Bethany House’s Statement and Our Response

Yesterday, I posted Emily Hubbard’s eloquent letter to Bethany House regarding its decision to publish For Such a Time by Kate Breslin. The following is their response:

Hi Emily,

We appreciate you reaching out to us to express how you feel and what you thought. We certainly are always open to feedback.

Bethany House Publishers has been very saddened to learn of the offense some have taken at our April 2014 novel For Such a Time by Kate Breslin. We deeply respect and honor the Jewish faith, and this novel, inspired by the events and redemptive theme of the biblical book of Esther, was intended to draw on our common faith heritage.

Breslin reframes that Esther story in a Nazi transit camp during the Holocaust and portrays a courageous young Jewish woman who by God’s strength saved fellow Jews from death and in so doing awakened the conscience of a man thought by many to be beyond redemption. She wrote this deeply researched story with the greatest respect for the Jewish people and their history. It was neither Kate’s intent nor ours as publisher to cause any offense but rather to show through story how one person can choose to put the lives of others ahead of her own and help to shine God’s light into darkness.

After publication, For Such a Time immediately garnered strong positive reviews from readers in many markets. The book was a finalist for several literary awards including two in the Romance Writers of America RITA® awards for “best first book” and “inspirational romance” categories.

Bethany House Publishers will continue to support Kate Breslin and her writing. We have heard from many readers who have been moved by this honest portrayal of courage during a time of terrible evil, and we hope it continues to inspire and remind us to never forget the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Noelle Bruss

Well, that was disappointing. And upsetting. A slightly different version was posted on Bethany House’s website today, so this appears to be a generic statement that they plan to make in response to any criticism of this book they receive.

Fortunately, the statement is also fairly short, so we can respond to it point by point without writing the equivalent of War and PeaceBefore we begin, the contributors to this discussion are myself and:

Bethany House Publishers has been very saddened to learn of the offense some have taken at our April 2014 novel For Such a Time by Kate Breslin.

Jackie: This is the epitome of a non-apology. “I’m sad my actions hurt you” is just never, ever an apology. Bethany House is placing its alleged “feelings” (hint: Bethany House is a business, not a person) ahead of the harm its action have done to actual people. I’m not sure how much more mealy-mouthed and vile this could be.

Kelly: I read that and had to close the browser tab. PR 101 “How not to apologize.”

Sunita: It’s worse than that. THEY have been saddened (made sad by) … the offense some have taken… We have made them sad! Bad us!

We deeply respect and honor the Jewish faith, and this novel, inspired by the events and redemptive theme of the biblical book of Esther, was intended to draw on our common faith heritage.

Jackie: A book that actively rewrites Jewish history cannot be said to respect or honor the Jewish faith. And no matter how much Bethany House may believe otherwise, it is not merely disrespectful but insensitive and insulting to reframe a fundamentally Jewish experience as a Christian redemption story. Yes, many non-Jewish people died in the Holocaust, but Jews died because of their unique combination of ethnicity. heritage, and faith, and mostly at the hands of those who claimed to be Christians. That truth should have given Bethany House pause. Instead, it apparently just sounded like an awesome idea.

Kelly: The theme of the story of Esther is not “redemption.” Did any of the dozens of theologians and Bible scholars you work with review the book?

Emily: My ESV study bible lists the themes for the Book of Esther: 1) Divine providence 2) human responsibility 3) the absurdity of wickedness

Sunita: Our common faith. That’s that pre-Christian but we share a Bible language, isn’t it. They intended to draw on the “common faith heritage.” So what they respect and honor is the common faith? Hard not to infer that.

Laura: “respect and honor the Jewish faith” It would have been nice, if you wanted to respect and honor the Jewish faith, if you depicted the Jewish faith. You did not. There is no indication that anyone who knows anything at all about Judaism beyond “hey, they don’t eat pork!” read this book.

Breslin reframes that Esther story in a Nazi transit camp during the Holocaust and portrays a courageous young Jewish woman who by God’s strength saved fellow Jews from death and in so doing awakened the conscience of a man thought by many to be beyond redemption.

Jackie: I’ve read the book; I don’t need the elevator pitch.

But this sentence also couldn’t more clearly illustrate exactly what is wrong with the book. It didn’t happen this way. There was no Nazi SS officer whose conscience was awakened by a courageous Jewish woman, thereby saving thousands of lives. It would be bad enough if Breslin had written this as an entirely fictionalized account, but she didn’t. She chose to change the course of history by replacing actual events and people with ones that suited her narrative purpose, thereby erasing the true tragedy that was Theresienstadt and, by extension, the entire Holocaust. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a form of Holocaust denial. No, it doesn’t deny the whole thing, but it denies a substantial portion of it.

Also, the fact that Breslin based her story on the Book of Esther does nothing to excuse or mitigate the harm.

Kelly: The story of Esther does not involve “awaken[ing] the conscience of a man thought by many to be beyond redemption.” It’s not about “salvation,” either.

Emily (again with my study bible on my lap): “Deliverance” is the closest word they use which is a bit different.

Sunita: Wait, this isn’t even what happens in the book. He came up with the plan. So maybe her love led him to that, but she was a fragile fainting flower until the train plot kicked in.

Laura:who by God’s strength” I have a real issue with this line. Yes, both Christians and Jews read the Old Testament. But the God you are referring to in this letter is the New Testament God. God as in “God the father of our savior Jesus Christ,” not the God of the Jews. If you intended to show, as is it is shown in Esther, that Hadassah’s original faith was the key to rescuing (and notice that I say rescuing, not saving, despite Morty’s numerous uses of the word “salvation”) her people, you have failed utterly.

She wrote this deeply researched story with the greatest respect for the Jewish people and their history.

Jackie: If “deeply researched” means “checked the facts then ignored or changed the ones she didn’t like,” I guess that’s an accurate enough statement. Frankly, however, the host of small but hardly inconsequential historical gaffes in this book make it all but impossible to take any claim of “deep research” seriously. Here are just a few of them:

  1. Dachau’s prisoners were not tattooed (Breslin does admit to making this change in the author’s note).
  2. All noble titles were abolished in Austria after WWI. Aric would have been simply Aric Schmidt, not Aric von Schmidt.
  3. The Nazis never wrote down the term “Final Solution.” A folder labeled as such is an impossibility.
  4. Himmler selected SS officers based on their adherence to Nazi ideology. As portrayed in this novel, Aric would never have been in the SS, let alone “Himmler’s prize bull.”
  5. “Lvov” was not a safe haven for Jews in June of 1944. Most of its Jewish community was murdered. (Added by Janine)

I could probably find more similarly jarring factual errors if I wanted to, but they pale in comparison to the whole stolen train/triumph of the Jews over the Germans in the “Battle of Susa”/humiliation of Himmler and Eichmann during the Red Cross visit ending. It’s clear from her author’s note that Breslin is well aware none of these things happened. How then could she feel that pretending they did was either good historical storycraft or (even more baffling) respectful of the Jewish people or their history? It’s one thing to take license with minor historical details and timelines. It’s another to entirely rewrite the end of World War II. And the ending of this story demands nothing less.

And whatever Breslin herself may have thought of what she was doing, the fact that Bethany House can continue to defend it as respectful and honorable when people of Jewish heritage are telling them otherwise is simply mind-bogglingly self-absorbed and blind. As my husband would say, these people have no inner dialogue.

Kelly: Where were the editors? Every single editor involved in this book should be fired. Immediately.

Also: It’s clear that the “extensive research” and “greatest respect” did not involve reading any primary sources written by Jewish historians or (God forbid) survivors, or any attempt to understand the Jewish view of “deliverance” or “heaven,” or you know, actually talking to a Jewish person. Maybe you were afraid of getting Jew cooties?

For future Holocaust books in the works: In the absence of any rabbis in the greater SeaTac or Twin Cities metropolitan areas, I would recommend a trip to the library. You don’t even have to go there – they have ebooks now! I’d recommend reading something by Chaim Potok. Or Elie Wiesel. Maybe you’ve heard of them? They’re very good writers. A quick jaunt to the Holocaust Museum would be another option. You can use my $10 to buy a memento yellow star at the gift shop.

I cannot stop the snark. It’s the only way my brain and heart and Christian soul can process this.

Laura: Kelly, in other editing news, there’s one unintentionally hilarious editing mistake in this book. At one of the feeding scenes, Stella says “I’m finished,” which made me think “I only wish you were!” A halfway decent copy editor would have changed that to “I have finished,” not only because that’s correct but because this is not supposed to be set in modern America.

Sunita: The other thing to note, in addition to the errors: When she did know the true story, she mostly changed it. So it’s not clear what the point of the research was. It’s not enough to do the research. The research needs to show up in the text.

Kelly: The research did show up in the text – as inconsistently formatted German and Yiddish words, frequent name-dropping of Himmler and Eichmann, and the comforting smells of Challah during Shabbat.

Laura: There’s no cultural research here, which is the most important thing to consider when you’re writing about a culture other than your own, which can only lead me to believe that you really don’t see the difference between the culture of a modern American Evangelical Christian and a 1940s European Jew. I don’t even know how to counteract that.

It was neither Kate’s intent nor ours as publisher to cause any offense but rather to show through story how one person can choose to put the lives of others ahead of her own and help to shine God’s light into darkness.

Janine: If it wasn’t Bethany House’s intention as a publisher to cause any offense, why use the anti-semitic term “Jewess” in the cover copy? Why co-opt the yellow Jewish star used to isolate Jewish people and mark them as Jews for the cover? Why use an actual photograph of Jews at Auschwitz, which records real people, some going to their deaths, on the cover of a book which has as its protagonist a Nazi concentration camp commandant?

Jackie: Did these people never hear that the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Listen up: intentions don’t matter. This book has caused genuine pain and harm to people. They are telling you this book is insulting and offensive. The fact that you didn’t “mean it to be” isn’t relevant. The only correct response here is “We are sorry for the offense and pain this book has caused to members of the Jewish and other communities. We realize we must take steps in the future to avoid making such grievous errors of judgment.”

By the way…this is a good spot for me to point out to Bethany House that if they truly respect their “shared faith heritage” with Judaism, they might consider having books like this vetted by actual Jewish readers and scholars. Had Breslin or Bethany House taken this one, simple step, this entire clusterfuck could have been prevented.

Kelly: “…how one person can choose to put the lives of others ahead of her own.” Pfft. The  puts Aric’s life ahead of her own. The Jews are just along for the ride.

Also: I’m offended. I’m very offended. And I’m Christian.

Emily: I was saddened by the book. Offended by the [non] apology. Christians should be the best at apologizing and repentance, and this statement was worse than no acknowledgment.

Sunita: Again with the intent. Intent is not execution. Author is not book. Author can have greatest intent in the world, but if it doesn’t translate to the finished product, the finished product is bad. We can grant them all the intent in the world. It doesn’t change the outcome.

Laura: Also, when your intent doesn’t match the outcome, you change the outcome. That’s how it works. If you intend to help your uncle move and you accidentally drop his television down the stairs, you buy him a new TV and get it delivered. You don’t say, “Well, my intentions were good.” You are in complete control of the outcome here, and since you choose not to fix it, I choose not to believe your stated intentions.

Janine: As one who lost relatives at Auschwitz, this non-apology “apology” in no way mitigates my feelings of anger and hurt. It only compounds them. I think Bethany House is speaking to its customer base in this statement, and not to those whom they have hurt and offended.

After publication, For Such a Time immediately garnered strong positive reviews from readers in many markets. The book was a finalist for several literary awards including two in the Romance Writers of America RITA® awards for “best first book” and “inspirational romance” categories.

Jackie: Yes, I know about the strong positive reviews, and I’m still scratching my head over them. I keep wondering what book they read. That said, positive reviews and award nominations do not make a book inoffensive. They do not eliminate the injury done to Jewish people, to the memory of those who died at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, and even to the true courage of those Christians who actually did put themselves in danger to protect and save Jewish lives.

In all honesty, this statement brought tears to my eyes. They were just the wrong kind.

Emily: I’m feeling awkward and self-revealing to say this, but I can only wonder if Satan is actively at work blinding people’s eyes and hearts for them to think this book is good or even okay.

Kelly: As seen on Twitter: “I don’t think Jesus is very happy with y’all right now.”

The Birth of a Nation got a lot of publicity too. Go figure. Even Jerry Lewis had enough sense to ditch his Holocaust clown movie.

Sunita: Two Words. Dan Brown. People love his horrible books. And yes, we agree that it got good reviews in general market. And two RITA nominations. These are not validations of the book but black marks against those reviewers.

Jackie: And to be fair, the second RITA nomination was inevitable based on the first.

Laura: Lots of people believe we should ban books, burn books, etc. Does that mean you believe it, too? Seriously. I feel like I’m your mother going “if all your friends jumped off a bridge…” It wasn’t “Lots of markets.” It was one market. Your market. If you’re going to crow over a pathetic victory, at least be honest about what that victory was.

Janine: I feel compelled to point out that Time magazine chose Hitler as its 1938 “Man of the Year.” Since Time magazine was wrong, I’ll surmise that the readers, reviewers and contest judges who praised For Such a Time are wrong too. We don’t say, “Hitler had a lot of fans and therefore we stand behind him.”  Your statement, Bethany House, isn’t any more logical than that one.

 

A Sad (but not Angry) Letter to Bethany House

Introduction: Emily Hubbard, is a writer, reader, and member of the discussion group with which I read For Such a Time by Kate Breslin. Emily wrote the following letter to Bethany House, the book’s publisher. It’s easy for us to focus on the author of this book, but Bethany House contracted, edited, and published it. I have said I feel they did Breslin a disservice by publishing this book in its current condition, but Emily beautifully states how the publisher has also done a disservice to Christians. I truly appreciate that.–Jackie

Dear brothers/sisters in Christ–

I am an evangelical Christian. I’m married to an ordained minister in a conservative Presbyterian denomination. I’m teaching my children the catechism. I believe the Bible is the authoritative word of God, that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And I believe this faith is worth sharing, and I have many friends that I pray end up in Heaven with me–even though not all of them are excited I feel that way.

I’ve loved your books since my mom cracked open the first Winslow book and read it aloud to us when I was 7 or 8. I would read over her shoulder while the older kids cleaned up from supper. Later I read George MacDonald, Janette Oke, the Thoenes, and even more Gilbert Morris (Cheney Duvall and Shiloh Irons was a favorite). I knew that books you published would be ones that I enjoyed, my mom approved, and that I would probably re-read.

I am YOUR people. I love your publishing house and want you to flourish, to encourage Christians and expand God’s kingdom.

And that’s why I’m heartbroken that you chose to publish For Such a Time by Kate Breslin. I understand the author’s intentions and motivations. I get it. But in order to achieve her narrative goals, Breslin actively rewrites a well-known chapter in history, replacing real people and documented events with fictionalized versions that erase the actual experience of those who were interned at Theresiendstadt. This book is not actually a historical novel–it is a-historical–and ultimately, really a fairytale about the Holocaust. As people have shared their family’s experience of the Holocaust (I’ll link to some at the end of this letter), I cannot believe that anyone would publish a book that creates a happy ending for three people by manipulating the history that caused death and pain for 6 million+ people and their loved ones. There was no freedom train out of the prison camp, only the ones that went to Auschwitz to the gas chambers. The Nazis/SS were NOT humiliated by the Red Cross visit. My knowledge of the Holocaust is mostly from The Hiding Place. I don’t alway read back matter, so because I read what was labeled as a historical romance, I would have assumed the train, the escape, the failed Red Cross visit, were all true. As I have read the stories people have shared about their grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and uncles–even though I understand that white evangelicals have a interesting relationship with Jews and Israel–I am struggling to understand how you/I/anybody can consider it acceptable to write a story whose purpose is to leave the reader optimistic and emotionally satisfied when the Holocaust should leave us with grief and mourning for the lives lost and our own American inaction.

A romance is supposed to have an emotionally satisfying ending. How is this possible for a man guilty of war crimes and sending Jews to their death? While I do believe that everyone is capable of the same evil the Nazis perpetrated, and that no one is beyond the grasp of Jesus’s saving grace, this story is NOT the place to address that. This story should not have been labeled or sold as a romance, and frankly, shouldn’t have had a happy ending. Though I was moved to tears by the sacrificial actions of the Jewish people as they planned their final days, I was so disappointed when Aric showed up in the final chapter.

I can’t feel the pain that Holocaust survivors, their families, and the people who lost family members in the Holocaust will feel about this book, but I imagined a scenario that would cause similar pain for me and tried to imagine it published as a romance. As a white woman in an interracial marriage in the South, it actually turned out to be an easy shift. Can you imagine EVER approving an inspirational romance between a KKK member who is a policeman enforcing Jim Crow laws, and a young black woman. Even if both of them could get past their prejudices and fears and the power imbalance to fall in love [which honestly hurts me to even type], anti-miscegenation laws would make their life together NOT a happily ever after. I cannot see this ever being accepted as a romantic premise. Ms. Breslin’s story makes a fairy tale out of a time that should only cause mourning at the evil that occurred, and at the collective failure of Christians, and everyone, to act.

By publishing this novel you also put your author in an untenable position. I have read a lot of the online attacks on this book and on Kate Breslin. Some of it hurt my heart, but most of this is not persecution. We are not being persecuted for our faith, as scary as it is to have people angry at us. Christian publishing is being rightfully excoriated for publishing a truly terrible book (I’m not going to get into legitimate literary criticism but I do think that’s another reason this book shouldn’t have been published).

Using photos of Auschwitz victims on the cover, and photos of the gates of Auschwitz for marketing material (I don’t know if Ms. Breslin is responsible for that or y’all) is particularly hurtful. While it may be “authentic” to use these photos, it also is using them to profit off the people who suffered AND DIED. And it is particularly unbearable considering the book’s plot turns on multiple purposeful inaccuracies and fabrications.

I’m going to return my electronic copy of this book and donate the price of the book to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. I am writing to ask you, as my brothers and sisters in Christ, to offer a sincere apology for the hurt you have caused–you don’t have to look that far behind all the internet anger to see the hurt–and donate the profits from this book to an appropriate charity (and Jews for Jesus is probably not the right one, but you could ask someone from there for a suggestion). You might even stop selling it and pulp the remaining paper copies. And maybe in the future if you publish books with Jewish characters, have a Jewish person read them and make sure they accurately reflect the Jewish experience. The Jewish people who read the book along with me found very little in the book that expressed their experience of Judaism, or what they know of Judaistic theology.

Christians throughout the ages have been participants in anti-Semitism. Even though I do not believe it was purposeful, by publishing this book, Baker and Bethany House have perpetuated anti-Semitism. The book of Esther that started this whole debacle is a triumph over anti-Semitism, a reminder that God is at work even when we can’t see it. Christians are called to a life of repentance, and I think for us here today, this is an important time to repent. You have the ability to make a statement showing that evangelicals value and care for the Jewish experience and Jewish people today, not as pawns in an eschatological game, but as individuals, who though they may choose to reject our Jesus, deserve to have their memories honored, not desecrated.

Love in Christ / Under the Mercy / in Christ alone
Emily Hubbard

About *That* Book (aka the Nazi Romance Everyone’s Talking About)

When discussion of Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time exploded on Twitter last week, I was pretty quick to express both my dismay at the book’s premise and my confusion over how such a book could be published in the first place. I also stated that I didn’t see how it would be possible for RWA (Romance Writers of America) to prevent a book like this from being a finalist in its published book contest, known as the Rita. (This book finaled both in inspirational romance and best first book, for those not in the know.) Given the fact that the book had not only received high enough scores from five judges to final in the Rita but had also been highly praised by both Romantic Times (a Top Pick) and Library Journal (a starred review), I had to believe it had some redeeming qualities and determined to read it for myself. I finished this afternoon.

I can safely say this is the worst book I have ever finished. If I hadn’t been committed to the cause of getting all the way through, I wouldn’t have gotten past the first few pages. And if it hadn’t been for the group of thoughtful reviewers and authors organized by Kelly Instalove who were reading it at the same time, I’m fairly certain I’d have given up well before the halfway mark. That said, I am glad that I read it all the way through because doing so allowed me to see that most of my initial, knee-jerk reactions based on the premise were reactions to the wrong problem.

Don’t misunderstand–the basic premise (Jewish internment camp prisoner falls in love and lives HEA w/camp’s Kommandant) is objectionable enough on its own. But I decided to go into the book with an open mind (or at least as close to open as possible). I have rather fond memories of Summer of My German Soldier, and even though I have a hard time thinking of an SS officer as someone conscripted into the war against his will and convictions, I was willing to believe that, in the hands of a competent author, I could buy in.

But Breslin is not a competent author, IMO. Or at least, she’s not a competent author for this book. This isn’t a well executed book that’s tackling difficult subjects; instead, it’s a poorly executed book that goes out of its way to AVOID difficult subjects. Having chosen such an incredibly challenging setting and premise for a romance, Breslin then ducks that challenge at every turn.

What do I mean?

Well, first and foremost, when it comes to the romance, why use this particular setup for a romance if NOT to explore the question of consent? Yet NO ONE in this book EVER seems to consider whether or not Stella/Hadassah is able to consent to a relationship with Aric. The whole question is simply ignored by everyone, including Stella herself. As readers, I think we are supposed to feel that since Stella is attracted to Aric and he’s so much “better” than the other Nazis, she has the agency to fall in love with him and choose whether or not to have a relationship. The fact that she refuses to be his mistress so he determines to marry her is, I guess, supposed to be further evidence that she’s not being forced into anything. But it’s all ENTIRELY ducking the issue. If you’re going to “go there” as an author, go all in. Embrace the challenge you’ve set for yourself. Especially if you’re going to open the book with a scene that reads like something out of a contemporary erotic romance where the submissive meets her fated Dom. (Don’t get me started on how Breslin hits you over the head with the fact that they ARE fated mates because .)

The next “avoidance” comes in the form of Breslin’s complete failure to write Jewish characters who think or speak like Jewish people. This isn’t just important because of the erasure issue. It’s important because doing this artificially narrows the cultural and religious gap between Stella and Aric. The addition of the Magic Bible–which belonged to Aric’s mother–further closes that gulf…at the expense of Stella having any actual Jewish identity. And of course, it’s not just Stella who thinks/speaks unJewishly. None of the Jewish characters come across as authentically Jewish. Everyone in this book is effectively Christian, except, of course, for the Bad Nazis™.

The third and most horrible avoidance is, of course, the “escape” from Theresienstadt and the subsequent imaginary humiliation of Eichmann and Himmler when the Red Cross delegation arrives. This isn’t just bad because it’s rewriting history so her characters can get their HEA; it’s bad because it’s once again avoiding the difficult reality of what lay at the end of those train trips. (By the way, can I say the train chases/fight scene reminded me less of Indiana Jones and more of Captain America? Hadassah dangles from the train a la Bucky, except she doesn’t fall to her presumptive death.) It’s pretending there was some “Jewish victory” in WWII. The opening of Chapter 50 all but announces this. But that just ain’t so and it minimizes the tragedy of what actually happened to the people who boarded those trains. And all so our hero and heroine can walk off into the soft-focus sunset. It’s really rage-inducing.

Beyond all of that, the book is written in a turgid, heavy-handed style that is trying to be literary but that quickly wears out its welcome. The characterization is, across the board, inconsistent and vacuous, with the villains straight out of a comic book. (Actually, comic book villains are usually better elucidated and motivated.) The symbolism is repetitive and obvious. The book relies on some standard romance conventions that I’ve always found disturbing–most particularly, the use of “everyone wants to rape the heroine” was evidence of her beauty/desirability. And finally, the romance itself is utterly superficial, based entirely on insta-lust that never convincingly matures to anything else.

I want to add here, by the way, that there is no explicit conversion or “come to Jesus” moment at the end of the book–of either the hero or the heroine. The hero doesn’t experience any religious conviction that convinces him to save the Jews under his authority; he mostly does it because they’re the heroine’s “people” and he loves her, so he’ll save them for her sake. It’s not particularly heroic nor is it redemptive arc. (He also actually asks these people for forgiveness. I cannot get over how wrong it is to ask for forgiveness from people whose family and friends you’ve genocidally murdered.) And Hadassah never in any way clearly converts to Christianity, but there’s really no necessity, either. She never reads as anything but a Christian, just one who apparently hasn’t yet got the word on pork and the resurrection. Having already minimized the difference between Christianity and Judaism to diet and a miracle, Breslin doesn’t have any need for an explicit conversion.

For Such a Time is really a bad book that should never have been published, but not entirely for the reasons I thought it was, and I’m glad I read it because I want to be able to criticize it for the right ones.