'This Place Holds No Fear': Book Review

On Holocaust Memorial Day - exactly two weeks ago today - I was contacted by Haus Publishing, asking me if I would be interested in reading their latest publication. Released on Holocaust Memorial Day itself, 'This Place Holds No Fear' is the latest novel by Monika Held, a German freelance journalist. Having never heard of the author and intrigued by the synopsis, I accepted the offer straight away.

The story explores the relationship between Heiner, a survivor of Auschwitz, and Lena, a German interpreter. The two meet in the 1960s, during the Auschwitz trials being held in Frankfurt, and the narrative eventually takes the reader up to the mid-1990s. The novel conveys the struggles between the two, as Heiner allows his experiences in Auschwitz to shape his everyday life and Lena tries to cope with the shadow of the camp that is forever a part of their relationship. As well as the trials of Nazi defendants, the narrative is also set against the background of real historical events, such as the revolutionary events in Poland in the second half of the 20th century. At points it is unflinching in its description of events at Auschwitz; at other points, the reader is left to guess what the main characters might say or think.

Truth be told, I was somewhat apprehensive about the novel when I first read the blurb. Can anyone truly put a romantic relationship between a survivor and a non-survivor into a fictional novel? Going by this example, the answer is: yes. Held writes movingly, frankly and, at times, humorously, without detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter. The reader is invited into Heiner's imagination and flashbacks - sometimes, uncomfortably so - as well as being able to picture the journey that the couple take across Poland. 'This Place Holds No Fear' also touches upon important points about contemporary memorialisation of the Holocaust and of Auschwitz in particular; walking around Auschwitz I, for example, Lena is struck by a young woman sitting on the steps of a block, a bottle of beer between her knees, and the obscene amount of visitors in the camp's car park. As someone who is currently undertaking research into ethics of memorialisation and visitor experiences, this was particularly interesting to note.

What is perhaps more astonishing, however, is that Heiner and Lena are not totally fictitious characters. They are based on a couple that the author met some years ago, and many of the tensions portrayed in the book are based on real events. Heiner's constant - dare I call it - obsession with Auschwitz, at first, seemed to me to be somewhat unrealistic. Although the first encounter between Heiner and Lena takes place 20 years after the liberation of the camp, naively, I wasn't sure if a person would still live out experiences even as traumatic as imprisonment in a concentration camp every day by that point. The fact that Heiner is based on a real survivor, however, shows that this is indeed how some survivors lived - and are still living - with the horrors of their imprisonment on a daily basis. This certainly gives the reader an idea of just how difficult it would have been to survive in a place like Auschwitz.

Beautifully written and wholly immersive, I would certainly recommend 'This Place Holds No Fear'; you do not have to be an expert on the Holocaust or Auschwitz to appreciate its contents and the powerful messages of reconciliation, relationships and living with past memories that it contains.