Note: As stated under the Source (above), I received this book for free from Little, Brown & Co via NetGalley. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.
Review: Truth be told, I thought I was a little burnt out on World War II historical fiction. I’ve just read so many in the past few years, and at some point, there started to be too many similarities. I felt like I wasn’t gleaning anything new. But Mischling is a definite exception. Before now, I’d heard of Josef Mengele and knew he had committed horrific atrocities against Jewish prisoners at the concentration camps, grotesque medical experiments on both adults and children, but the details of that particular history were unknown to me.
Mischling is written from the perspective of a pair of Jewish twins, Pearl and Stasha, whose parents leave them with Mengele at “the Zoo”, believing his lies that they will be safer there than as prisoners in the concentration camp they are sure to find themselves in eventually. The girls believe that the arrangement is temporary, that they are being saved because they are special, that being there means their parents will also be kept safe, and eventually they will all be reunited.
It’s true that Mengele regards them as special. He has a particular interest in multiples (twins, triplets, etc.), as is often the case with medical professionals who engage in experiments. But also, he is interested in those who are Jewish but exhibit characteristics the Nazi’s consider Aryan – blonde hair, blue eyes, etc. It was assumed that those who exhibited these characteristics couldn’t be purely Jewish, that they had to have mixed heritage. The German word for someone with mixed-blood is mischling. Twins that were also mischling (or assumed to be) were highly desirable to Mengele, and so, unfortunately, Pearl and Stasha were truly precious to him. Being precious to Mengele comes with some minor advantages, but offers no protection from the violations he commits against those in his “care”. The horrors that Pearl and Stasha suffer, along with all of the others in “the Zoo”, are beyond imagining. His depravity is the kind that most people couldn’t begin to comprehend. But the girls have good instincts for survival. They make friends with others in Mengele’s menagerie. And they do their best to get through it all, by whatever means they find necessary at the time.
In the midst of reading this book, I came across a review, and for some reason, it struck me in such a way that, in all the weeks that have passed since I finished the book, I can’t stop thinking about my reading experience in light of theirs. In a nutshell, that reader found the book to be horrific, calling it pain porn, finding the narrative to be too appalling to have any value. I disagree wholeheartedly.
The author was straightforward about the few experiments she did mention. The descriptions were relatively short, infrequent, and almost clinical. There were no elaborate and dramatic scenes of torture. And that’s because the book wasn’t as much about what Mengele did as it was about how what he did affected his victims, how those victims found a way to survive, mentally, what they had to withstand physically, how they found a way to hold onto hope when there was no apparent reason to, how in trying times, in the absence of family, you can build a new family, family that leans on each other and helps each other to get through the worst of it. This book was not about the infliction of pain, it was about surviving it.
I say all this because some people might read a similar review and be turned away from this book, and I think that would be a great loss. This is a book worth reading. It offers a unique perspective on the atrocities of World War II, shining light on a monster that hasn’t been as present in historical fiction as he should, and more importantly, it is a beautiful – if painful – story about love, hope, family, and survival.
I can’t recommend it enough.
And if you need more encouragement…