Local author Liza Wiemer has taught at many local synagogues. Now, she’s offering lessons through her latest novel, which is about students debating the merits of Nazism in school.
The work of fiction is based on real–life events that she stumbled upon.
The young adult novel “The Assignment” will be released Aug. 25. The novel tells the story of two students who protest an assignment requiring them to debate the “Final Solution” — the Nazi plan for the mass murder of Jews.
The plot is based on a real assignment given to high schoolers in Oswego, New York. Half of the class was tasked with writing an argumentative essay in favor of the “Final Solution” and half would argue against. Wiemer was inspired to write the novel after she met a student from the real-life class at a 2017 book signing for her first young adult novel, “Hello?” in Oswego.
“There are certain things in life that we must draw a moral line at and never cross,” Wiemer said. “Debating how to exterminate Jews is one of those things.”
Wiemer grew up in Whitefish Bay and now lives in Fox Point. Before becoming a full-time author, Wiemer worked as a Jewish educator. She has enjoyed teaching at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Shalom, Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation Beth El-Ner Talmid, Milwaukee Community Hebrew School, Bader Hillel Academy, and Jewish Beginnings – Lubavitch Preschool.
Wiemer said her background as a teacher helped her grasp how someone might justify the assignment as “creative” or an exercise in critical thinking.
In the first draft of the novel, Wiemer wrote the teacher as a descendant of Nazis “trying to understand how human beings could do something so vile.” While editing, she omitted his Nazi ancestry and tried to make him more relatable.
“I hope, honestly, at some point during the novel that you yourself may have even questioned — maybe Mr. Bartley is right,” Wiemer said. “And then through the journey of reading the book, you’re like, ‘oh boy, this really is wrong.’ ”
Although the book is entirely fictional, Wiemer said she conducted extensive research before writing. She took a four–day trip to Oswego, visited museums and conducted interviews with experts in antisemitism.
The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter mentioned in the novel — the only refugee shelter established in the U.S. during World War II — is real and located in Oswego.
School assignments that lend legitimacy to hate are not as rare as one might think, Wiemer said.
Real teachers have reportedly asked students to hold a mock slave auction, write humorous captions under photographs of former slaves, and create a “colorful” illustration of a mascot for a Nazi rally.
The novel should help inform teachers about the appropriate way to teach the Holocaust, Wiemer said. The Coalition for Jewish Learning, the education department of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, plans to use the novel in a book club.
“We, as Jews, have an obligation to speak up against injustice,” Wiemer said. “It’s part of our belief system; we cannot sit back.”
The virtual launch party for “The Assignment” will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 25 at BoswellBooks.com.