Is Historical Fiction an Oxymoron?

Photo:  Feng Shan Ho, Consul General in Vienna, 1938, Manli Ho Collection

650 words / 3 ½ minute read

Martin loved watching old war films and would get together with his friend the military historian Max Arthur, the two of them offering a running commentary with and over the characters in the film.  Martin never watched Holocaust films and never read Holocaust novels.  He didn’t want it clogging up his mind; he didn’t want what he read to take the place of what he knew.  So how do we treat Holocaust fiction – does it help us enter into the times as we try to grapple with what happened, or does it take on a life of its own and inform what we believe to be true about the Holocaust?  Two examples:

Sir Tom Stoppard has written and been involved with the production of a play, Leopoldstadt, about an extended Jewish family in Vienna in 1899 that follows the family to 1938, taking up the story again in 1955.  Sir Tom came from Prague and the family in the play is based to some extent on his family and their experiences.

The Chinese-American novelist Weina Dai Randel has written Night Angels, “based on” the experiences of the Jews of Vienna who managed to find refuge in Shanghai.  (In fact in Leopoldstadt, the family discusses the idea of Shanghai as a refuge.)

Though desperate to escape after the Anschluss and the Nazi terror it brought to Austria, Jews could not receive an exit visa without an entry visa to a country willing to take them in – as was true throughout pre-war Germany and its occupied territories.  In Vienna, the Chinese Consul Feng Shan Ho decided to help.  He provided visas to Shanghai which at the time had an “international settlement” and was to become a refuge of last resort for 18,000 European Jews.  Through his efforts, thousands of Jews were saved – efforts which were against his government’s orders; efforts which later earned him the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Ho’s daughter Manli has spent decades unearthing his story – not something he ever spoke about.  She is writing his biography, based on documents and eye-witness accounts of those her father saved.

Weina Dai Randel’s book is a novel but one in which named people – Feng Shan Ho and his wife Grace – are characters in the fiction, characters who have little connection to the historical record.  Hers is not the first work of fiction “based on” the Holocaust.  More and more it is becoming the backdrop for whatever story an author wants to tell that shows human beings in extreme situations.

I’m not sure how I feel about fiction “based on” the Holocaust – who owns the Holocaust after all?  But, like Martin, I don’t have to read it.  Can we take real people though and plug them into the fantasy of what someone imagines they said or did?  What happens to the historical record when novels sell faster than biographies and a character “based on” a historical figure takes on a fictional, imaginary life?

It’s not a new phenomenon – we want to try to understand historical figures, imagine their meetings, their conversations, even their innermost thoughts and dreams.  But it works better in a world where there is no historical record, where we cannot otherwise approach them but through someone else’s imagination.  The Holocaust is still too close and heroes like Feng Shan Ho are too unknown to be able to stand against their fictional accounts.  Manli Ho has dedicated her life to having her father’s legacy known – but that legacy must be based on the historical record, not someone’s imaginings.

Sir Tom Stoppard created an imaginary family loosely based on his own.  We see into his living room, we connect to the family, we know the backdrop is real.  It is rooted in history but by not distorting the historical record his art is timeless  Weina Dai Randel also created an imaginary family but she peopled her world with real individuals and then created a false world for them to inhabit.  Historical accuracy has to mean something, especially as the historical record is there.

 Read:  Kristallnacht

mg-social-icons-face mg-social-icons-twi mg-social-icons-yt

 Subscribe to Sir Martin’s Newsletter & Book Club