Hazel McHaffie

Poland

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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The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Ludwig Eisenberg was born on 28 October 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia. He was transported to Auschwitz on 23 April 1942 and tattooed with the number 32407. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is his story, a salutary reminder that ‘every one of the unimaginably large number of Holocaust victims was an individual with a unique story …’ ; another window on one of the most barbaric events in human history.

It took the author Heather Morris three years to untangle, as she built up a special friendship with this extraordinary man, now Lale Sokolov. Trust took time to establish. For him, memory and history were closely intertwined, and overlaid with a burden of guilt lest he be seen as a collaborator in these crimes. And Morris has captured his truth: he did what he did in order simply to survive, and in so doing, found little ways to bring compassion and humanity into the lives of others.

When he’s first assigned the task of tattooing numbers on each new batch of inmates, he recoils from the prospect of defiling hundreds of innocent people, but he quickly realises that he could put soul into the task, hurt them less than someone with no sensitivity for their pain and degradation.

And being the Tätowierer brings privileges – a room to himself, freedom to circulate, extra food rations – benefits he’s determined to share with his previous bunk mates and his assistant. He becomes a conduit for goods in both directions – jewels, medicines, food, luxuries – smuggling necessities to those who fall ill, bribing guards in order to gain advantages for others. And as he stealthily does what he can, he witnesses many other examples of courage and humanity and selflessness, even in the face of brutality of incomprehensible proportions.

One of the most sinister and chilling sections relates to Lale’s encounters with Herr Doktor Josef Mengele whose ‘soul is colder than his scalpel’. Watching the tattooist at work, the doctor stands before the parades of young women prisoners queueing to be assigned a number, deciding their fate with a flick of his hand – right, left, right, right, left, left, right – no obvious logic since they’re all in the prime of their lives, fit and healthy. And by and by his eye falls on Lale’s young assistant, Leon. He is whisked away, returned some time later without his testicles, cut off in the name of Mengele’s infamous medical experiments.

As Lale sinks deeper and deeper into scenes of unparalleled inhumanity, he feels he is drowning in hell. Even the walls seem to be weeping for those who leave a room in the morning and do not return at night. He befriends a whole consignment of Romani people who share his block of rooms, only to see every last one of them rounded up and reduced to ash.

At one point he’s called to the very centre of the horror, to one of the ovens in the Crematorium, to identify the correct owner of a given number when two corpses appear to bear the same one. He steps into a cavernous room …
‘Bodies, hundreds of naked bodies, fill the room. They are piled up on each other, their limbs distorted. Dead eyes stare. Men, young and old; children at the bottom. Blood, vomit, urine, faeces. The smell of death pervades the entire space.’
The SS officer with him teases him that he’s probably the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked out again, but for Lale, this is one step farther into the abyss.

As a privileged person himself, Lale is also personally vulnerable – he must be wary of  people’s motives for befriending him, for confiding in him, alert to the threat of backstabbing and false accusations, of being seen to be collaborating with the enemy. And again and again he asks himself, what has he been saved for?

‘Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism … I have been given the choice of participating in the destruction of our people, and I have chosen to do so in order to survive. I can only hope I am not one day judged as a perpetrator or a collaborator.’

Nor is he free from the constant fear of his own death or degradation. His personal safety is at the whim of the armed guard assigned to monitor him, his mood, his thirst for disposable fodder. When someone betrays Lale for the stash of gems (bargaining chips) under his mattress, he undergoes severe torture and starvation, now reliant on others to rally to his support and cherish him. And falling in love with prisoner 34902, Gita, renders him vulnerable in many new and delicate ways.

Originally a screenplay, this debut novel often reads like a script for actors, or the descriptive overlays on TV programmes designed for those with hearing- or visual-impairment. I wanted to edit it severely!! But what it lacks in literary merit it makes up for in the poignancy of a life lived in the face of inhumanity beyond reason. A sobering lesson for us all.

When his Romani friends were summarily cremated, Lale sank into a deep depression, but Gita told him ‘you will honour them by staying alive, surviving this place and telling the world what happened here‘. He has indeed honoured them. The cost to him can only be dimly imagined. No one could possibly survive such an experience without being terribly traumatised. In his case ‘everything and everyone he cared for is now only visible to him through glasses darkened by suffering and loss.’

Let us never forget.

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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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