Magical realism and the Holocaust at Rowan


Author Helen Maryles Shankman was at the Rowan University Barnes and Nobel Wednesday to promote her newest book, “In The Land of Armadillos”, which uses magical realism to retell stories from the Holocaust.

Shankman was invited by the Rowan University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which organized the event. She spent an hour reading three excerpts from her stories and answered questions from the crowd of about 20 students and faculty.

“I read the book and loved it,” said Jenny Rich, Coordinator at the Center for Holocaust Studies. Rich invited Shankman to visit Rowan University as soon as she had finished reading Shankman’s book. Shankman was immediately enthusiastic over the idea of a book-signing on campus, said Rich.

“I really just asked and she was kind enough to write back immediately,” said Rich. “She said, ‘Yeah, sure, when do you want me?’”

While some of Shankman’s stories are pure fiction, other stories are based on her mother’s own experiences as a Jewish woman in Nazi-occupied Poland. Taking such traumatic, personal stories and retelling them with magical realism is unordinary, to say the least.

For example, in the opening story of her collection, a group of Jews are trying to escape a squad of Nazis when a third group of men, whom turn into beasts and monsters, rescue them.

“That was hard for me to do,” said Shankman, speaking about the Twilight-esque scene in her story. “I felt very bad about it after [I wrote it].” But that’s not to say her work isn’t getting serious attention.

In the Spring of 2016, Barnes & Noble voted Shankman into their Great New Writers selections, coming on the heels of ‘Armadillo’s’ debut.

Shankman admits that, though most people won’t pick up a book about the Holocaust, they will pick up a book with talking dogs, phantom messiahs and shape shifters.

Marc Fleischner, Adviser to the Rowan University Hillel, echoed Shankman’s remarks on finding an audience.

“As with most of history, [the Holocaust] is forgotten. That’s why it’s so important to get this message out,” especially with regard to the modern genocide taking place in Syria and Darfur.

Half-way through Shankman’s readings, live polka music was heard from the open mic-night downstairs and continued for most of the evening. The polka was disruptive at first, but seemed to fit in with Shankman’s magical realism.

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