Konar’s prose is lyrical throughout. Although genetically identical, the girls are distinct people, and it seems that Mengele’s experiments can only tear their twinhood further asunder.
Konar’s narrative provides a measure of the horrors of Mengele’s human experiments, and yet does not focus on them. Mischling is more about Stasha and Pearl’s internal lives during their internment, focusing on how they cope and survive under such adverse, inhumane conditions. Yet many passages are undeniably horrific, and are often drawn from the real memories of Auschwitz survivors, particularly the accounts Eva Mozes Kor. Perhaps the most horrifying confession comes from Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to collaborate with Mengele. She admits to performing abortions on female inmates after discovering that Mengele was using pregnant women for vivisection. Her character is based on Dr. Gisella Perl. Through Stasha and Pearl, we see different ways of coping with the reality of such circumstances, though in Stasha’s case this often means obscuring reality in order to survive. After receiving an injection from Mengele, she becomes convinced that she is now deathless, and is therefore concerned only with how Pearl, who has not been made deathless, will survive.
Mengele himself is a character who is made large by his absence from most of the narrative. Yet he is strikingly horrific when he does appear, not just because of his brutality, but because of the nauseating contrast between his avuncular manner with the children one moment, immediately followed by terrible violations of their bodies and minds. In part two, he disappears from the narrative entirely—in real life he disguised himself as a farmhand before fleeing to South America—and yet continues to cast shadow, as Stasha becomes obsessed with tracking him down and exacting revenge. But the fact that he appears little on the page allows Stasha and Pearl to come into focus, their voices dominating the narrative in an effort to seize back some measure of control.
Mischling is a Holocaust novel that depicts horror couched in beautifully crafted prose. For some, Konar’s careful wordsmithing will distance them from the narrative, and the atrocities it unveils. For others, the juxtaposition will only serve to make the truth that much more poignant as it explores what it means to come of age in the midst of such a tragedy.
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