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Brutality & humanity in 'Across the Lake'

This interview originally aired on In the Moment on SDPB Radio.

Author Patrick Hicks joins In the Moment to explore themes of gender and violence during the Holocaust.

His latest novel features the female guards and female prisoners of Ravensbrück during the Nazi reign of terror. His dual stories of a guard and a prisoner looks at humanity from two extremes.

Patrick Hicks is an author of poetry collections, short stories and essays and is writer-in-residence at Augustana University. "Across the Lake: A Novel of the Holocaust and Ravensbrück" is his third novel that explores the Holocaust.
The following transcript was auto-generated.

Lori Walsh:
Is it better to look away during tragedy and avoid the traumatic memories or is it better to bear witness to the unfolding of human devastation and human dignity?

That is a central question posed by one of the characters in the latest novel from Patrick Hicks.

And it might be a question for the reader, as well. “Across the Lake” is a novel of the Holocaust. It follows two women at Ravensbrück. That's a Nazi concentration camp designed for women.

The first woman we meet is a guard about to enter adulthood and test her nerve in this new proving ground for brutality. The second woman is a prisoner cast into the architecture of evil because of her love for dancing to American music and her unwillingness to conform to a worldview bent toward evil.

This is the third novel that explores the Holocaust written by Patrick Hicks. He's also the author of many poetry collections, short stories and essays. He's writer-in-residence at Augustana University, and he returns to our Sioux Falls studio to talk about “Across the Lake.”

Welcome back.

Patrick Hicks:
It's always good to be back.

Lori Walsh:
A stunning accomplishment. This novel is and, as always, you did the kind of research that is required to not only create this work of fiction but is required to create a Patrick Hicks work of fiction. Tell me a little bit about your journeys to the concentration camp and discovering that history.

Patrick Hicks:
Yeah. Well, when I was finishing up my second novel, “In the Shadow of Dora,” I found myself in Berlin doing research, and I'd heard about Ravensbrück, which is about an hour, hour and 15 minutes, by train north of Berlin. And I had initially no interest to write about it. I was just curious from a historical perspective.

So, I went up and while I was walking around Ravensbrück, I was really struck by the fact that here's this concentration camp. And then there's a really beautiful lake. And on the other shore of that lake is this gorgeous town called Fürstenberg. And the people in Fürstenberg would have seen what was happening in the concentration camp. And that never really left me, I guess.

As I was finishing up the second book, I began to ask more questions about Ravensbrück. So, ultimately, to answer your question, Lori, the first time I went was more to sort of be in the place and to learn more about it for my own personal reasons. And then I went back on two separate research trips specifically for this novel.

So, although it's fiction, my novel is fiction, everything that happens to these characters actually did happen to real people. And I have very strong feelings about when I write fiction about the Holocaust, I can't just make stuff up. So, it's always rooted in historical fact.

Lori Walsh:
When did you start considering female guards and what their days were like and who they were as people?

Patrick Hicks:
Ironically, that initially happen at Ravensbrück. It was certainly accelerated when I started to do more research on Ravensbrück. But there were female guards at Auschwitz, one in particular, Irma Grese. She was she was only in her early twenties. She was called “the beautiful beast” by the BBC when she was put on trial. She was ultimately executed for crimes that she committed at Auschwitz.

And that disconnect between— and that I think an awful lot of people have that with female violence on women. You know, how do we sort of square that? It's almost as if we accept male violence, but it's somehow more brutal, more worse if a woman commits violence.

And I wanted to explore that at Ravensbrück because the guards at Ravensbrück, they were all young women. But yet they had this really dark side to them where they could commit these awful atrocities on people.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah. To do that, you have to get inside. And the guard's name is Anna. Get inside her head to sort of imagine how was she navigating this terrain. But she's under no illusions what her job is. She knows what the chimneys are doing. She believes in the ideology. This is not a coming-of-age story where a young female guard comes to the realization that something is happening here that she didn't realize.

She knows and she wants to be up to the task of this kind of womanhood in the Third Reich.

Patrick Hicks:
Yeah. She enters Ravensbrück and she sees not horror, but she sees opportunity. She sees this as a way to advance her career. And she does see being a female guard as a career. And I could be wrong about this, but I think Anna is the first Nazi character that I've created where the reader has access to what is going on in her head.

All of the other characters in “The Commandant of Lubizec” and “In the Shadow of Dora,” my two previous novels, I denied the reader access to what the Nazi guards were thinking, and maybe feeling, they could get that, but not thinking.

So. this is a departure for me because I wanted to explore her rapid descent into evil because “Across the Lake” takes place over the course of seven to 10 days.

And in those seven to 10 days, Anna goes from wondering if she can be brutal to being one of the most brutal guards in the camp. Yeah.

Lori Walsh:
Meanwhile, these women prisoners are from an incredibly diverse background. Our main character is a quarter Jewish, but nobody knows that she has blonde hair. She's sort of been able to hide that part of her heritage. But she is there because she's not willing to be Anna. She's not willing to be the kind of German who moves in that direction.

That's not for her. And therefore, there's only one other place for her, which is among the prisoners. Tell me a little bit about the women in real life who were at Ravensbrück and the various backgrounds that they came from.

Patrick Hicks:
Yeah, they came with a wide variety of backgrounds. There were Polish women that were at Ravensbrück. There were Soviet women that were at Ravensbrück. There was a large Jewish population of Ravensbrück and then there were prostitutes. There were the “work shy” as they were called. And then there were people like Svea. My secondary female character who just refuses to accept the ideology of Hitler.

And you are sent to a camp, you are sent to a place like Ravensbrück. But Ravensbrück is unique because it was the only all-female camp. So, I wondered if the female prisoners acted differently than their male counterparts. And the answer is yes.

So, I had this dual story track where I was exploring Anna’s descent into evil and brutality while I'm also simultaneously investigating Svea’s own survival instinct and how she is trying to maintain her humanity. And ironically, Svea’s humanity is far greater than Anna’s sense of humanity.

Lori Walsh:
There is a culture of caretaking among the women. There's a culture of gift giving, which I found profoundly authentic and comforting, as well as heartbreaking and devastating in the sense that these women share recipes.

Patrick Hicks:
They do. And this is one of the things that I discovered while I was at Ravensbrück. I mean, I read an awful lot of books on Ravensbrück before I went. But it was only when I went to Ravensbrück and I actually saw some of the artifacts and I discovered that the female prisoners did make gifts for each other, tiny gifts they had to be because they had to be hidden.

And that was under threat of certainly being beaten and possibly being killed. But they had these acts of generosity to each other.

And I thought there was just something really lovely about how these women would memorize recipes and they would pretend to cook for each other, you know, invisible ingredients. And they would tell a recipe as a type of story. It's the act of creation.

And I just found that it's something so lovely about that sense of imaginary caretaking. There's something really motherly about that, and I can only imagine that there were all of these recipes that were being spoken about at Ravensbrück and maybe hidden in walls.

And, you know, the thought that occurred to me — there could be this incredible cookbook that that these women housed in their heads. Something really beautiful about that. And if male prisoners did things like that for each other, I have yet to run across it. In all of my research, the male prisoners generally didn't give gifts.

Lori Walsh:
There is also, I would argue, and I'm curious to know what you think about this when you talk about the violence from the guards, that there is there's a lot in the book about the men are still in charge.

And they're the only ones who are allowed to carry guns, firearms, pistols and ammunition. That that's men's work.

And there's a lot of women in this book who are considering, you know, where is that line? You know, for me, would I be able to use a gun? But because they have clubs, there's an intimacy to the violence as well.

Patrick Hicks:
Yeah. Wow. I'm really glad you picked up on that. There is a greater intimacy with violence, with a truncheon as opposed to a firearm or a pistol. And the guards at Ravensbrück, the female guards, they had dogs as well. And they had their boots.

So, they did kill with these three weapons. But by and large, not exclusively, but by and large, the men carried the pistol.

Just because it was a female camp run by female guards, men still were in charge of administration. So, you had the SS that was running the camp as they ran all of the other concentration camps. There's this incredibly, well, the Third Reich was an incredibly sexist society to begin with. It's a patriarchal, fascist society.

But to see this played out at Ravensbrück and see the both the female guards and the female prisoners trying to navigate what it means to be a woman in the Third Reich. And then you have all these Jewish women that are at Ravensbrück. Their level of survival is even more horrifying because they're at the bottom of the social order.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah, there's a Polish resistance fighter, Zofia, who proposes at one point that there's no shame in being here because if you're going to be someone's enemy, be theirs.

And Svea is like, I’m not sure I believe that, but you can see this character who has committed acts of violence on her own outside the camp, and now she is largely committed to the caretaking and the subversion, sort of psychological warfare against the enemy, which is the Nazis.

But this concept that you're saying about the humanity of Svea versus the humanity of Anna, that there's at least one character who says, I'm in the right place in a very strange way but if I had to choose, I still choose this.

Patrick Hicks:
Yes. And I don't know. You know, that's the mystery of the first draft. Sometimes things come out and you type it, and you didn't even realize that you felt this way. Or through the character more properly, the character felt this way. But after that line of dialogue came out from Zofia about her saying, well, we should be proud to be here because it means we're enemies of the Third Reich.

I really like that sentence. I'm not sure where it came from, but maybe there's that quote from— I can't remember who said it, an American philosopher, I think. But the only place for just man in an unjust system is prison.

That there's a lot to that, I think.

Lori Walsh:
And she represents these people from Poland, in her case, who maybe tried in the beginning to just stay out of the way, keep your head down, and there becomes a turning point where she and her husband realize there is nothing for us to do except to join a resistance of some kind. We have to take action.

What about the people in this town, this German town nearby, who are really profiting from the location of the camp financially? They've learned how to just turn away.

Patrick Hicks:
The people of Fürstenberg, during the war, they did learn how to turn away and to not look at the smoke coming out of the crematoria. And they would have heard the barking dogs. They would have heard the gunshots of prisoners being shot by the SS. They would have blocked that out.

And that's not unique to Fürstenberg. This was true for any town near a concentration camp. Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz, for sure. This was that blinding where you want to look away. But yet, you have someone like Svea who is trying to decide, do I watch the violence unfolding before me to remember it if by some miracle I survive? Or do I look away from my own mental health?

I don't really have an answer for that.

Lori Walsh:
It's also hopeful that you'll survive.

Patrick Hicks:
Yeah. Yeah, you're absolutely right, Lori.

Lori Walsh:
Both of these are actions of hope that someday this will matter. This decision will matter.

Patrick Hicks:
Yeah, and Svea actually reprimands herself. She's like, I'm not surviving in this place. And the action takes place in May of 1943, So, you know, it's a little less than two years before the campus liberated. So, the chances of any of the characters in 1943 surviving to 1945 is really minuscule.

Lori Walsh:
That caretaking we talked about before, though, is key to survival. I don’t want to give anything away about the plot, but it is so essential that if you do not have someone to care for, your very survival is also at stake. It's that compelling for the characters.

There's another theme in here that I think is just so beautifully done and never overdone, which is the role of this incredible landscape, you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. And there are these grapefruit pink sunrises and nature comes into people. The rain. You know, all of a sudden there is a moment where it is breath by breath and that breath resets the clock of survival. Again and again throughout the book. Stunning.

Patrick Hicks:
Thank you. I'm very grateful to hear that because, you know, years of work that went into this and the scene you're describing is Svea, because she's so malnourished and she's so hungry, she's looking at the sky and she's describing it as salmon pink, cantaloupe, and the reader, whether they realize it or not, is picking up subconsciously on just how hungry she is.

And there are certain things that happen that are in the novel and they actually happened to me. There's a scene, I won't give it away, but Anna and several female guards find themselves in this huge wooden warehouse and a storm brews up. And they're worried about lightning strikes. Well, that actually happened to me. I was at the back of Ravensbrück and I saw the storm roll in and I thought, I am not going to get to safety, so I ducked into this old warehouse.

Lori Walsh:
Wow. Patrick Hicks, his newest book is called “Across the Lake.” It is a novel of the Holocaust and Ravensbrück. It's available now. I think you can probably get it at Zambroz, but you can also get it online.

Always a delight to have you. This is a triumph.

Patrick Hicks:
Thank you so much, Lori. I really appreciate that.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.