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  1. Book ImageAnya: A Novel

    Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

    Anya is a myth, an epic...[by] a writer of remarkable power.—Washington Post

The Author on Her Work

Anya, like so many of my novels, began with a chance remark made by an older woman whom I thought I had come to know quite well. One day, she mentioned “the camps,” and I knew at once that she was not referring to a summer camp. Still, I was reluctant to believe that she had, indeed, been in a Nazi labor camp; she had no number tattooed on her arm, and in those days, I was naive enough to believe that anyone in one of the camps would have had such a number. When I finally did begin to ask questions, I was—what would be the word?—amazed, stunned, humiliated—to discover that my proximity to such drastic and terrible experiences had been right under my nose without my having sensed it. And so, I began to learn about Holocaust survivors and how their lives had been changed.

Of course, no one could have been unaware of the Holocaust, and I certainly was not, but there is a vast difference between theoretical knowing and emotional knowledge. I wanted to know what the Holocaust had done to at least some people and what cost they had paid.

In the beginning, I thought I might be able to find the answers to my questions by reading books about the Holocaust, but the first book I read convinced me that I was on the wrong track. In that book, whose name I no longer remember, I read that Polish Jews were given yellow stars and ordered to wear them. I mentioned this to a cab driver when I was going home. I’ve always found that the world cooperates with you when you have found the right subject, and it cooperated with me in the form of this taxi driver who had himself been a Holocaust survivor. He told me that yellow stars were not handed out by the Nazis; instead, Polish Jews were required to make their own yellow stars and to wear them at all times. He told me a story about his father who did not have enough yellow paper to make his own star, and so he took some pink paper and colored it in with yellow ink. Shortly thereafter, he was walking in the rain and the yellow ink was washed away leaving the star once again pink. Within moments, he was shot by three German soldiers. He was killed immediately.

I decided not to use secondary sources. If a book could be mistaken in such a vital fact, such books were not reliable. Instead, I decided to interview survivors, on the assumption that many of their memories would be distorted, but such distortions would have arisen from actual experience, and would, as a consequence, have a validity of their own.

The first major obstacle I encountered was the apparently unbreakable reluctance of the survivor to speak of what had come before the Nazi invasion. Although survivors would willingly recount in detail the horrors of what came later, they were unwilling, and I came to think, unable to tell me what their lives had been before the war began. What had been lost appeared to be the most difficult thing of all. In the classic book, Massive Psychic Trauma, Neiderland, himself a survivor, stated that Holocaust survivors were, in fact, incapable of speaking about their lives before the Nazi invasion changed their world. I found that this was almost impossible. Because I wanted to show how much had been lost when the Nazis invaded, I needed to be able to get survivors to reach back for those early experiences. This required patience (I am not known for it), and almost Byzantine approaches.

Many of the survivors were anxious to teach me about the Holocaust, in fact about anything I wanted to know. They had an enormous desire to teach. This may have begun because I was so young at the time. I began by asking about stoves. This led to drawings of the European stoves in the old Polish kitchens, and then it was possible to ask questions about the kitchen itself, and finally the dining room, the living room and the bedroom. “What were your parents’ bedrooms like?” led, in time, to descriptions of those parents and what had happened to them. It was not impossible to reach those still-innocent times, but it was difficult. Most such memories were recounted to me through floods of tears and it was clearly best if I myself did not start to cry since the sight of my crying would only further upset whoever was speaking. I had many sore throats in those days, all of them brought on by straining my throat so that I would not begin to cry along with my speakers.

Some writers are driven by a desire to prevent experience from being lost by the passage of time. I am one of them, and I became obsessed by trying to preserve what these survivors had lost and what they had experienced or learned. I began questioning people about everything: the furniture they remembered, the stories they read, the relationships between members of the family. To my surprise, fable-like elements introduced themselves as I was writing the final book: fables that might have been told to me by the survivors, dreams I invented for them when a realistic narrative proved too confining for the experience I was attempting to delineate. I realized that I was, in fact, describing what survivors saw as the murder of a world, the world as the survivors had once known it. To make this even more evident than it was, I created incidents which could not have happened, so that, after Anya is saved by the Russians, she decides to go back to her beloved Warsaw, something which could not, in reality, have happened. But by going, she learns the full measure of what huge gaps in life and in reality have been erased, obliterated by the Holocaust. For Anya the character, as well as the reader, it was important to begin to come to grips with and make clear the enormity of what had been destroyed.

I always ask myself if what I have written has changed me. Certainly, Anya did. I became far more pessimistic than I had been when I began. My life before beginning work on Anya had been the safe American life of the family that reaches the suburbs by the second generation. I had never known radical evil or encountered it, although such evil had somehow begun to burn through the fog of my innocence and there it had begun to shimmer. It was not possible to avoid comments made by family friends, to avoid The Diary of Anne Frank, which we were taken to see in play form in high school. I suppose I knew more than I believed I did even then, but what I sensed was too frightening to confront. When I came to know a survivor about whom I cared, my fear was replaced by an obsessive need to know the truth about what I and many around me had carefully obscured.

Anya was my second novel. I was still very naive. I had yet to hear of the “curse” of the second novel. Naturally reclusive, I had not been told that it was impossible for someone who “had not been there” to write about the Holocaust. At the time, I know I did not want to write about the death camps like Auschwitz or Dachau. Instead, I chose to write about one of the labor camps. Even so, labor camps turned out to be a death sentence for most inmates. But I thought a labor camp would be less incomprehensible than a death camp, or at least I hoped it would. I sometimes believe—I do believe—that you can know only as much as what you are willing to know. There are some things you can know only if others are willing to tell you what they have learned. I will forever owe a debt to the survivors who were brave and generous enough to speak to me of their experiences. When one man thanked me for having caused him to remember and give back his past and the days of his childhood spent with his family, I felt I had, perhaps, not done as badly as I might have thought.

Discussion Questions

  1. Many people argue that the Holocaust is not a subject for a work of fiction, and argue that the “unmentionable” should not, in fact, be mentioned. Are the two imperatives often invoked to deal with the Holocaust—the first, Never forget, and the second, Do not allow the Holocaust to be portrayed in fiction—mutually exclusive? With which do you agree? Discuss.
  2. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer has said that she had to defend the opening sections of Anya in which she describes Anya’s life before the Nazis invade and she and her family are taken to the ghetto. Why did Schaeffer chose to begin the story of Anya’s life with what happened to her before the Nazis disrupted her life?
  3. Why does Anya’s story continue past her safe relocation in the United States? Why did Schaeffer decide to do this?
  4. It is often assumed that a novel like Anya should teach moral lessons or say something didactic about human nature. Does Susan Fromberg Schaeffer attempt to do either of these things in Anya, and if she does not, why not?
  5. Anya herself survives partly through incredible luck and partly through her own character. Does her good luck appear incredible or credible to you?
  6. Survivors themselves have often said that those who lived through the camps were not always the best of the people who did survive. Into which group—the “good” people or the “unscrupulous” people—do you think Anya falls? In a world as extreme as that of the camps, a world which put pressures on inmates that other people are unlikely to ever discover, is it in fact necessary to redefine moral terms such as “good,” “bad,” “scrupulous” and “unscrupulous?
  7. Anya is the narrator of her story. Do you believe she is telling the truth at all times? Why?
  8. Once Anya is safe in the United States, does she feel that her new and safe life leaves something to be desired and that she has lost something she experienced during wartime that she finds hard to give up? What Anya underwent brought inevitable and obvious losses. Are there other, less obvious losses more difficult to discover?
  9. In what way is Anya’s character changed by her wartime experiences?
  10. Anya never forgets Ninka, the child she has to leave behind in the ghetto. Do you think Anya would have survived had she not been so determined to find her daughter?
  11. Anya begins and ends with Anya’s dreams of her parents. Is it true to say that, at least in one essential sense, Anya never truly loses her parents?
  12. Anya originally intends to become a medical doctor, but it is Rachel who reaches that goal. Is there anything to be learned by the fates of these two friends?

About Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (1940 - 2011) was a Professor of English and author of fourteen novels, six poetry collections, and other works.

Books by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

  1. Book CoverAnya: A Novel

    Anya is a myth, an epic...[by] a writer of remarkable power.—Washington PostMore

  2. Book CoverBuffalo Afternoon: A Novel

    "Remarkable....The entire Vietnam experience [in] one epic narrative."—New York Times Book ReviewMore

  3. Book CoverPoison: A Novel

    A tour de force about marriage, deceit, and envy, "rich in fairy tale imagery and in vivid metaphors" (Publishers Weekly).More