Trigger warning: genocide, torture.
People think my sister and I are twins sometimes. She’s two years younger. She’s the only person I can call with my fears, convictions, secrets. And she never judges me.
While most people can agree that 2016 was a hot mess in general, there certainly were some beautifully written works produced in its course. Mischling by Affinity Konar (The Illustrated Version of Things) is one of the most searing, sacred novels I’ve ever read. Konar writes in the most private, painful, and truthful way about family relationships, and in particular, about what it means to have a sister.
When I was a kid, my parents took me to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. to study World War II. I remember learning in horror what one race of people did to another, but the more grisly details were kept from me.
Details like Nazi human experimentation.
In the story, twins Pearl and Stasha Zagorski are brought to Auschwitz in 1944. They’re just little girls. Right away, they are assigned to “The Zoo”, which were sets of barracks reserved for twins and triplets. Here, they encounter real-life Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, or, “Uncle Mengele”, as he instructs the children to call him.
Mengele studied Medicine and Anthropology at the University of Munich before the war. He used his time in Auschwitz to “further his knowledge” of anthropology and heredity by experimenting on human subjects, especially siblings. He unnecessarily amputated limbs, performed blood transfusions from one twin to another, injected dyes and live diseases into his subjects’ skin and eyes, and even attempted to sew two Romani children together. One of his favorite things to do was experiment on pregnant women. Once he’d maimed his victims, Mengele would send them conveniently to the gas chambers.
Author Affinity Konar is of Polish-Jewish descent and made a point during her research to study Mengele. In a way, her novel is an epitaph for the lives destroyed at Auschwitz.
Day by day, Pearl and Stasha navigate through life in a Nazi prison camp. Along the way, they meet others with distinguishing characteristics; albinism, dwarfism. As Mengele attempts to divide and classify race from race, blood from blood, everything the Zagorskis know about being sisters will be put to the test.
I started this book without any prior knowledge of its contents. At first, I was fascinated by Stasha’s voice – most of the book is from her point of view. She begins as a precocious girl but quickly loses her innocence and playful bent.
Josef Mengele is fascinated by Stasha. When she admits to an interest in anatomy and physiology, he provides her with textbooks and encourages her to better herself. His ministrations chilled me. Educational male-to-female relationships can sometimes morph into something different, darker. Most women can point directly to the moment they realize the line between protege and plaything has been covertly smudged. Even tiny Stasha feels it.
She embarks on a mission to get close to Mengele. Standard-issue blunt bread knives are given to every individual in Auschwitz, and Stasha begins collecting and hoarding them in her socks. When the time is right, she plans to strike.
Konar has bravely chosen to extend her story beyond the world of the prison camp. This gives the reader a chaotic glimpse into trashed and vacant cities, vandalised great houses, and animals who roam the countryside searching in search of their lost owners.
The Holocaust will always be a gaping scar in the fabric of the human race. We can never fix it. We can never erase it. What we can do is remember. And see to it that no one is given this kind of criminal power again.