YA Books in Review: The Assignment
The Assignment, Liza M. Wiemer, Delacorte Press, 336pp, 2020, £13.70 (hardback)
Liza M. Wiemer’s novel, The Assignment, is a frighteningly realistic portrayal of modern antisemitism in a small-town community that blurs the lines between past and present, fiction and reality. The novel is a fictionalised account of a real assignment that is given to students, which instructs them to debate the Final Solution, the Nazi’s plan for the genocide of the Jewish people. When students Logan March and Cade Crawford protest holding the debate, they clash with their classmates, the school administration, and the wider community. What follows is a powerful polemic against bigotry, discrimination, and antisemitism – a valuable reminder to stand up for one’s morals and beliefs, no matter how unpopular they seem.
‘History is one of our best teachers’, writes Wiemer. ‘Unfortunately, this assignment will show you that society hasn’t learned much at all.’ This sentiment becomes upsettingly clear when the reader hears from Holocaust survivors, who describe how antisemitism still plagues them almost 80 years later. This is particularly important considering that the target audience is a generation for whom the atrocities of the Second World War and its aftermath are no longer in living memory. The survivors’ harrowing accounts of their experiences in Nazi Germany help bridge this gap and give a human face to the atrocities amid a debate that elides emotion and dignity under the pretense of reason. The debate’s dismissal of human suffering results in inadvertently legitimising Nazi thought which comes to fuel hateful beliefs and intolerance among the student population.
In contrast to Logan and Cade’s outrage, their classmates and the school administration exhibit shockingly cavalier attitudes towards the debate. Wiemer deftly demonstrates how mentalities like these that give tacit approval have appalling, tangible ramifications. Before long the student body is alarmingly reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany, as students mimic Nazi salutes and call themselves ‘the Aryans’. The book explores how quickly herd mentality can lead to malicious intent. The Assignment does not explore its antisemitic characters in any great detail. This is no doubt deliberate, yet one wonders whether a more complex depiction of the characters’ inner lives – what drives the acceptance of such abhorrent, hateful beliefs – might contribute a better understanding of the root of this hostility.
But this is not Wiemer’s preoccupation. Rather, the overarching message is a timeless and important one. After Logan and Cade contact journalists to help promulgate their cause, they become the subject of online and real-life harassment. Despite this, they continue to advocate for their beliefs and question authority. During an era of burgeoning youth activism, this is a hugely empowering message for young adults, as the thought of confronting power in a classroom, for many, is a daunting one. Indeed, the reader is constantly challenged to envision themselves in the protagonists’ shoes, to reflect on how they would act—or if they would have the courage to act at all. The challenge is not a new one but is perhaps now more important than ever.
As the last of the survivor generation passes away, there is a growing chasm between younger generations and the horrific consequences of the Final Solution and its pernicious legacy. With antisemitic hate crimes on the rise, literature like The Assignment remains pertinent and vital in in combatting them. By examining the very human evil of Nazi Germany, in a contemporary context, Wiemer highlights the ease at which discrimination is readily normalised. Moreover, the protagonists’ inspiring persistence helps young readers understand their responsibility in holding others accountable and preventing history from repeating itself.
Words by Amadea Hofmann.
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