How much should we explain to the reader? This is a question that comes up a lot. In fact, it comes up every single time we write. Writing is a series of decisions of what to explain to the reader, what not to, what leaps and associations we believe the reader can take, should take, or might not be able to take (but do they need to?). It happens, on some level, with every word. Each word in our work is a kind of bet—which readers will recognize what we are trying to do, and which will not? And when that word combines with the next, and spreads its reach into reference or metaphor or anything beyond the basic and denotative, we make an even bigger bet.
I’d been wandering for the better part of two hours through the outskirts of Lviv, or Lvov, or Lemberg or Lwów—it was hard to know what to call this city, given how many countries and empires had conquered, reconquered, occupied, reoccupied, or otherwise staked claim to it—looking for a concentration camp called Janowska, where upwards of 200,000 Jews, including, possibly, my grandmother’s older brother, Pinchas, had been worked to death or shot, unless they’d somehow survived all that and been put on a train to Belzec where they were taken care of once and for all.
One Sunday at work, in the middle of a series of lectures and panels–a day-long affair with no planned bathroom or coffee breaks–a man stands up. He does so while I am moving a lectern across the stage, and I think recognize him, even before he begins speaking, as someone who lives under the weight of New York City’s constant renovation, someone whose patterns have long ago been papered over. At the institution I work for, a Jewish archive and library whose existence spans nearly a century and two continents, people like this come all the time, or call on the phone. They’ve woken up and started looking, desperately, for places they’ve lost.
I am 43 years old. I am Jewish. I wrote a novel about the Holocaust. I grew up in a synagogue headed by an Auschwitz survivor and by his wife, also an Auschwitz survivor. I have taught my students work by Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Charlotte Delbo. But until this month, I had never read the diary of Anne Frank.