“Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past.
Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.
It’s 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.
As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele’s Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.
That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks — a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin — travel through Poland’s devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.
A superbly crafted story, told in a voice as exquisite as it is boundlessly original, Mischling defies every expectation, traversing one of the darkest moments in human history to show us the way toward ethereal beauty, moral reckoning, and soaring hope.”
My Thoughts: Mischling is as dark as you can imagine given its subject matter, making it a very difficult read at times. Ms. Konar is never explicit in her descriptions, and many of Mengele’s experiments occur offstage. In many ways, this makes it worse. Not only does your imagination fill in the blanks for you, but when Pearl or Stasha do mention the damage wrought by Mengele, it is done with such innocence that the horror of what they experience hits you like a bolt of lightning.
What ultimately saves the story is their innocence. No matter what tortures they face, Pearl and Stasha maintain their faith in each other and in a better world filled with love. They never lose the childlike innocence, which is both a marvel and a tragedy given what they face in the camp. Their connection to each other is the stuff of legends, and one can understand why doctors would be interested in their bond – even if Mengele’s methods of studying such things are downright depraved. The true beauty lies in their relationships to their fellow Zoo inmates, the willingness to endanger themselves for others, and the protection they afford one another when things get truly bad.
We have all heard about conditions at Auschwitz for the general population, so viewing the camp from the relative protection of Mengele’s Zoo is a unique and chilling experience. The nonchalance with which the girls reference the constant “snow”, the crematorium ovens, guard cruelty, random violence, starvation, and the sadistic arrival procedures for new prisoners is difficult to stomach at times. On the one hand, one can view it as a coping mechanism; when surrounded by such constant death and despair, there is no doubt that fatalism sets in at some point in time. At other times though, there is a tinge of smugness in the descriptions, as if Pearl and Stasha are taking pleasure in their relative safety as one of Mengele’s pets. It is a disturbing glimpse into the psychological trauma occurring because of the close proximity to daily death and torture.
In spite of its horribleness, there is something profoundly beautiful about Mischling. The language itself is breathtakingly beautiful, bordering on poetic. Ms. Konar balances the dark with the light, following a sentence filled with horror with one that is simple and filled with hope. The language demands to be savored and absorbed, even while one wants to skim over the passages that highlight the experiments or the aftermath of them. Mischling is not a novel that one races to finish. It is not even the type of novel one particularly enjoys reading, but what you receive from it is worth every painstaking second.