Endurance "In the Face of Evil"

First-time author Tema N. Merback’s nervousness was conveyed only by a slight tremor in her voice. But the audience at Santa Monica College last Tuesday was soon transported from their comfortable seats to the Auschwitz concentration camps, as Merback told the story of her mother Dina, a Holocaust survivor, who was the basis for the protagonist of her debut novel “In the Face of Evil.”

There was a palpable silence as Merback read excerpts from her book in front of a projected image of a carefully preserved photograph of a man with a marked look of horror in his eyes. The man pictured was Dina’s father, who arrived at Auschwitz two years before Dina did, and was killed there.

According to Merback, in an effort to come full circle and find closure, a mature Dina retraced her steps to Radom, Poland, where she found the names of family members etched onto stones 16 feet tall. She was also able to retrieve the photograph she showed at the lecture—one of only three family mementos she has left.

“This was the final resting place of her family, and this was her moment to say goodbye,” said Merback.

The author said she was faced with the difficult decision of asking her mother to relive the painful experience of the Holocaust. Often, all the writer had to rely on were her mother’s fading memories.

“Her memories were the skeletons she gave me from her heart, and it was my job to find the flesh through my words—to clothe them and bring them to life in this novel,” said Merback.

Although the story depicts nonfiction elements, Merback said she made a conscious decision to write “In the Face of Evil” as a novel, not a memoir.

“We’ve all read memoirs—some good and some bad,” Merback said. “I decided to write it as a novel so that the readers could get to know the characters and care for them. I didn’t think Holocaust reading would be at the top of anyone’s list, so I wanted to write the story in a way that would make it relevant to young people.”

The author said she hopes that readers can draw parallels to present times through themes explored in the novel such as displacement, unemployment, unrealized potential, love, dreams, and immigration.

Merback said she deliberately wrote her mother’s story in first person.

“I wanted to tell the story through her eyes,” Merback said. “I remember when I was a little girl, my mother would tell me her story, and we would cry together.”

For Merback, among the challenges of reconstructing Dina’s story of surviving the Holocaust was creating the accurate historical background as a vehicle to carry the novel.

“I had to do so much research because, obviously, this is something which has been well-documented,” Merback said.

Her creative process was to try to write at least 10 pages per day, and to not necessarily write in a linear way, but to move around while constructing her story.

“I would just get into my car and drive, and I’d be working on the story in my head, and then I’d write again when I was ready,” she said.

Merback’s novel brings to life the theme of time in relation to trauma. According to a clinical psychology report from the Department of Medicine at the University of Sydney, on resolution of disorientation and amnesia during post-traumatic stress, victims of a traumatic experience are often disoriented in relation to time, in an effort to disassociate themselves.

“My mother said she was in a camp for three weeks, but it was three months,” said Merback. “My mother cannot remember a lot of dates, but she remembers seasons—the sweat running down the inside of her dress, or the breeze blowing in her face.”

“In the Face of Evil” dissects themes of identity and dehumanization, both large aspects of the Holocaust.

During the time that Dina was at the concentration camp, her name was reduced to the number tattooed on her arm: A-14569.

The novel explores the complex human psychology of how different people react in situations where they are the innocent bystanders of acts of violence being perpetrated on others.

“People who had been neighbors just averted their faces and refused to make eye contact when the vans came to take the Jews away,” said Merback.

Conversely, Merback also illustrates the virtue of the resounding kindness of the human spirit.

The novel’s opening theme of an idyllic childhood is a symbolic metaphor for the calm before the storm. The subtheme of change is apparent from the moment that a young Dina’s life is shattered.

The prevalent theme of appearance versus reality is particularly depicted in a scene where Merback describes the young Dina naked, being examined by a good-looking man with white gloves.

“The face of evil can be—and in this instance was—very handsome,” Merback said.