21 June 2024

Mitch Albom’s new book
‘The Little Liar’ is set
in Jewish Thessaloniki
during the Holocaust

The Little Liar, the new book by Mitch Albom, is set in the Jewish community in Thessaloniki during the Holocaust

Patrick Comerford

The American author Mitch Albom has been a strongly influential spiritual writer with books such as Tuesdays with Morrie (1997) and The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003).

Now he has published a moving new novel, The Little Liar set in Thessaloniki during and after the Holocaust. When the Nazis invade Thessaloniki, a German officer offers Nico Krispis, an 11-year-old Jewish Greek boy a chance to save his family.

Nico must convince his fellow Jewish residents to board trains heading ‘north’, where safety and protection awaits. But when the final train is loaded, Nico sees his family being herded into a boxcar. Only then does he realise that he has helped send them, and everyone he knew, to their doom at Auschwitz. Nico escapes but never tells the truth again.

In The Little Liar, Nico's story is interwoven with those of his family, friends and even the Nazi officer who changed their lives. Through the war years and the decades that follow, Albom reveals the consequences of their decisions, eventually bringing them back to where it all started.

It is a powerful story about how a boy, known for his honesty, becomes a pathological liar after unwittingly helping the Nazis. Reviewers have described the book as a thought-provoking story about truth, war, humanity and loss, in which we are alerted to how often truth is the first causality of war.

For more than two decades, Mitch Albom has been one of the best-selling living Jewish author alive, and his books tend to embrace a much broader and more amorphous definition of faith. He had a Jewish upbringing and education, and he has been involved with Jewish faith leaders in many charities, including an orphanage in Haiti, to which he has flown Rabbi Steven Lindemann of the Temple Beth Sholom in New Jersey.

Tuesdays With Morrie made him a household name, focused on his relationship with Morrie Schwartz, his Jewish mentor at Brandeis University. A follow-up memoir, Have A Little Faith (2009), discussed his relationship with his childhood rabbi, interspersed with his friendship with a local priest.

Sometimes Albom’s characters wander through heaven, which can be a physical place. Sometimes they are granted the ability to spend time with their dead relatives, are admonished for turning their backs on godly ideas like living each moment to its fullest, or are asked to put blind faith in figures who may or may not themselves be God.

Although he has written two memoirs about his Jewish mentors, The Little Liar is the first book in which he has incorporated Judaism openly in his fiction, and is a definitively Jewish story.

Like Jurek Becker’s Holocaust novel Jacob the Liar (1969), this story involves a Jew lying to his people about the Nazis. But he also realised that he did not want to tell a story ‘that began in Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto, all the familiar backdrops.’

Unlike other Holocaust novels, Albom traces the repercussions of that moment for decades, following the events of the Holocaust itself, through four central characters who wrestle with the trauma and violence of their past.

This new book includes great historical detail, from the descriptions of the thriving pre-war Jewish community in Thessaloniki to several real-life figures such as the Hungarian actress and humanitarian Katalin Kárady and the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. But this book is also a morality tale about the nature of truth and lies, and is narrated by Truth itself.

Recent years have seen a rash of Holocaust books, from The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Librarian of Auschwitz to John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. So, in a pre-publication interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Albom admits he did not want to write a ‘Holocaust book’ per se.’ he said.

But, he said, ‘I think as a Jewish writer, I almost felt an obligation, before my career was over, to create a story that hopefully would be memorable enough, set during the Holocaust … I think people remember The Diary of Anne Frank longer than they remember statistical numbers of how many Jews were slaughtered or how many homes were destroyed by the Nazis.’

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at Liberty Square, Thessaloniki … a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid of a menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The original inspiration for this book was a visit to Yad Vashem. However, the book is set apart from other Holocaust books by its setting in Thessaloniki, which once had the largest Jewish population in Europe, and where the overwhelming majority of the city’s 50,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis. There have been Jews in Thessaloniki since 300 BCE, and the Nazis wipe them out in a year or less.

The author lived in Greece for a short time after he left college. After seeing an ad in a newspaper in Athens, he ended up as a nightclub singer and a piano player in a bar in Aghios Nikolaos on n the island of Crete. ‘I could just spend my days in the sunshine and eating the amazing food and being amongst the amazing people,’ he told the interviewer. ‘So I’ve always loved Greece.’

The story does not end with the liberation of the camps, but continues decades later, with scenes of a Jewish character trying to reclaim his old home or of America sheltering Nazis after the war.

He visited Thessaloniki to talk to people there about what happened when the Jews came back, how they did not get back their businesses and their homes, and the new sets of problems the survivors faced, and even ‘certain things they don’t want to talk about.’

As for Crete, he has never forgotten his time in Aghios Nikolaos in his 20s. He says on Instagram: ‘I’ve always had a fantasy about going back to that same resort where I worked and getting my old job back as a piano player and seeing what it would be like now, all those years later, and if it would still be as much fun.’

Shabbat Shalom

The first train deporting Greek Jews from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp left on 15 March 1943 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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