Around the Island

Friday Night Dialogues: The courage to search for truth

Summer starts solemnly. On Memorial Day we gather on Bridge Street, at the Legion Hall, in cemeteries around the Island to commemorate the sacrifices so many families made to preserve our freedom. We feel the pain of those who paid with their lives.

Many who served and came home stand before us and somehow honoring them makes the sunshine seem sweeter. We enter the lively summer season stronger for having remembered together.

On Friday, June 25 at 7 p.m. on Zoom, the Shelter Island Library Friday Night Dialogues series offers an important opportunity to continue on this path of redemptive memory. Author Victoria Shorr will speak about her poignant new novel, “The Plum Trees,” in which she excavates a dark root of 20th-century history, reconstructing what happened to her great-Uncle Hermann, his wife and children, as Nazism spread through Eastern Europe.

That they were Czech citizens of the Jewish faith who were deported to Auschwitz is the unbearable scaffold of this valuable addition to the literature of the Holocaust. Kirkus Review says: “Written with urgency, elegance, and grace, Shorr’s novel is a deeply moving account of a family’s suffering.” But for those who think this is familiar territory, think again. By interweaving oral testimonies, historical documents, artifacts and letters, Ms. Shorr manages to capture the contradictory nature of memory itself — elusive, binding, transformational.

It was a letter from her own uncle, received on the day of his funeral, that launched Ms. Shorr on her quest, “I knew of our relatives who had survived the camps, but this knowledge remained peripheral until the letter. The revelation that Hermann had possibly escaped — well, did anyone escape from Auschwitz? It countered the whole ‘sheep to the slaughter’ narrative. Suddenly, this legacy of ‘nothing but sadness’ was upended and I simply had to learn more.”

Living then in Los Angeles, Ms. Shorr happened to arrive at the Museum of Tolerance during a live, in-person presentation by a Holocaust survivor to a school group. Afterward, the children gathered close around the speaker to see the tattoo of numbers on her arm and again the author was struck by the power of living evidence. She built her research process on spoken experiences and made extensive use of the U.S.C. Shoah Foundation’s Institute for Visual History and Education, originally funded by Steven Spielberg.

When asked about motivation, Ms. Shorr describes a broader drive for social justice that informs her work. “My first book, “Backlands,” gave voice to a marginalized group of bandits I’d come to know while living in Brazil. Their struggle for equity, for survival, was a story that needed telling.”

Though steeped in a long-ago history, “The Plum Trees” illuminates the fault lines underneath our social arrangements and the dire consequences for human beings when hate and supremacy prevail. Ms. Shorr confesses that 10 years ago, embarking on the search for clues about her great-uncle Hermann’s fate, she’d had no inkling that fascism, with its populist allure and corrosive distortion of truth, would become so relevant in contemporary politics. To quote George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Spend an evening with this gifted writer and join the journey of an artist brave enough to take on the most profound questions. The discussion may better prepare us all to fight the resurgence of organized mass cruelty fueled by racism wherever, however and whenever it may arise.

And please read “The Plum Trees,” which is available at the library or for purchase at Finley’s Fiction. It will change you. And certainly deepen your appreciation for those brave Islanders, our hometown heroes, who helped save the world from a 1,000-Year Reich. We must never forget.

Please register for the Friday Night Dialogues Program with Victoria Shorr at least 30 minutes ahead of time by visiting the events calendar on the library’s website at silibrary.org. For further information or assistance, contact Jocelyn Ozolins via email at [email protected] or by phone at 631-749-0042. All library programs are free to the public, however donations are gratefully accepted.

Next Up: On Friday, July 9 at 7 p.m. via Zoom, join Shelter Islander Michael Coles for a discussion of his memoir, “Lucky, Not Smart,” describing a life full of love and adventure from Harvard Business School to Goldman Sachs to flying both the skies and the high seas, moderated by Jonathan Russo.