By Affinity Konar
Random House Canada
Affinity Konar’s novel Mischling – “Mischling” was the term used by the Nazis to indicate a person of mixed Aryan and Jewish ancestry – is about 12-year-old twin girls selected at Auschwitz by Dr. Josef Mengele to be part of his diabolical experiments. The story is narrated alternately by each of the twins, Pearl and Stasha Zamorski, who look very similar, but have somewhat different characters.
As Mischlinge in “Mengele’s zoo” of experimented-upon children, Pearl and Stasha are, at least at first, given slightly better treatment than other prisoners and are somewhat protected from the usual threats of the camp.
But, the twins are also treated to courses of torture, cruel suffering and abominable experiments until the point that Mengele seems to focus on giving them different types of suffering to endure.
As the story progresses, it is this fixation on differentiating the twins that seems to dominate Mengele’s rationale for all that he is doing. Which one is the stronger? Which one will die first? That is his procedure with all of the twins and triplets “under his care” and that they are Mischlinge, seems, after all, not to matter.
Stasha is the twin who begins the tale, even though she was born second. Her narration is full of emotion, imagination and rapid movement. Pearl, the twin born first, narrates second. She is more logical, measured and systematic. Much of her narration is taken from her diary.
At one point as the twins talk, they come to see Pearl as keeping the memory of the past, the knowledge of what has preceded and what is of value, while Stasha takes responsibility for speaking of the present and the future.
Stasha holds within her the memory of her sister, and of her father, as well as the memory of what Mengele did to them. This gives her a mission. After she miraculously survives a death march and Auschwitz is liberated, she sets out with a boy, Feliks, whose twin was lost during the experiments, on a trek through Poland on a hopeless quest to find Mengele and kill him. As they proceed, it is clear their plan is more fantasy than practical, but they eventually come face to face with their past in the Warsaw Zoo. They both admit to each other they had been living in a fantasy world.
Pearl, kept and systematically starved and broken in a cage in darkness, is reduced to a pile of flesh and bone with little memory of herself or anyone else, just that she is missing something valuable. Otherwise she lives passively in the present, her legs crippled by Mengele. She is rescued, along with many of the remaining children, by tough survivors of the camp who managed to avoid the gas chambers by being “useful” to the guards or to Mengele, even while they secretly found ways occasionally to help the victims.
The story is filled with the pain, suffering and death of children and of some who try to help them. Because all is filtered through the individual perspectives of the twins who alternately pass through hope, despair and hope again, everything that occurs, that allows them to live, feels miraculous. Stasha and Feliks, for example, escape harrowing threats only to meet further dangers from which they are saved again by chance. They are quick and resourceful, but also extremely lucky.
Pearl is kept alive both through luck and the determination of others, and is restored to a semblance of normality (walking with crutches). A plan is hatched to smuggle some of the children to Palestine in coffins, loaded on a truck to be driven down through Italy for embarkation. Again Pearl is somehow saved and the truck returns to the Red Cross in Warsaw, where Stasha and Pearl meet again in extraordinarily lucky circumstances.
Affinity Konar’s writing is exquisite, but the suffering and death are difficult to take, especially after the liberation of Auschwitz, when so many still die from various causes brought about by chance encounters, infections and weather.
And, yet, some do survive. Was it their character and adaptability, their drive and reason for going on? Or was there a “guiding hand” in determining their fate and whose hand was it? And why did Mengele also survive and escape justice? These are the questions we are left to answer as we all have to wrestle with the evil of the Holocaust and what it means for humanity.