by Danny M. Cohen
Early on in my debut novel, Train, teenagers Alexander and Marko make their way through the midnight shadows of Berlin to The Fountain of Fairy Tales in Friedrichshain Park. Statues of Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel, Gretel, and other familiar storybook characters surround the fountain and watch the teenage boys share a kiss. But this is no fairy tale. This is 1943 Germany and the Nazi machinery of deportation and mass-murder is ongoing.
In writing Train, I wanted to tell the hidden stories of Hitler’s often forgotten victims—the Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, political enemies of the regime. And I wanted to write a compelling story that would underscore how the policies and deliberate actions of the Nazi government shattered real lives.
Through the writing process, the story became a fast-paced thriller about love, rescue, and desperation. I found that I had to fight against the temptation to romanticize that history. I had to ensure not only historical accuracy but also historical authenticity. Because in war, and in the face of genocide, there are rarely happy endings.
A problem of mainstream Holocaust literature (and mainstream Holocaust film) is the trend to provide hopeful endings and tidy lessons. When we tell stories about already marginalized people—whether they are gay or disabled or Jewish or Roma—there’s a tendency to resort to simple, optimistic messages. Good against evil. The triumph of the oppressed. After all, don’t we need strong, resilient role models who can show us how to endure victimization and survive against all odds?
But history often tells a different tale. There are countless stories of suffering that died alongside the victims of atrocity. Too many stories—too many lives—ended before their time. Yet, although hidden, unhappy endings are woven into the foundations that hold up our rights today. Even devastating stories can give us collective and individual strength.
I was faced with a challenge. How could I engage my readers—and perhaps even empower them—while being brutally honest?
The answer, I think, may lie in what could have been.
We sometimes forget that, before the rise of Nazism, 1920s Germany was somewhat of a haven for same-sex love and sexual freedom. Women and men flocked to Berlin’s gay bars and cafés. German scientists argued in support of understanding homosexuality as natural. Activists collected signatures for petitions to overturn homophobic laws.
But when those bars and cafés were closed down, when the Nazis threw that groundbreaking research onto their bonfires, when Hitler’s government used those petitions to hunt and imprison homosexuals, a thriving community and progressive culture were destroyed.
Yet, throughout the Nazi era, women and women, and men and men, and girls and girls, and boys and boys continued—in secret—to fall in love, to dream, to plan their lives together. Some lesbians and gay men hid their identities by marrying one another. Some went into hiding. Some tried to escape Nazi-occupied Europe.
Hiding from Nazi soldiers, on a mattress in an abandoned wine cellar, Alexander and Marko review their plan to escape to London. They’ll find Alexander’s family. They’ll get a place of their own. Eventually, Alexander will study cartography. Marko will train as an engineer. In a few hours, they’ll have their false papers and train tickets out of Hitler’s capital. Before their attempt to escape begins to unravel, there is the hope and a real possibility of that sweet ending—one that we all wish for ourselves.
Do we need fairy tale endings? Yes, of course, but only when history allows.
Danny M. Cohen is a writer of human rights fiction. He’s also a learning scientist, education designer, and Holocaust scholar at Northwestern University. His debut novel, Train – a young adult thriller inspired by hidden history – is published in partnership with Unsilence Project. Born and raised in London, Danny now lives in Chicago with his husband and their daughter. Read more about his work here: www.dannymcohen.com and follow him on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/dannymauricecohen
Check out our interview with Danny, here!