“There are just so many Holocaust memoirs out there,” author Beth Benedix warns Joe Koenig, the 81-year-old, Polish-born Holocaust survivor whose family is about to hire her to write his story. “If we want to market Joe’s story to a wide audience—and I know I do—I feel like I have to find a way to tell his story that hasn’t been done before.”
Ghost Writer is the result: Not simply a tale of Joe’s amazing life, but also an intense portrayal of what it’s like to write that tale, and how the writing changes the writer.
The actual Holocaust narrative takes up only 31 of the book’s total 210 pages, although it could easily be made into a two-hour movie. Beginning when he was 14 years old, Joe hides in a local Gestapo headquarters; jumps out of a truck taking him to be shot; bluffs a group of Poles who want to turn him in to the Nazis; crouches in a cornfield barely steps away from a German officer; voluntarily joins a slave-labor camp; and survives the horrors of Buchenwald, two death marches, and Dachau. After Dachau is liberated, with his entire family wiped out, he joins the Jewish Brigade to fight in Israel’s War of Independence.
That’s the original book that Benedix sends to Joe’s family in December 2009—what she calls The Suit.
However, the book that’s the subject of this review is called Ghost Writer, and it has a second plot: “The explicit showing of my choices and our conversations and the unexpected turns they took in my attempts to nail the story down,” as Benedix explains. The more she mulls over The Suit, the more dissatisfied she is with the way she went about writing it:
Why did she end the original book with Joe’s enlistment in the Jewish Brigade?
Why did she insert a saccharine flashback while Joe is hiding, terrified, in the Gestapo headquarters?
Why did she repeatedly push Joe for so many details? What difference did it make whether the sky was sunny or gray while he was crouched in the cornfield? The important thing was that a single breath could have gotten him killed.
“There are rules about how to write about the Holocaust.” But does she really have to follow them?
In the process of questioning her writing, Benedix also thinks deeply about her own life as a mother of two young children, a secular Jew, and a professor of world literature, religious studies, and community engagement at DePauw University. Most important, her thoughts spiral to her complicated feelings about her late father, who “was basically an (unsuccessful) career criminal who stole thousands and thousands of dollars and merchandise from just about every place he worked.”
For Benedix, Joe is the calm, wise father-figure she never had. She even asks his advice on how to handle her first-day-of-school jitters.
Thus, it is especially painful that she and Joe’s family have a falling-out in December 2009—apparently over rights to the material—and “I lose my connection to Joe.”
Most writers tug and pull at their manuscripts, of course. I was still frantically revising my Holocaust novel, The Heirs, in the proofs stage (where you’re merely supposed to fix typos and libelous errors)—and that was after some 10 previous drafts. But I’ve certainly never had the candor to show my readers my outtakes and agony, as Benedix does.
Is there room for another Holocaust memoir? Always. Beyond that, Ghost Writer is also a valuable guide for future memoirists and biographers.