Over the last week or so, the world of romance has been having a heated discussion over For Such A Time, a novel set in a concentration camp with a Nazi guard and a Jewish prisoner in the leading roles. I've been watching the saga unfold with growing horror and rage, and I'll be honest with you: I can't even bring myself to use my usual layer of insulating sarcasm in this post, because this situation reflects poorly on the Romance Writers of America as well as the entire editorial crew at Bethany House Publishers, all of whom should be deeply, deeply ashamed of themselves.
Let's start with the synopsis of the book:
In 1944, blond and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin feels abandoned by God when she is saved from a firing squad only to be handed over to a new enemy. Pressed into service by SS-Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the transit camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, she is able to hide behind the false identity of Stella Muller. However, in order to survive and maintain her cover as Aric's secretary, she is forced to stand by as her own people are sent to Auschwitz.
Suspecting her employer is a man of hidden depths and sympathies, Stella cautiously appeals to him on behalf of those in the camp. Aric's compassion gives her hope, and she finds herself battling a growing attraction for this man she knows she should despise as an enemy. Stella pours herself into her efforts to keep even some of the camp's prisoners safe, but she risks the revelation of her true identity with every attempt. When her bravery brings her to the point of the ultimate sacrifice, she has only her faith to lean upon. Perhaps God has placed her there for such a time as this, but how can she save her people when she is unable to save herself?
Setting aside the shudders of horror that run down my back when I hear the word "Jewess" used straight-facedly, the synopsis is trying to sell me a book in which a Jewish prisoner is "saved" by an SS Kommandant — as in fact some Jewish women were, primarily so they could be repeatedly raped, experimented upon, and abused. Next, the book presents us with what we're told is romance but really reads more like Stockholm Syndrome, and what the synopsis leaves out is that she converts to Christianity at the end of the story, which is a horrific kicker in an already appalling plot.
Author Kate Breslin identifies very specifically as a Christian writer, and conversion books aren't unusual in Christian inspirational literature — the theme of Jewish women in particular submitting to Christ is very common. This truly warped retelling of Esther was, she said: "Borne from a compassion for the Jewish people."
The novel has been nominated for a Christy, a Rita, and a Carol. The Christy and the Carol are genre awards for Christian fiction, and it is disappointing but not wholly unsurprised to see it on their finalist lists, especially given For Such A Time's sales in the Christian community, but the Rita is the most preeminent award in the romance community — the Oscar, if you will, of romance. It's a huge deal. Some 2,000 books are entered annually by authors and publishers before being run through a vigorous judging panel, after which finalists and finally winners are announced.
Any author or publisher can nominate a book for a Rita, but enough people at Romance Writers of America thought this book was appropriate that it made it into the finalist list. I can't speak to the quality of the writing or other features of this debut novel, because they're overshadowed by the theme, in which a completely horrific power dynamic taking place within the very real framework of one of the most awful genocides in recent history is positioned as romantic. The committee felt that making For Such A Time a finalist would "advance excellence" in the field.
Now, let's get something clear: I read a great deal of romance, I love romance, I work closely with lots of romance authors, and I have tremendous respect for the genre. I am absolutely not interested in engaging people who trash romance and its writers as a sweeping category of fiction that's clearly beneath them — though there's a conversation to have there about the inherent misogyny in telling women (because romance writers and writers heavily lean female) that books about sexuality and romance are "trash."
I usually read the Rita nominees and winners when I'm able to do so, which wasn't possible this year due to a number of demands on my time. And when I found out that this book had been nominated, I was frankly aghast, as were large numbers of romance authors and readers.
Sarah Wendell, an RWA member and member of the great team at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, wrote:
But the fact that this book was nominated in two categories is deeply hurtful, and I believe creates an environment where writers of faiths other than Christianity, not just Jewish writers, feel unwelcome. It certainly had that effect on me, because I don’t understand exactly how so many judges agreed that a book so offensive and insensitive was worthy of the RWA’s highest honor. But clearly enough did so, and the result for me as an RWA member is a feeling of distrust and pain, and concern that my reaction and feelings may not be heard.
In response to criticism, the RWA stated that it didn't want to "censor" content, apparently not understanding the difference between choosing not to issue awards to incredibly damaging and harmful novels and actively working to suppress the publication and distribution of given works of fiction. As an industry leader, the RWA has a duty of care to administer the Ritas responsibly, to do, in fact, as it says it does and to draw attention to excellence and accomplishments in the genre, rather than smearing itself and romance as a whole with the promotion of texts like this one.
To see any book suggesting that a dynamic between a Jewish prisoner and an SS official is somehow "romantic" is offensive, period, I don't care what the genre is. The Holocaust is a horrific legacy that we all live with, and will continue to live with. My grandfather was present at the liberation of Auschwitz and the stories he told — and the photographs he took — are seared into my memory, as are my conversations with concentration camp survivors, some of whom are still living today. The Holocaust was not that long ago. Members of my own community are Holocaust survivors, and I see them at schul when I attend memorial services for older members of the Jewish community — including, yes, Holocaust survivors.
One of the most enduring memories I have of my middle school years is that of a day when an Auschwitz survivor came into our class to talk about the Holocaust, as he did every single year. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him to deal with classes of seventh graders year after year after year, to be willing to expose himself like that to articulate how horrific this period in history was and how it mattered. When he started weeping, someone in the back of the classroom cracked a joke, and he stood up, grabbed the chalk, and scrawled "AUSCHWITZ" across the board so hard the chalk broke — and it was so deeply engraved in the chalkboard that it remained like a ghost for the rest of the semester, until the school finally replaced it.
This is what the Holocaust means to me. I see and know people directly touched by the Holocaust every day. I know people with survivors in their families and I know people who lost large chunks of their families to the gaping maw of the concentration camps. I have studied, extensively, Action T4, the prototype of Hitler's killing machine in which teams traveled Germany in mobile "euthanasia vans," killing disabled Germans and perfecting what later became one of the most ruthlessly efficient methods of dispatching millions of people — a minimum of 17 million, in fact, six million of whom were Jewish. New numbers suggest the real death toll may be even higher. I have also devoted hours of research to the connection between the American eugenics movement and the Third Reich, exploring our own culpability in the Holocaust, a subject that often goes undiscussed.
Few things are sacred to me: I have an extremely dark sense of humor and I am a boundary pusher. The Holocaust, however, is something I do not joke about. I do not find it funny, I do not find it romantic, I do not find it anything other than one of the most violently ugly acts of the worst side of humanity. To see a "romance" of this nature receiving critical praise and being nominated for awards is beyond nauseating.
I have been sitting with this since the discussion about For Such A Time started, really unable to articulate anything other than rage and grief. The Holocaust was not that long ago. It is not something to be played with, to be turned into a fairytale retelling, to be warped into inspirational fiction, and it never will be, but how devastating it must be for actual living breathing Holocaust survivors to be slapped in the face like this. The Holocaust was recent enough that we are still tracking down Nazis and bringing them to justice, and in this landscape, this book passed enough editorial controls that it was published. In this landscape, this book passed enough eyes to be approved as a finalist for a major award in its genre.
This is a really appalling illustration of social progress and lack thereof. I look at the decision to commemorate this book and all I can hear is Jay Frankston's voice echoing in my ears, shouting "AUSCHWITZ" as he writes so savagely on the blackboard, stunning the classroom into abrupt, awkward, seventh grade silence. If a classroom of seventh graders know when they've gone too far, it's not unreasonable to hold the RWA to the same standards.