“I didn’t write a novel about the Holocaust but about post-Holocaust trauma and mostly about reconciliation,” states Renate Krakauer about her debut novel, Only By Blood.
And the result is a sensitive portrayal not only of the consequences of unbridled racism and genocide, but also of those who choose to be humane and the possibility of putting things right. Krakauer has portrayed these themes not only through well-drawn characters and an action-packed plot but also via relationships that raise questions about identity, love and what one may be driven to do under duress.
A significant part of the story is set during World War II and Krakauer vividly describes the widespread devastation, loss and grief by drawing us into the lives of two Polish families; one Jewish and the other Catholic. However, the tale spans 60 years and travels back and forth between Canada and Poland. Complex and dynamic it reads like a mystery novel.
Though Krakauer is a child survivor of the Holocaust, she says Only By Blood is not an account of her or her family’s experiences. She admits that she drew on aspects of her family’s history to write the narrative.
Born in 1941, Krakauer was an infant when her parents made the difficult decision to leave her in the care of a Polish woman of their acquaintance, who lived on the outskirts of a village in eastern Poland. She says her early memories are not tainted by war or terror, though her parents’ recollections are quite different. Inadequately clothed, always starving, her mother and father hid separately in cramped conditions always under the threat of discovery by the Nazis.
Krakauer was an oblivious three-year-old when the war ended. “It was when we came to Canada that I stopped being happy,”she says. She describes herself as, “an insecure immigrant.” Though only a school-aged child, she was, “very aware of being different from the general population and the established Jewish population.” An only child and bereft of an extended family, the young Renate felt alone.
Meanwhile, her parents devastated by recent losses, had no time to devote to healing. They had to build a new life. They founded their future on the one asset that was not taken from them. University educated Poles, Charlotte and William Tannenzapf had worked in their respective professions (pharmacy and engineering) until the war erupted. Eventually, they were able to use their professional knowledge “to carve out a niche for themselves” in Toronto.
The idea for Only By Blood came to Krakauer about eight years ago when the descendants of her mother’s long estranged brother found and contacted her. Sadly, her mother and uncle had died before this reconnection took place. Nevertheless, Krakauer discovered cousins she had long wished for. Yet, what moved her most was that her father, who had vehemently reproached his brother-in-law for becoming a traitor to the Jews during a time of rampant anti-Semitism, was willing to meet his Polish granddaughter and her husband and to pronounce, “I feel an affinity with you.”
Krakauer says, “I was amazed. A man of 98 was able to change his mind.”
This unexpected event and reconciliation seeded a story that began to take form during writing courses Krakauer took at the Haliburton School of the Arts and Humber School for Writers.
Through fiction she explored the meaning of identity and how it is shaped. She also looked at racism and its relationship to identity. “For Hitler, if you had one drop of Jewish blood you were tainted.”
Krakauer also felt impelled to examine the lives of women of the Holocaust. “My mother saved my life. I always thought that women were the unsung heroes of the Holocaust. I realized I wanted to write about a Jewish woman and a Catholic woman, each of whom saved her daughter’s life.” To deepen her understanding of the time Krakauer researched survivors’ accounts.
Only By Blood begins in a doctor’s office in contemporary Poland. Mania is finishing her examination of an elderly patient who tells her he knew her mother’s sister when they were both young and still living in their home village. Mania is stunned by this coincidence. Saddened by the reminder that she has not met her aunt and knows little about her family, she decides to once more try to learn about her family’s past when she next sees her mother. However, Mania does not realize her plan. Krystyna, her mother, becomes ill and dies without revealing more about her history. Yet, her dying words are a plea. She asks Mania to, “Find them and make it right.” And thus Mania begins her quest.
Mania is the central character of the novel but Krystyna and Rose, a Polish Jew and a survivor, are its subject matter. “Both are strong, competent, loving woman willing to do anything for their daughters,” Krakauer says. “However, Krystyna was not traumatized by the events of World War II, as was Rose.
Krystyna’s losses were self-inflicted. She made choices. Rose didn’t make choices. She suffered the loss of her family because she was a Jew. Each woman is guarding a secret.”
Yet the story cannot be described simply as a mystery though it is a page-turner. Essentially, one can say Only By Blood is a poignant and compassionate inquiry into human commonalities that transcend religious and cultural differences even under horrific circumstances.