Every year at this time, we count down the longlists to the shortlists to the winners of The Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, and we speculate who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature (this year given to Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah). It’s unfortunate the media gives the Dayton Literary Peace Prize only a wallflowered brief mention.
Perhaps it’s because the gala takes place in a small city in a flyover state; and yet, it was here in 1995 that diplomats from around the world gathered to find a way to end the Bosnian War. The peace agreement was reached at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base just east of the city on November 21, 1995. The Dayton Peace Accords were formally signed shortly after in Paris on December 14. The annual literary award, inspired by that successful historic event, celebrates the power of the written word to promote peace. It is given to one book of adult fiction and one of adult non-fiction.
This year’s fiction winner, We Germans by Alexander Starritt, was among my list of 2020 favorite books, a letter from a grandfather to his 30-something grandson, Callum. It is found after his grandfather dies, breaking the vow “never ever to tell anyone what I’d seen on the Eastern Front.” The scribe and character we know as Meissner lays bare the World War II atrocities he experienced, particularly in retreat from the Russians the autumn of 1944. Meissner recounts starvation, murder, and treason; an ingenious capture of a Russian tank; and time spent as a prisoner of war in Stalin’s gulag. He writes about collective guilt and his shame and the moral abyss of war’s very nature. Richard Bausch, a 2021 finalist judge of the peace prize, says “a portrait emerges of a man with blood on his hands, trying to explain to his grandson how it was, how it truly was.” In one of many soul-baring passages, Meissner writes this to Callum:
When I ask myself whether we were all immoral, or whether having done wrong makes us evil men, I think that we were blemished by the consequences of what other people decided. No one ever has complete responsibility for his own moral balance. And the unforgiving truth, the severe, ancient truth, is that you can be culpable for something that you weren’t in control of.
And me, personally? That’s what I’ve been trying to answer.
Ariana Neumann won this year’s non-fiction award for When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains. It also is a story of World War II and a response to the silence of one who experienced it, in this case Ariana’s father Hans Neumann. I’ve not read the book, so I’m not as connected to it as I am with the fiction winner; however, its 4+ rating from thousands of readers on Goodreads indicates it hits the mark of significant impact. Hans Neumann (similar to the fictional Meissner leaving a letter to his grandson) left his daughter a box of letters, diary entries, and other memorabilia after he died. It took her 10 years to summon the courage to have the material translated so she could read it. That effort launched her into a worldwide investigation of what happened to her father and her relatives. Of thirty-four Neumann family members, twenty-five were murdered by the Nazis, the first in 1941 after bathing in a river forbidden to the Jews. Hans miraculously survived by living in plain sight of the Gestapo in Berlin. Garnette Cadogan, a 2021 finalist judge of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, says this about the memoir in her citation:
The nitty-gritty of Neumann’s investigations are as compelling as the moving portraits of her family: we are given stories of striking intimacy, rendered with wit and anticipation and sensitivity, and are invited to turn our attention to the revelations as much as the telling silences. Of the many Holocaust memoirs I’ve read, none has been as gripping as Neumann’s extraordinary story.
A copy of When Time Stopped is now on my reading table, and I can’t wait to get started. That’s a benefit of literary prizes to readers: we learn about great books we otherwise might miss. For more information about the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, I encourage you to visit the DLPP website. There you’ll find the titles of the two runners-up and much more.