Hazel McHaffie

Nazis

Unsung heroism; disturbing challenges

I guess a lot of us have had more time for reflection and introspection during the last six months. I certainly have. So this was exactly the right time for me to read the kind of book that challenges me to think about my own moral compass and motivation and limits.

Under what circumstances would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life, or more importantly, my child’s life, to save a stranger? Would I let my young daughter starve to prove my loyalty to my country? Would I endure terrible deprivation, face imminent execution, to uphold my ideals? Would my faith in God survive seeing men, women and children being massacred needlessly; a whole race systematically eradicated? Could I live a life which meant I must lie to everyone I love, and always be afraid, never feel safe?

My kind of questions, you might think. But actually this was the kind of thinking that prompted Kristin Hannah to write her novel, The Nightingale.

She was researching World War II stories, and became fascinated by the women who had put themselves in harm’s way in order to save Jewish children, or downed airmen, some of whom paid a terrible, unimaginable price for their heroism. She simply couldn’t look away, and felt the underlying questions to be as relevant today as they were 70 years ago. As indeed they are.

Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol lose their mother to TB when 14 and 4 respectively. Consumed by his own grief, their father abandons them to the care of others. Outspoken Isabelle rebels everywhere she goes, is expelled from several schools, refusing to be either contained or controlled, and aged just 19, joins the resistance movement, initially delivering propaganda, then risking her life over and over again, escorting British and American downed airmen out of France across the Pyrenees to safety. Her code name is The Nightingale. Quieter Vianne marries her childhood sweetheart, Antoine, and after three miscarriages, gives birth to her daughter Sophie. She becomes a schoolteacher, and in the face of an ugly war and occupation of her beloved town in France, finds a courage of her own, rescuing Jewish children even whilst billeting German officers in her home.

We’ve all heard so much about the atrocities committed by the Nazis; much less of the heroism of the women of France. This book sees the 1940s through the prism of one family – totally harrowing, profoundly moving, reducing me to tears. And by homing in on the intensely personal, it seems somehow to shine a spotlight on the enormity of the whole monstrous period in history. It captures poignantly the contrast between the pain and suffering and barbarity, and the bravery and compassion, loyalty and selflessness of these courageous women, so often unseen and unsung.

The war forced people to look deep inside themselves; to examine who they were and what sacrifices they were prepared to make, what would break them. Asking ourselves those same questions 70+ years on is a challenging exercise. Even drinking a delicious cup of real coffee, knowing these women were enduring a vile brew made from acorns, made me feel chastened. Smiling and chatting to people I met out in the street felt like a luxury, when these women could trust no one – not even relatives and friends. Would I have had the courage to do the honourable thing? Or would I have found a way to argue that I had a greater duty to protect my own? I don’t know.

What I do know is that this book is a compelling read, though certainly not a comfortable one. At no stage can we have any confidence that there will be happy endings. Children die, women kill, men betray, families are ripped apart, suspicion is rife, humans behave barbarically. ‘Grief, like regret, settles into our DNA and remains forever a part of us.’

The Nightingale is superbly written, and I loved the occasional flashes forward to the present when one of the sisters is returning to Paris for a reunion of her compatriots who worked for the resistance, accompanied by her son who knows nothing of her past. We don’t know which one has survived, so this nicely preserves the tension. Whatever the outcome, these valiant women and those they represent, have my profound admiration and respect.

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75 years on

6 June 1944, saw the largest combined land, air and naval operation in history; D-Day. Seventy-five years on to the day, it seems fitting that I should mark it in some way. What better for the purposes of this blog than to write about a book that challenged me in many ways to think again about what has been done in the name of honour, duty and country.

I found The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, (shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2001) in the Christian Aid book sale last month. Every now and then I do try to upgrade my literary antennae by reading something from the higher literary shelves! Besides which, my son is an authority on some of the themes it covers; I think we should try to understand what it felt like ‘on the other side’; and the blurb appealed.

The book tells the stories of three ordinary Germans, the descendants of Nazis/Nazi sympathisers.
Helmut is ‘a young photographer in Berlin in the 1930s who uses his craft to express his patriotic fervour‘. Hmm. Well, I’ve read another debut manuscript recently which does something similar – still to be published, so I can’t add a link yet. Both raise issues for me. How far would I have risked my life to expose the horrors of persecution and discrimination in those circumstances?
Lore is a 12-year-old girl in 1945 who ‘guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany after her Nazi parents are seized by the Allies‘. Hmmm, that same year my parents were doing their best to cope with the vicissitudes of life in this country, altered forever by the same war. They struggled with the tensions of conflicting ideologies and family security and public censure. Would I have held fast to my principles and risked so much?
Michael is ‘a young teacher obsessed with what his loving grandfather did in the war, struggling to deal with the past of his family and his country’. Hmmm, my uncle died at the age of 20 on the battlefields of the Somme, in WW1, fighting for the other side. I regret the senseless waste of his life, but I see him as collateral damage, ‘doing his duty’ as he perceived it. How differently would I feel if he had ordered millions to the gas chambers, or shot children in cold blood, or even stood by condoning such barbarity? Would that be ‘doing his duty’?

So this book resonated in many ways, and challenged me to think again about guilt, and responsibility, and both personal and national culpability. Are any of us completely blameless? How much are we accountable for what is done on our behalf? After all, as the famous quote has it, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.

There are two passages in The Dark Room that highlight the importance of facing squarely what is done in our name. Both come from Michael, the young teacher who’s obsessed with the discrepancy between the two faces of Askan Boell; one the loving grandfather who amused him with drawings, and dandled him on his knee; the other a Waffen SS officer who countenanced and carried out the deaths of an untold number of innocents. Michael’s struggling with the whitewashing of history he sees in the education of German students:

They are being taught that there are no perpetrators, only victims. They are being taught like it just happened, you know, just out of the blue people came along and did it and then disappeared. Not the same people who lived in the same towns and did the same jobs and had children and grandchildren after the war.

I just think they should read about the people who did it, too. The real, everyday people, you know. Not just Hitler and Eichmann and whoever. All the underlings, I mean. The students should learn about their lives, the ones who really did the killing.

Having allowed himself to go there, Michael finds himself consumed with rage and shame. And appalled at the wanton refusal to accept reality that he encounters in his family. Even his own mother denies the possibility that her father was a brutal killer. She was twelve when he returned after the war. Yes, he was a soldier, he killed other soldiers in battle, she accepts that, but not … not murder. Because she ‘knew him‘ – her loving father.  ‘He was my Papa. Always Askan. Just the way he was … he wasn’t capable …’  How would we feel in their shoes? Would we even want to know?

And even those most intimately involved reconstructed the truth. As one of Michael’s informants, Josef Kolesniki, a collaborator, says: those in authority said killing the Jews was the thing to do. They didn’t order anyone to do the killing, so they absolved themselves of the responsibility: they said the men voluntarily chose to pull the trigger. But the men aiming the guns were doing what they’d been told was right, so they weren’t  responsible either. Is it possible for us too to completely delude ourselves and deny all moral responsibility for what we do? Could we too be sucked into an evil system and lose our own moral compass?

And it’s these big challenges underpinning the tales of three young Germans that lift The Dark Room into a different league. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the book, or the writing style. But I did appreciate the bigger messages. It’s only by honestly facing such issues that we can take those vital steps towards learning from the mistakes of the past.

 

 

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