Bookword in Poland

Last week I was in Poland, spending four days in and around Krakow. I came, with a friend, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the biggest of the concentration and extermination camps built in occupied Poland by the Third Reich.

Everything about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is difficult. Friends questioned my motives. I dreaded the visit. What did I hope to achieve by looking at the place where so many people were murdered?

Birkenau Gate

Can fiction help us understand the Holocaust?

I prefer my reading about the Holocaust to be non-fiction. I prepared for my visit by reading A Train in Winter (see below), and I had some knowledge from my history studies. Our guide around Auschwitz kept saying. ‘imagine if you …, imagine how it would be …’ as we passed photographs of the Selection, of new arrivals and we gazed on mountains of suitcases (all labelled with names), shoes, eyeglasses, hair, and household objects. I did not want to imagine any more. I wanted to ask historians’ questions: How did it happen? Who could have stopped it? What prevented people stopping the creation of the camps? What does it mean to be part of an enterprise that murders so many people? And so on.

I wasn’t expecting any answers but a different way to experience the questions.

Auschwitz

I know we need heroes, like Schindler, because heroes give us hope. But we need more than heroes.

I know we need more than imagining walking a mile in those shoes.

We need to understand how we can continue to work against this capacity of humans to murder on such a scale. The Holocaust happened in the decade before my birth. There have been/are other such horrors: Cambodia, Rwanda, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, continuing struggles against white supremacists in the US, the re-emergence of the far right in the German election. It is likely there will be more. It is likely that the struggle will never be over.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

This is the stunning story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) but it is also an endlessly depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. What is omitted in this account of the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943 is any detail of the fate of their menfolk, friends, and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

It must have been a hard task to research and then write about so much death and cruelty. I felt defeated by it, wretched that humans can behave so badly.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Vintage 374 pp

See also Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead in my post on Bookword in the Cevennes.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada

Auschwitz

I think it is almost impossible to write an authentic novel about the Holocaust. This partly because a concentration camp, the tattoo on the wrist, is a trope that prevents critique, let alone criticism and limits the reader’s responses. I felt this way about this novel.

The Auschwitz Violin is a short novel which aims to show the power of music to save the spirit in the darkest of times. Daniel is a violin maker (a luthier) in one of Auschwitz’s satellite camps. Although registered as a carpenter he finds himself used by the Commandant in a bet to make a violin. This endeavour saves him and his friend the violinist Bronislaw from death.

It was contrived and unevenly framed. I found myself asking can the sweetness of a violin cut through the dreadfulness of the camp? The tension arises from whether the violin can be made in time and be of a adequate quality under such conditions. But tension is undermined by the reader’s knowledge that it already had been made. And by the knowledge that so many in Auschwitz did not have the luthier’s skills to save them. It felt very much in the tradition of the Holocaust novels of the ‘80s.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada, first published in 1994, and in English in 2010. Corsair. 128pp. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennant

Other books about Auschwitz It quickly became clear that there should be a monument to Steven Spielberg in Krakow, as the film Schindler’s List is so appreciated here and much referred to by our city guide. My mutterings that it was based on a novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982), impressed no one. Perhaps people deal better with the savagery of the Holocaust when it is mediated through films and/or novels. Did they feel better for a hero?

And to a lesser extent the same happened with Sophie’s Choice, also a film, this time based on the novel by William Styron (1979).

Here are some books relating to Auschwitz by those who there, without novelists or film directors.

I still think about If this is a man by Primo Levi.

An important book that I read some years ago is Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).

And a book that explores subsequent generations’ experiences of the Holocaust is After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2005).

Lovely bookish things in Krakow

To finish on an easier note the city of Krakow provided several bookish delights.

We had a delicious lunch in the bookshop Bona. Delicious lunch and books …

And, according to our guide and the plaque, the first European bookshop was opened in the square.

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12 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Travel with Books, Travelling with books

12 Responses to Bookword in Poland

  1. The Caroline Moorehead books look interesting, it is a time in history I dip into between other reading.

    • Caroline

      Recommended reading, both these books by Caroline Moorehead. They have enhanced my understanding of the war years and of what happened in France during that time, as well as my visits to the Cevennes and to Auschwitz.
      Thanks for leaving this comment.
      Caroline

  2. Jennifer Evans

    I agree that the awfulness of this is difficult to comprehend. I’m also disturbed about the current atmosphere around Brexit, immigration and the rise of the far right in Europe.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Jennifer. I agree with you. There are connections and we must understand them and do what we can to counter the xenophobia and racism of our own times. I know you contribute to that where you live.
      Caroline xx

  3. Alison Williams

    Your posts always include such great books – and I always add a few to my TBR list after reading. I’ve visited Dachau and found it completely overwhelming – the sheer cruelty is so difficult to comprehend.

    • Caroline

      Than you Alison. It is difficult to understand, but we MUST try and work to ensure that we understand why it wasn’t prevented.
      And thank you too for your comment about the books I recommend on the Bookword Blog. They have often been given to me by other readers. The two books by Caroline Moorehead came from two readers who are both my friends.
      Caroline

  4. Carol Hedges

    My paternal grandparents died in Auschwitz, having refused to leave Berlin while they still could. It was their fixed belief that the German people would ‘see through Hitler’ and normality would retun. When I witness the posturings of Nigel Farage, the whole Brexit catastrophe, fuelled by hate filled headlines in the Daily Mail etc, when I see 13% of Germans voted AFD, then I know we are about to board the same train. I am heartbroken that there is nobody in the UK who will speak up publically against the tide of racism: Labour is beset with ant-semitic members who worship Corbyn ( a man who lamentable fails to condemn his alt-left). The Tories are lefd by a woman who pretends to be a Christian but has a ‘thing’ about immigrants and was happy to send vans round the country threatening them, as she now condones, by her silence, the threat to investigate/close any bank accounts that *might* be illegal. Sorry for this long comment, but unless people like me, who were TOLD how Hitler rose to power, repeat what we have learned, then Oma and Opa died in vain.

    • Caroline

      Hi Carol. Thank you for your thoughts and responses on this. You will see that other readers also want us to understand what happened in Auschwitz and what is happening now. The link must be acknowledged.
      I didn’t say in the post, but I was impressed by how many people were visiting Auschwitz in mid-September and in the rain. They came from many different countries, and were of all ages, except the very young. They were sober and thoughtful, like me. It is important that lots of people understand the history, understand the mistakes of the past.
      We can only influence individuals like each other, it seems at the moment, while campaigning to expose the dangers and appalling behaviours of current public figures. We owe it to your grandparents, and those of others I know, to all those who were murdered and damaged by the camps to remember and respect and learn.
      We must speak out, as I know you do.
      Caroline

  5. Dr Christine Challen

    What a beautiful blog and story my father was Polish and lost many to the concentration camp. I am going to visit Aushcwitz as well as Krakow and I have taken note of your recommend books and the bookshop which I will visit.

    • Caroline

      Hi Christine. Do go to the bookshop (Bona) in Krakow. It had English translations of many Polish writers, including poets.
      We learned that there were many Polish people imprisoned in Auschwitz, especially at the start of the war, before it became a death camp. I was impressed by the respect the Polish guides had for the place and those who had suffered there.
      Thank you for adding your comments.
      Caroline

  6. Nick MacDonald

    Hi Caroline, have you read Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky also released as a film by Saul Dibb in 2015 starring Kristin Scott Thomas? Although not an account about Auschwitz, Némirovsky who died there, wrote these two novellas about & during the Nazi occupation of France in 1940/41. Astonishing for it humanity & irony of her fate.

    • Caroline

      Hi Nick.
      Great to read your comments! Yes I have read Suite Francaise. Nemirovsky does an amazing job of describing Paris in a panic at the advancing German army and the occupation in a rural area later. I thought both stories were brilliant, and, as you say, especially poignant given her arrest and death in Auschwitz.
      I haven’t seen the film, although I can imagine that Kristin Ascott Thomas is excellent. I prefer my fiction on the page for the most part.
      Love Caroline xx

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