Jean-Jacques Greif Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Jean-Jacques Greif

Jean-Jacques Greif

Jean-Jacques Greif: jon-jak greff (the j is pronounced in the French style, like the j in déjà vu. The author says that in France his name is usually pronounced greff, in Germany they tend to rhyme it with life, and in English with grief - anyway is fine with him!

An interview with Jean-Jacques Greif

Jean-Jacques Greif’s father, Lonek, was a prisoner in Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland, when Greif was born in the fall of 1944. Arrested just two weeks after his son was conceived, Lonek survived the horrors of the camp, and returned home six months after his son’s birth.

Since first hearing about Auschwitz as a young boy, Jean-Jacques Greif has been captivated by stories of the Holocaust and how survivors’ experiences shaped their lives and history and considers it to be a defining moment in his life. After writing several books in which the Holocaust played a minor role, he felt the need to write one in which it provides the main setting—and is itself a character. That book is The Fighter, based on the story of Maurice Gabarz, a friend of his father.

What follows is a conversation between Mr. Greif and his editor, Jill Davis, about the writing and the translation of The Fighter.

When you were a child, did your father talk about his experiences in Auschwitz?
It is said that Auschwitz survivors didn’t talk about the camp because other people couldn’t understand. If this is true, then they could talk to other survivors. When I was two or three, I hid under the kitchen table while my father and his friend Pierrot, who had been a prisoner in the camp of Buchenwald, compared their experiences. The last time I saw both of them together—Pierrot in his eighties and my father past ninety—they still compared Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Before I had heard about Snow White and Cinderella, I knew that mothers promised their babies a good shower after three days in the cattle car and that poisoned gas rained down instead of water. I grew up in Paris. I heard a lot about the war. French people talked about it all the time.

Why did you want to tell the story of Maurice, more than any other survivor you knew?
My father’s story would have been an easy choice. I did write it a few years later. While he was extremely lucky (like all the survivors), his story was untypical: because he was a doctor, he found a safe job in the hospital. I wanted to tell a shocking story. So I chose Maurice’s, which I had always found the most hair-raising one. He worked in the early gas chambers. He was my father’s friend, but not a doctor. He was a leather worker, born a very poor orphan in Warsaw, who learned to fight for his bread in the streets. Later, in Paris, he was an amateur boxer. In the camp, the German Army, called the Schutzstaffel (SS) tried to set up a fight between him, a tiny flyweight fellow, and a tall dying guy, whom they hoped he’d kill with one blow.

Based on what you heard under the table as a young boy, and from what you’ve relayed in The Fighter, the stories you heard were disturbingly graphic and emotionally wrought. What made you decide to turn these stories of adult survivors into books for young adults?
There was a time when my wife and I founded a school, and I wrote things for my pupils. This was the start of my career as a writer of "young adult" novels. My first published books were about talking chimpanzees, Japanese warriors, Marilyn Monroe. But then I thought I’d try to do something with these war stories my parents’ friends had confided in me. So I wrote Children, We’re at War, about a Jewish boy who spends the war in a summer camp in Mimizan-Plage, south of Bordeaux; then Kama, about a girl who lives in Warsaw and flees to Central Asia with her parents. But I felt my books about the war were much too sweet. They remained at the edge of things. I needed to explore the core of the horror, which had resided deep inside my mind as far as I remembered. I must write a book about Auschwitz, I thought.

What about the claim that there are too many books about the Holocaust?
There are certainly a large enough number of books "about the Holocaust". I never intended to write one more such book. I write books about people who try to follow the hard paths of life the best way they can. When you have a strong hero following a hard path, you have a good story.

In France, teenagers study this book during the first year of senior high [ninth grade], as part of World War II and Holocaust studies. I often visit them. They ask me why I’ve written so many books about the war. I tell them they are not books about the war, but books about people facing moral dilemmas. These events may happen in daily life, but things become rougher and clearer during a war. For example, many people in France had a moral choice between denouncing Jews—or Resistance fighters, etc.—and helping them.

Moshe has a choice. He can either kill the tall guy, who is dying anyway, and save his own life, or refuse to kill him and probably be killed himself by the angry SS. This is one of the central scenes of the book. I thought it might interest young people.

Given that your motivation to write The Fighter was to tell a story about everyday human struggle, and not write a Holocaust novel, how do you respond to those who try and categorize this as another book about life in a Concentration Camp?
World War II was the best of all recent wars for good stories, I think. I like this war (as a novelist) because I was raised by people who talked a lot about it.

When I was a kid, most of the movies took place during the war, with brave Americans fighting nasty Nazis. The war stories in movies or books sometimes pitted brave French Résistance fighters against the nasty Nazis, or those marvelous English guys who deciphered the secret Enigma code. There were not many good stories about the death camps, however.

While there was Elie Wiesel's Night, Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, in these stories, the narrator is a witness. I don't recall reading stories with an actual hero or let's say a "strong hero." So, I decided to write one. I pretend that, far from being "yet another book on the same topic," it is the very first book with a Don Quixote-like hero fighting the Nazis in Auschwitz. It is not a book about the Holocaust of the Jews. It is book about a great Jewish hero. People have said the Jews went to the slaughter like sheep. Well, this Jewish hero fought like a lion and won.

The hero of the book is an adult. In what way is this a book for younger readers?
As a child, I used to read The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, or Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. I connected well enough with the heroes of these books, although they were adults. When someone asks me in what way my books are aimed at young adults, I answer they are written simply, with lots of dialogue and jokes.

To read more of the conversation Jean-Jacques Greif and his editor, Jill Davis, visit

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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