Patrick Hicks has penned a harrowing novel of the Holocaust. In “The Commandant of Lubizec” (Steerforth, 256 pages, $16), he creates a fictional extermination camp that is based on the all-too-real historical record of similar camps in Poland created to rid the country of Jews during World War II. The book brings us face to face with evil, reminding us that the staggeringly large mass of people killed by the Nazis was made up of individuals. Each individual snuffed out was an incalculable loss.
Part of Hicks’ project is to give fictional reality and substance to the hordes of people sent to their doom at the camps. He insists that we don’t turn away from the horror. Throughout the book, we are discouraged from thinking in terms of hope or redemption, even for the survivors of the camp.
The book is structured like a nonfiction account, and Hicks uses the device to devastating effect. Early in the book, we are told just why writing an account of the Lubizec is so challenging: “We can only guess what this hypothetical prisoner was thinking because no one survived this early period of Lubizec’s history. They were all murdered. This is a problem because when historians talk about the early days of Lubizec the only testimony we have comes from the Nazis themselves…We want a character we can believe in, we want some nugget of truth to ponder, we want a glimmer of light amid the overpowering darkness of this extermination camp and, more than anything else, we want hope.”
There is very little hope on offer in “The Commandant of Lubizec.” I found the novel extremely difficult to read. That, of course, is the point. Hicks has stared into one of the darkest chapters of human history, and he has rendered what he’s seen there into a fiercely brutal account that demands our attention.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.