Rabbi Shlomo Pereira, director of Education at the Chabad, USA, and teacher of history, philosophy and canonic law
“My first worry when I was given these novels to read was this one: what would they tell me about the Holocaust that I did not know? Nothing, surely. How wrong was I! These books bring a very different and unorthodox approach. Instead of focusing on the voices of Holocaust survivors, which is what everybody usually does, they focus on the voices of the murdered ones. How does the author do that?
The amazing thing is that he did not have to invent material to put this across. He used authentic manuscripts by the survivors who witnessed killings in the gas chambers and crematories as sources of information. Who were these witnesses? They were the Jews selected by the Nazis to aid them in the logistical process of the gassings. This is a totally new perspective on the Holocaust. The author provided a voice to those who had lost it. This is a harder effort, and a unique one.
Simultaneously, it deals with a very uncomfortable side to the Holocaust for a Jew like myself, which is the fact that there were Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in the extermination procedures. So we feel conflicted about these people: were they victims or criminals? This is a subject largely ignored in literature on the Holocaust. So these books have this new perspective of showing us what happened from the point of view of those murdered. This is an amazing and major contribution to understand the Holocaust.
There is also a pace to the writing that is absolutely stunning. I originally wondered: how can you deal with this subject? I found genius in the very gradual unraveling of the story. From the outset, all is well, flowers and poetry, but as we go, we keep descending until, at the very end, we find ourselves in absolute darkness. The way the story evolves is fascinating. I felt that I was being slowly dragged to the bottom of a well. This was a very efficient way of dealing with this subject. And this evolution into the abyss involves not only suffering and humiliation, but also love, energy and hope. It shows the best and the worst in human beings.
I was very impressed by the writing style too. I had never read books by José Rodrigues dos Santos before. I was completely seduced by the way he wrote these novels. When we read it, we enjoy each and every word. I almost felt that I was reading a movie script. The colours, the details of different languages and even accents, the visual impact conveyed by the text, all this left me in wonder. It was as if I was given a haute-cuisine dish filled with exquisite tastes, a spice here, a spice there.
Finally, there is another aspect of the books that I find very important and which lurks between the lines. We are going through a difficult period when people ignore the dignity of other people. These novels hit us in the face with the idea that if we are not careful with what we say, the possibility of the unthinkable is there. Words matter, words generate destructive acts. It is important for us to understand this, and it’s a very clear message from these novels. So, if you want to read a book that entertains but also disturbs, a book that informs but also educates, these are the ones. Not easy reads, but important ones. In a normal world, these two novels would be the most famous ones by José Rodrigues dos Santos.”