R.I. author blends history, fiction in ‘Eavesdropping in Oberammergau’


We met for coffee to discuss her book, its past and its future.  She handed me an advance copy of “Eavesdropping in Oberammergau”: a black and white cover photograph of a cliff and low-lying houses, and a red Gothic letter “O” – a handsome volume categorized as “Fiction/Holocaust.”

We talked about the process of writing, of publishing, of distribution.  Salk hadn’t wanted to mail her book to me, she preferred to rendezvous and to talk about the research and the history of the project.  

“I can understand, and accept, a range of viewpoints about the argument that fiction and World War II shouldn’t mix.  But there is also freedom of expression within our American culture. 

“Like the eavesdropper in my book, I lived in Oberammergau from 1949 to 1952, just as the villagers began rehearsing their parts as biblical characters in the town’s world-famous Passion Play, performed every 10 years since 1634. Fifty years after I attended The Play in 1950, I learned about efforts by Jewish organizations to counteract the blatant anti-Semitism in The Play, given its links to Nazi hatred. I felt compelled to give voice to the ironies and contradictions of what had seemed so quaint and charming to me as a child.

“I created two narrators, one the voice of a Jewish Army-brat living in Oberammergau, Germany, shortly after WW II and the other, a man I name Stefan, based on the actual biography of a man who lived in Oberammergau before and after the war. Born a Jew in Munich, he converted to Catholicism, came to  Oberammergau in the 1930s until attacked on Krystallnacht, when he was dispatched to Dachau, but, like some lucky others, was released, and lived out the war years in England. The mystery of why he returned to village after the war drives the plot of my novel."

The “why” of each question must remain a mystery, like all poetic, or fictional, investigation:  Problems aren’t solved by poets or writers, only posed by them.

I have had friendly quarrels with Salk, who was my neighbor both in Providence and in Narragansett.  I rather agree with Elie Wiesel that Holocaust testimony has forever destroyed “literature” and that those who bring thoughtful imagination to the issues of that era do more harm than good. 

The naked truth has the dignity of the witnessed observation, untarnished and unvarnished. 

Nevertheless, and on the other hand, I also admire the courage and commitment of Salk, not only in putting pen to paper but in finding folks to organize and produce her self-published work. 

“It is the democratic fact that as the big business of selling books has centered on self-help vulgarities and popular escapisms, it becomes more and more the burden of thinking people to self-publish to share their knowledge, their hopes, the legacy of their generation’s learning, with the literate society around them.”  I said something like that, to that effect.  And I meant it. 

From the first page of “Eavesdropping in Oberammergau,” I noted with respect and high regard some excellent phrases and the simplest of word choices and combinations.  “Free and responsible” – what a great, provocative, existential pair of adjectives!  Most of us think of freedom as an escape from responsibility, somehow, but not Hilary Salk. 

On every page of this novel, you will find something surprising, challenging, intimate, elevating.  And the “blur” – if you will allow me to use such an inadequate word – between fact and fiction bothered me less and less as I perused the pages.

This is a brave book, confronting the guilt we all must face up to, our collective “survivor guilt” we share as the years, the decades, the eras, glide by us, nearing the brink of the void of human history. 

Although Salk and I are not all that far away in years, the Cold War nevertheless affected me less. I am a child of the Depression and the Duration, already too marked by its imprint to accept the fake liberal movements of the Repression, in which sentimental “good will” and maudlin television befog the cruelties of those decades of destruction, devastation, and dehumanization. 

I look up to my friend for her creativity and recommend her wonderful volume of adventures in space, time, and introspection.  I also look forward to further conversations with her as we bird-watch on the beach or meet over a cup – or glass – of coffee in Wakefield, whether or not we ever find common ground between her search for peace in some sense and my own endless outrage!

“Eavesdropping in Oberammergau” can be purchased at www.barnesandnoble.com.

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Hillary Salk, books