There are several ways that an author comes to a story. You might read something that ignites your imagination; or you might hear a story from a friend, or learn a particularly fascinating segment of your own family history. But wherever the story comes from, there has to be something about it that touches you deeply and pushes you to engage. There has to be psychological and moral complexity and, best of all, sympathetic characters worth knowing who pull at your heartstrings — whether because of the situation in which they find themselves, or simply because you identify with their flaws and strengths — because they are, for better or worse, just like you.
The story of Milia Gottstein-Lasker and Darius Vidas in my new novel, The Enemy Beside Me, came to me while I was in the middle of a deserted Jerusalem street during Covid. There I was, taking a walk and minding my own business, when who should I see coming towards me but an old friend — Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the esteemed Nazi-hunter from the Israel branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. My husband and I had known Dr. Zuroff for decades. (In fact, his father had been the principal of my husband’s religious high school in Brooklyn.)
We hadn’t run into each other for quite some time, due to Covid restrictions and our busy schedules. But here he was, in front of me.
“How are you?” I asked.
His reply piqued my imagination, and it touched, horrified, and fascinated me in equal measure. I knew immediately it would make a powerful plot for a novel.
This is what Dr. Zuroff told me: He had been invited to give a lecture in Lithuania about the Holocaust. It is the country where his namesake had been murdered by Lithuanian partisans, a group that fought against Soviet forces. Ninety-six percent of Lithuanian Jews were murdered, the largest percentage of any country in Europe. The murders had begun even before the first Nazis set foot over the border, with non-Jews killing the Jewish neighbors who had lived peacefully beside them for six hundred years.
Dr. Zuroff’s efforts to get Lithuanian leaders to admit these simple historical facts had so far proved impossible: the country’s museums, educational institutions, and political leadership continued to falsify and distort the horrific events that had taken place in their country.
Dr. Zuroff encountered all kinds of excuses. For example, “We suffered just as much under the Communists, as the Jews did under Hitler.” As they pointed out, many Jews were, conveniently, Communists. Known as the double genocide theory, this infuriating falsification of history seeks to equate the Soviet takeover of Lithuanian businesses and farms, and the deportations and hardships suffered by the Lithuanian people under Stalin, with the mass murders and industrialized death machinery inflicted on the Jews under Hitler — the ultimate goal exemplified by this theory being the erasure of the Holocaust completely from the collective memory. These narratives threaten to destroy seventy years of Holocaust education in Europe.
For his efforts to fight this miseducation and bring Lithuanian criminals to justice, Dr. Zuroff was disliked by many. He was surprised, therefore, to have received an invitation from a bestselling Lithuanian novelist to be a keynote speaker at a conference focused on the Holocaust. This writer had braved the establishment in reaching out to him.
Despite his misgivings, he’d decided to go.
What happened during Dr. Zuroff’s conference truly required over four hundred pages to explain. The encounter with “the enemy” turned into a complex journey that led the novelist and Dr. Zuroff to co-author an amazing book setting the record straight on the Holocaust years in Lithuania. This project also helped the two to create a close relationship that blossomed into love, romance.
How had such a thing been possible?
Dr. Zuroff’s story touched on so many profound issues: What should our moral stance be toward the children and grandchildren of perpetrators? Could we, born after the war, hold them, also born after the war, accountable for things that had happened before they were born? On the other hand, how could we forgive and forget what had been done to our people? What guidelines were we to follow?
As the daughter-in-law of people who survived Auschwitz and Hungarian slave labor battalions, I’ve often felt ambivalent about purchasing German products. Not for me a Volkswagen or a Miele, a Bosch or a Siemens. Recently I came across a newly published English translation of a book of first person testimonies gathered from the few survivors of the Lithuanian Jewish community right after the war. Their words and stories were worse than anything I had yet encountered. And I had encountered quite a bit, not only through reading but also in listening to my family.
And here was Dr. Zuroff — a major figure in the movement to seek justice for Holocaust victims — falling in love with a Lithuanian. How had that been possible? And what did it mean for me and the others who struggle to come to terms with our responsibilities to honor our dead without letting the injustice of hatred destroy our moral character?
All these issues were floating in my mind as I created the Israeli Nazi hunter, Milia, and the Lithuanian professor, Darius, whose brief sojourn together in the book became my own journey. Slowly, I came to realize that we should not base our attitude today on past crimes, but on the crimes that continue to be committed. The Enemy Beside Me is not a book of history, but a book about the present and our place in it, as children of survivors living alongside the descendants of perpetrators.