Google remembered the liberation of Auschwitz today. For those who grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, Auschwitz is the edge of a remembered nightmare, a disaster our parents and grandparents witnessed and passed in their memories to us. My mother saw the newsreels of the liberation as a child and the images haunted her forever but some of my friends were even closer to the tragedy. One college friend’s great-aunt was a survivor of the camps and when I met the lady, I marveled that this happy cookie-jar of a woman had faced such evil and still lived so joyfully, dancing with a tattooed number on her arm. Another friend was the child of camp survivors who married after the liberation and their tenacity and PTSD were visible in her character. Auschwitz left a lifetime of suffering and long memories in its wake and those of us not directly affected have been trying to grasp the motives and magnitude of the Holocaust ever since. This is the role more and more of the world has moved into over the last seventy years and it’s a role William Styron talked about in his novel, Sophie’s Choice.
Styron understood the place of a third-hand witness to history better than most. Son of a liberal southerner, he grew up ashamed of the history of race treatment in the South. As a Marine officer who never saw combat, he also understood how the lucky boredom of his own military service had been paid for with the blood of others. A few years in New York after the war gave him the background to write of a young Southerner and perpetual witness to history and Sophie, the Polish, Catholic woman he meets who was pulled though the war into Auschwitz.
Sophie’s Choice is a novel for adults. The story is incredibly varied with beautifully written passages of great humor as well as sorrow, anger and Eros and the characters are layered and complex, especially Sophie. These individuals are human beings with strengths and failings, not cardboard cutouts who can be labelled “hero” or “villain” as need be and forgotten. Sophie is a lovely imperfect woman whose actions aren’t noble but they are understandable, given the circumstances and her survivor’s guilt is well-earned. Nathan is the brilliant, broken, American Jew who can’t reconcile the horrors of a war he never faced and his Gentile girlfriend survived while millions of others were murdered. Finally, Stingo is the witness trying to care for himself and his friends in an unbalanced, out-of-control existence. If the outcome of their story is inevitable, it’s still a difficult account to read because, thanks to Styron’s skill, these are people we care about.
There’s no easy explanation some of mankind’s history or for Styron’s novel but Sophie’s Choice wasn’t written to give people easy answers. Styron understood that we are, at best, complex, imperfect beings that need to be forgiven on a regular basis. Those lucky enough to be “third-person” witnesses have the responsibility to learn from the experiences of others, to forgive the failings of people we love and to embrace the potential in each new day. It’s a lot to do but a less difficult job than surviving a war. And it’s an easier alternative than Sophie’s Choice.