Hazel McHaffie

concentration camps

Keeping the memories alive

As I’m sure you’re aware, it was Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday this week; 75 years since the liberation of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. And as ever I was profoundly moved by the first-hand accounts from survivors, their insistence that the horror must never be forgotten. It seems appropriate then to dwell on some aspect of it in my reading, so I chose a book that delves into the ongoing struggle for survivors of juggling memory with moving on.

There’s a Hebrew saying: Hold a book in your hand and you’re a pilgrim at the gates of a new city. That seems more than usually apposite for the novel I want to share with you today: Fugitive Pieces  (the book that gave me the quote).

Fugitive Pieces comes wreathed in superlatives: ‘lightness in gravity’… ‘exemplary and inspiring humanity’ … ‘exceptional literary craft’ … ‘exquisite care’ … ‘heart-shaking intensity’ … ‘extraordinarily taut and elegant’ ... promising much. Clearly a literary work, then. Yep. It won international acclaim and … big breath …  the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Heritage Toronto Award of Merit, the Martin and Beatrice Fischer Award, the Harold Ribalow Award, the Giuseppe Acerbi Literary Award and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Phew.

The  star-studded author is, however, new to me. Anne Michaels lives in Toronto where she composes music for theatre and writes poignant poetry. Her father’s family emigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1930s. After huge success with her poetry, Fugitive Pieces was her first novel, allowing her to move into a more expansive medium in her ongoing exploration of the relationship between history and memory, and how we, as a people, remember. She spent almost a decade honing it.

The principal protagonist in the book is also a poet, Jakob Beer, born in Poland in 1933. His first-person voice tells two thirds of the story. Everybody Jakob knew as a child has disappeared. They were Jews. Aged seven, he is forced to listen to the cries of his parents being murdered while he hides in a closet. When he emerges, his sister Bella has vanished, never to be found again, almost certainly brutalised.

Jakob escapes and hides before being discovered by a Greek archaeologist and paleobotanist, Athanasios Roussos, aka Athos. ‘Scientist, scholar, middling master of languages’ as Jakob describes him. Athos takes the lad home and hides him for four years, and Jakob clings to his saviour as the one person he can trust; their mutual devotion and affection are deep and real. But Jakob remains ‘perpetually afraid, as one who has only one person to trust must be afraid.’

After the war Athos is offered a job in Canada and takes Jakob with him. But, try as they might to start a new life with a new language and new customs and new responsibilities, both Jakob and Athos remain haunted by the past.  Athos spends long hours into the night recording the experiences; Jakob’s dreams are coloured by the associated terrors, both known and unknown. After Athos’ death, Jakob marries a young woman called Alex, but that relationship flounders as her sheer vitality and energy threaten to obliterate the precious memories Jakob is agonisingly seeking to resurrect and analyse.
The memory of his sister – a benign and constant presence, only a gossamer wall away, separated from him only by a fragile vibrating membrane …
The memory of the barbarity of the Nazis who decimated his family …
The memory of the Italians surrendering to the SS on the island of Zakynthos, the horrors that followed …
To lose those memories is to risk losing his very self. ‘… each time a memory or a story slinks away, it takes more of me with it.’

He hears the cries from the past, at first dimly, but if he lets them, they grow louder, more insistent, filling his head. He feels compelled to move closer to them, deeper inside himself, not to turn away. And to fathom the why of what was done to his people. He concludes:  ‘Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human.’  Animals, rags, refuse – these were fit only for the rubbish heap. Ethical principles were not, then, being violated in their minds. But Jakob struggles to include his beloved sister in that pile of inanimate rags. Or the infants born even while their mothers were dying in the extermination chambers. ‘Forgive me, you who were born and died without being given names. Forgive this blasphemy of choosing philosophy over the brutalism of fact.’

Athos had been a perfect companion. He helped replace essential parts of Jakob slowly as if he were preserving something precious and enduring. By contrast Alex is wanting to set fire to everything in his past and begin again on a healthier, more positive path. The bigger the pressure, the more Jakob shrinks away from her. She increasingly lives a life of her own until she can’t take any more, and walks away from his unfathomable lost-ness.

Once Jakob has plumbed the depths of what happened to his people, his family, and provided his own answers, he arrives at a milestone. He realises that his ghosts are not trying to keep him in their past, but to push him into the real world.

He eventually finds love with a poet Michaela – a ‘voluptuous scholar’ with a ‘mind like a palace‘. She’s twenty-five years younger than him. ‘Looking at her I feel such pure regret, such clean sadness, it’s almost like joy.’  Understanding his past, attuned to his needs, accepting him just as he is, she helps him find true peace. And rest. And – half a century after his sister’s death – understanding. His sense of desolation finally eases away.

The language is unashamedly poetic and conveys the music within Jakob’s soul, so eloquent in his writing. So, to me, it feels somehow to stretch credulity somewhat when, in Part II, the same … dare I say it … ‘overwrought’ style is used for a new voice, that of Ben, one of Jakob’s students, who goes to Idhra on the Greek island of Hydra in search of the poet’s notebooks. He lives in Jakob’s house, searches for Jakob’s life in his notebooks, follows in Jakob’s footsteps over the island.

The Beer’s house is just as it was left, as if the owners will walk in and resume their lives at any moment. But tragically, they won’t. After only a few months of happiness together, Jakob and Michaela have both been killed in a car accident during a trip to Athens. Jakob, by this time sixty years old, has nevertheless been dreaming of a child of his own with his beloved: a new Bella or Bela to remember them through the years to come. Paradoxically the night of their death was the very moment when he was to discover the note revealing the magical news that Michaela was indeed pregnant.

Shutterstock image

Ben carries his own scars. His parents had been liberated from the ghettos four years before he was born, but they had steadfastly refused to talk about the horrors, which hung instead like dark shadows, silently, malevolently, pervading everything. ‘There was no energy of a narrative in my family, not even the fervour of an elegy … My parents and I waded through damp silence, of not hearing and not speaking.’ Their past comes through in their strange behaviours, colouring his experience of ordinary everyday life, only dimly comprehended. His childhood dreams are haunted by doors being axed open, by the jagged yawning mouths of dogs. His parents delight in small things, setting him bizarre standards for appreciating music, food, nature, clothes. For them, ‘pleasure was always serious’ – the aroma of a jar of coffee, the fragrance of freshly laundered linens, a new pair of stockings. They are adamantly opposed to taking even legitimate handouts from any authorities. They spend their every day fearing: ‘When my father and I left the apartment in the morning, my mother never felt sure we’d return at all.’  ‘Who dares to believe he will be saved twice?’ his mother whispers.

It’s through Jakob’s poetry that Ben finally understands, because it encouraged him to ‘enter the darkness and find his own way back’.

A meld of poetry and prose, Fugitive Pieces is a tale of memories, and finding peace and understanding even in the face of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Just one dimension in this unfathomable tragedy.

Hatred consumes you; forgiveness sets you free.

 

 

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides.

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Alone in Berlin

Having just read a book about the German side of the Second World War and posted a review last week, I segued smoothly into another one about German resistance to the Nazis, which I bought at the same time.This one is Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (translated by Michael Hofmann).

The author’s own biography reads like an exaggeration but he is generally accepted as one of the foremost German writers of the twentieth century. However, after allegedly writing this book in twenty-four days, he died before Alone in Berlin was published, the victim of his own abuse of alcohol and drugs, but not before he had informed several relatives that this was a ‘great novel’. It was in fact a reworking of a real-life case to which Fallada had been given access. His contention in the book is that morality under Nazi rule was not measured by the size of the effort made to stand up against tyranny and atrocity, but by doing something, rather than simply capitulating and accepting evil. But as the afterword explains, though ‘there was substantial and heroic resistance to the Nazi regime at all levels of German society, from aristocratic officers in the army to brutalized inmates of concentration camps … this resistance was unsuccessful, in the sense that the regime was destroyed by the foreign armies which conquered it rather than by internal rebels who overthrew it.’

The book recounts numerous small acts of defiance and rebellion on the part of many anti-Nazi dissidents, but the main story centres on the Quangels. Otto Quangel is an insignificant taciturn emotionally-stunted man working as a shop foreman in a furniture factory (now given over to producing coffins) and living with his wife Anna in a run-down tenement block in Berlin. When his only son is killed in battle during the invasion of France, he hatches a determined plan to fight back against this unjust war that has robbed them of their family and future: he will write and secretly distribute postcards, decrying the government, urging civil disobedience and workplace sabotage. It’s an unspectacular and unsophisticated effort, limited to a small area, but as Anna says, whether acts are big or small, no one could risk more than his life. The main thing was: you fought back in whatever way you could; tried to stay decent, have no part in the evil being perpetrated and promoted all around you. Otto tries to be vigilant, not get caught, firm in the conviction that the longer you could fight, the longer you were being effective against brutality; there was no value in dying early. Besides, he wanted to be there when the regime fell, to be able to say: we were there; we were fighting our own war.

Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo, immediately deduces the writer of the anonymous propaganda is a poorly educated workman who recently lost his only son. Give him time, and he’ll reveal more details about himself. It just requires patience and alertness and he will hunt down ‘the Hobgoblin’. But as the months go by he develops grudging admiration for this wily person whose postcards arrive in his office every week.

Two years on, 233 cards and 8 letters have reached the Gestapo. Escherich has been removed and tortured; Inspector Zott has taken over the investigation. Zott’s methodical approach leads him to very similar conclusions to his predecessor but he is convinced the postcard writer works with the city trams. This certainty allows the Quangels to avoid capture the first time they fall under suspicion, but then Otto makes a fatal mistake. And after a long patient vigil, the now-reinstated Inspector Escherich pounces, determined not to let any irregularities in procedure abort his moment of glory. By this time his painstaking mapping shows 259 cards have been handed in; and he is confident in his profiling of the sender.

But Quangel is appalled when he learns not only that a mere 18 cards have been left in circulation, but that his actions have terrorised the very people he wanted to free. ‘I never wanted that! I never thought that would happen! I wanted things to get better, I wanted people to learn the truth, so that the war would end sooner and the killing stop – that’s what I wanted! I didn’t mean to sow terror and dread, I didn’t want to make things worse than they are already! Those wretched people – and I made them even more wretched!’

The Inspector points out he didn’t stand a chance; he is a gnat pitting himself against an elephant. ‘You, an ordinary worker taking on the Führer, who is backed by the Party, the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SA. The Führer, who has already conquered half the world and will overcome the last of our enemies in another year or two? It’s ludicrous!’

Nevertheless, it’s Quangel who emerges the moral victor. When he points out to the Gestapo officer, ‘You’re working in the employ of a murderer, delivering ever new victims to him. You do it for money; perhaps you don’t even believe in the man. No, I’m certain you don’t believe in him’  – it’s the inspector’s gaze that is lowered. He has become Otto’s only convert.

As one dissident tells a rather complacent colleague who seems content in his personal happiness with his wife and coming baby, ‘You’re robbing mothers of their sons, wives of their husbands, girlfriends of their boyfriends, as long as you tolerate thousands being shot every day and don’t lift a finger to stop the killing. … your apathy made it possible.’ Real decency demands protest. And somehow the quiet dignity and courage of this ordinary couple, even under severe provocation in prison, convey a powerful message. 

It’s a substantial tome and the English is a tribute to the translator. The rather unusual switching of tenses, points of view and perspectives, owes more to the author’s style than the translator’s, I suspect. But, to my surprise I found it held my attention effortlessly in spite of the slow pace, minimal action and limited plot. Oh, and I had to smile at Otto’s description of reading: ‘something superfluous that only high-up people went in for, people who did no proper work.’ Hmmm!

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Berlin: Imagine a City

The iconic Brandenburg gate

The iconic Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is a ‘haunted, ecstatic, volatile city’: so says Rory Maclean, in Berlin: Imagine a City. Its identity is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. No other place has been so twisted and torn across five centuries of conflict, from religious wars to Cold War, at the hub of Europe’s ideological struggle. Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives more powerfully in the imagination.’

I’ve just this evening returned from a six day visit to this amazing city, having read Maclean’s book in preparation for my trip. It’s no ordinary tourists’ guide, no street map trekking across town and noting historic sites, principal attractions, beautiful buildings, interesting facts. Rather it reads more like a novel as it weaves together portraits of 21 of its former inhabitants who shaped its various incarnations over five centuries; artists, leaders, thinkers, activists. Harrowing tales from the inside of atrocities sit side by side with evocative imaginings of lives lived behind glittering facades and forbidding walls, stark facts about divided loyalties and brutality beyond belief merge with heart-warming touches of human compassion and love, invention cohabiting with reality.

It gave me a tantalising glimpse into the background behind the seen and the unseen, the beautiful and the ugly, the conflicts and the peace. A little chaotic at times maybe, embellished history, creative reporting, but it didn’t matter; it brought everything to life in a most engaging way. And for more present-day practicalities we had my son as personal guide – he loves the city which he has visited many times, he was living in Germany and travelled to Berlin within weeks of the Wall coming down, he studied there for his PhD, he revisited for the 25th anniversary of reunification of East and West, he writes about Berlin today.

So did real life 21st Century Berlin match up to the one conjured up through the lives and passions of those myth makers and historical figures? Indeed it did; more than. Yesterday really does echo along today’s alleyways and streets. There was a pervading sense that had I asked, ‘Where is the real Berlin?‘ the answer would have been, ‘Just walk down this street and turn right at 1933.

Films, exhibitions, museums, books, statues, monuments … the city abounds with vivid portrayals to give us an insight into Berlin’s dark history. Wandering its streets the imagination goes into overdrive.

‘So much of it has been lost or reinvented that the mind rushes to fill the vacuum, fleshing out the invisible, linking facts with fiction’ much as the book does. One can feel ‘its aching absences as much as its brazen presence: the sense of lives lived, dreams realised and evils executed with an intensity so shocking that they rent the air and shook its fabric.’

Naturally enough the most powerful messages relate to the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall. It was overwhelmingly sad to see the railway station where thousands of Jews were deported to the concentration camps with the numbers despatched each day (anything from 90 to 1780 plus) etched into the edge of the line, to stand beside a water sculpture dedicated to the huge numbers of Romani people similarly annihilated, or to see the individual names of the murdered set into monuments and Stumbling stones in the cobbles.

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorating the Jews from that house who were deported and murdered

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorate Jews who were deported from that house to concentration camps

And the horrors around the East/West divide are indelibly captured by plaques and pavers, monuments and memorials, even remaining sections of the Wall.

The remains of the Berlin Wall

The remains of the Berlin Wall

Memorial to those who were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall

Memorial to those who were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall

But as Maclean says, ‘In a courageous, humane and moving manner modern Germany is subjecting itself to national psychoanalysis‘ to deal with the memory of historical suffering. So many reminders must surely be some measure of their determination to learn from the lessons of the past.

Monument to children who were taken to concentration camps or to places of safety

Monument to children who were selected for either concentration camps or Kindertransport: trains to death or a new life

However, a painter (of the fine art variety not Dulux) challenges the rest of us to take stock too: ‘I do not want to say that they – the SS officers, the camp guards, even the soldiers by the Wall – are like us. It is different, worse I guess. They are us – and we would have been them, in our respective times. It does not mean that I think we – the Germans – are likely to ever become Nazis or Communists again. Germany is a profoundly different land now, its identity reshaped for ever by cataclysmic events. But it is the potential for us, them, me, to have been part of such events that is the horror of today.

The Reichstag

The Reichstag (where the German Parliament meets)

For all its ghosts, though, today Berlin is vibrantly alive. And we, the living, are privileged to walk alongside the dead, remembering, but appreciating and imagining a better world. (Ironic that the very day I visited the Reichstag we picked up a copy of DasParlament – reporting the politicians’ activities – and what should be the headline article on the front page but the issue of assisted suicide!)

 

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