The horrors of the Holocaust, with its ghastly images of concentration camps, gas chambers and crematoria, have been thoroughly chronicled by historians, lamented by poets, portrayed by artists and used as a backdrop for many a novel.
But as the plot of a whodunit?
From the pages of a mystery novel emerges the story of a man whose wife and two children are killed by the Nazis, who himself miraculously survives the horrors of a concentration camp, only to be senselessly murdered as an old man.
The character is fictional. The man's story is not.
Mystery writer Rochelle Krich, in Baltimore today to sign copies of "Blood Money" at Book Bash '99 at the Bibelot bookstore in Pikesville, draws on her father's stories as a Holocaust survivor in her latest work.
But she quickly explains that her father, unlike the character in her book, is very much alive.
"The eeriest part, I told my father, is that I'm writing about Jews through the voice of a character who dies on Page 1," says Krich, 52. "It's a little bit weird writing your father's story through that voice."
"Blood Money," Krich's eighth book and her third featuring LAPD Detective Jessie Drake, explores Jewish themes on several levels. In a previous mystery, Drake discovered her own Jewish heritage after her mother revealed she was a "hidden child," a Jewish girl adopted and raised by a Christian couple in Poland.
And in her latest case, Drake investigates the murder of an unidentified man with a number tattooed on his arm, a Holocaust survivor. She eventually uncovers a plot targeting Holocaust survivors who have recovered assets from Swiss banks.
A natural fit
Although there have been Jewish mystery writers before her, mostly notably Harry Kemelman, creator of the crime-solving Rabbi David Small, and best-seller Faye Kellerman, few have dared to use their genre to explore the Holocaust. For Krich, it's a natural fit.
"In the Holocaust, there was definitely justice denied," she says. "In a mystery, it's really about a struggle between good and evil. There's that wonderful sense of justice I think as readers we expect to find at the end of a mystery. Not necessarily a happy, sugary ending, but the fact that justice has been restored.
"It seemed like a natural blending for me," she says. "That's why I chose to tell my father's story using this vehicle."
Krich's Jewishness permeates her writing. She attends an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. She was an English teacher for 18 years, about a dozen of them as chair of the department of a private Jewish high school.
She says using the Holocaust theme comes naturally to her because nearly every one of her relatives was touched by it. "I don't have much family, but my whole world, they were all survivors. There was a very close bond," she says.
Her mother was one of seven children born in Europe; only she and a brother survived. Her father's first wife and two daughters were killed in the camps.
"My father and his wife had two daughters, something I didn't know until I was 11 or 12," she says. "I don't recall when the first time was my father told us the story. I found a photo of his wife and two daughters standing with him."
One of her father's cousins was a hidden child, and that was a possibility for Krich's lost sisters.
"Some people were giving their children to Polish neighbors who offered to care for the children until the war was over," she says. "Someone offered, but his wife was afraid: 'What if they didn't give them back?' And that wasn't uncommon, either."
That mixed history is reflected in the character of Jessie Drake's mother, Frances. It was in an earlier book, "Angel of Death," that Frances revealed she was not the Episcopalian she had always claimed, but was in fact Jewish, raised as a hidden child. Krich proudly points out that the book was published four years before Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's revelation of her own Jewish identity.
But Frances Drake's experience was not a happy one. While the Polish Catholic father was a kindly man, the mother was abusive to her.
Thus, mother and daughter have a very different reaction to the revelation.
"For Jessie, it's an exciting voyage of discovery, but for her mother, not at all," Krich says. "Her mother doesn't want to have anything to do with her past heritage."
But Krich's own father, Abraham Majer, had no such reticence. He dictated his story in Yiddish into a tape recorder, which Krich's husband transcribed into English. She weaves that narrative throughout "Blood Money" in the voice of the dead man, an Auschwitz survivor from New York who comes to Los Angeles and meets his doom. In the novel, the victim tells his story in a documentary videotape unearthed by the detective. In it, he gives an interview recounting his concentration camp experiences.
In one of the most chilling passages, the Holocaust survivor, Nachum Pomerantz, recounts the last time he saw his wife, Estusha, and their children. The account is almost verbatim from the mouth of Krich's father.
"And then one night they rounded up the women. The Germans gave my wife a choice -- she could give up her children and go to work in a labor camp. Or she could go to Auschwitz." Pomerantz paused. "She wouldn't give up the girls.
"The Germans didn't delay. They took my wife immediately with our two children and my mother. I went to the train station, and through one of the windows I saw Estusha. She was looking for me, too. She held up Baila, and my mother held up Malka. And they helped my little girls wave to me as the train pulled out of the station.
"Bye-bye, bye-bye," Pomerantz whispered, his eyes bright with tears. Lifting his right hand, he bent his fingers and waved. "Bye-bye."
"And that's the last he ever saw of them," Krich says.
Krich says the reaction to her Holocaust theme has been gratifying. "People are really responding to the poignancy of several scenes, and my father's story," she says.
And the Jewish press has not taken offense at her using an entertaining genre like a mystery as a vehicle to discuss the Holocaust. The review in the Jerusalem Post called the book "a fresh spin on the contemporary account of the money in Swiss bank vaults," and "humorous and heart-breaking."
The only complaint of a reviewer in the Forward, a New York-based Jewish weekly, is that Krich's account lacks depth. "There's little here that couldn't have been gleaned from reading a handful of books on families of survivors and the question of Jewish Swiss bank accounts," the reviewer writes.
"Since the publisher vaunts the author's own history, it's not unfair for a reviewer to wonder whether Ms. Krich hasn't yet fully assimilated her own family history enough to draw on it successfully as a writer."
But for Krich, writing about her family's Holocaust history has been an intensely personal, and sometimes painful experience she describes as "cathartic."
"But I don't think I'll ever have closure. Because every time I think about it, I become enraged," she said.
More than anything, Krich says, writing her father's story has left her in awe of him and of his generation.
"My father and so many people lived through things like that, and I often wonder, 'Where did they get the strength? Where does one get that courage?' " she says. "After you survive the most atrocious circumstances, where do you find the courage to begin life again?"