Hazel McHaffie

Nazis

Survivlng the War

The current situation in Ukraine, with the graphic images we’re seeing on our screens, is reminding us so much of the horrors perpetrated during the Second World War, isn’t it? And the thought of so many families running from, or hiding from the Russian onslaught, taking refuge in neighbouring countries like Poland, takes me to a book I read some months ago – events in the 1940s resonating strongly with what’s happening in 2022.

Though I’ve read many many accounts of the persecution of the Jews, Surviving the War is the first about that faction in Poland who sought refuge in the vast forests and swamplands where the organised army would have trouble reaching them. It may not be as familiar as stories of the concentration camps, but it makes sobering reading, with its tales of betrayal and persecution by fellow countrymen as well as the Nazis.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

Basing her material on a composite of real-life stories, Adiva Geffen, paints an idyllic picture of simple rural life in Poland before the war, with Jews and Gentiles living in harmony in a small village, joining in each other’s religious festivals, caring, sharing and supporting each other. As Avraham says in the book: ... we are one people, their language is our language and their culture is our culture … [and] we have God … the Poles are our brothers – we are united in this.

In her youth, Shurka Shidlovsky grows up both fascinated by, and fearful of, the dark and dangerous Parczew Forest, shrouded in myth and legend. But she lives in a happy family, joyfully observing all the Jewish festivals and holidays, completely oblivious to the horrors to come.

By the age of 15, Shurka is already beautiful and ready to leave school. She and her mother hold out for her to train in a profession/trade and she leaves home for one year to study sewing. City life is a revelation, but she keeps an anchor in the familiar by travelling home for the weekends. It’s during her wedding to the son of a prosperous merchant family, Avraham Orlitzky, that the first hint of trouble casts its long shadow: a young refugee couple appear who have escaped from Berlin as Hitler begins his terrible regime. The year is 1937.

But the innocents in Eastern Poland refuse to believe the stories; it’s nothing more than a ‘passing posturing’. Until, that is, the Germans invade Poland. This time the danger is impossible to ignore. Avraham has no choice but to wear the yellow star, but still he’s reluctant to move his pregnant wife, naively confident that their Polish friends will look after them. And even world leaders choose to ignore the signs of terror that have begun to form a crack in the world – the looting, confiscations, expulsions, eliminations. The year is 1939.

It’s only when, in 1941, Avraham is sent to a labour camp, that he begins to lose hope, and the realisation spurs him into action. The family begin a nomadic life, fleeing from one place of refuge to another, with two children in tow: Irena, and a frail little boy, Yitzhak.

As they move from her parents’ house, to an abandoned pavilion, to a vastly overcrowded Jewish ghetto, experience teaches them that, far from all being brothers, nobody is to be trusted. Brutality and lawlessness are rife. It’s the end of all security, all connections with their past. It’s the beginning of 1942.

And then the Final solution swings into action. News of the crematoria and death showers reaches the Orlitzky family: Horrors not even the devil could have imagined, and they realise that the ghettos have become not just ‘natural death’ chambers through starvation, but now also transfer stations to the concentration camps, extermination camps and forced labour camps. The Parczew Forest is the only place of safety left to them, and they must flee while the ghetto gates remain open. It is August 1942 – just one month before all the Jews left in the ghetto are sent to Treblinka and certain death.

Life in the vast forest is precarious in a different way. And indeed, more people perished there than survived. Shurka and her family camp alongside resistance fighters, Jewish partisans. They are forced to dig their own underground bunkers, camouflage them with branches, scavenge for food, be ready to move immediately if the Germans gain intelligence of their whereabouts, leaving no trace of their presence, only to start again from scratch.

Life even inside the bunkers is fraught with peril. The Jews are huddled together, forbidden to utter a sound, not even to cough. The Germans periodically approach with their weapons and dogs. On one occasion, baby Yitzhak starts crying, refusing any comfort, endangering the whole camp. What is Shurka to do? The account is too tragic and poignant to recount; you have to read it through her eyes.

As winter clenches its frozen fists on the forest, they are again on the move, this time to an old granary, courtesy of a sympathetic peasant, where they live in complete silence for nine weeks and five days. Suspicious neighbours eventually drive them back into the forest. Though Avraham is the king of plenty, obtaining basic provisions under cover of darkness, nevertheless disease, death, constant deprivation, unremitting fear, take their toll. It is 1943.

The threat grows ever closer. The Germans set fire to the forest to drive the hidden Jews out. Then with more precise information from informants, they throw grenades directly  into the bunkers. Shurka and her daughter survive because they have crawled onto a high shelf; but almost all her family are killed in that terrible raid. Alone now, they must once again flee, this time to a series of old granaries or barns during the harsh winter months, imperilling the farmers who grant them shelter, using silverware and jewellery to pay for their silence, capitalising on friendships and allegiances from Avraham’s successful business days. But with spring comes a return to the forest. It is March 1943.

By that September, the Third Reich begins to crumble, but the forest families are by no means safe. They spend another frozen winter hidden in a spacious barn belonging to an avaricious couple of Poles, in a remote village surrounded by swamps. Always silent, constantly vigilant. Irena by now is six years old. It’s while they are there, as the war draws to a close, that tragically, Avraham is killed while out on one of his night-time scavenges. Shurka decides she must return to the forest to seek out those she knows, unaware that the Germans have retreated, the battle over.

Just twenty-two days later, on Sunday 23 July 1944, the people of the Parczew Forest are liberated, marched away, leaving behind the graves of their loved ones. They are free to return to look for the Poland they had lost, but carrying a terrible burden of pain for the rest of their days. And it would take time to fully trust these Russian men who had come with the offer of release. Was it all a trap? After all, their compatriots in the concentration camps in the west are still being sent to their deaths.

Sadly, the reception that awaits them in Poland is one of outright hostility, revealing a hidden anti-Semitism that hurts deeply from supposed brothers. New persecutions follow. And once again the Jews are in hiding, as murderous men rampage through the streets and houses. After losing so much, however, the few forest survivors crave connection, love and intimacy. Suddenly men are in hot pursuit of Shurka. She soon finds new love with a man who lost his own wife and children in Treblinka, and together they resolve to set their sights on the future, not to look back. They marry in November and a son Yaakov is born in August 1945. They eventually begin the slow process of leaving Poland behind, to seek a new life with their fellow Jews in the new State of Israel. The year is 1948.

Shurka’s story challenges me as so many levels:
Would I have the courage to endure such hardship?
Would I endanger my family to protect strangers?
Would I sacrifice my son to save the wider community?
Would I retain faith in God in the face of such horror?

Unanswerable. Uncomfortable. Unimaginable.

 

 

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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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