Ear­li­er this week, Helen Maryles Shankman ques­tioned whether her fic­tion­al sto­ries triv­i­al­ize the Holo­caust. She is guest blog­ging all week as a Vis­it­ing Scribe here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Ear­ly in 2012, some guy named Ben emailed me an invi­ta­tion to join the beta ver­sion of his new site, Pin­ter­est. He called it a social cat­a­logue.” In his email, he effused that he couldn’t wait for me to join the community.” 

What did that even mean? I sat on the invi­ta­tion for a week. After pok­ing around on var­i­ous author sites, I dis­cov­ered that Pin­ter­est was a sort of online bul­letin board, where you could pin” pic­tures that you found while scout­ing the inter­net. I respond­ed yes” to Ben’s invi­ta­tion, because I can always use one more way to waste time on the internet.

For anoth­er week, I did noth­ing. Sure, the board” was nice­ly designed, and it was fun see­ing my name in big let­ters up on the top. But the blank board sat there for weeks, star­ing at me in an accusato­ry way, before I pinned my first photo.

A char­ac­ter in my nov­el was wear­ing an evening gown. It was 1939, she was absolute­ly fab­u­lous, and she hap­pened to be a vam­pire. Of course, I’d been using Google for research, and though it was doubtless­ly a mirac­u­lous tool, in order to refer to my inspi­ra­tion pho­tos I had to book­mark web pages or drag pho­tos into doc­u­ment files — a time-con­sum­ing process that also took up stor­age on my desktop.

What the heck, I thought, let’s try this, and opened up Pin­ter­est. In the search box, I typed the words Wom­ens Fash­ion, 1930s. I typed Fash­ion Design­ers. I typed Ball­go­wns. I added Black.

And, oh, read­er! The rich­es that unfurled before my eyes! 

Dress­es by Balen­ci­a­ga, by Chanel, by Lan­vin, by Schi­a­par­el­li, by Vion­net! Lus­cious con­fec­tionary cre­ations in silk and vel­vet and jet beads, in lace and organ­za and satin and net­ting! To save it, all I had to do was click the red Pin It” but­ton on each pho­to, and presto, it appeared on my own per­son­al online bul­letin board. Overnight, Pin­ter­est became my go-to pro­gram, as essen­tial as Microsoft Word. 

This was a piv­otal moment in my writ­ing. The abil­i­ty to call up a trove of curat­ed research pho­tos, avail­able on my phone, com­put­er, or lap­top, bestowed on me the pow­er to bring real­is­tic detail to my writ­ing whether I was sit­ting at my desk in New Jer­sey, stay­ing at a rus­tic camp­site in Mary­land, or vis­it­ing my par­ents in Chicago. 

In the title sto­ry of In the Land of Armadil­los, inspired by events in the life of Bruno Schulz, Sturm­ban­n­fuhrer Max Haas, for­mer­ly of the Ein­satz­grup­pen, takes it upon him­self to pro­tect the Jew­ish cre­ator of his son’s favorite pic­ture book. But Toby, the artist, doesn’t want to be pro­tect­ed: Toby wish­es he was dead. To his own infi­nite aston­ish­ment, Max finds him­self try­ing to restore the artist’s will to live. 

I knew exact­ly what Max would look like: aver­age, ordi­nary, every­man. But when I began to describe his SS uni­form, I was stumped. Shiny black boots, I thought. A red swasti­ka arm­band. After that, I was lost.

I opened up Pin­ter­est and typed Nazi uni­forms.

Still pho­tos from Schindler’s List came up; the ter­ror-inspir­ing, Hugo Boss-designed tunics of the Third Reich.But so did some­thing else, infi­nite­ly stranger: jaun­ty, sporty fash­ion illus­tra­tions from a 1937 Nazi Par­ty hand­book. Here were the infa­mous SS offi­cer uni­forms I sought, with belts and braid and sil­ver light­ning pips and skull badges on the caps; but also gym uni­forms, secu­ri­ty guard uni­forms, the League for Ger­man Girls uni­forms, uni­forms for sailors and hik­ers and chil­dren and wait­ers, all briskly sketched on attrac­tive Ger­man cit­i­zens, strid­ing smart­ly through imag­i­nary fields, or stand­ing about look­ing valiant and vision­ary. These weren’t the bru­tal, baby-killing Nazis of our col­lec­tive post­war mem­o­ry. These draw­ings were the way the Nazis saw them­selves: healthy, whole­some, res­olute, capable. 

Upon see­ing these draw­ings, some­thing clicked inside my head. Max is a mon­ster, a cold-heart­ed mass mur­der­er, but the key to his char­ac­ter is that he doesn’t know it. He sees him­self as a sol­dier and a fam­i­ly man – one who is assigned some unpleas­ant duties in the course of defend­ing the world against the Com­mu­nist threat. 

The fash­ion illus­tra­tions breathed the same delu­sion­al air. And with that, the sto­ry caught fire.

Helen Maryles Shankmans sto­ries have been nom­i­nat­ed for two Push­cart Prizes. She lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band and four children.

Relat­ed Content:

Helen Maryles Shankman’s sto­ries have been nom­i­nat­ed for two Push­cart Prizes and have appeared in The Keny­on Review, Gar­goyle, Cream City Review, 2 Bridges Review, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She lives in New Jer­sey with her hus­band and four children.