Speaking for the silenced

Writing from the perspective of the persecuted gives me the impetus I need for my novels

On April 19th, 1506, an anti-Semitic riot broke out in Lisbon, Portugal, led by Dominican priests shouting, ‘Death to the Jews!’ Churchgoers who followed the fanatical clergymen through the city ended up murdering some 2,000 New Christians – Portuguese Jews who’d been forcibly baptised in a mass conversion nine years earlier. Their bodies were dragged to the main square and burnt in two huge pyres.

I discovered this crime against humanity in 1990, while researching daily life in Lisbon during the Age of Exploration, but when I asked my Portuguese friends what they knew about the massacre, they all replied, ‘What massacre? What are you talking about?’

I soon discovered that this tragic event wasn’t included in standard reference works about the country’s history. Feeling outraged, I decided to make the Lisbon Massacre of 1506 – as historians refer to the riot – the background for the novel I was planning about a Jewish manuscript illuminator living in the Portuguese capital.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon ended up telling the story of Berekiah Zarco, a youthful New Christian who lives through the mass killing only to discover that his spiritual mentor – his beloved Uncle Abraham – has been murdered in the family cellar. While beset by grief, Berekiah decides to try to track down the man or woman responsible and seek revenge.

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But as a kabbalist interested in the symbolic significance of events, he grows equally focused on what his uncle’s murder and the massacre might mean for his family, the New Christians of Portugal, all of humanity and even for God. Berekiah offers the reader his own interpretation on the last page of the novel and his words give the narrative an unexpected and chilling significance.

Unfortunately, 24 American publishing houses turned my book down for publication. Most editors acknowledged that my storytelling was compelling and insightful but told my literary agent that a novel set in Portugal in 1506 had no chance of selling.

Their rejection letters left me depressed and disoriented.

By that time – 1994 – my long-time partner Alex and I had moved from Berkeley, California to Porto, Portugal, where I was teaching university journalism classes. I spent much of my free time in a haze of despair, wondering what I ought to do with my life, since I obviously wasn’t going to become a novelist. A crazy idea then saved me: why not show the manuscript to a Portuguese publisher?

To my astonishment, the first publisher to whom I sent the book admired my writing and proved eager to have it translated. Two weeks after it was released in April of 1996, I received another wonderful surprise: The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon reached number one on the bestseller list. And so my career as a writer began in a unique way, with my first novel published originally in a foreign language. The book has now been translated into 23 languages and been a bestseller in 12 countries.

More important than the novel’s commercial success, however, is what it taught me: that I cherish the chance to write about people whose voices have been systematically silenced, especially those – like the murdered New Christians – who will never have the chance to tell their own story. Indeed, over the past 25 years, I’ve discovered that writing from the perspective of people who have been persecuted, brutalised and forgotten gives me the impetus – and slow burn of anger – that I need to keep me going over the two to four years it takes me to tell their stories as accurately and insightfully as I can.

After the success of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, I decided to write about different branches and generations of the Zarco family that I introduced in that first book. The four novels in this series are Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, The Seventh Gate and my just-released work, The Incandescent Threads. My aim has been to create what I call my Sephardic Cycle, a series of independent novels that explore the lives of men and women in the Jewish Sephardic diaspora. I think of this series of works as a parallel universe that readers can enter through any of the individual novels.

The Incandescent Threads explores the lives of two charismatic cousins from Warsaw – Benni and Shelly Zarco, the only Holocaust survivors in their family – and how they remake their lives after the end of the second World War. I especially wanted to focus on how a great many survivors only rarely spoke to their spouses and children about their suffering in the ghettos and camps, a subject I learned about as a boy because I grew up with neighbours – a couple from Budapest – who’d been imprisoned in Auschwitz but who refused to discuss their experiences, even with their children.

In my novel, Benni survives by hiding for nearly a year in the home of a kind-hearted Christian piano teacher named Ewa. After the Allied victory, he emigrates to New York, becomes a tailor and marries a talented flautist. He suppresses his past as best he can, though he is often crushed by guilt, since he can’t understand how he survived while his parents and so many others didn’t. While searching for answers, he comes to believe in what he calls ‘Incandescent Threads’ – nearly invisible filaments that link everything in the universe across space and time. But his mystical beliefs are tested when the birth of his son brings the ghosts of his past to his doorstep.

Meanwhile, Shelly – devastatingly handsome, charming and exuberantly bisexual – comes to believe that sex is his only escape and takes every opportunity to indulge his desires. That is, until he begins a relationship with a profoundly traumatised Canadian soldier and artist who helped to liberate Bergen-Belsen – and who might have spoken there with Benni’s mother just before she passed away.

To research the novel, I watched dozens of online interviews with Holocaust survivors. As I listened to their testimonies, I was struck time and time again that even seemingly small actions can have a life-changing effect on us and our loved ones. After all, many survivors credit friends who shared bread or soup with them, or who explained to them the absurd and cruel rules of camp life, as having saved them from certain death. As Ewa says when considering how she hid Benni from the Nazis, thereby enabling him to grow into manhood, marry and have a son, ‘Maybe none of us is ever aware of our true significance.’

To explore the ‘true significance’ of Benni and Shelly, I chose an unusual structure for the novel: six long chapters written by five different narrators, all of whom had their lives deeply influenced by the cousins. Benni’s son Ethan writes the first and last of these narratives and, toward the end of the book, he discovers how a secret tradition in the family begun in the 16th century by their illustrious ancestor Berekiah Zarco – the narrator of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon – helped save both his father and Shelly, demonstrating that our actions may have profound effects decades and even centuries later.

I was recently reminded of the importance of writing about the courage of individuals like Benni and Shelly when I learned of the death of the father of Elizabeth Rosner, one of my oldest friends. His name was Carl Rosner, and he spent a year in Buchenwald as a boy. During my tearful phone conversation with Elizabeth, I realised – with a feeling of despair in my gut – that in another decade, nearly everyone like her dad – those with direct experience of the Nazis’ plans to murder every last European Jew – will be dead.

Are we destined to live in a world in which only a small minority of people will be able to speak intelligently about the Holocaust? Already, surveys reveal that two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 34 have no idea what Auschwitz was. And that ignorance terrifies me. Because those who have no knowledge of the extermination camps might very well prove all to ready to start them up again.

The Incandescent Threads by Richard Zimler is published by Parthian Books. The author’s website is: zimler.com