Hazel McHaffie

Nazi regime

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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Fact, fiction and fabrication

You’ve heard me say it before: I have an ambivalent relationship with Jodi Picoult‘s books. I’ve dutifully read them all – well, of course I have; her trademark is an ethical question at the heart of the story. So I had to buy her latest one and … wow! it’s in a totally different league from her others. Nothing formulaic; no sense of déjà-vu at all.

But, as ever, she has thoroughly researched her material, and manages to ‘wear the learning lightly’. The descriptions of bread making are as delicious as the accounts of mass exterminations are harrowing.

AuschwitzA nonagenarian, Josef Weber, and a reclusive young woman, Sage Singer, meet in a bakery. On the surface they seem like improbable friends. For seventy years Weber has been hiding; hiding in full view of everyone. He is a model citizen; a much loved German teacher; an active youth worker; a lonely widower with only a dachshund for company. But unbeknown to his community, he is also a murderer; a former Nazi SS guard. Sage, on the other hand, is a young orphaned baker with a facial disfigurement, who works by night and sleeps by day, deliberately avoiding human contact, burdened by guilt. Is this meeting serendipitous? Or is there something more sinister behind it? After keeping his black secret all these years, what has prompted Josef to confess his past to Sage? And how will she react to his shocking revelation? Or to his request: he wants Sage to help him to die …?

Sage was brought up in a Jewish family (as Picoult herself was). Her grandmother, Minka, is a survivor of the Nazi atrocities and of cancer, who has never told her story … until now. And what a story it is – of depravity and courage, of brutality and love, of forgiveness and revenge, or murder and mercy. The first person account of Minka’s experiences of life in Nazi Germany, in Auschwitz, is told without sentimentality, and is all the more poignant and gripping for that.

In the past, Picoult has been given to overly analysing and revealing the psychology of her characters – in my view, anyway. In The Storyteller, however, she has left the experiences, the actions, the lives, to speak for themselves; a brilliant decision and one I’ve very much taken to heart. But she still manages to summarise profound truths in succinct dialogue:

 ‘When a freedom is taken away from you, I suppose, you recognise it as a privilege, not a right.’

 ‘I could never forgive the Schutzhaftlagerführer for killing my best friend … I mean I couldn’t – literally – because it is not my place to forgive him.’

 ‘If you lived through it (the Holocaust), you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn’t, you will never understand.’

Minka, Sage’s grandmother, the storyteller, is at the core of this story. She lived ‘a remarkable life. She watched her nation fall to pieces; and even when she became collateral damage, she believed in the power of the human spirit. She gave when she had nothing; she fought when she could barely stand; she clung to tomorrow when she couldn’t find footing on the rock ledge of yesterday. She was a chameleon, slipping into the personae of a privileged young girl, a frightened teen, a dreamy novelist, a proud prisoner, an army wife, a mother hen. She became whomever she needed to be to survive, but she never let anyone else define her.’ She has also written a powerful fiction of her own.

Other threads – Josef’s story, Sage’s, Minka’s novel – are woven around and through this emotive core, creating at once an absorbing read, a sobering challenge, a powerful allegory, a warming family saga. And the whole leaves the reader asking: What is forgiveness? What is justice? What would I have done?

Highly recommended.

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Forgotten Voices

In the welter of Christmas Fayres and concerts, charity fundraisers, shopping, wrapping, writing, cooking, I’m very conscious of the many folk out there for whom this whole season is a nightmare – the bereaved, the lonely, the sick, the burdened. A frightening number of my own friends and relations fall into the special-card-category this year. No mention of ‘merry’, or ‘happy’, or ‘festive’. Perhaps a wish for peace. Or blank for my own message.

Thinking such sombre thoughts brings me to a book I read a while ago that gave me cause for some deep reflection.

In a former life I was Deputy Director of Research in the Institute of Medical Ethics, and for many years I studied the issues around the treatment of tiny and sick infants born at the very edges of viability. Mortality and morbidity statistics for this group of children are high, and sometimes difficult questions have to be asked about whether it’s wise and morally right to offer, or to continue, treatment. Crucial Decisions at the Beginning of LifeMy research involved listening to the firsthand experiences and opinions of 109 bereaved parents in these kind of circumstances.

What a privilege. Interviews lasted anything up to five and a quarter hours at a sitting – sometimes well into the night – and I subsequently went over and over the recorded interviews in order to analyse and report their stories faithfully.

Now, you can’t immerse yourself in profound human misery of this calibre for many years without being affected in some way, and the effect of this accumulated heartbreak has remained with me ever since. It has changed my tolerance levels, it has altered my perspective on life in many ways.

So I was predisposed to respect the writing of Lyn Smith who spent 25 years recording the experiences of Holocaust survivors for the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. Her burden is immeasurably heavier than mine. But like me she has chosen to share these stories so that others might know and understand better. She’s used interviews with over 100 contributors to assemble a powerful oral history of the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazi regime in Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust.

The book is carefully structured, covering the changes before the war when persecution began, the creation of the ghettos, the inhumane treatment of the concentration and death camps, the resistance movement, death marches, liberation, and the trauma of the aftermath. It begins rather mildly and somehow the evil creeps up on you, devastating in the power of first person accounts, even though the essential stories are well known. And I was totally unprepared for the horrors that continued after repatriation.

As Laurence Rees says in his foreword, ‘This book will trouble you deeply.’ It will. I’m not going to attempt to give you a flavour of it. You need to hear the voices of Kitty, Joseph, Rena, Roman, Alicia, Maria, Charles, and their fellow-sufferers for yourself. And you need to build up to the unbelievable treatment they endured simply because they were Jews or gypsies or Poles, or Jehovah’s Witnesses or homosexuals or some other so-called ‘subhuman’ species deemed unworthy of life.

This is not a book for the faint-heated – no surprises there. Tales of persecution, torture, murder, rape, make discomforting reading, and these personal but stark, unembellished accounts describe a depth of depravity grotesque beyond words. And yet these people survived, against the odds. What’s more they found the courage to relive the horror, the words to capture the pictures and emotions, the spirit to go on. And sometimes even to forgive.

Nor is it unmitigated darkness and despair. Despite the brutality and degradation, the fear and nightmares, the stories are lightened by flashes of humour, by memories of astonishing and inexplicable acts of kindness, by glimpses of dignity and compassion, by a remarkable lack of vengeance, by amazing demonstrations of courage.

Lyn Smith expresses the hope that ‘Gathered together … this mosaic of voices gives access to the complexity and human reality behind the abstract statistics of extermination and allows readers to see beyond the stereotypes of what constitutes a “victim”.’ I believe it does.

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