Illuminating the Future: The Importance of Holocaust Literature

The Holocaust Memorial of Valašské Meziříčí, Czech Republic. Image Credit: Radim Holiš | Wikimedia Commons

April is a reminder of spring, a celebration of poetry, and the start of much new life. However, it is also a time to remember the depths of human suffering and not shy away from our horrific communal history.

In less than a month, the world will see the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day, when the German military signed an unconditional surrender agreement, ending World War II on the continent. This moment started the freeing of thousands of prisoners in killing camps, work camps, and concentration camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Thousands died after the camps were liberated, already too starved and sick to carry on.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany. Image via

This year, April 12 marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we pause to reflect on our past and the millions of lives lost—and thousands saved—over the course of the Shoah. Today there are less than half a million Holocaust survivors left, including those who lived under Occupied rule during the war, even if they were not sent to camps. However, the number is dropping fast, as even the youngest survivors are now in their eighties and nineties. They are scattered all over the world, with some living in poverty and most still haunted by the loss of family and the memories of torture and dehumanization by their own governments.

As survivors dwindle and echoes of the actions leading to the Holocaust can be heard today, it is more important than ever to remember and learn from the lessons of the past so we do not risk repeating it. If you are interested in making the historical journey this month, here are some resources to get you started:

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The website for the famous museum, located in Washington, D.C., has countless resources for a variety of ages, both print and digital, including videos, interviews, pictures, articles, and documents.

Estelle Laughlin, Holocaust survivor and public speaker. Image Credit: Joshua Polson | The Greenley Tribune

The curators have also helpfully divided their material into themes, including Early Warning Signs, Justice and Accountability, Liberation 1945, Rescue, and American Responses. The Early Warning Signs material is especially appropriate now as the world confronts the Syrian chemical attacks and the fate of thousands of refugees.

On the site’s “Why We Remember the Holocaust” video, survivor Estelle Laughlin says it best: “That’s not enough to curse the darkness of the past. Above all, we have to illuminate the future. And I think that on the Day of Remembrance the most important thing is to remember the humanity that is in all of us to leave the world better for our children and for posterity.”

Rose Under Fire and Lilac Girls

Both of these novels tell the stories of the “Ravensbrück Rabbits,” a group of 74 female Polish political prisoners who were forced to endure heinous medical experiments. These experiments were supposedly to test the efficacy of drugs and the recovery rates of war wounds, but in practice inflicted permanent damage by cutting open the women’s legs and introducing bacteria and foreign objects and also fracturing or removing bone. Another 12 women of different nationalities were also subjected to these types of experiments. Many of the Rabbits were very young—either high school or university students—and needed medical treatment after being freed for decades in order to gain back use of their legs or even just live healthy lives.

Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein is a young adult novel and a companion to her earlier World War II book, Code Name Verity, which depicts a young female spy captured by German forces. Rose Under Fire features the desperate fight for survival by the Rabbits through the eyes of a stranded American female pilot brought to the all-women concentration camp as a political prisoner. There, she bands together with fellow prisoners to keep one another alive, and possibly even escape. The book has been a finalist for numerous awards, winning the Josette Frank Award and the Schneider Family Book Award and being named an honor book of the Golden Kite Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the ABA Indies Choice Award for Young Adult.


Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is a historical fiction novel told from the perspectives of three different women living in the U.S., Poland, and Germany. The first is Caroline, a young American woman working at the French consulate in 1939 who sees the increased desperation for visas from the French as Germany takes over Poland. She is based on a real woman who helped the Rabbits receive treatment after the war in the U. S. The second is Kasia, a fictional Rabbit who starts as a high school girl working for the Polish resistance before being captured by the Nazis. She becomes a target of the experiments carried out by real-life German surgeon Herta Oberheuser, who was the only woman to work as a doctor in the camp. As the story continues, their lives become increasingly intertwined and complicated by their experiences. Lilac Girls is unique in attempting to cover a Nazi doctor’s perspective, especially a female doctor. The book has become a New York Times bestseller since its release in 2016 and was dubbed a USA Today “New and Noteworthy” book. The true story of the Rabbits is currently being adapted into a documentary film called Saving the Rabbits of Ravensbrück by producer/director Stacey Fitzgerald, assisted by Lilac Girls author Martha Hall Kelly.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

The railway gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, now the site of a memorial and museum. Image via

The name Auschwitz is infamous throughout much of the world, but the website dedicated to recording the history of the largest concentration camp and extermination center of the Holocaust offers tons of information.

Under the history page, visitors can find information about day-to-day life in the camps, the different classifications of prisoners and their treatment, and the systematic killing prisoners, particularly Jews. Each section is brief, but packed with facts of some of the worst crimes perpetuated against human beings. There are also further details broken down by time period, affected population, and category. The education page also has extensive online lessons for students of all ages.

While it is tempting to turn our heads from the truth of the Holocaust, there is still more to learn so we can stop the process of genocide as soon as the familiar signs start to appear. Stay vigilant, stay informed.

Read Like You Mean It

How to Meet Your 2018 Reading Goals

If you’re reading this blog, chances are good you are a fan of books. Frankly, I consider reading to be one of the cheapest and easiest forms of relaxing entertainment there is. Still, it feels like many people only watch their To-Be-Read piles grow as they agonize over which book to give their precious free time and attention.

It doesn’t have to be that way. That doesn’t mean sign up for a speed-reading class so you can read The Iliad and The Odyssey in a single sitting (although that does sound like an interesting marathon to undertake!). Instead, here are some practical tips on how to enjoy more books in 2018 without stressing about what you have left unread:

1. Stash books like a squirrel does food in October, but be systematic. If reading historical fiction always helps you sleep, then that new World War II novel definitely belongs on the bedside table. Even if you only get through ten pages a night before drifting off, you are letting books relax you instead of checking out another Facebook image gallery of bad family portraits. Have a basket in the bathroom? Put a fun book like Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader in there instead of collecting extra carrots on Farmville. Laundry room? Romance! Living room? Fantasy sounds fun. Whatever you do around the house, there’s a book for that.

2. If you feel like you’re always waiting–for a meeting to start, for a train or a bus, for an appointment, for that annoying neighbor to quiet down–then audiobooks could be the right choice for you. As services like Audible become more popular and accessible every day, you can get books downloaded to your phone for cheap without having to haul CDs back and forth from the library. Listen to the soothing voices of famous actors, authors, or just voice talents extraordinaire recreate a favorite book or help you fall in love with something new.

3. Even those of us who bemoan that we don’t have enough time for a proper meal do have to sit and eat once in a while. And sure, you may eat lunch while you work on that big report, but there are at least two other meals in the day! Instead of zoning out with another episode of the bachelor after work, pick up a mystery, thriller, or other cliffhanger-style book to keep you reading until the last available second. Or, have poetry with your corn puffs and compliment yourself on starting the day with your brain all warmed up.

4. Lastly, don’t forget to count the reading you’re already doing. None of us can go through a day without reading, whether it’s advertisements, news stories, tweets, sports scores, or emails. Remember that even if you’re not picking up Dickens every day, you are still doing a lot of important reading and learning that helps you be inquisitive about the world. Try keeping a reading log and see how much you actually get through in a week; you could be happily surprised. Plus, you can already add this post to your list!

#BiWeek Books


Everyone knows about Pride in the summer—you can’t turn on the news or walk into a gay bar without being reminded there’s a giant party going on. But, as the pumpkin spice lattes return to shelves and we eat Halloween candy by the fistful, a quieter celebration is taking place. September 17 – 24 is #BiWeek 2017, and it is no less important to celebrate than Pride or National Coming Out Week or other queer holidays. In fact, since the bisexual community faces opposition from parts of queer community as well as from the straight majority, it can be even more difficult to find accurate, interesting portrayals of bisexual people in media.

So get ready for some bisexual pride! After scouring the blogosphere, reader reviews, and publishers’ pages, I’ve found some books to help everyone celebrate, and for allies like myself, maybe even learn something. The following are placed in categories, so hopefully there’s a little something for everyone. All the resources used for this article are linked at the bottom.


Purple Prose: Bisexuality in Britain, edited by Kate Harrad, Thorntree Press

This is a collection of essays for bi people by bi people. Simple as that. And it isn’t just relevant for British folks either. The chapters address intersectionalities—bisexual and disabled, bisexual black and minority ethnic people, bisexuals and faith—as well as common myths, monogamy and dating, workplace encounters, allies, and activism, among others. It won The Bookbag’s Non-fiction Book of the Month award when it came out in September 2016.


A Cup of Water Under My Bed, Daisy Hernandez, Beacon Press

Hernandez separates her book into three sections—family, sexuality, and work/class. She writes of the weavings between her biracial Colombian/Cuban heritage and her bisexuality fluidly, and her poetic inspirations shape the feel of the book. It is a dynamic look at intersectionality and the challenges of moving away from one’s family.


The Body’s Alphabet, Ann Tweedy, Headmistress Press

Tweedy’s collection moves through the facets of motherhood, from the speaker’s grandmother-mother relationship to her own mother-daughter relationship and that of her relationship with her new baby. Later on sexuality and nature are addressed more directly. This is Tweedy’s first full book of poetry, but she has had other work published in queer magazines and journals.


The Color Purple, Alice Walker, Harcourt

This queer classic from 1982 tackles numerous issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality. A Pulitzer Prize winner and National Book Award winner, Walker’s novel is told in Celie’s letters as she fights her way through an abusive childhood and into an ever-changing adulthood. If you haven’t read it yet, this is a great time to start.


Queer, There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World, Sarah Prager, HarperCollins

This middle-grade to YA-friendly history book discusses the famous and the revolutionary people who were queer in some fashion or rumored to be. While some readers found the people mentioned to be limited in its global view (almost all the figures are from North America or Europe), it still makes for a positive jumping-off point in documenting queer history. Also, the fact that the book is geared towards younger readers will hopefully mean a greater curiosity around queer history in future generations.

Young Adult:

How to Make a Wish, Ashley Harring Blake, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) Books for Young Readers

This YA drama centers on Grace Glasser, a 17-year old biracial and bisexual teen. The main conflict is between Grace and her mother, Maggie, who moves between locations and boyfriends without concern for her daughter’s welfare or how the bills will get paid. While the book may not be perfect—it seems no YA book is—the author is actually bi, which lends the book more credit, and Grace is able to have a romantic relationship with a girl and a platonic friendship with a boy without things becoming a clichéd love triangle.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson, Knopf (U.S. edition)

This internationally best-selling thriller needs almost no introduction. And of course, the ass-kicking hacker Lisbeth Salander hardly needs one either. Salander may have an incredibly traumatic past, but her sexuality is clear and just part of Salander’s dynamic character. If you’re in the mood for a bad-guys-getting-their-due kind of book, this is for you.

Graphic Novel:

The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One, Michael, Dante DiMartino, Dark Horse Comics

While Turf Wars is pretty far along in the Legend of Korra storyline, this newest title finally explores the relationship confirmed by both the creators and hinted at in the animated television series. Korra’s character and identity are not defined solely by her sexuality; and, despite the hardships she and her friends face in the conflicts between different Benders, it’s a pretty uplifting series. This is definitely a welcome change from other depictions of LGBTQIA folks, and it is well worth checking out.


Young Avengers, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Marvel Comics

This breakthrough series was embraced by comic book fans for explicitly confirming the sexualities of several superhero/villain favorites, in addition to just being cool. It has one of the first characters to ever say “I’m bisexual,” and it also includes many other identities and orientations on the LGBTQIA spectrum.



Q&A and excerpt from A Cup of Water Under My Bed:

A lovely bi book club list with even more genres:

A blog dedicated to bisexual books of all categories:

A discussion of queer comic book characters:

Even more bi books:

Award-winning books with bisexual themes and characters:

Reviews of The Body’s Alphabet:

More resources for #BiWeek:

Free Expression for Free: On (not) charging reading fees for submissions

On April 1st, the New Rivers Press General Submissions window opened on our website and Submittable pages. This submission period is open to all writers, from creative nonfiction to short story to poetry. For the full list of accepted pieces, visit our General Submissions about page on our website. Best of all, submissions of any kind during this period are free. Why? Because we believe in opening opportunities for all writers.

This has been a continuing struggle for many independent presses in the United States. How does a nonprofit independent press balance the steep costs of printing with the needs of our authors and readers? Many presses have been forced to charge reading fees in recent years as revenues steadily decline and readership drops.

However, charging reading fees means writers at the greatest disadvantage, such as those who are in lower socioeconomic classes, would be unable to submit to more than a few contests, denting their chances of getting published. That is why this topic has become such a dilemma–presses must choose whether to charge reading fees or to take a loss on a book/not pay an author any honorariums or advances.

New Rivers Press is committed to publishing new and emerging writers of all classes and backgrounds, so we offer our general submission period with free submissions every summer. We do charge entry fees for our annual contests, American Fiction and the Many Voices Project, but we have to pay our finalist judges, and the winners of those contests receive monetary prizes. We are able to do this in part because of generous support from foundations and individuals like you. If you want to donate to support our mission of keeping writing open for all, just click the link under the Donate tab on the right side or visit the MSUM Alumni Foundation page. And writers, please take advantage of this free opportunity to submit to New Rivers Press today.

Alan Davis on His Time with New Rivers

This year, Alan Davis started the transition from senior editor at New Rivers Press to senior editor emeritus. He has also switched his main focus from teaching at MSUM to writing, which he has done on the side for many years. Intern Anna interviewed Davis in February from his sunny perch in Arizona. The following is their full conversation on Davis’ time with the press and plans for future endeavors.

Q: What made you decide to get involved with bringing the press to a new location?
A: I was a New Rivers Press author, a two-time winner of its MVP competition for Rumors from the Lost World in 1993 and Alone with the Owl in 2000. I had also co-edited four volumes of American Fiction for the press (1996-2000). When Bill Truesdale, its beloved, idiosyncratic founder, died in 2001, NRP went into suspension. My colleague Wayne Gudmundson and I negotiated with MSUM [Minnesota State University Moorhead] and with NRP to relocate it to Moorhead in order to save the press. We agreed to make it a teaching press so that students could learn about the publishing business from the inside out, which pleased MSUM, and to honor Truesdale’s primary mission: to publish the best work we could find by new and emerging writers, especially those residing in Minnesota and the upper Midwest. That commitment convinced the NRP board of directors that the press, once revived, would be in good hands.

Q: What was your previous publishing experience before working with New Rivers?
A: New Rivers published my first two books before I was associated with the press. I had reviewed hundreds of books for the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Kirkus Reviews, and elsewhere, co-edited American Fiction for ten years, and published dozens of stories and poems in various literary journals. My colleague, Wayne Gudmundson, had produced books of photography, many of them documentaries that included work by his Mass Communication students.

Q: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced in reinventing the press as a teaching press?
A: Each press has its traditions, its history and, if successful, its unique duende (a distinctive quality of spirit and passion). Our job was to continue to honor NRP’s past while turning the page and incorporating all aspects of operations into a university curriculum while keeping the passion and innovation of an independent press alive. I think we achieved that goal, and I have every reason to believe that the new team, which is in the process of replacing me this semester, will do the same. I’m excited that Kevin Carollo (Senior Editor), Travis Dolence (Director), and Nayt Rundquist (Managing Editor)—the troika—have agreed to band together to run the press, and that President Blackhurst and many other administrators have voiced their support for it to continue, hopefully for many years to come.

Q: What was one unexpected lesson you learned in your time as senior editor?
A: As a leader of a teaching press, I often had to bite my tongue so that others could learn through their mistakes. Without such patience, I might have completed necessary work in solitude and with more precision, but the point of the press is to pass on such work to others so that they can take chances, make mistakes, and learn in the process (and sometimes, of course, do a better job than I would have done). Under supervision, students edit books, design covers, and assist in all the work required to publish and market a book in today’s brave, new world. I always felt blessed to be paid to do such work.

Q: Which of our older titles do you still have a soft spot for?
A: Lisa Gill’s Mortar and Pestle, an astonishing book of poetry written in the aftermath of an MS diagnosis, is a profound work of the imagination that incorporates a great deal of lore and learning. Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, a memoir about many things, but centered on his sexual abuse at the hands of his baseball coach, a serial molester that the book helped bring to justice, is a powerful testament to the ability of literature to witness the world with grace and bravery. Michael Hettich is one of the best poets writing today; it was a pleasure to reach out to him and convince him to work with us to publish Flock and Shadow: New and Selected Poems. When I need a pick-me-up, I often open that book at random and read.

Q: What is the book you most enjoyed working on as senior editor?
A: As a father I do my best not to play favorites between my son and daughter. I feel the same as an editor. There are some books where I worked with the writer on major and substantive revisions; others needed only a minor copy-editing to be proof-ready. The pleasure of seeing the book in print is the same whatever the labor involved. I’m often happiest, perhaps, when we publish a writer’s first book, because I well remember the feeling of seeing my own first collection of stories in print for the first time, followed a week or so later by a wonderful review in the New York Times written by Dorothy Allison.

Q: Is there one aspect of the press that you will miss in switching your focus to your writing?
A: The labor often kept me from my own work, but there’s nothing quite like reading a manuscript after hours or days of bleary-eyed persistence and feeling the hairs on the back of your neck prickle because you’ve happened upon the real thing: a book that matters and that was written with care and grace and rocks your world.

Q: What are your most exciting/ambitious plans after retiring from New Rivers?
A:I think of myself as moving on, not retiring, and will continue to teach in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program in Mystic, Connecticut. I still live in Moorhead, so I’ll haunt the campus on occasion as an Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Editor to attend book launches and readings. My wife (who retired from teaching kindergarten) and I will travel both here in the States and abroad, first to Norway, where my son is engaged to a wonderful Norwegian woman he met when she was an exchange student at Concordia and MSUM.

I’m also still working with the press and with Thom Tammaro as co-editor to select and prepare an anthology of poems that will contain 100 poems by 100 poets who were inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan. I look forward to seeing that anthology published and working hard to promote it.

And, of course, I hope to have much more time for my own work, which includes two novels, a fourth collection of stories, a first collection of poems, and a series of nonfiction pieces. If the god and goddess are kind, I hope to be healthy and productive for many years to come. Knock on wood.