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Arts & Culture Detective Writer Explores Holocaust As Way to Deal with Her Family’s Past

November 15, 2002
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Fans of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski detective novels are used to following Vic, the hard-edged but soft-hearted Chicago private investigator, unravel interlocking stories of white collar crime and corruption.

While there’s plenty of crime and corruption in “Total Recall,” the V.I. Warshawski novel recently released in paperback, there’s also something new: the story of Lotty Herschel’s flight from Austria on the eve of the war.

Lotty is a young Jewish child living in Vienna when Hitler rises to power. At 9 she’s able to flee to London through the Kindertransport — the British rescue mission that saved thousands of Jewish children just before war broke out. She’s haunted by memories of her family that died, and does her best to suppress them.

But while Lotty tries to forget her Holocaust memories, another character is desperately trying to remember his own. Paul Radbuka announces to a panel on Holocaust restitution that he had just discovered through memory-recovery therapy that he had been born Jewish, lived in the Terezin transit camp as an infant, was adopted by a non-Jew and raised as a gentile. Paul believes Lotty is a long-lost relative and begs to get to know her.

Lotty is not new to Paretsky’s readers. For 10 years, the graceful and hard-edged older woman has served as Vic’s emergency doctor, close friend and mentor.

But readers learned little of her past, because, it turns out, Paretsky had difficulty telling it.

Paretsky originally added Lotty’s character as someone who could patch up Vic’s frequent sleuthing-related injuries. But as she developed the character, Paretsky started to image her as a Holocaust refugee.

Many of Paretsky’s own ancestors had died in the Holocaust and she “began wanting to tell that story very urgently.”

But writing about Lotty’s past wasn’t easy — and it took her more than a decade to actually do it.

“I don’t know if I wasn’t mature enough as a writer or if I just wasn’t emotionally ready to take on the story,” said Paretsky.

Although Paretsky tried to weave it into the two previous V.I. Warshawski novels, she wasn’t able to find a way to make it work. Then the issue of Holocaust restitution catapulted to international headlines and gave Paretsky an idea of how to work it in.

But even then she hesitated.

“I didn’t want to be exploiting the Holocaust for financial gain,” she said. “I have something against taking it up and trying to titillate people with it. And so Lotty’s references are always very minimalist and spare because I think that’s the only way that you can do it as an outsider.”

Paretsky who herself is Jewish, made the character of Vic non-religious, with an Italian-Jewish mother and a Polish- Catholic father.

Paretsky grew up in eastern Kansas in the 1950s. Paretsky and her brothers were often the only Jewish kids at school.

Her parents were “quite aggressive atheists” but the family “went to Friday night services every week,” “observed all the holidays” and her brothers are B’nai Mitzvah, although Paretsky’s parents did not think it was appropriate for a girl to become a Bat Mitzvah.

The Holocaust was a large presence in Paretsky’s consciousness when she was growing up.

Her father “had so much Holocaust on the brain,” Paretsky said.

He had “guilt and anger and helplessness and all of his feelings that he passed on to me that I just couldn’t deal with it.”

“So I kind of walked away from it for a very long time,” she said.

Writing Lotty’s story became a way for Paretsky to connect with her family’s Holocaust experience, she said.

“She’s about as close I think as I can come to it in the sense that I put her in Austria instead of Eastern Europe. I don’t think I can get any closer to Eastern Europe,” she said.

Paretsky herself has “a hard time with organized religion” but recently has started to become more connected to Judaism to honor her great grandmothers who were killed in the Holocaust, and for whom she was named. She calls herself “privately religious” and observed Yom Kippur in honor of her grandmother’s mother, who was killed in the Vilna Ghetto.

Paretsky said that one idea that inspired “Total Recall” is the fallibility of memories, which she realized the night before her father’s funeral. While she and her family reminisced about her father with the family rabbi, she realized that each person had different, and even conflicting memories.

“The older I get the more I realize that memory is a very unreliable narrator,” she said. “What you know about your own life seems to be like walking on quicksand and yet you have to pretend its solid ground.”

The hardcover edition of Total Recall had the unlucky release date of September 11 of 2001, which affected its sales.

A small subplot of “Total Recall” has Vic’s boyfriend traveling to Afghanistan to write a book about the Taliban.

“People couldn’t believe how prescient I was,” she said. “Really it was just because I wanted to send Morrell away so that he wasn’t cluttering up the story.”

Paretsky had planned to put the Taliban in the center of her next book because of her desire to publicize the hardships of women who had been living under the Taliban.

The boyfriend “was going to have an exclusive interview with bin Laden and then give somebody who claimed to need asylum a ride back to the States. And this person would have turned out to be an Al-Qaida terrorist,” she said.

But now “I’m completely dropping it.”

Paretsky said she plans to write at least one more V.I. Warshawski novel. But she finds it hard to do so after finishing “Total Recall.”

“I felt that is was a complete story,” she said. “That one was kind of my most personal book.”

“It made it very hard to go back to work on another book in the series because in a way the book feels like that end. I feel like I’ve said everything I had to say.”

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