Are We Allowed to Imagine the Holocaust?

10/06/2010 03:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What happens when someone sits down to write a book, and how responsible are they for the journey that they are about to undertake?

All of my books begin with a set of questions. The process of writing, for me, is a way of unwrapping those questions, and trying to answer them. Annexed didn't begin with any great claims for itself, it was simply my attempt to finally answer a few childhood questions about Anne Frank's diary: what happened to everybody in the annexe after they were arrested? What was it like for the people in the annexe to be written about? Why is Anne's point of view seen as the only one?

It is often only many months, or even years after finishing a book, that I finally begin to really understand why I wrote it; with Annexed and the controversy that's surrounded it, that process has had to be accelerated. It's become clear that for some people I need to explain myself and my desire to write a book, not just about the life of a person in the annexe, but also one that tries to imagine the Holocaust.

It's a common fantasy that writers are in control of their material, Often, the opposite is actually true: a book takes off when I lose control of the process, and the "characters" take over. This happened very early on with Annexed. Peter Van Pels' "voice" arrived powerfully in my mind, and it arrived in two parts, a voice that told the story of his life in the annexe, but also from the perspective of his last few days in the camps. I suppose that what I'm trying to say is that I didn't necessarily choose to write Annexed, so much as feel compelled to write it. Once the process was under way, I had to work very hard not to engage with the notion of any potential controversy. If I had, then my imagination would have been paralysed. Writing happens in the present, not in a projected future.

As I came to write the second section of the book, that deals with life in the Nazi camps, I found myself in a powerful state of ambivalence. I wanted to tell "Peter's'' story, but was also anxious that what I was doing might be an act of arrogance, as well as an attempt at empathy. At this point I came across an idea of Levi's in The Drowned and the Saved. Levi questions whether even his own testimony is a valid account of the Holocaust, because he believes that the very fact of his survival separates him from the true and common Jewish experience of the Holocaust: elimination through death.

Levi's idea liberated me and gave me the freedom to feel I could continue writing the story. There is no other way of reclaiming the individual stories of those who died than through an act of the imagination. How else can we do it if they are no longer here to tell of it themselves? For me, this is what the imagination and the stories it creates are for: enabling us to re-create experience in the attempt to keep it alive, and so maintain the effort to understand our lives more fully.

For me, the world of books is a true democracy. A place where even the most radical and dangerous of ideas can be exchanged and explored between the safety of two covers. No one forces us to read a book. We can choose whether we pick it up or put it down; and yet, the simple attempt to imagine the life of someone struggling to survive in hiding, in Auschwitz, through a death march and finally, in Mauthausen, has caused powerful feelings of upset and anger, some of which have resulted in vilification.

I understand that.

In a world where there are still Holocaust deniers the fluidity of the imagination becomes a potentially dangerous thing; but this cannot, and should not, stop us from seeing that it is also an equally wonderful thing. Facts explain how things happened but it is the imagination that enables us to empathise with what happened.

For me, Annexed is not really about those who have survived, although I respect their experience and have done my utmost to remain scrupulously truthful to their testimony. Annexed is a story dedicated to all those who did not survive. It is for the anonymous millions who died in despair, loneliness and terror that their story might not be told. Anne Frank and Peter van Pels are just two of those many millions; through their story I have tried to describe the realities of the Holocaust. This story does not end with a Survivor's Testimony, but with a dying one; it ends with the reality as it was for the millions of Jews living in Europe under the Nazi reign of terror; it ends with death.

Annexed is for them; and for you too, should you choose to read it.

Sharon Dogar's book, "Annexed," can be purchased here.