Hazel McHaffie

Germany

Maritime disasters

The last few weeks have been crazy. I’m at the stage of saying: If this is Plymouth it must be Sunday! But in zooming from the Outer Hebrides to Devon with trips to assorted cities in between, there’s been ample opportunity to appreciate what a beautiful country we live in. With temperatures in the 20s and 30s, everything lush and flowering, the countryside is glowing in its prime.

But one evening stroll brought me back to earth in a quite unexpected way. It was Monday: then this much be Lichfield!

Lichfield is a place I’ve never visited before and expected only to overnight in, but events required a second day there leaving an evening free to explore. And what a lovely city it is – especially when the cathedral bells are peeling out during Monday night practice! My footsteps took me to the parks and there I found a statue of Commander Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. We’ve all heard of the ship of course, but how many knew its captain, I wonder? Not I.

My thoughts unravelled to a book I’ve just finished reading: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. The Titanic, the Lusitania … yes, their names are embedded in our vocabulary. But what of the Wilhelm Gustloff? And yet this ship was at the centre of the worst disaster in maritime history. Over 1500 lives were lost when the Titanic went down; 9400 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine off the coast of Poland in 1945.

This historical fiction breathes life into a neglected tragedy. It’s a young adult novel set during World War II, beginning in January 1945, as the Third Reich was beginning to collapse. The Russians were gaining ground in East Prussia where Operation Hannibal, the largest evacuation by sea in history, got underway. Thousands of terrified refugees from the Baltic region migrated to the port of Gotenhafen, Prussia (now Gydnia, Poland) to escape the encroaching Russians. There, they boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff, a massive ship owned by the Germans.

Four young people lie at the centre of this tale; four very different characters, all bearing haunting secrets, all seeking to flee from those who hunt them. Emilia is a shy pregnant Polish teenager pretending to be Latvian. Joana is a Lithuanian nurse full of compassion but weighed down by guilt. Florian is a Prussian with a ruthless agenda, carrying a priceless stolen artefact. German Alfred is bent on showing the world he’s a hero, though in reality a coward at heart, living in a fantasy world. No one knows whom they can trust. Their disparate circumstances bring them together on the Wilhelm Gustloff as they join the teeming masses desperately seeking safety and freedom.

By the time the deadly torpedoes are unleashed we know something of the scenes of horror and destruction these young eyes have witnessed, we know their private burdens, we’re willing them to reach their goal. Unlike them we know what lies ahead, but that foreknowledge takes nothing away from the tension of Sepetys’ writing. Extremely short chapters, brisk sentences, one voice at a time taking its turn, sparse language, everything conveys the perspectives of youth and tentative lives lived minute by minute.

Salt of the Sea was loaned to me by my youngest granddaughter, aged thirteen, herself an avid reader. It’s written for her age group but well worth the attention of any age. And a sobering reminder of the tragedy of war and how quickly sacrifice and hardship can be forgotten. Our present day comfortable lives are built upon the sacrifice of others; let’s not forget.

 

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The Undertaking

Imagine a book opening with consecutive sentences starting like this:
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘He …’
‘She …’
‘He …’
‘But he …
‘The ground …
‘He …’
‘The man …’

Yep, visions of primary school teachers underscoring with red ink imploring pupils to vary their structure … A-Level students receiving a begrudging scraping pass … a manuscript landing with an irritable thwack in the publisher’s waste bin, unread beyond the first page. Definitely a no-no in most people’s handbook of good writing.

And then there’s the complication of three German soldiers working alongside each other, sharing experiences and food, sharing a mission ‘to clear the communists and Jews from Russia‘ – all three surnames beginning with the same letter: Faber, Fuchs, Faustmann. Who thought that was a bright idea?

I could go on listing broken rules and yet … and yet … this book, The Undertaking by Irish author, Audrey Magee, was published by a reputable company, has been much lauded and admired, and was even shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Justifiably.

As reviewers have said it’s ‘An engaging and beautifully written novel, with an emotional resonance that remains long after you’ve closed the book‘; ‘A violent, elegant, unsentimental journey through hell and halfway back’; ‘A moving journey through the emotional hinterlands of grief and guilt.

The language is sparse, the structure simple, the dialogue pared to the bone. But immensely powerful. Set in the time of the Second World War it tells the story of a German soldier, Peter Faber, fighting on the Russian Front who marries a photograph of a woman he has never met in order to get leave and a reason to survive the atrocities of the Front. Hundreds of miles away in Berlin the woman, Katharina, marries a photograph of the soldier to qualify for a war widow’s pension. When they meet, to their surprise and wonder, love and passion blossom, and they start to dream of a bright future in a new and better Germany with the Nazis in control. But war tears them apart and they both separately endure the terrible consequences of destruction, humiliation and defeat.

Such is Magee’s skill with language that we can feel the lice crawling in Peter’s scalp, smell his rank odour after weeks of wearing the same sweat-soaked uniform, cringe with Katharina as he begins his courtship of her in this unsavoury state. We hear the venom in the voices of soldiers who hound innocent Jews from their hiding places. We watch in stunned silence as desperate brutalised men commit acts of barbarity against animals and humans alike, as they ransack homes, violate corpses, fight against the treacherous winds howling across the Russian steppes, all on the orders of their leaders safe at home in Berlin.

It’s salutary to learn what it felt like to be German during wartime, bombed by the allies, but rewarded richly for unquestioning loyalty, on the receiving end of the largesse left by the Jews, flagging spirits rallied with falsehoods and bribes. How would we have reacted to the pressures and promises, I wonder?

The men on the battlefields believe they are in hell; wives and mothers left behind in Germany believe their own lives are a form of hell too. It’s all relative. And perhaps there could be no happy outcome in the face of such obscene suffering and futility. How can either ‘side’ really appreciate the atrocities the other has seen and endured. Many were unspeakable. Rehearsing them would only perpetuate the nightmare. Even reading the pared down accounts creates a despairing hollow in the pit of one’s stomach. Nevertheless I was left feeling profoundly sad that a love that had sustained Peter and Katharina through so much pain and horror, in the end could not survive the shame and consequences of an experience completely outside of their control.

This was Audrey Magee’s first novel and it’s a brilliant, sweeping epic of a book that compels the reader to keep turning the pages, to watch helplessly as injustice and hate and human frailty destroy lives and devastate families. It’s far from comfortable reading but I highly recommend it. And how right she was to keep her sentences sparse and simple, give us the bare bones or moral bankruptcy without adornment. This is one occasion where the rule book needed to be consigned to an inaccessible shelf.

 

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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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The Book Thief

I love autumn. All those crisp mornings, the sound of crunchy leaves underfoot, fabulous colours. Our copper beech hedge is a golden blaze at the moment. Something to do with the spring drought and cool damp summer apparently.

I’ve just returned from Oxford, travelling by train, and can vouch for stunning russets and vibrant reds through to sunshine yellow everywhere. But speaking of colours … what about this as a description:

‘Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.’

The Book ThiefDeath is the narrator of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s 1939. In Germany. The Nazis are increasingly forcing their politics onto the people, poverty and betrayal lurk in the scared streets, and Death is extremely busy. This could easily be a depressing, even macabre book, but it isn’t. Even Death himself is gently compassionate.

‘Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last gasping cries. Their French words. I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear.

In complete desolation, I looked at the world above. I watched the sky as it turned from silver to grey to the colour of rain. Even the clouds tried to look the other way.’

And he is gentle with the reader too, slipping in the occasional spoiler to soften the approach to sadness.

Tucked away in a little town called Molching, on the outskirts of Munich, lives Liesel. She’s a child with dangerous eyes – brown eyes, who has already known death and loss. Late at night her foster father, Hans Hubermann, patiently teaches her to read. Liesel is utterly mesmerised by words, but there is no money for books, so she takes matters into her own hands and acquires them by stealth.

Three men exert a powerful influence over her: a young criminal, a fugitive Jew and a man with a heart of gold. And gradually realisation of the encroaching horrors of war impinge on her childish innocence. She becomes even more intimately acquainted with Death.

Zusak’s writing style is uniquely his own. Strange little curlicued inserts give vital information. Staccato sentences, truncated paragraphs, haul you without mercy into the very kernel of the emotions and experiences of the time. The almost childish writing fits perfectly with the whole life-view of the characters. Its very simplicity tugs at the heart strings.

And seeing things from his own perspective, Death paints wonderfully evocative pictures of …

… the holocaust:

‘When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. Their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, and their spirits came towards me, into my arms. We climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower.’

… of the blitz:

‘The only sign of war was a cloud of dust migrating from east to west. It looked through the windows, trying to find a way inside, and as it simultaneously thickened and spread, it turned the trail of human beings into apparitions.
There were no more people on the streets any more.
There were rumours carrying bags.’

… of illness and death almost seven decades ago:

‘At thirteen, tragedy struck again when his uncle died.
As percentages would suggest, his uncle was not a hot-head like Max. He was the type of person who worked quietly away for very little reward. He was not a rich man. He did not take what was rightfully someone else’s – and he died of something growing in his stomach. Something akin to a poison bowling ball.
As is often the case, the family surrounded the bed and watched him capitulate.
Somehow, between the sadness and loss, Max Vandenburg, who was now a teenager with hard hands, blackened eyes and a sore tooth, was also a little disappointed. Even disgruntled. As he watched his uncle sink slowly into the bed, he decided that he would never allow himself to die like that.
The man’s face was so accepting.
So yellow and tranquil, despite the violent architecture of his skull –
The endless jawline, stretching for miles, the pop-up cheekbones and the pot-hole eyes. So calm it made the boy want to ask something.
Where’s the fight? he wondered.
Where’s the will to hold on?
Of course, at thirteen he was a little excessive in his harshness. He had not looked something like me in the face. Not yet.
With the rest of them, he stood around the bed and watched the man die – a safe merge, from life to death. The light in the window was grey and orange, the colour of summer’s skin, and his uncle appeared relieved when his breathing disappeared completely.
“When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist in his face.”
Personally, I quite like that. Such stupid gallantry.
Yes.
I like that a lot.’

It’s salutary to see the war through the eyes of Germans. To realise the enemy is British. The hands that released the bombs that decimate Liesel’s home are those of the Allies. That the young pilot dying in the smoking and broken plane speaks English.

Suspend any preconceived ideas you might have, and if you can, your personal religious and moral beliefs, and let the poetry of this book speak to you. It’s at once moving and challenging, enjoyable and troubling. And when you’ve lingered a while over the last haunting sentence, do let me know which emotion predominates for you.

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