Hazel McHaffie

Ukraine

Reflections

James McConnachie, the editor of our professional journal, The Author, summed up my feelings exactly in the latest Summer edition:
Many authors I know have been struggling of late with feelings of triviality or even irrelevance. First it was Covid. Then Putin, with his murderous war in Europe. How can authors justify what we do while our colleagues in the east – authors, journalists and artists, alongside a population of 40 million people – are fleeing their homes? When they are starving in basements? When they are being shot and shelled?

But through the articles chosen for this special point in history, he goes on to demonstrate that the work of poets and writers has the capacity to invent a language to express
anger, pain,grief, longing, gratitude and hope; making sense of the broken, mutilated world; affirming life,
and to underline the importance of culture in the lives of individuals and countries, in explaining who we are and where we belong – all beautifully illustrated with contributions from Ukraine’s own poets, illustrators and writers.

The whole ethos of our journal is to be a place where light is brought into deeper places, rather than generating dissension or inflaming tempers by reacting to contentious divisive issues. As the editor says himself:
‘I am determined that every issue of The Author should offer inspiration as well as instruction.’
This edition, more perhaps than most, highlights that lovely approach.

McConnachie also asks the question: How can authors approach topics that invite polarisation? and that is exactly the question I’m asking myself in preparing the ground for my own next novel … on abortion. I think … I hope … Maybe …

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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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Catherine Cookson therapy

Catherine Cookson: a name that dominated the library charts for years, famous for her survival tales of plucky women, rooted in the industrial north of England, where she grew up herself. Author of some 103 titles. Now rather dated and overshadowed by more robust and explicit fast-paced writing, but still retaining a place in the lists of the famous, and the hearts of countless fans.

Cookson’s own life story is as tragic and rags-to-riches as that of many of her heroines.

Born in 1906, she was the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother and a bigamist gambling father, raised by her grandparents. She left school at 14, went into domestic service, then into a laundry, before becoming a landlady. She was in her thirties when she married, and she went on to endure four miscarriages late in pregnancy. It took her a decade to recover from the resultant depression. As a form of therapy, she took up writing, publishing her first novel in 1950, and going on to enjoy phenomenal success. What a triumph over adversity!

She died sixteen days before her 92nd birthday, at her home in Newcastle, her novels, many written from her sickbed, continuing to be published posthumously until 2002.

Aware of her struggles and history, I felt a desire to honour her memory, so slipped in The Rag Maid by way of light relief, between bouts of preparation for more serious presentations. And curiously, on the very day Russia invaded Ukraine last week – 24 Feb 2022 – there was I reading about the war and the Russians in the 19th century in this Cookson novel … the Crimean war, as we know it today.

So, The Rag Maid
The year is 1854. Well brought up, stunningly lovely, Millie Forester, aged 7, finds herself abandoned by her young mother and in the care of a very fat and malodorous rag woman, alongside a teenage boy with achondroplasia, in a hovel surrounded by stinking rags and junk. Her father is in prison (she’s been told he’s dead), her Mama has been picked up for prostitution and herself sent to prison, but commits suicide rather than face further degradation.

Under Millie’s gentle influence, Mrs Aggi cleans up her house and yard, invests in a pony to pull the cart, upgrades her marketing patch, and insists Millie gets an education. But wherever she goes, Millie Forester becomes the object of male adoration and lust, which takes her into desperate situations. Who will save her from a fate like her mother’s?

It’s a simple plot, without artifice, poverty and injustice and class distinction rife. But it has that feel-good factor, that credibility, that Cookson captured, knowing first hand what a life of struggle and dreams felt like. As warmly confirming as the gin Mrs Aggie swears by for everything from anaesthetic to shock.

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The Costa Award goes to …

After last week’s experience I decided I needed to immerse myself in some quality writing to try to lift my own game. There on my tbr shelf was a Costa Award winner: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. (It won the Biography Award in 2010.) Good place to start then.

The Hare with Amber EyesThe author, Edmund de Waal, is a world renowned British artist specialising in ceramics – to call him a potter (as he does himself) is to diminish the heights to which he has risen. In 1994 he inherited from his great-uncle a collection of 264 miniature Japanese sculptures, netsuke: tiny ornaments which are ‘very rich, very simple, very tactile‘; ‘witty and ribald and slightly comic.’ (I recommend a quick pop across to Google to look at images of them.) He was curious to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive so long, so he set out on a search for a lost family and a lost time.

His research was impressive; meticulous and immensely detailed, and it took him seven years to write this family saga-cum-treasure hunt in which he unravels both the story of the netsuke and of the Ephrussi family, over five generations, and against the backdrop of world history.

During the nineteenth-century the Ephrussis were a banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, as rich and respected as the Rothchilds, moving in the highest social circles; but by the end of World War II, this collection of netsuke hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, was all that remained of their vast empire. It’s a ‘vertiginous descent‘ for de Waal’s family from commissioning works of art to being commissioned; from owning famous paintings to writing about them. His account makes fascinating reading and beautifully captures the mores and magic of the times. He brings both an artist’s sensibilities and a descendant’s curiosity to the task.

Japan features significantly, of course – chiming with my love of Japanese gardens. Indeed on the very day I started reading this book we invested (I use the word advisedly!) in two more gorgeous Japanese acers for our own patch. I just love everything about them.

Japanese acers

The writing is so good I want to allow it to give you a flavour of the book through direct quotes. Here’s an early description of the Japanese people at a time when they were rarely seen in France:

… their skin is lightly bronzed, the beard rare; some of them have adopted the moustache … the mouth is large, conformed to open squarely, in the fashion of masks in Greek comedy; the cheekbones become round and the forehead protuberant on the oval of the face; the external angles of the small bridled eyes, but black and alive, with a piercing gaze, lift towards the temples. They are the Japanese.

The netsuke are central to the tale, visually appealing, endlessly different, collectors’ pieces, children’s playthings. But touch is also a vital part of the experience of admiring them. We see them being carried in pockets and hands and aprons, at once a comfort, a curiosity and a treasure:

The man who handles an object with indifferent fingers, with clumsy fingers, with fingers that do not envelope lovingly is a man who is not passionate about art.

NetsukeThey should always be displayed sympathetically:

Charles bought a black vitrine to put them in, wood polished like lacquer. it was taller than him, just over six foot high. You could see in through the glass door at the front and through the glass at the sides. A mirror at the back let the netsuke slide away into infinities of collecting. And they were all placed on green velvet. There are many subtle variations of colour in netsuke, all the colours of the ivory, the horn and the boxwood: cream, wax, nut-brown, gold in this field of dense dark green. … The vitrines … frame them, suspend them, tantalise through distance.

The author travels far and wide tracking the history of his inheritance – Japan, Austria, France, England, Ukraine, Russia, and he manages to evoke the spirit of these places with his poetic descriptions:

Vienna’s Ringstrasse ‘becomes a musical series of buildings, spaced with parks, punctuated by statues‘, with ‘a rhythm that suits its purpose,’ and a ‘space for progresses, for display’. De Waal realises that ‘I am going too fast, walking as if I had a destination, rather than a point of departure. I remember that this was the street that was made for the slower movement of the daily “Corso”, the ritualised stroll for society along the Kärntner Ring to meet and flirt and gossip and be seen’.

One of his dynastic houses in Austria is observed thus:

All I can see is marble: there is lots of marble. This doesn’t say enough. Everything is marble. Floor, stairs, walls of staircase, columns on staircase, ceiling over staircase, mouldings on ceilings of staircase. Turn left and I go up the family stairs, shallow marble steps. Turn right and I go into another entrance hall. I look down and the patriarch’s initials are set in the marble floor: JE (for Joachim Ephrussi) with a coronet above them. By the grand stairs are two torchères, taller than me. The steps go on and on, trippingly shallow. Black marble frames the huge double doors – black and gold – I push, and I enter the world of Ignace Ephrussi …

… everything gilded and ornate and encrusted and intricate and dripping wealth. No wonder de Waal couldn’t bear to have a portrait of Ignace’s wife Emilie hung on his wall at home, looking down on his domestic life in disbelief! She as so many of his predecessors came from a different stratum of society altogether. They feature in paintings, in newspaper reports, in books. They are mentioned in the same context as royalty. In one such volume where one of his ancestors appears as protagonist, de Waal’s comment was: it was ‘viscous with infatuation‘. How evocative is that!

But when it comes to the family members themselves, he has immersed himself in the detail and conjured up living breathing people. We take a swift intake of breath when great-grandfather Viktor’s elder brother elopes with his father’s Russian Jewish mistress. Of course he is instantly disinherited; Viktor suddenly becomes the reluctant heir to the family’s banking business. We feel his discomfort, so ill at ease in this totally unsuitable new role:

‘I think it might have been at around this point that Viktor developed his nervous tic of taking off his pince-nez and wiping his hand across his face from brow to chin, a reflex movement. He was clearing his mind, or arranging his public face. Or perhaps he was erasing his private face, catching it in his hand.’

Viktor’s wife, Emmy, twenty one years his junior, keeps the vitrine of netsuke in her dressing room. Why, her great-grandson wonders? Why not in one of the many public rooms where they might be admired by visitors as well as the family? The clue seems to lie in the intimacy of the room and the time she spent primping and preening in front of its great panels of mirror:

‘She changed three times a day – sometimes more. Putting on a hat to go to the races, with lots of little curls pinned one by one to the underside of the hat’s wide brim, took forty minutes. To put on the long embroidered ballgown with a hussar’s jacket, intricate with frogging, took for ever. There was dressing up for parties, for shopping, dinner, visiting, riding to the Prater and balls. Each hour in this dressing-room was a calibration of corset, dress, gloves and hat with the day, the shrugging-off of oneself and the lacing onto another. She has to be sewn onto some dresses, Anna, kneeling at her feet, producing thread, needle, thimble from the pocket of her apron. Emmy has furs, sable trimming to a hem, an arctic fox around her neck in one photograph, a six-foot stole of bear looped over a gown in another. An hour could pass with Anna fetching different gloves.’

But there’s another reason too. During the hour of dressing to go out in the evening, she allowed her children in to play with the precious netsuke. How they must have treasured those special minutes; at once close to their otherwise-remote and fractious mother, and also given this golden opportunity to caress the beautiful child-size carvings, re-order them, muddle them up to tease a sister, even listen to mother weaving stories about them!

De Waal includes many delightful personal touches which capture his own experiences as he travelled. Whilst in Vienna tracking the netsuke he’s walking just 400 yards from his paternal family mansion, the Palais Ephrussi, when he drops his glasses. They break, and he sees the irony: he’s looking at this monolith to his own past and he cannot see clearly!

DipladeniaThere’s even a little snippet that resonates particularly with me right now. The Czech poet, Rilke, is giving advice about accepting criticism to Emmy and Viktor’s daughter Elisabeth (de Waal’s grandmother) who is herself a poet and lawyer:

‘… it is not the gardener who is encouraging and caring who helps, but the one with the pruning shears and spade; the rebuke!’

How true!

It’s a fabulous book and lifted my spirits enormously in spite of its harrowing accounts of life in Austria at the time of the Nazi rule and the terrible persecutions and appropriations that led to the fall and poverty of the Ephrussi family. The shifty trips of the maid Anna carrying the little carvings to safety one by one in her apron pocket shine through, a triumph of hope over adversity.

What I didn’t know when I started reading this book was that, this very week, five years after the publication of The Hare with Amber Eyes, De Waal is about to publish his second book: The White Road, which is all about porcelain, the material he works with as a ceramicist. Hard to believe it will find the phenomenal success that The Hare with Amber Eyes did. Time will tell.

 

 

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