The Book that Changed My Life: Sophie’s Choice
I spent weeks thinking about it. I remember wanting, trying, to understand the evil it describes, writes Baroness Helic. | PA Images
In the latest in our series on the books that have influenced or inspired Parliamentarians, Baroness Helic describes how William Styron’s novel drove her to seek answers to history’s darkest chapters.
‘Reading Sophie’s Choice made the six million victims come alive to me, as individuals”
“I have never stopped looking for an explanation for the Holocaust”
As a student of English Literature at Sarajevo University I loved Austen, James, Woolf, Conrad, the Brontës. Yet it was William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice that had the most profound – even devastating – impact upon me. I remember reading it in one go, then returning to it again and again. I spent weeks thinking about it. I remember wanting, trying, to understand the evil it describes.
For those who don’t know it, it is set in Brooklyn in 1947. Stingo, an aspiring writer, shares a boarding house with two lovers, Sophie and Nathan. Their extravagant life captures his imagination, but obscures Sophie’s real story: she is an Auschwitz survivor with a terrible secret, a woman who escaped the gas chamber while making a heart wrenching choice. I had studied the horrors of the Holocaust. I was aware of the facts. But reading Sophie’s Choice made the six million victims come alive to me, as individuals.
I went on to study history and chose National Socialism as one of my subjects. I was seeking to fathom the perversion of humanity that exterminated nearly two out of every three European Jews. I read, I researched, and I passed my exams, but I did not find the answer.
In the years since, I have reread Sophie’s Choice repeatedly. I have never stopped looking for an explanation for the Holocaust, and for the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Myanmar and Darfur. I am still hopeful – even as I agree with a passage from the end of the novel, where Styron writes: “No one will ever understand Auschwitz… The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?" And the answer: "Where was man?"’
Baroness Helic is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.