Former Pittsburgher’s novel of invisible Holocaust survivor with special powers
While the book reimagines certain historical details, it does so in a way that does not diminish or ignore the suffering and sacrifice of the Jewish people.
Library Tales Publishing (Sept. 2022)
“The Vanishing,” a story of an invisible girl fighting to save her young friend during the Holocaust, is the latest novel from acclaimed author and former Pittsburgher David Michael Slater. Slater has written more than 30 fiction and nonfiction books for readers of all ages and lives in Reno, Nevada, where he works as a teacher.
Slater’s novel focuses on Sophie Siegel, a young German Jewish girl, and her closest friend, Giddy Goldfarb. After Sophie’s parents are murdered in front of her by two Nazi officers for violating the Nuremberg laws, a part of Sophie dies, too — the part that is visible to the rest of the world. With this newfound gift of invisibility, Sophie spends the rest of the war using her power to protect Giddy, the boy a couple of years younger than her who lives in the house next door.
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Sophie exposes herself to the horrors of the Holocaust to shield Giddy from them whenever possible. The two travel from their German city, where they live under the strict decrees of the Nuremberg laws, to a filthy ghetto and the depraved concentration camp that follows, all the way to a group of partisans trying to survive in the harsh woods and beyond. Through Sophie and Giddy, the reader gets a broad look at many of the different experiences Jews had during the Holocaust.
This story is as much Giddy’s as it is Sophie’s and, at times, it feels like it is mainly Giddy’s, simply told through the lens of Sophie. In this way, Sophie’s invisibility is cleverly translated into the prose, as well as the plot.
Despite being labeled a Holocaust revenge fantasy, the book treats the victims of the Holocaust with great respect. While it does reimagine certain historical details — specifically in its climactic scene toward the end — it does so in a way that fits with its characters and narrative and that does not diminish or ignore the suffering and sacrifice of the Jewish people.
Perhaps a more fitting description for this novel’s genre would be magical realism. “The Vanishing” takes place in the actual world and features actual historical events, but with a sprinkle of the supernatural mixed in. Besides Sophie’s invisibility, several Jewish mythological creatures are explained throughout the story, including dybbuks and golems. As Sophie takes charge of Giddy, it is implied that she becomes his personal golem.
This novel reads quickly and explains all of the Jewish rituals and traditions it mentions, making it accessible to readers of all faiths. The characters have distinct personalities and the Yiddish phrases many of them use lend a sense of nostalgia and authenticity to the writing.
Despite this, much of the description in the novel, particularly about Sophie’s emotions, is told instead of shown to the reader. The prose is mostly straightforward and not particularly ornate, yet there are vivid descriptions of places and sensory details, especially when Slater describes the look and smell of the ghetto and its inhabitants.
The plot poses profound moral questions, like whether taking someone’s life is justified if it saves them from horrific pain, and, alternatively, whether taking someone’s life is justified if that person has taken many others’ lives. Sophie, at ages 11 to 15, is faced with these consequential dilemmas, highlighting her continuous struggle to maintain her humanity in the face of evil and leading readers to think deeply about their ethical outlook.
Slater does not sugarcoat the atrocities of the Holocaust and, although the writing style is more suitable for the young adult genre, the novel’s themes are more appropriate for older adults. Sophie and Giddy see horror upon horror but never become fully desensitized, illustrating the resilience of children.
The novel culminates in a suspenseful scene in which Sophie gains the opportunity to change the course of history forever, but must choose between physically staying with Giddy or indirectly saving him. Throughout the novel, Sophie often feels that even with her invisibility, she still cannot make a significant difference in such a terrible, inhumane world, making this fateful choice all the more difficult.
The ending, while a bit confusing, raises questions about the nature of Sophie’s invisibility, specifically the reason for it and its permanency. Sad moments abound throughout this book, but hopeful moments, and even funny moments, are there as well. This novel is devastating, but it is not soul-crushing. When you reach the end of the book, there is still humanity.
“The Vanishing” is not a light read, but rather one that challenges its readers to think more critically about the type of world in which they participate and how they live courageously and honorably. PJC
Dionna Dash is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.