Sisterhood Blog

Anthony Doerr's Fictional Journey Inside a Jewish Girls' Orphanage

By Elissa Strauss

  • Print
  • Share Share
anthonydoerr.com
Anthony Doerr, author of ‘Memory Wall’

In “Afterworld,” a novella that closes the new story collection “Memory Wall,” O. Henry Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr imagines life inside a Jewish girls’ orphanage during World War II. The novella tells the story of Esther, an epileptic grandmother in Geneva, Ohio, whose seizures bring her back to the time she spent in the orphanage.

Doerr spoke recently with Sisterhood contributor Elissa Strauss about the powerful inspiration for the piece, the universal appeal of Anne Frank’s diary, and the way made-up stories can preserve real-life events.

How did you come to set this story at a Jewish girl’s orphanage during WWII?

While doing research for another project, a novel I’ve been working on for years, I came across a deportation manifest with the names and birthdate of 13 girls on it. None was older than 16, and the youngest was under 5. All were sent to Auschwitz. I left the manifest pinned to a bulletin board in my office for over a year, and every now and then it would percolate back up in my thoughts. It wasn’t until I started reading about temporal lobe epilepsy, for yet another project, and the visions that some of its sufferers have, that I began to think: Maybe I can make fiction about these two things.

What was the research process like? What is it like to attach fiction to these meticulous war records?

Research for me is a big word that encompasses a lot of different activities, all of them based around curiosity. Research is traveling to places, or studying snowflakes with a magnifying glass, or excavating one’s memories. Research is walking around Hamburg with a notebook. The world is so fundamentally interesting that it makes me fall in love with it a dozen times a day.

Research is procrastination, too, though! You can read and read as a way to keep you from writing something that is hard to write. Here’s something amazing and absolutely horrifying from the Nuremberg Trials — I found this last week: “The removal from Ukraine of surplus agricultural products to provide the Reich with supplies is possible on condition that the internal consumption in Ukraine should be reduced to the minimum. This will be achieved through the following measures: 1. The destruction of the unnecessary mouths, and residents of big Ukrainian cities, such as Kiev, will be getting no food supplies at all; 2. Through cutting to the maximal food quota for Ukrainian urban dwellers…” “The destruction of excess mouths?” Are you kidding me? In three sentences they advocate mass murder and state-sponsored starvation, and all of it worded in that bureaucratic, mindless prose; it’s terrifying, really, when you realize: This was real.

At some point you have to tell yourself, I cannot make a story about the horror. I have to make a story about an individual, one life. That’s the power of fiction, that it can take the collective and make it personal.

The story, as do the others in the collection, deals with the fuzzy way memories are transmitted, and not transmitted, through the generations. In some ways Esther’s experience during the war lives on in through her grandson, who writes his college thesis on her. In other ways, her memories of the orphanage, along with the memory of all the orphan girls who did not survive the war, die with her. What role does fiction play in the transmission of memory?

A wonderful, amazing, impossible-to-answer question. I think fiction is important because it has the power to transport a reader into another life. You open a cover, read a few sentences, and there it is — you’re on a raft, floating down the Mississippi; or you’re riding a whaling ship through the South Seas; or you’re trapped in a dull marriage in the French countryside, and here comes a rakish, wealthy landowner named Rodolphe Boulanger to seduce you. When you’re falling into a good book, exactly as you might fall into a dream, a little conduit opens, a two-way, extra-dimensional tunnel between a reader’s heart and a writer’s, a passageway that transcends the barriers of continents, generations, and often even death. So in many ways, good fiction (and good memoir) is a way to allow memories to live again, inside the minds of readers.

Did the fact that these imagined events were based on real girls color the way you wrote the novella?

Yes. It made me much, much more afraid to get something wrong. If you’re writing a story about fishermen in Montana and you let a species of bird fly over them that hasn’t ever lived in Montana, you made a mistake, but it’s not ultimately a disrespectful one. But if you have a bunch of orphaned girls sitting around a table in Hamburg in a story, and they start eating Pop Tarts or something, then you have failed your readers because you have failed to meet a measure of respect due to those lives.

Have you read the diary of Anne Frank? Did you think about her experience in hiding as you wrote about the girls and teenagers crowded into the orphanage?

Oh, man, not only did I read her diary, but I read it when I was 14, the same age Anne was in 1945. That book absolutely redirected the way I understood the power of books and the magic of reading — the darkness, and the danger, and the little trembling packets of magic that are words. In those sentences, in those paragraphs, a murdered girl still lives.

And why? Because her story is absolutely anchored in detail: ordinary, quotidian detail. It wasn’t her occasional profundity that moved me: It was that she still dreamed of going upstairs with Peter and making out with him. It’s that they are in such desperate circumstances but they still laugh at the joke, “What makes 999 ticks followed by one tock? A millipede with a clubfoot.” It’s a bit uncomfortable, I suppose, to suggest that the diary of Anne Frank brought me pleasure, but it did. A pleasure in uncovering the magic of books, a magic that has transformed my personal geography, cultivated my sense of empathy, and cracked my heart wide open. A magic that turned me into an addict.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Anthony Doerr, Anne Frank, Afterworld

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.