My forthcoming novel, The Vanishing (released Sept. 29 by Library Tales Publishing), is—it’s strange and a little uncomfortable to say—a Holocaust fantasy.
Since the book has gone out to early reviewers, I’ve been confronted by tough questions: Is this even OK? Is the mere idea offensive? Insulting? Exploitative?
I’m happy to share that, thus far, reactions to The Vanishing—the story of Sophie Siegel, an 11-year-old girl in Nazi Germany who turns invisible after witnessing a horrific murder—have been overwhelmingly positive. Reviewers, some of whom profess to have consumed volumes of novels on the subject, have written that it’s among the best they’ve ever read. It has been praised by Holocaust authors, professors, professionals, and six National Jewish Book Award winners. We’re having discussions with several Hollywood producers.
But I know there will be those who hate it.
One Jewish author deplored The Vanishing for distorting the truth. (The entire book takes place in Germany, where I invented, in service of efficient storytelling, Sophie’s hometown, ghetto, camp and woods.) She called to tell me just how much she deplored it, in great detail. But the best fantasy, in my view, distorts reality to clarify it. As the great Vietnam War novelist, Tim O’Brien, tells us: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
The Vanishing employs magical realism, a fantasy-adjacent style that doesn’t depict magical other worlds, but rather a magical version of this one. Sophie’s invisibility allows her to witness nearly all the myriad horrors of the Holocaust in a way no one person ever could have, letting the reader do so with her. Her invisibility gives her a gravitas that, paradoxically, makes her both less and more human.
So does all of this make it OK to write a Holocaust fantasy? Ultimately, you’ll have to decide that for yourself.
About me: When I’m not writing, I’m a middle school teacher here in Reno. I’ve written nearly 30 books for children, teens and adults. My picture books include Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus and The Boy & the Book; my early chapter book series include The Super Doopers and Mysterious Monsters, which is in development for an animation series; my books for teens include Sparks, and the Forbidden Books Series. My nonfiction includes We’re Doing It Wrong: 25 Ideas in Education That Just Don’t Work—And How to Fix Them, and Wingnuts: A Field Guide to Everyday Extremism in America. You can learn more about my work at www.davidmichaelslater.com.
Here is an excerpt from The Vanishing.
Frau Volker was a short, stout woman in her 50s with unstyled hair and a penchant for wearing brown, shapeless dresses. She had a stern demeanor, and was generally strict with her students, but she wasn’t altogether humorless. And while she was quick to correct and criticize if she thought it necessary, she wasn’t stingy about doling out a compliment when it was warranted.
Today, for Sophie, it was warranted.
The incident outside was forgotten. The stars were forgotten. Even Giddy was forgotten. To Sophie, sitting in her hard seat, the only thing that existed in the world right now was the chalkboard waiting for her name.
Frau Volker swiped her hands down her ruddy cheeks the way she always did. It was an odd but harmless habit her pupils enjoyed. “Good morning, class,” she said.
“Good morning!” the entire class said back, swiping their hands down their own cheeks, a gentle tease they never missed a chance to administer—the entire class, minus Sophie, who was staring at the Triangle of Superior Students.
“Please stand to practice saluting our Führer,” said Frau Volker.
The chairs slid back, Sophie’s a second or two later. But she stood up with everyone else, and with everyone else, shot out her right arm, straight from her neck, with her hand flat and fingers extended, then called out, “Heil Hitler!” Only, she didn’t say it. Her lips had formed the words, but her voice would not pronounce them the way they had every single morning since she’d come to Ortschaft.
“Again,” said Frau Volker, who was a stickler. “With more oomph, please.”
“Heil Hitler!” the kids yelled, trying to outdo one another.
Sophie tried again, but again, made no sound. Panicking, she looked to see if Frau Volker saw. Her teacher’s daunting blue eyes were aimed right at her, but her normally severe face was a blank slate.
“Again,” said Frau Volker. “With pride!”
Sophie tried so hard this time that she felt her face turn hot red. Her eyes watered, but no sound emerged. She tried to sneak a look to her right to see if Bruna Muller, the flaxen-haired girl she shared her long wooden desk with, had noticed her difficulty. Bruna was looking straight ahead, at the Nazi banner above the board at the front of the class.
“Please take your seats,” said Frau Volker, sitting down at her desk.
The 30 students all sat down in their wooden chairs and slid them forward. The scraping, like the crunching of the snow on Judenstrasse, sounded too loud in Sophie’s ears.
Sophie took a deep breath. It was time for the Top Students to be updated. Frau Volker would do it before saying another word. Even if there was no change to the names or their arrangement, she would go to the pyramid, erase them anyway, and put them back up. Everyone had to earn their recognition every day.
But Frau Volker didn’t get up. She swiped her hands down her cheeks. Stifling their snickers, the class did the same. When Frau Volker swiped her hands down her cheeks again, the class, outright giggling now, did the same.
Frau Volker normally reacted to the mimicry with a good-natured shrug, but she didn’t even seem aware of it now. She seemed distracted. Sophie’s heart began to pound when she reached out and picked up a piece of chalk from the little wooden box on her desk. She tapped it on the desktop.
Sophie could hardly breathe.
Just then, someone knocked on the classroom door, which opened without invitation. Fraulein Werner, the school secretary, came into the room pushing a projector on a rolling cart. Excitement spread through the class. It was very rare that they got to see any sort of film.
“Children!” said Frau Volker, brightening up, “I almost forgot. We have a treat this morning.” She got to her feet, then pulled down a screen that was attached to the wall behind her desk.
“What is it, Frau Volker?” a girl asked. It was Ilsa. “What will we see?”
“Children,” said Frau Volker, making her way to the back of the classroom, “this morning we are blessed to see and hear from the greatest man in the world, our Führer, Adolf Hitler.”
When Fraulein Werner left the room, Frau Volker explained to the delighted class that they’d be watching the Führer’s most famous speech, and that it would inspire within them everlasting devotion to him and to the Fatherland. Sophie scarcely heard any of this. She was too upset that the chalking had been interrupted before it had even started. What if they skipped it today and her grades fell before tomorrow?
Frau Volker turned the classroom lights off and switched the projector on.
A black and white image of Adolf Hitler appeared. He was approaching a podium standing between two others. Three larger ones were on a higher level behind him, all with uniformed men standing at them. There were even more men standing to both sides of the plat-forms.
For a moment, the film showed an auditorium packed with men in uniform, then it returned to the podiums. On the wall behind them hung a hulking eagle clutching a swastika in a circle that seemed to be emanating beams of light in all directions. Adolf Hitler, wearing a tie under a long, side-buttoned coat, began to speak.
Sophie turned her attention back to the Triangle on the chalkboard, which she could still see unchanged in the projector’s flickering light.
Abruptly, her attention was recaptured when she heard the word Jew, spat out like something foul. She saw Hitler actually spitting as he ranted and raved, “The peoples of the earth will soon realize that Germany under National Socialism does not desire the enmity of other peoples. I want once again to be a prophet. If the international finance Jewry inside and outside of Europe should succeed in plunging the peoples of the earth once again into a world war, the result will not be a Bolshevization of the earth and thus a Jewish victory—” Sophie didn’t much understand any of this, but then Hitler, pointing repeatedly at his podium, proclaimed, “but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”
With that, the projector was switched off, and the lights switched on. Sophie looked around at her class-mates, all of whom were in awe as they clapped and clapped and clapped. Someone began cheering, and then everyone joined in.
But Sophie’s eyes were fixed on Frau Volker making her way back to her desk.
The students began to settle down. It was finally time for the chalking.
Frau Volker stopped at her desk and turned to face the class. She ran her hands down her cheeks. The class did the same. She sighed. Then she turned and approached the portion of the board where the Pyramid of Top Students was chalked, at the far-right side of the room. She stood, her broad back to the class, and sighed again. Sophie, once more, could hardly breathe.
Frau Volker took up an eraser from the board ledge and carefully wiped away the names in the pyramid. First, she erased the third Top Student: Gunter Schulte. Sophie, feeling a tingling running up and down her spine, assumed his name would not go back up. Next, Frau Volker erased the second Top Student: Bruna Muller, Sophie’s deskmate. And then the former Top Student’s name turned to dust: Otto Huber.
The class was hushed now, waiting to see if there were any changes today. Frau Volker wrote Otto Huber on the third line.
Wow, Sophie thought, he must have really slipped up.
On the second line, Frau Volker wrote, Gunter Schulte. Sophie peeked at Bruna, who didn’t seem to realize she had fallen off the board and was trying to suppress a triumphant smile.
Sophie held her breath as Frau Volker held the chalk up to list the Top Student. When she traced out an S, Bruna gasped and looked at Sophie with narrowed and now icy blue eyes.
But at that very moment, there was another knock on the classroom door.
Frau Volker turned around as the door opened to reveal Frau Schneider and a Nazi wearing a swastika armband. The sight of the Nazi caused the class to titter with excitement again. He was tall, broad-shouldered, fair-haired, and had eyes like azure diamonds. He was as handsome as a man could be. Behind Frau Schneider and the Nazi stood a group of Jewish students. Giddy was one of them. He looked right at Sophie with wide eyes.
This should have worried Sophie, but her only concern was the chalkboard.
“Please excuse the interruption to your class, Frau Volker,” said Frau Schneider. “I hope your students enjoyed the film. But I need to speak with Sophie Siegel, if I may.”
All as one, the entire class looked to Sophie, whose face went white.
“Sophie,” said Frau Schneider, “please step into the hall.”
But Sophie remained in her seat, eyes locked on the board, blood thrumming in her ears.
“Sophie …,” said Frau Schneider.
Sophie could not take her eyes off the S on the top line in the Pyramid of Top Students. She heard herself say, “Frau Volker, you didn’t finish Top Student.”
“Sophie,” Frau Volker said, running her hands down her cheeks. “Did you not hear? Frau Schneider is asking to see you.”
“You must chalk Top Student, Frau Volker,” Sophie said.
“She only pretended to Heil Hitler!” Bruna mewled into Sophie’s ear. “And she didn’t clap for his speech!”
“Silence!” Frau Schneider demanded.
“Top Student, please, Frau Volker,” said Sophie. “Please finish writing my name.”
Frau Volker looked at Sophie, then at Frau Schneider and her guest.
“And she has been cheating from my papers!” Bruna cried.
Frau Volker now looked pointedly at Sophie and asked, “Is this true?”
“What is this about?” asked the Nazi.
“She thinks she is Top Student!” Bruna told him. “But she is a cheater, and she is a Jew!”
“That is preposterous,” the Nazi scoffed, making his way through the class. “You, girl, stand up,” he said as his shadow fell across Sophie’s desk.
Sophie leapt to her feet. “Frau Volker!” she shouted. “You must chalk the Top Student’s name! My name! You must do it now!”
“This is positively ridiculous,” said the Nazi. “Come with me.”
A hand grasped Sophie’s wrist and pulled her to the front of the class. Frau Volker, looking pale, stepped to the side.
“Now, Frau Volker!” Sophie insisted. “Now! Now! Now —!”
The Nazi slapped Sophie across the face, stunning her into silence. “Children,” he said to the class, “look here.” He grasped Sophie’s hair and pulled it up above her head like she was a bunch of carrots. “Look at the tall forehead,” he said. “We know from science that this indicates laziness.” He let the hair fall. The class nodded in full agreement.
The Nazi pinched Sophie’s ear and pulled it out, painfully. “See this wide ear that has a point along the top?” he asked. “This indicates selfishness.” He let the ear go and added, “The hooked nose reveals deceitfulness.” More nods. But Sophie’s nose was not hooked. It looked like most everyone else’s in the room.
“This bulge below the lower lip,” the Nazi continued, poking Sophie in the chin, “shows a jealous dis-position.” Then he looked back at the class—he had their rapt attention—and said, “Taken together, these traits indicate irremediable stupidity. Children,” he concluded, “it should be obvious why the mere idea that a Jew could be Top Student is nothing less than laughable.”
While the class laughed at the mere idea, the Nazi turned to Frau Volker and asked, “Who is Top Student?”
Frau Volker, perspiring heavily, stepped to the board. She promptly turned the S she had written into a B and finished chalking the name Bruna Muller.
Bruna stood and curtsied.
“No!” Sophie wailed, finding her voice again. “That’s not right, Frau Volker! That’s not right!” The Nazi grabbed her again, but this time she struggled against him. She went on wailing, “Chalk my name, Frau Volker! Chalk my name!” until he dragged her out of the classroom.
That night, Sophie lay in the dark, reliving her mortification. The pain she somehow managed to shunt aside while it was happening, and then again while walking back home with Giddy and the rest of the Jews, was now lacerating her. A clammy mass under her blanket, she touched her forehead, her ears, her nose, her entire face. And she felt ashamed for doing so. She knew that nothing that awful man said was true, but it didn’t really matter. The class believed every word. She hated that man. She hated her class. She hated Frau Volker and Frau Schneider. She hated that school.
But what she hated most of all was that she was not allowed to go back.
Sophie heard a scratching through the wall next to her. Then several light taps. Then more scratching. “We don’t need a secret code, Giddy,” she sighed. His bed was on the other side of the paper-thin wall.
“Your forehead isn’t tall,” Giddy said.
“Thanks, Giddy,” Sophie said, sitting up.
“And your ears aren’t pointy.”
“And your nose isn’t bent.”
“But even if all those things were true, you would still be beautiful.
A lump in her throat prevented Sophie from saying thank you again. She burrowed back under her blanket and mashed her face into her pillow to muffle her crying. She was crying because Giddy wanted to comfort her, but also because she hadn’t realized the Jewish kids in the hall had witnessed her humiliation too.
Giddy didn’t say anything more and soon, she Giddy didn’t say anything more and soon, she heard him snoring.
Sophie was still crying when her door creaked open. She knew it was her Papa from the smell of wood shavings that was a permanent part of his person. She loved that smell.
Even so, she wasn’t coming out from under her covers.
Benno sat down on her bed, causing it to sink dramatically. Despite herself, she felt soothed. She knew he was going to tell her a story.
“In the 16th century,” her Papa started, in his low, resonant voice, “in Prague, there was a great and powerful rabbi called Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who, from the mud of the river Vltava, created a giant, which he brought to life through spells and incantations.”
Sophie lay still, listening.
“This giant—this golem,” her Papa said, “was eight feet tall and had the strength of a hundred men.” “That’s even bigger and stronger than you,” Sophie couldn’t help but respond. “What did it do, Papa?”
“The Jews of Prague became his people, so he protected them. No one ever bothered them again.”
Sophie came out from under her covers and sat up. “Is that the end of the story?” she asked. She couldn’t see her Papa, but his presence in the dark was huge.
“That is the end,” he told her. “They lived happily ever after.”
“Why did you tell me such a short one, Papa?” Sophie was trying to decide whether or not to be annoyed. She liked the story.
“You are my angel,” Benno said, putting his heavy hands on her shoulders and squeezing them gently, “I will be your golem.” He leaned over, kissed her on the top of her head, then went out of the room.
Sophie lay back down and fell asleep.
Excerpted from the book The Vanishing, with permission. Copyright 2022, David Michael Slater.