Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Sophie’s Choice (New York: Vintage International, 1976) was a best seller in both of its incarnations: as the 1976 novel, written by William Styron, and as the 1982 film, directed by Alan J. Pakula. The movie starred Meryl Streep in her breakthrough role as Sophie. Streep’s performance won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. To Styron’s credit, Streep, as well as Pakula, had a great novel to work with. Written in a literary style filled with irony and highly sensual, lyrical passages reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita, Sophie’s Choice broaches somber themes: the Holocaust; the Nazi occupation of Poland (1949-1945); imprisonment in Auschwitz; tangled, pathological love affairs; post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia and, last but not least, the excruciating choice alluded to in the title.
During the war, Sophie Zawistowska is a well-educated young woman from an upper-middle class Polish family. She’s not Jewish. In fact, her father is a professor with Nazi sympathies famous in Poland for his anti-Semitic treatises; her mother is a mild-mannered musician. When her country is occupied by Nazi Germany, Sophie becomes involved, but only peripherally, with the Polish resistance. She rebels against her father’s patronizing and paternalistic attitude towards her and becomes critical of his anti-Semitic beliefs. Despite his Nazi loyalties, however, Sophie’s father is shot by the occupying German regime for being a Polish intellectual. Soon she loses her husband as well. All she has left is two children: a boy and a girl. Eventually the SS arrests her and sends her, along with her children, to Auschwitz once they discover that she is hiding meat—food rations illegal for Poles and reserved for the German occupiers—under her coat.
Sophie’s choice pertains, first of all, to the selection process—determining prolonged life or instant death–performed by Nazi doctors and SS officers that prisoners commonly underwent once they exited the cattle trains at Auschwitz. Which is to say, the title is ironic because Sophie is deprived of any real power of choice or desirable options. But a sadistic SS officer puts a cruel spin on the usual concentration camp selection process, in which a prisoner has no say. He spares Sophie’s life, despite being a mother of young children, only to make her make confront a fate worse than death: he forces her to choose which one of her kids will live and which one will die. Under the threat that both would be sent to the gas chambers if she doesn’t make up her mind on the spot, Sophie makes a choice that no parent should ever have to make: she chooses to save her son and dooms her daughter.
This choice forms the main theme of the movie, but, despite the book’s title, it’s not the crux of the novel. The novel focuses instead on the recurrent traumas that Sophie experiences, related not only to her difficult life in the concentration camp and the painful choice she had to make but also to her problematic relationship with her father: something that haunts her all her life. Time and time again, Sophie chooses the wrong kind of man.
In Auschwitz, through a combination of skill and luck, she manages to get work in the Kommandant’s mansion. She even has several furtive, one-on-one, meetings with the infamous Rudolf Höss. Depicting Sophie’s ambiguous relationship with Höss, and the manner in which the pretty blonde manages to gain his trust and persuade him to see her son, constitutes one of the most subtle and intriguing aspects of this psychological thriller. In real life, Höss was rumored to have had an affair with a Jewish inmate, which turns out to have been false. In this case, the novel comes closer to the actual truth. The historian Robert Jay Lifton documents that Höss had an affair with a Polish prisoner, Eleonore Hodys, whom he tried to murder when she became pregnant in order to avoid scandal (see The Nazi Doctors, 1986, Harper Collins Publishers, 201) In the novel, however, Sophie’s relationship with Höss could be described, at most, as an emotional affair. It’s really nothing more than a brief exchange of confidences that carried enormous risks under the circumstances. The Auschwitz Commander never fulfills his promise to Sophie to facilitate a meeting with her son. Like in real life, in Sophie’s Choice, Höss is dispatched to Berlin before he has the chance to intervene in Sophie’s life. In Auschwitz, there were rumors circulating that Höss was temporarily replaced with Arthur Liebehenschel because of his affair with a prisoner. This too probably has no foundation in reality. It’s more likely that Höss was transferred because of his implication in a scandal involving the arrest of the Auschwitz political leader Maximilian Grabner. As Robert Jay Lifton elaborates: “Grabner was implicated through an SS anticorruption investigation, originally aimed at profiteering, although it also charged him with murders beyond those authorized, notably of Polish prisoners. Grabner’s exit was supported by Dr. Wirths, with whom he had confrontations over killings. Although implicated in Grabner’s misdeeds, Höss was, in fact, promoted into the central concentration-camp administration” (The Nazi Doctors, 310). Whatever the reason for Rudolf Höss’s hasty transfer, in the novel, Sophie never even finds out if her son lives or died. But the trauma of being drawn to the wrong men repeats itself.
Years later, in Brooklyn, Sophie falls in love with her neighbor, Nathan Landau, a Jewish American man who makes up tall tales about his extraordinary life. She’s drawn to his energy, to his sexual hunger, to his romantic gifts and overtures, to his intensity and even to his lies. When the narrator, Stingo, a novelist and their neighbor, becomes both of their friend, the three of them embark on an exciting but ambiguous friendship fraught with jealousy and triangulation. Nathan’s torrid passion for Sophie gradually turns to abuse, as he insults and even beats her in recurring fits of jealous rage. As Nathan’s brother later reveals, the young man suffers from schizophrenia. Although it’s not certain that he’s a genius, as he claims, he’s clearly delusional, confusing his paranoid fantasies with reality and mistaking lust for love. Their pathological bond is doomed from the start, much like Sophie’s family life was during the Nazi occupation.
Sophie’s Choice is a marvelously narrated historical novel that succeeds, above all, as psychological fiction. Which is only fitting. For how can any novel about the Holocaust—a historical trauma of a depth beyond measure—capture the devastation of that period without delving into the personal trauma of its individual victims?
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon