Our guest today is Helen Maryles Shankman whose stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Story Contest and earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition. Her stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Gargoyle, Cream City Review, 2 Bridges Review, Grift, Jewishfiction.
I wanted to pay tribute to my parents’ war experiences—and the experiences of the people who risked their lives to save them. As a writer, I was concerned that people might be tiring of World War II. My challenge was to make people feel the Holocaust—for the first time—all over again.
Using Family Stories to Write Historical Fiction
“So I jumped out of a tree, and I killed him with my knife.”
Anyone saying those words would have gotten my attention. The fact that they were being uttered by my mom’s friend, tiny, round, elderly Mr. Tenenbaum, sitting at my parents’ Passover Seder table, was what made them so extraordinary.
“What’s he talking about, Mom?” I asked her in the kitchen.
“Oh, just one of his stories. He was a partizan during the war,” she answered matter-of-factly.
For many years, whenever anyone asked me about myself, I would begin with, “My parents are Holocaust survivors.” My identity might have been forged by Dick and Jane, by “Bewitched” and “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” by the Viet Nam war on the news every night and the glorious Technicolor Sixties and Seventies, but it was also forged by my parents’ war traumas.
World War II took a terrible, invisible toll on my mother and father. For years, police, politicians, and neighbors persecuted them for their race and religion. Soldiers rounded up their friends and family and killed them. Half of their childhoods, they lived in various holes in the ground, praying that a passing hunter wouldn’t find their tracks and turn them in. The only constants were violence and upheaval. Long after the war was over, what took a terrible toll on them would take a terrible toll on us.
As a dreamy little girl, I wasn’t interested in my parents’ histories. I lost myself in books set in different times, in other places—1920s New York, Victorian England—running away inside my own mind. Mom and Dad’s childhood memories were so ruinously laced with evil that I wanted to shake them off, to forget them completely. World War II had been a long time ago. It was too grim, too gray, like old newspaper photographs.
But I couldn’t run away from my parents’ stories. As I grew up, I began to understand that they weren’t just memories that could be dismissed and forgotten; they were the origin stories for our own scarred and imperfect lives.
By then I was married, with children, and living in New York. I’d lived enough of my own American dream so that I could begin to look at my parents’ experiences with a storyteller’s eye.