A Nazi, a Jewish Prisoner, and a “Magic” Bible, Or, Christian Romance Fiction Gone Very, Very Wrong

She gripped my hand in the doorway of the church, following the Good Friday service, “I’ve never really liked Jews.”

I had just finished a sermon in which I decried present-day harassment of Jews in the Ukraine and noted that we are kidding ourselves if we thought we would treat Jesus better now than he was treated then.

We prayed. We grieved. I again felt the chasm between Christianity, the religion of my heart,  and Judaism, the religion of my blood and of my ancestors.

Here I was, being told by a parishioner I love deeply something that amounted to, “I’ve never cared for an entire race of people to which you belong through your mother and her parents and your grandparents.”

Gripping her hand in that doorway, I looked her in the eye and said, “Do you know any Jews?”

“No,” she admitted.

“Well, now you do.”

This story comes to mind as I watched the turmoil last month around Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time. Nominated for a 2015 RITA Awardthe romance novel, published by Bethany House last year, tells the story of a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman who is rescued from a firing squad by a Nazi commandant and becomes his secretary.

She hatches a plot to save people from the trains to Auschwitz and her uncle, Morty, foils a plan that would have killed the commandant. The commandant pressures her to kisses and into an engagement. And, in the way of magical realism, a Bible appears and she learns to find some consolation in the New Testament—instead of in the Hebrew Scriptures of her childhood.

All ends with a happily ever after as our lovely Jewess marries the Nazi commandant, who helps Jews escape the camp in question. Presumably, they raise lovely blond Christian children.

I think I need to wash my hands after typing that.

The to-do over this book is that many, many people—Jews and non-Jews—believe that romance between a Jewish prisoner and a Nazi commander violates any spirit of consent. In the portions of the book when Stella/Hadassah wrestles with her feelings about Aric, I was reminded of the guilt rape survivors sometimes feel when their bodies responded to the act of violation in a different way than their heads and spirits were. No matter how humane the Nazi in question was made to seem—he had the power to kill her or those she loved at any time.

This retelling of Esther misses a critical piece of the story. We never hear that Ahasuerus and Esther had a great love story because she was property, a girl more beautiful than the others who were culled from the countryside to see who would please the king. She made the best of a bad situation and, in so doing, saved her people.

For Such a Time is not the same thing. It is “supersessionism porn,” wherein the ultimate happily-ever-after for a Jew would certainly be to become a Christian. Breslin and her publisher, Bethany House, have received criticism for the book on the grounds that it violates consent at best and allows for a kind of truth of the Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism at worst.

Author and blogger Sarah Wendell wrote a letter to the board of directors of Romance Writers of America (RWA) decrying the nomination of the book for RITA Awards in two categories. Wendell, who is Jewish, worries that celebrating such a horrific work

creates an environment where writers of faiths other than Christianity, not just Jewish writers, feel unwelcome. It certainly had that effect on me, because I don’t understand exactly how so many judges agreed that a book so offensive and insensitive was worthy of the RWA’s highest honor. But clearly enough did so, and the result for me as an RWA member is a feeling of distrust and pain, and concern that my reaction and feelings may not be heard.

Wendell also published the letter on her tumblr account, which led to a swell of reaction against the author, the publisher, and RWA. With a proliferation of one-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, as well as criticisms of the five-star reviews that swooned over the Nazi protagonist and wondered if, perhaps, history had not been a little too hard on those poor, misguided thugs in jackboots.

These criticisms have generated their own backlash to the backlash, with such authors as Anne Rice arguing that speaking against For Such a Time is a kind of censorship. The Guardian quoted Rice from her own Facebook page,

I think all this is dangerous. I think we have to stand up for the freedom of fiction writers to write what they want to write, no matter how offensive it might be to someone else. We must stand up for fiction as a place where transgressive behavior and ideas can be explored … internet campaigns to destroy authors accused of inappropriate subject matter or attitudes are dangerous to us all.

In an email to the Guardian, Rice noted that she had not yet read For Such a Time.

A Jewish friend of mine remarked recently that the general attitude of history toward Jews could be bumperstickered as “If the pogrom didn’t kill you….” Arguing that anyone can write anything about anyone at any time, or else it is censorship, is the publishing equivalent of #AllLivesMatter. There seems to be a public sentiment that Jews are everywhere—yet there lots of people in the United States who do not know a single Jew. Furthermore, there is hardly a significant number of religious or even semi-secular Jews in the public eye in films, books, and television shows.

We are being edited out, one conversion narrative, one Holocaust denial, one romantic Nazi, one anti-Semitic slur at a time.

What it means to live as a Jew in modern America is to have complex feelings about history, about G-d, about Israel, and about one’s own practice. It also means, at a certain level, a wariness. No country has ever allowed us to stay, unharmed, permanently. We cannot take anything for granted. You never know when someone will say to you, “I’ve never liked Jews.” And you can’t always be sure what will follow that statement.

Would a book about a Yazidi woman “falling in love” with her ISIS rapist be nominated for romance awards?

Would we hope for a movie based on a relationship between a police officer employed by Bull Connor and a young black woman?

Would ratings soar for a novel about a Cherokee teenager being “wooed” by the soldier escorting her family along the Trail of Tears?

Some stories belong to the people who lived them, the people who still grieve them, the people in whose bones they rest. Leave the Holocaust and its survivors alone. They’re not there as easy emotional background for your novel. If you aren’t sure, ask a Jew.

If you didn’t know any, now you do.

22 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We do know one. Sarah.

  • whiteknyght@opendoor.com' Michael L Hays says:

    As a literary scholar and as a Jew, I do not agree with this review although it is the reason why I shall not read the book. I believe as follows. Any human experience can be and, if a writer wishes to undertake it, should be the stuff of fiction. The major substantive as opposed to stylistic question is whether that experience is rendered in ways which give us insight into human experience, however different from our own. I am not going to apply the standards of current politically correct thinking to rule out that a Jewish woman might plausibly fall in love with her Christian captor, etc. (Do we not wish that Nazis had seen Jews as people? Perhaps find some of them admirable? Even fall in love with one or two of them?) And I am certainly not going to share the reviewer’s insinuated stereotyping as the basis of her critical perspective on this book. All that I ask is that the experience be rendered with due regard for the psychology of the relationship. After all, women (also men) in arranged/forced marriages often do come to love their spouses.

  • ellen.valle@utu.fi' red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    “There seems to be a public sentiment that Jews are everywhere—yet there
    lots of people in the United States who do not know a single Jew.”
    This may be a fairly common situation; at least in Germany during the 1930s, much of the most rabid anti-Semitism and Judeophobia was displayed by ordinary German people in small towns and villages, especially in the eastern part of the country, who had never met a Jewish person — or for that matter anyone else different from themselves. It tends to be easier to demonize someone you’ve never met.
    Interestingly, today again the most violent German xenophobia is being displayed in those same eastern areas.

  • ellen.valle@utu.fi' red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    As a (linguistic) scholar and a Jew myself, I find this idea troubling, but I nevertheless think you’re right. I myself have long thought the same about the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson; I believe there may have been a genuine mutual attachment between them, although anyone saying this in public today will probably be venomously attacked. The fact is, human relationships are endlessly complex. They cannot always be reduced to simple matter of power versus powerlessness.

  • conjurehealing@gmail.com' conjurehealing says:

    “Would we hope for a movie based on a relationship between a police officer employed by Bull Connor and a young black woman?”

    Did you see Monster’s Ball? This is article full of hyperbole: “horrific” story? Rape fantasy is all the rage in popular romance literature these days. Yet because of the theme involving Jews – who are not set apart from other religious groups, by the way – we are, for some reason to be especially outraged. Please hop off of the offense bandwagon. This may be a lousy novel with anti semitic overtones, but it is not especially dangerous. Stop it.

  • whiteknyght@opendoor.com' Michael L Hays says:

    I am glad that you mentioned the Hemings/Jefferson relationship. I preferred generalities, though I had this relationship, which I interpret as you do, in mind. The problem with political correctness is that it puts verbal blinkers on our ability to see reality.

  • quantumleap42@gmail.com' quantumleap42 says:

    Perhaps we shouldn’t tell Julia Seymour about the book, “Surviving Hitler: The Unlikely True Story of an SS Soldier and a Jewish Woman” by O. Hakan Palm. It’s a true story. They didn’t meet during the war but afterwards. Sometimes (usually) truth is better than fiction.

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    (just washed eyeballs) Romance author should be allowed to write and attempt to publish anything, but everyone else is more than entitled to shout from the rooftops – Eeeeewwwwwwwww – FAIL to the FAILth degree. The novel apparently adheres to the romance genre conventions, per the plot summary and the fact that it won an award from the genre association, and the genre literary convention of a happy and guilt-free ending is the problem. I agree that it is perfectly possible to write a decent “Stockholm syndrome” novel.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    I can understand objection to the overt proselytizing, that’s for sure. Actually, in a town here in Arkansas that I used to live in, the library had crosses on all the romance novels considered acceptable for Christian readers. All the librarians were wingnuts like Davis, and they are probably eating this up.

    I quit reading romances many years ago, when they got away from being about adults in love and started dragging one or the other adult’s rug rats into the tale. Then they started getting into the Christian religious overtones.

  • awerling@gmail.com' andrew123456789 says:

    Interesting article. I myself am hesitant to judge a work based on a summary, because fiction approaches very subtle complexities of human interaction and emotion that simply cannot be adequately summarized, and I really find myself balking when it’s not only summarized, but also interpreted, for me. I don’t know if I should read this book to make up my own mind, or simply leave the controversy alone and not comment on it. I guess as a lover of literature it bothers me a bit that others will cast judgment without reading the book first. Plot isn’t everything, and in a well-written book, it’s not even very much.

  • emilyk04@gmail.com' Fired, Aren't I says:

    Correct me if I misinterpreted your self-description, but aren’t YOU an example of the ideal the book discusses – a Jew who converts to Christianity? You might be “Jewish of blood” but you’re no longer Jewish of heart, you’re a Christian of heart. You said so yourself.

    In fact, it is the Jewishness “of the heart” that is the most important for those who declare themselves “Jewish,” and what Hillel espoused years before Jesus was supposedly born.

    “I’ve never met a Jew,” the woman said. “You have now,” you responded.

    Except… not really. You’re a not living as a Jewish person, one that engages in Jewish life and all its influence of the sages and writings (for better or worse). You have the privilege of calling yourself Christian, being comfortable among the 80% or so Americans who religiously identify as such, and feel neither unfamiliar with Christian religious ritual nor uncomfortable in Christian places of worship (that is as a non-practicing outsider to Christianity). You’re what Jews for Jesus and other “Messianic” sects call a “completed Jew.”

    Other things that come with a Jewish heart: having liberal Christians profess that the teachings of Jesus were “radical Judaism,” a label tone-deaf to the rich history of Jewish teaching of 3 millennia. Hearing the word “Pharisee” used in a derogatory manner in everyday language, because the Christian scriptures labeled our rabbinical ancestors “hypocrites.” Cringing any time you catch wind of a “Passion Play” being produced/broadcast/celebrated/what-have-you, because the spectators are oblivious to the pain that spectacle has caused and continues to cause us.

    I try to have as big a tent as possible when it comes to Jewish identity, but I stop short of “Jews” who are practicing Christians.

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    Christians and atheists of Jewish parentage were not spared by the Nazis. Anti-semitism concerns itself with “race” as much as religion. Within the Jewish community, those individuals who have Jewish mothers are considered Jewish by default, even if they do not believe.

  • emilyk04@gmail.com' Fired, Aren't I says:

    Within the Jewish community, those individuals who have Jewish mothers are considered Jewish by default, even if they do not believe.

    Some Jewish communities. And either way, it’s a backward tribalist belief and in my view has no real place in modern Jewish practice.

    In any case, that people who were only marginally considered Jewish were put in camps is not my point of debate.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    As an Atheist I see the problem here. A different form of genocide. One of exclusion and co-option if only in fiction that is in the Public Eye. Where Jews are at best a stereotyped and that the real Jews should be forgotten. Seems to me that the article is right on the money. But not being a Jew I can only say that from the outside in.

    A segment of Christians have been busy exterminating not the Jews as people, but their religion of Judaism, bastardizing it to Christianity a renegade offshoot. That does qualify as genocide by eliminating part of their culture. What the Nazis who were at heart the modern incarnation of the Christian Crusades and Catholic Inquisition we have it today by attacking and assimilating Jews till they are in at best name only. Though the attacks aren’t done with weapons and terror, but by re-education an conversion.

  • nightgaunt@graffiti.net' nightgaunt says:

    -0

  • whiteknyght@opendoor.com' Michael L Hays says:

    I cannot track what you say to genocide. I tend to be literal-minded, so when you say “genocide,” I think of actual killing of material beings, not of their beliefs, etc. No one is systematically trying to re-educate the Jews or to convert them; they are not educating themselves in the first place and perhaps leaving some of them open to conversion.

  • martineaugj@hotmail.com' Geoff Martineau says:

    Why is she any less Jewish for believing that Messiah did indeed come, and that he was Jesus of Nazareth? Do you similarly disqualify Jews who are atheists, believe Schneerson is Messiah, pratice Buddhism, etc? What level of “engagement in Jewish life” is required by you to pass your litmus test? In short, who are you to tell her she’s not a Jew?

  • emilyk04@gmail.com' Fired, Aren't I says:

    Because she converted to Christianity.

  • martineaugj@hotmail.com' Geoff Martineau says:

    Again, who are you to say that she’s no longer a Jew? I notice you didn’t answer my questions either about whether your litmus tests apply to other cases.

  • emilyk04@gmail.com' Fired, Aren't I says:

    Christianity (among some others) base their theology on being the true faith of some sort. Conversion to a faith that declares itself to be exclusive will of course exclude also being Jewish in anything other than some kind of familial heritage. But in practice or daily identity? No way. The goal of Christianity from the start has been to convert Jews (“to the Jew first, then the Greek” said Paul of Tarsus). The two are mutually exclusive. This is why conversion away from Judaism to Christianity was considered at least nominally appeasing to the Catholic church during the Inquisition eras.

    As long as you call yourself a Christian, you’re not a Jew. Christianity’s theology places it squarely at odds. Even the name of its scriptures – the “New” Testament – implies a replacement of the old.

  • martineaugj@hotmail.com' Geoff Martineau says:

    Nonsense. If Jesus is/was Messiah, then despite its own history, then following Him is a very Jewish thing to do. And you misunderstand “the goal of Christianity”.

  • emilyk04@gmail.com' Fired, Aren't I says:

    Since Jesus didn’t fulfill any of the prophecies that are exhaustive and exclusive to the Jewish requirements for a messiah, such as a worldwide knowledge of God, reuniting of all tribes of Israel, raising the dead, and most importantly – worldwide peace, he doesn’t qualify. So I fail to see how following him is a “very Jewish thing to do,” since there is absolutely no theological reasoning that backs up this claim. My guess is that you don’t actually know very many Jews, or if you do, they’re all “Messianic Jews,” which are a modern phenomenon set up by evangelical Christian churches to surreptitiously convert Jewish people.

    Of course, by claiming that certain Jews are “far more Jewish,” you’re no better than what you claim I’m doing, acting as a gate-keeper. And you’ve provided no reason as to why it is “very Jewish” to be Jewish and a converted Christian, as if one doesn’t negate the other theologically. I, on the other hand, have provided ample sufficient evidence as to why it it is not.

    Why you’re so threatened by this, I have no idea. But as this is the “last word,” then simply good riddance.

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