Dark Rememberings

Shira Nayman, the author of Awake in the Dark, plumbs the secrets of World War II Germany to craft haunting present-day tales

book cover

Awake in the Dark: Stories
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by Shira Nayman
304 pages

On her deathbed, a mother tells her daughter of a specific street address in Heidelberg, Germany, where the family lived before immigrating to New York during World War II. The information comes as a surprise to the daughter, now in her forties, for whom much of her childhood in Germany is a mysterious pastiche of memories that her mother has never been willing to discuss. Of her past, she knows only that her father was killed in the early years of the war while fighting for the Third Reich. But she senses that there is something about this address—on a street called Kronenstrasse—that can tell her more. Her decision to return leads her to a shocking discovery.

This story, “The House on Kronenstrasse,” which opens Shira Nayman’s debut collection Awake in the Dark (Scribner), was first published in The Atlantic Monthly’s 2005 fiction issue. Like the other stories in the collection, it is all at once a journey of self-discovery and a haunting excursion into the past. Each of Nayman’s protagonists is the daughter of German or Polish parents—some Jewish, some not—who lived through the Holocaust, and the collection as a whole contemplates the effects of this particular history on the identity of future generations.

Each story is a literary page-turner with a classic O’Henry twist. One story deals with a daughter’s grief over the loss of a mother whom she didn’t know was Jewish until the moment of her death. Then, jumping into the past, the story reveals this mother as a young woman, planning her escape from an abusive Nazi officer who has employed her in his home. In the collection’s novella, a psychiatrist, who has been told nothing of her own father’s past as a Holocaust victim, treats a Hasidic woman who has been traumatized in part by the early stories she heard of her father’s suffering during the Holocaust. As each story unfolds, revelations from both the past and the present come to light.

Nayman’s interest in the effects of the Holocaust is threefold. In addition to a personal interest—she is Jewish and grew up in a community in Australia populated largely by Holocaust survivors—she also has a fascination with history, particularly with what she refers to as the “ironies” of the Holocaust—the many instances in which aspects of German culture that had been created by Jews were turned against them. And finally, in her years as a practicing psychologist she has developed a clinical interest in the effects of both personal and historical trauma.

For now, Nayman has put her clinical hat aside, using her background in psychology to understand the motivations of her characters. In addition to The Atlantic, Nayman’s stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, New England Review, and Boulevard. She is the recipient of two grants from the Australia Council for the Arts Literature Board, and she is working on both another collection of stories and a novel. She presently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. I spoke with her over a cup of coffee in a small café at the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington, on October 13, where she was giving a reading from Awake in the Dark that afternoon.

Jessica Murphy

Author photo
Shira Nayman
(Photo by Joyce Ravid)

Like “The House on Kronenstrasse,” the story that was published in The Atlantic's first fiction issue, all the stories in this collection are about the impact of the Holocaust on future generations. How did this subject matter become of interest to you?

I had always been interested in the subject. But while I was living in Mexico two years ago I read an extraordinary book by Amos Elon called The Pity of It All: A History of the German-Jews 1743-1933. It’s an amazing work and really quite beautifully written. It’s all about German-Jewish identity during that period. In a lot of ways, the Jews in Germany were even more German than the Germans themselves. They were pillars of German culture. So when Germany became murderous toward them it was actually sort of suicidal; the culture ended up losing a lot of its own heart and soul.

Embedded in the book are lots of intriguing little anecdotes and footnotes that bespeak some extraordinary ironies. For example, it was a Jewish man named Fritz Haber who developed a kind of a gas that was instrumental in Germany’s successes in World War I. Well, the methods used to make that gas eventually ended up being used in the gas chambers. And it was developed by a Jew! By the time I had finished reading the book, I had marked up the whole back cover with ideas for about twenty-five short stories. I decided in this volume to include all the ones that had a similar emotional resonance—themes involving mother and daughter and confused identity. My plan is that the second one will be much more grounded in historical fact and peopled with important historical figures.

Do you have a personal connection to the subject matter in addition to an historical interest?

I do. The personal connection is that the community where I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, was made up largely of Holocaust survivors. My own family history is that my grandparents fled Poland and Lithuania between 1910 and 1920, during the very last pogroms against Jews, and they ended up in South Africa. But pretty much all of my friends’ parents had been through the Holocaust. They had numbers tattooed on their arms and a lot of their family members had been wiped out.

The struggle to understand identity seems to be crucial throughout each of the stories. There are some characters who want to hide their identities and their firsthand experiences with Nazi Germany, and then there are some in the younger generation who really want to find out about their families’ pasts. In one story, a character asks whether a parent has the right to make a complete secret of the past. To what extent were you thinking about historical identity and the question of who owns identity as you were writing these stories?

For me, it’s critical to at least raise the issue of confronting historical trauma rather than ignoring it or putting it aside. Maybe it has something to do with my training as a psychologist, but I think there’s a lot of pain associated with a failure to confront past trauma. As painful as confrontation is, it can result in resolution and change. If something isn’t confronted it becomes a perpetual stumbling block. In psychological theory, people talk about a compulsive sort of reenactment over and over again of the unresolved issue. I think that can hold true for historical traumas as well as personal, individual ones.

That said, the healthiest character in the collection is the one who never even becomes aware of the trauma in her family’s past. Then there’s the father who tells his innocent little five-year-old child all about his horrendous suffering. You might think maybe he shouldn’t have done that. But he couldn’t help it. By contrast, another father in the collection zips his lips and won’t utter a word about his traumatic experiences. People cope the best they can.

I find it interesting that you have both a Masters in comparative literature and training as a psychologist. How does this dual training affect how you approach your characters?

I’m very intrigued by human motivation. To my mind, psychology and literature are closely related. In the one case I’m trying to help someone change their life, in the other I have the freedom to just explore whatever I want, but in both I’m trying to understand the nature of human experience and what the boundaries are.

When you’re a psychotherapist, a patient walks into your office and you study everything about them. You observe their body language—whether they pick their nails or pull off their wedding ring when they talk about their husband, and so on. These are all things that you’re trained to read and engage with. Then you try to gradually unravel the source of their conflict or pain and figure out what’s tripping them up. You’re really unraveling a mystery. For me, writing a story is a similar process of unraveling clues and making a coherent narrative out of various disparate elements.

Your stories all seem to have a certain central question, or what might be considered a puzzle. The puzzles often have to do with identity, or memory, and there’s usually a surprising missing piece that’s revealed somewhere toward the end. Reading them together, they reminded me a bit of O. Henry stories with their unexpected twists. I know that some writers have their stories’ endings already in mind before they start writing, whereas others just sort of write their way to wherever their story ends up. I was wondering which category you fall into.

When I start writing I haven’t got a clue where I’m going to end up. Not a clue. I have a lot of faith in myself and in the unconscious, though, so I just keep writing even when I’m perplexed by where things are going. I just try to figure out how to piece together the seemingly incongruous elements. I do sometimes end up kicking myself and asking, “Why on earth did you do this complicated thing, this complicated setup?” But usually I figure out some way to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

I’d love to talk about time in your stories. Each of your stories has two narratives that vacillate between the present and the past. Most are set partly in contemporary U.S. society and partly in war-torn Germany. It’s like there’s sort of a call and response between present and past. The present asks the questions, and then sometimes the past answers it and moves the story forward. Why did you structure your stories in this way?

A lot of the decisions one makes as a writer are conscious, but then there are some that are unconscious. In the case of this book I only made two conscious decisions as far as structure was concerned. The first was to tell all the stories in the first person present. And the second was to have all the central characters have that voice, so that both the mothers’ and the daughters’ perspectives would be written in first person present. Those characters’ stories came at me with such urgency that I wanted the reader to feel it too. I wanted the readers to feel that these things are happening to them, and that it’s taking place right now. So even if it’s set in the past, it has a feeling of immediacy. I wanted to eradicate the distance.

Could you explain the significance of the Henrich Heine folksong that you use as the epigraph?

Henrich Heine was perhaps the most famous and beloved poet in all of German history. He was Jewish and lived in the 1800s. “Die Lorelei” is a very famous German poem that he wrote. All the schoolchildren learn it, and it’s even been put to music by Liszt. When the Nazis came to power they wanted to eradicate it. But “Die Lorelei” was so much a part of German culture they couldn’t bear to do it. So what they did instead was they attributed it to “Anonymous.” So the German Hitler youth would sing “Die Lorelei,” and here it is written by a Jew!

In October, at the Brooklyn Historical Society, your stories were set to music by the composer Ben Moore and were made into a musical and theatrical performance. How did that come about?

There was a young woman at Scribner—a publicist—who was also a very serious French horn player. When she read the book, she said she had such a visceral, emotional reaction that it went to the same part of her soul that her music comes from. She said she felt that this book should be put to music. Everyone said, “Well, great idea, but, what planet do you live on? We’re a publishing company!” But the head of publicity there is this visionary woman who’s open to anything, and she said, “That’s a great idea, let’s think about it.” People thought she was nuts. But then I said, “You know, one of my best friends is a magnificent composer. Let me sit with him, and we’ll talk about it.” And we did. He agreed straight away. He’s a Catholic boy—he has nothing Jewish in him at all. But we’ve been friends for a very long time, and we’ve been through a lot together, and although we’re very, very different people, artistically we’re kind of brother and sister.

He got off the subway one day, and the opening overture of the melody just came to him. It was very exciting. He called me straight away and he came to my house and played it. I was just…crying, because he had taken the emotions and somehow turned them into music. So then I wrote a twenty-page document where I broke down every element of each story. I explained the textures and undertones—what are the battles, what are the struggles, where is the hope, where is the despair. It was sort of an instruction manual for creating music that would express those nuances. He took that and turned it into a full-length piece of chamber music. It’s a forty-minute work for piano, clarinet, and violin.

Then we worked with this director, Jimmy Bohr, who selected monologues from the stories to be performed by an actress named Andrea Masters. It was extraordinary. The music interweaves with the monologues. It was very carefully orchestrated. We spent six months working on it. It was pure devotion to art—there was no money involved; no one got paid. It was just for the sheer love and belief in the project and the love of the work.

I read somewhere that you said that yours was a “forbidding muse.” And regardless of whether people are categorizing this collection as a Holocaust book or a book about human brutality, it’s certainly weighty, heavy stuff. I would imagine it was in some ways a daunting task, and a hard place to live for a long period of time.

It was extremely hard. When these stories came at me, I was busy doing other things. I was very frantic about finishing a novel that I’m very close to having finished, and I really wanted to get on with that. But this thing kept coming at me, and I kept pushing it away. Finally, with a heavy heart, I put the other book aside and I set down to do this one. At the time I remember feeling—and I know this sounds self-congratulatory, though I don’t mean it that way—but I felt like it was an act of generosity on my part because I really didn’t want to deal with all this heaviness.

We’ve all read about the Holocaust, but it seems that there’s always new and horrifying information to blow your mind.

I can tell you one that could really blow your mind. This is from Amos Elon’s book. In World War I, Jews were allowed to serve in the army as officers for the first time, and they were very joyous about that because it seemed that finally the anti-Semitism of the past was being broken down. There was an officer named Gutmann. He was a very good, kind man. His battalion was in a battle where they showed a lot of bravery, so he wanted to nominate them for the Iron Cross. But one of his men had been a coward. He was a very unpleasant soldier and everyone hated him. But Gutmann didn’t want to give everyone an Iron Cross except this one soldier. So he asked his commander if the problematic soldier could get the Iron Cross anyway. The commander said, “Absolutely not! That soldier will not get a medal, because I’ve heard about him and his deplorable behavior.” But this kindly officer really appealed to the commander, and managed to convince him not to leave this one soldier out. So in the end, they’re all awarded the Iron Cross, and at the ceremony Gutmann goes from soldier to soldier, pinning the medals on their chests himself. Well, that soldier was Adolph Hitler. And it was Gutmann, the Jew, who pinned the medal to his chest. And because Hitler had that that Iron Cross, later on, when he was agitating for power, people thought, “Well, he seems pretty crazy, but he must have done something right, because look at that Iron Cross.”

To me, those quirks of history are just so mind-boggling. I feel like I have to devote my life to exploring them.