Hazel McHaffie

Institute of Medical Ethics

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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Back or books? Which takes precedence?

Just over forty years ago I damaged my back in an accident at work. Suffice to say, it involved a difficult delivery of a baby, a retained placenta, a slippery operating room floor, and a heavy anaesthetic trolley. I was pregnant at the time so declined X-rays to establish a precise diagnosis.

I’ve had problems ever since, occasionally even necessitating spells of bed-rest, and crawling on my knees because standing and walking were too painful to endure. Age and decay have compounded the wear and tear.

But about three years ago I discovered an osteopath with magic in her fingers. She has not only righted wrongs in my muscles and joints but has imparted pearls of wisdom to help me get myself out of fixes.

orthopaedic cushion I now perch on a special cushion (a bit like a giant whoopee cushion) in the kitchen. In my study I luxuriate in a wonderful supportive chair given to me when I left the Institute of Medical Ethics. In bed I know just how to unfreeze my lower back and get moving. The underlying problems remain but they are much less intrusive.

My writing chairI am also now much more aware of posture and position so can generally keep myself more flexible and comfortable – within the limits of advancing age and decrepitude, of course!

But I’ve just made a rather disturbing discovery. My lifestyle has much to answer for. For the last five or six weeks I’ve been on the go all day every day looking after children and sick people, catering for a stream of visitors. Endless cooking, cleaning, ironing etc. Rarely sitting.

Result? Much less pain. Much more flexibility.

Conclusion? A writer’s life is not good for my back.

Ah, but it IS good for my soul. Oh dearie me, yes. How I’ve craved the peace and solitude of my working life, the creative satisfaction of listening to and observing my fictional friends and scribbling their story. It’s been a form of cold turkey.

So, come September, when the summer madness dies down, I plan to throw caution to the winds, to hang with my aching back, and welcome them back into my life again. Wallowing in my addiction!


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Reflections on 2010

Ahah! My last blog for 2010. And inevitably one looks back over the year.

The most stressful event?
The decline and death of my mother. I’ve missed her very much over this Christmas period in countless little ways. But I’ve also been more acutely aware of what a wonderfully supportive family I have. Bless them all.

The most surprising?
Recognising the necessity to relinquish some commitments for the sake of my health – and DJ’s sanity! – and what’s more, actually finally doing so. Although one relinquishment in particular caused me considerable sadness: the Institute of Medical Ethics. A fantastic committee to work with, and an organisation that has been so nourishing and encouraging of me for many, many years.

The most challenging?
Two events jointly share the award: judging the Institute of Ideas debates; and being a member of a Data Monitoring Committee for a major international clinical trial. Both forced me well outside my comfort zone and underlined my limitations. These are places I won’t be going again – there, it’s written in stone!

The most unexpected?
Not finishing a book I started. That’s a first. The book was The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai and I just had to abandon it. OK, it won the Booker prize but I’m afraid life’s too short for a novel that’s that much of a struggle for me now. (Hmmm. Looks like my obsessions are starting to fray at the edges!)

The most encouraging?
Meeting new people in relation to my novels. Because I write about medical ethical dilemmas, I come into contact with families who’ve lived through similar experiences in real life. This year most notably, heroic folk caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s, and those who have donated organs for transplantation – their own or those of their loved ones. And I am constantly awed and humbled by their generosity in sharing their stories. They remind me all over again why I took this turn in my career. And they encourage me to keep writing. I salute them all.

The most therapeutic?
The ongoing unconditional love of my four fabulous grandchildren.

And speaking of them, quite a number of you have written asking what I did for them in this year’s Christmas story. If you’re a new visitor, I should explain, every year I write a story for the children (currently aged 10 to 5), I make costumes and scenery, etc, and they act it out (totally unrehearsed). DJ takes photos throughout which we use to illustrate the book produced soon afterwards.

So, here’s ‘the stage’ for this year’s production …The scene is set And (with kind permission from parents) the principal characters: The Bag Lady ..The Bag Lady… and the supporting cast: three Shadow People (street children) …The Shadow PeopleInside The Bag Lady’s 40+ bags are all sorts of props and games and edibles. And, through playing and talking together they each discover the real person behind the stigma. And learn the importance of treating everyone kindly, and as you would like them to treat you. But it’s all sweetened with magic jelly babies … and talking dragonflies … and monitors that measure sportsmanlike qualities … and a little sleight of hand … and some rather scary Gurgling Gozers that sink their teeth into carotid arteries under provocation … and a crazy but lovable dog called Digby … the usual kinds of story-telling tricks. And of course, the now traditional banquet.The banquetAll good wholesome fun. So thanks for asking.

But before I get back to editing the book, The Bag Lady and the Shadow People, (don’t forget you heard about it first here on VelvetEthics!) it’s time to say a big thank you to YOU for reading my scribblings. The weekly blog can feel rather self-indulgent, I so much enjoy writing it. And then you tell me you’ve been moved or amused or challenged by something and I get a warm feeling knowing you’re sharing my musings and struggles.

I do sincerely wish you all peace and happiness in 2011. And a softening of the hurt if you are one of those for whom 2010 has been a tough year.

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