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Holocaust Nightmares Led to Book About Life in Death Camp : Literature: Neither Sherri Szeman nor any members of her family were imprisoned. Szeman is not even Jewish. But, she says, there were voices in her head demanding to get out. "The Kommandant's Mistress" was the result.


YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio — Sherri Szeman's nightmares about being in a Nazi concentration camp would not go away. So she wrote about them, and they did.

The result is a powerful, detail-rich novel titled "The Kommandant's Mistress" that suggests a firsthand account of life and death in World War II Germany.

The irony is that neither the 37-year-old poet-professor nor any members of her family were ever in a concentration camp and are not even Jewish. In addition, Szeman knew little about the Holocaust until she began researching it.

"Ever since I was young I've had nightmares that I was in the concentration camps, and I don't know why," Szeman said. "As I got older, they got more and more intense. Pretty soon they were waking me up. Finally I just decided it was a message."

Szeman said she is surprised at the success of her book.

The 273-page novel is in its fifth printing, with 10,000 copies published, according to Rose Carrano of HarperCollins Publishers. The book is being sold in the United States and eight foreign countries, including Russia.

The novel portrays the relationship between the commander of a Nazi concentration camp and the Jewish inmate he makes his mistress.

The book is divided into three parts, first giving the commander's narrative, then the inmate's story, and finally straightforward, antiseptic biographies of the two as they might have been presented in a history book.

Szeman (SEH-mon) said she used that format "to make you think about what we call truth and what we call history, and that there is no absolute truth, and even history is biased. It is always through a human perspective."

The details of the novel are what fascinate readers--from the black human soot that pours from chimneys of the camp's ovens, covering everything with grime, to the mayhem and terror that greet Jews as they arrive at the camp.

Szeman said many people who read the book, including survivors of concentration camps, believed that she must have been there to be able to write such a story. But she insists the details were from her dreams.

"If their voices woke me up, they would not let me go to sleep until I got up and wrote it down," she said. "It would be like they were hammering on my head from the inside, saying, 'You have to write this down."'

Author Patrick McGrath, who reviewed the book for The New York Times, called it powerful--"a startling fresh take on the psychology of the victims of the Holocaust and the perpetrators."

He said a novelist does not have to experience a phenomenon firsthand to write about it effectively.

"In a certain way, the Holocaust isn't history," McGrath said. "It's somehow still with us. . . . In a sense, we're all still working with it. Whether one was present or whether one's family was involved is sort of irrelevant."

Szeman, who is single, was born in Dayton and reared in the area. She is an associate professor at Central State University in nearby Wilberforce, where she teaches English literature and creative writing.

"Since I was 7 years old, I wanted to write," she said. "And by the time I was 12, I was writing stories. By the time I went to college I made the decision to be a writer."

Szeman pursued a career in education to support herself while she was writing.

The first years of her writing career were devoted to poetry. She said an earlier novel took her three years to write, but that she could find no interest among publishers.

"I did everything wrong," she said. "But I think it taught me how to write fiction."

Szeman began writing poems about her dreams about 10 years ago. But she said that the poems kept getting longer and that when she stopped writing them, the nightmares about the concentration camps would return.

"I felt like I heard the kommandant's voice saying, 'Tell my story,' " she said. So in 1991 she decided to try another novel.

She began reading books on World War II Germany, viewed documentary films and even interviewed survivors of concentration camps. Then she went to work on her home computer, finishing the project in a year.

In her novel, Szeman uses what McGrath calls a "switchword style," in which scenes change abruptly, turning on a single word or theme. She said it was designed in part to force the reader to pay attention.

"And I was just trying to imitate how your mind operates," she said. "It's like stream of consciousness in a way, but it's much more focused because I don't see the point in rambling."

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