Writing About The Swastika
Months ago, as I workshopped excerpts of “Marcel’s Letters,” a fellow writer had a strong reaction to how I wrote about a swastika.
As a Jew, she said she would have stopped reading the book the first time she saw the word.
It took time to understand her reaction. I believe she and I fundamentally see the symbol—the entire war, perhaps—differently. I see and refer to the period of 1940–1945 as “World War II,” a complex military conflict with the end goal of stopping a fascist dictator. She referred to those years as “The Holocaust,” a multi-year slaughter of European Jews. The perspectives represented by our differing terminology, in itself, was enlightening. And to be fair, neither of our terms capture the complexity of those years.
The use of the word swastika is equally convoluted. To me, the swastika is a historic relic, no different than black and white photos documenting the atrocities of the war. To her, the swastika represented the attempted annihilation of her religion. Of her family. The difference is that I did not feel a personal attack when I read about the symbol. She did. She does.
Recently, I had a long discussion with a dear friend (…she calls herself my “go-to Jew”). She did not lose family in the war; by the 1940s, her family was already in the United States. But she offered insights into how modern Jewish eyes still view the hate-filled symbol. Removing the symbol from the manuscript isn’t an option, so we talked about how I might write about it without inflaming a visceral, punch-to-the-gut reaction.
In “Marcel’s Letters,” I do not back down from the brutal reality of the war. Despite sweet moments, sugar coating does not exist. Yet, based on the workshop feedback and my friend’s insights, I’ve made edits that reflect a more sensitive selection of words, while remaining truthful to the reason the swastika is in the manuscript in the first place. I hope readers will feel this balance.
So, how does one write about a heavy, hate-filled symbol in a historically appropriate way?
The only way one can write about anything: with honesty, empathy, and an open heart.
With gratitude to M.P. and R.N.
Click here for a link to the book “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redeption?” by Steven Heller.