Today is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, January 27th, 1945, by the Soviet Army as it pushed from Russia into the German-occupied Eastern Europe. Auschwitz was not the first camp to be liberated; that would have been Majdanek, an extermination camp outside Lublin, Poland, in July,1944.
When my son and I visited the Imperial War Museum in London in October, we viewed a Holocaust Museum established in the back part of the building, on the 3rd and 4th floors, separate from the rest of the exhibits. It was two floors worth of pictures, artifacts, and video presentations (mainly interviews with survivors), but the thing I remember most was a model of the “reception area” of Auschwitz.
Taking up the full length of a long room, the model (buildings, trains, train tracks, figurines) showed how the trainloads of people were received at the train station, unloaded, and then herded down a long path next to the train tracks. The able-bodied workers would be diverted through one gate that led to processing rooms and barracks; the not-as-able-but-still-able workers and the women would be diverted through the next gate, leading to processing rooms and barracks; then another gate, and another gate, the last being the gate through which people would be herded into a processing room (to take their clothes and belongings) and then marched directly into gas chambers. The crematorium to burn their bodies were behind the gas chambers.
It was like a meat processing plant.
When Auschwitz was liberated, they found 800,000 women’s outfits, hundreds of thousands of men’s suits, and more than 14,000 pounds of human hair (used to make industrial felt). At Buchenwald, there was a bin of thousands of pairs of baby shoes.
Between 1943 and 1944, an average of 6,000 Jews were sent to the gas chambers EACH DAY at Auschwitz. In total, across all the camps, about 6 million European Jews, about two-thirds of the Jewish population at the time, were murdered during the Holocaust.
The Jews were not the only targets. The Third Reich’s master plan included anyone in Eastern Europe and Western Russian who were not descendants of the Aryan Race, including the Poles, Slavs, and Russians. Six million Poles were murdered; four million Soviet troops; eight million Russian citizens; and the list goes on. The intention was to destroy most of the native inhabitants of the lands so that Germany could resettle the lands with Aryan descendants. Any remaining natives would become serfs to the German landowners.
How did they murder so many? By design. The lead editors of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-45 of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, operating from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.
How could all of this happen? How could Hitler and the whole nation of Germany become a society based on irrational hate?
Hitler and the National Socialist Party (the Nazi Party) were elected to power. They did not overthrow the previous government. When new elections were held, they controlled the media, controlled their message, whipped the populace into fanatical rallies, and played dirty with their adversaries. After getting into power, they made it illegal to oppose the Nazi Party. The first concentration camp at Dachau was established in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler to hold “political prisoners”, who was anyone who opposed the National Socialist Party. Within a year, almost every city and village in Germany had at least one of their citizens imprisoned at Dachau, having been arrested for “opposing the government” or for “disturbing the calm” of the rest of the population.
The purpose of the camp was expanded in 1934 to include the “racially undesirable elements”, such as Jews, Gypsies, Serbs, Poles, disabled people, and criminals. Later on, it included Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Catholic clergy.
Dachau, at the end of its 12th year, had held 200,000 people and had murdered 41,000 of them.
This is a day to remember.
The last six weeks have been exciting. I had a wonderful Christmas with all my kids and grandkids; ripped out 800 sq. ft. of carpet and helped lay a new engineered vinyl plank floor (with new wall paint, trim, baseboards, and rugs; the two rooms look fabulous); stayed cosy with my fireplace roaring during a few snowstorms; started and finished three books, including my customary how-to-write book; began researching my next writing project; and made progress in getting my current novel into the publishing cycle by submitting a finished manuscript to my editor.
Working with my editor has been unusually productive. It’s always uplifting to get a professional to read and critique something that I’ve worked long and hard on creating. As much as it makes me risk looking like an amateur and ruining my day, it gives me a solid opportunity to revise my manuscript into a better story. Working solely on my own makes me too used to seeing the words but not their effect.
From a meeting right before New Year’s Day, my editor’s suggestions brought several changes: I deleted more than seventy pages of what my editor thought was an unnecessary distraction from the main story; changed how I presented more than half the book; changed my character’s family name to sound more Norwegian, since they came from Norway; added violence to one scene; and expanded two characters to have darker and more dramatic personalities. Wow. It took rearranging things, but resulted in a stronger presentation of the plot, a better framework to involve the reader emotionally, and gave the three major characters more involved, and interesting, relationships. And made it more believable that the family came from Norway.
The good news is that she didn’t have any changes to the descriptions, actions, and scenes of my character’s journey through World War II, which is more than half of the book. She may when she does her word-level edit, but she was impressed with the vitality and energy of my war-time presentation. I feel good about that.
I sent my editor a version of the manuscript with the changes last week, and then another one yesterday. I restored a few pages that I had taken out (I deleted too much needed character development), threw a plot twist into one of the most significant scenes, and added more drama. My next meeting is this coming Saturday and I’ll see how much she believes her suggestions improved the story.
I started this novel in March by creating what, in the movie script world, is called a “treatment”. It’s like writing a short story with the beginning, the end, the middle, the storyline, the characters and their relationships, the settings, actions, and scene progressions that I expect to use in the longer work. I find it more beneficial than using preliminary outlines or summaries.
My twenty-thousand-word short story used the structure and mechanics of the longer story, and developed enough of the various points of view, narrators, and dialogue to give me a feeling of what the reader would see. My treatment “told” the story rather than “showed” the story, which requires a lot less words. I used examples of what the text would look like instead of writing the actual text. The resulting short story was terrible, but it served its purpose by anticipating what the full story would look like.
I even shared the treatment with other people to see if the story worked, and received good feedback.
Several months later and after a dozen or so drafts of the full manuscript, what I have still models the short story, but has almost 100,000 words, which is a good size for an adult novel. Visiting London and Normandy, by the way, made a significant difference to my story.
Beginning with the treatment and then using an incremental approach to writing made it easier to adopt my editor’s suggestions without feeling like my work was being ravaged by an outsider. The edits did require me to change my mental vision of the story (the “movie” I saw in my mind) so it took some mental effort to reorient how I felt about the story, and especially to get used to changes in my characters; I’d lived with most of them for months and making them different was like meeting someone I didn’t know.
My level of enthusiasm for the book has jumped significantly in the last two weeks. My characters behave more authentically, have stronger emotional connections with the reader, and I see that some unexpected things have come to light – underlying motifs, evolution of values and perceptions, a beginning-to-end journey instead of several disjointed actions, and a creative ending that has both power and resolve. I’m pretty sure that I’m not smart enough to have planned those from the beginning, so I’m happy to see the complexity show up.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.