Dr. Doug Skopp Finishing Holocaust Novel a Triumph Over Adversity
The satisfaction a novelist feels when typing those two words — The End — is hard to quantify.
For Doug Skopp, it was nothing short of a miracle.
Wakening to Blessings
The retired history professor and college historian is the author of the novel “Shadows Walking,” a labor of love and hate about a Nazi physician at Auschwitz who escapes prosecution with stolen identification papers.
“I hated it,” Skopp said. “I never enjoyed writing it. I know there were ways I could have made it more compelling, but what I wanted to do was get inside the mind of an average doctor who allows himself to become indoctrinated into the Nazis.”
But he had a mission, a compulsion to finish the 451-page exploration of a corrupted mind in part because of what he calls his own blessings.
“I live a very blessed, wonderfully privileged life. I’ve never had to confront evil though many of my family were killed in the Holocaust,” Skopp, who is Jewish, said. “I never felt the stain of anti-Semitism or the brutality suffered by people in the book. I never felt endangered. Writing the book woke me up to how blessed I am and how precariously our lives are balanced.”
His own, included.
Writing Against the Clock
Several years ago, Skopp was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which has now metastasized to his brain and lungs, among other areas. His own mortality became his deadline.
“This is just the card I was dealt,” he said. “Compared to the events I describe in my novel, it’s a walk in the park. And having cancer turned out to be a blessing in many ways. I would probably be on the 15th draft now, instead of looking at what is the published 14th draft. I finished the book probably because I had cancer.”
Getting into the Mind of a Nazi
It wasn’t until he truly entered the mind of his fictional antagonist, Dr. Johann Brenner, that he truly knew what evil felt like.
“To be effective, I couldn’t avoid getting into his thinking process and still have him be authentic,” Skopp said. “I had to think like him and choose what he would choose. That’s terribly powerful.”
Skopp started the groundwork for creating his character, whom he called “a monster,” in 1985 during a Fulbright Grant for research and teaching that brought him to Germany. When he returned to SUNY Plattsburgh, he launched immediately into writing the campus history, “Bright with Promise,” which was released in 1989 in time for the college’s centennial celebration. He and Brenner became acquainted soon after. But writing about the doctor didn’t come easily.
“It took me nine years to describe his first violent act,” Skopp said. In that, Skopp goes into grim detail about how Brenner began the systematic castration of prisoners at Auschwitz. “I sat at the computer for two hours telling myself, ‘You have to write it.’ I wrote the first sentence and began to weep. I knew I crossed the line.
“Once I wrote those violent sentences, I became like him. I had a sense of complacency and distancing. I didn’t like that in me, either.”
To atone for those feelings, Skopp said he returned to the Nuremberg archives to read the transcripts and pushed himself again to feel the anguish.
“I found myself bowing back and forth from hating the character to feeling what he felt, having empathy for him,” he said. “But I didn’t want him to be forgiven, either.”
The ‘Most Exhilarated Teaching’ in Years
The upside to having written “Shadows Walking” has been the schools and universities using the novel within the context of teaching about the Holocaust, Skopp said. The University of Alabama used the book last semester in a religion course. Here at SUNY Plattsburgh, Dr. Richard Schaefer used it in his course on German history. In Lake Placid, a combined language arts and social studies class read it, chapter by chapter, from October through January.
“I visited the class at the school four times,” Skopp said. “The entire class then came to the college to speak with me and Drs. Richard Schaefer and Vincent Carey in the history department. We then toured Feinberg’s Holocaust Memorial collection. It’s been the most exhilarated teaching I’ve had in years.
“I’ve always been careful when teaching German history to distinguish between Germans and Nazis. For me, that’s the whole purpose of studying history — to see the variety and similarities between us as human beings. If we can try to understand working things through, trying to do the right thing — we become more aware of ourselves and are prepared to make choices we feel are the right choices.”