Tag Archives: Auschwitz

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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Yes to Life by Viktor E Frankl

We all have dark days. Some people have continuous dark days. Among the worst of all dark days was imprisonment in a concentration camp during the Second World War. And yet we have been given such thoughtful reasons for dignity and hope by two of those prisoners. Primo Levi gave us If this is a ManIf not Now, When?The Periodic Table, as well as poetry and essays. I quoted from his poem, Girl of Pompeii, when I wrote about my visit to the ancient city, buried in a volcanic eruption. Here are some lines, referencing Anne Frank, ‘who wrote of her youth without tomorrows’.

Nothing is left of your far-removed sister,
The Dutch girl imprisoned by four walls
Who wrote of her youth without tomorrows.
Her silent ash was scattered by the wind,
Her brief life shut in a crumpled notebook
[From The Girl Child of Pompeii, translated from the Italian by Ruth Feldman]

Primo Levi was Italian, while Viktor E Frankl came from Vienna. He too addressed the question of how a person can survive ‘without tomorrows’. Perhaps his most famous book, published in German in 1946, was Man’s Search for Meaning. The original English title was From Death Camp to Existentialism, but the revised title speaks more directly to a reader.

Recently I read another collection of writings by Viktor E Frankl, also with an irresistible title: Yes to Life in Spite of Everything. The ‘everything’ that we have to put up with may not be as overwhelming as the experiences of Jewish people and others in Europe during the Holocaust. But I do often wonder what is the point of continuing, and why one should say yes to life, in our troubled times. I’m sure many other people do too.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything

The title of this book comes from a song composed for the prisoners of Buchenwald to sing when they were exhausted from their hard labour and from the smallness of their rations. They were forced to sing this song.

Whatever our future may hold:
We still want to say ‘yes’ to life,
Because one day the time will come – 
Then we will be free!  (3)

Some prisoners, no doubt, found hope in the words of this song, but Frankl has taken it with its evil origins and reclaimed it to explore that existential question about survival.

Liberated from a labour camp, and returned to his work as a psychiatrist, Frankl gave three lectures in 1946 at the adult institute of Ottakring, in Vienna. He had been liberated for just 9 months. The lectures form the basis of this book.

Auschwitz

Much of this short book is given over to reminding the people of Vienna what the policy of euthanasia meant in the Third Reich. And an even stronger theme, the topic of suicide, permeates the book. Frankl argues strongly that it is not an appropriate response to hopelessness. 

Here he summarises his three main approaches for saying yes to life in this way.:

We have already heard that the fulfilment of meaning is possible in three main directions: human beings are able to give meaning to their existence, firstly, by doing something, by acting, by creating, – by bringing a work into being; secondly, by experiencing something – nature, art – or loving people; and thirdly, human beings are able to find meaning even where value in life is not possible for them in either the first or second way – namely, precisely when they take a stance towards the intolerable, fated, inevitable and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities; how they adapt to this limitation, react towards it, how they accept this fate. (68, emphasis added) 

Frankl expanded his ideas shortly after writing Yes to Life, in Man’s Search for Meaning from which this paragraph stood out for me.

Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for every individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or other destiny. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. [85, from Man’s Search for Meaning]

You must excuse the sexist language. I am sure that, as was common at that time but unacceptable now, Frankl included women when he wrote ‘men’.

I have been trying to apply the ‘three directions’ in my own life, pretty depressed by the state of things as I am. In particular, I have been noting the natural world as we advance into spring. One of my projects is to be more aware of bird song, since I frequently take walks in our local woodlands, on Dartmoor and feed the wild birds in my garden. I have learned to identify the ubiquitous robin and can usually identify the wren by its whirring final bars. Gulls and pigeons have never given me any problems. I discover, from my app, that invisible visitors to my garden a couple of days ago included robins, blue tits, wrens, chiffchaffs, dunnocks, greenfinches, firecrests and goldfinches. The app also identified the song of a Great Kisadee, a bird native to central and south America. I need to turn on my location control! But recently a flutter of long-tailed tits passed through. On a walk with a friend yesterday, in the woods on the site of an iron age fort, we came across clusters of primroses, the first bluebells and those delicate and unassuming woodland flowers, wood anemones. 

I am not being so simplistic as to suggest that noting birds and flowers are any kind of mental health solution. I am reporting that I read Frankl and it has sharpened my pleasure in those living things.

See also Bookword in Naples (May 2022)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 1946.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 2019. The English translation from the German by Joelle Young was published in 2020 by Penguin. It contains an Introduction by Daniel Goleman. 143pp.

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Returning to Judenplatz, Vienna

This is my 801st post on Bookword. For some of this week I am in Vienna and to celebrate being here and so many posts, I am recycling one of my very first. Just over ten years ago I visited this city and was profoundly moved by the Judenplatz, Jewish Square. I plan to revisit this moving place on my current visit. Here is what I wrote ten years ago.

From Bookword March 2013

It is a Catholic city on a Sunday morning, but Vienna was quiet and without church bells. The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) was calm. The metal ring of the horses pulling the tourist carriages could be heard from the surrounding streets. The churches were emptying, and families were returning home after mass, bundled into coats and scarves against the spring cold. As they greeted their neighbours or stopped to talk their voices rebounded from the genteel walls of the buildings, five storeys high, painted in white or palest cream and with tall, elegant windows.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Lessing, an Enlightenment figure, hated by the Nazis who destroyed the original. The replacement was made after the war and at certain angles the head appears to be out of proportion and awkward. Mozart lived for a while in a house on the corner. There is a plaque commemorating this on its wall.

Near Mozart’s house is a second plaque, brass with Latin lettering, celebrating the cleansing of the city of its Jewish population in 1421. Above it is a little vignette, an angel witnesses a cleansing. The story goes that the Jews were burned at the stake and to save others from such a death the Rabbi himself killed many of his congregation.

A heavily built young man came into the square while we pondered the celebration of this barbarity. He was in his early 20s and a little overweight.  He wore a t-shirt, faded gingham shorts and moccasins. He took off his shoes and placed a small pile of short candles and a rose bud on the floor. He lit the candles and lay beside them on the concrete. After about ten minutes he replaced his moccasins and loped off over the cobbles and disappeared, leaving the candles to burn. 

They guttered in a pool of wax in front of the library door. This is Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial for the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Around the base of the monument are listed in alphabetical order the names of the 45 places where the Austrian Jews were murdered, from Auschwitz to Zamosc. It is a library, but you cannot enter. There are no handles on the doors. It is made of concrete, resembles a bunker. The external walls of the library are made from books, cast in concrete, their spines facing inwards. They are closed books. We can never read their stories.

We stand and contemplate this grey structure, such a contrast to the other public memorials and statues in this city, most of which are decorated with gold. In the fashionable Graben shopping street (think Bond Street), for example, stands the Pestsaule, which celebrates the departure of the plague from Vienna in 1692. Even this writhing column is topped with golden tangled figures. The Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in October 2000. It is monumental yet understated, absorbed into its surroundings yet unmissable, calming yet shocking, moving yet without human figures.

I think these contradictions arise because of the books. The idea of a concrete book is one from which we recoil and then return. The library represents what could have been, what should not have been and what, having been imagined and realised, must be chronicled and not forgotten; and from which we must learn. And the Jews are the people of the book. 

Later that we day, after we had witnessed Don Giovanni taken down to hell at the Opera House, we passed through Judenplatz again. Evening was turning to night and easing the contradictions of the memorials in the square. The exquisite beauty of Mozart’s music could coexist with the horrors of the Fifteenth and Twentieth centuries. It was possible to fancy a hubbub of conversation, laughter and words among the library stacks and the unwritten books.

NOTE

Since that visit I have also been to Auschwitz and wrote about my visit and some bookish connections on this blog. You can find that post here

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David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

The author, Irène Némirovsky, is frequently defined by her death in Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. When she published David Golder, she was 26 and just setting out on her successful career as a writer. David Golder was the first novel to bring her success and was published in French in 1929. It was made into a film just two years later. At the time she was taken to Auschwitz she had written 14 novels. 

David Golder is my choice for the 1929 club (see below).

David Golder

This novel is very much of its time, written just before the Great Crash (1929) that changed economics and the world for ever. And the novel appeared before the Nazis had a strong hold on Germany and Europe and before they made anti-Semitism official state policy. It was a time of reckless pursuit of great wealth. There was a kind of internationalism of the wealthy as they moved from country to country in search of more lucrative deals. This even included Soviet Russia (barely a decade into its existence) and the US. The action of the novel takes place mostly in France, but the characters mention or move between many European countries and many, like the author, have migrated to live in a new country in the turbulent post-war world.

David Golder is a ruthless Jewish businessman living in France but with origins in the Russian Empire in Ukraine. He has made his money through deals in oil. The story opens when his friend and colleague of many years asks him for help and Golder refuses. Marcus commits suicide.

Unsettled by the death of his former colleague and the depressed state of his various negotiations Golder decides to take a break in Biarritz where he has a house, and where his wife, Gloria, and his daughter, Joyce, live lives of indulgence in idle luxury. On the train he falls ill with a heart attack but recovers for a while. Pushed by his daughter who is demanding a new car he visits a casino but faints and is confined to bed. Here he is forced to consider his life, especially as his wife and daughter are even more money-grabbing than he is. 

Joyce begs him for a new car when he arrives in Biarritz, but he claims not to be able to afford it. She responds:

‘It’s just that I have to have everything on earth, otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. (50)

Later she is prepared to marry a rich old man rather than live without money. Her mother has the same, entitled attitude. As Golder is recovering from another heart attack and preparing to travel again for business, she approaches him:

‘Make some arrangements [for me]. To start with, put this house in my name. If you were a good husband, you would have made sure I had a proper fortune of my own long ago! I have nothing at all.’ (94)

Golder is contrasted later to his only friend, Soifer, with whom he plays cards while recuperating in Paris. Soifer is so mean (‘a meanness bordering on madness’) that he walks on tiptoe to save shoe leather, takes public transport rather than spend money on taxis, and refuses to buy dentures. But when he dies, he leaves ‘a fortune of some thirty million francs, thus fulfilling till the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.’ (117)

The pursuit of wealth is without merit, Irène Némirovsky is suggesting. It poisons relationships, it brings little joy, it distorts ambition, and imprisons the fortune hunter. Golder, his wife Gloria and his daughter Joyce, and his friend Soifer, are reprehensible human beings. 

On the boat to Constantinople David Golder meets a young man, from his own village, who is setting out on the same path that Golder followed years before. He warns the young man of a grim future.

‘You know you’re going to starve to death, don’t you?’ he said sharply.
‘Oh, I’m used to that …’
‘Yes … But over there, it’s harder …’
‘What’s the difference? It won’t be for long …’
Golder suddenly burst out laughing, a laugh as dry and sharp as a whip.
‘So that’s what you think, do you? Well, you’re a fool! It lasts for years, years … And after that, to tell the truth, it’s hardly any better …’
‘After that …’ the boy whispered passionately, ‘after that you get rich …’
‘After that,’ replied Golder, ‘you die, alone, like a dog, the same way you lived …’ (152)

Despite Golder’s warning, we know that the young man will follow the same path, and indeed he takes Golder’s wallet and abandons him.

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky  was born in Kyiv in 1903, then part of the Russian empire. The Némirovsky family fled to Helsinki when the Revolution of 1917 saw the end of the empire. After a year they settled in Paris, where her father rebuilt his business as a banker. Despite her origins, Irène Némirovsky wrote in French and believed herself and her family safe in France from anti-Semitic feeling. 

Some readers have suggested that Irène Némirovsky hated Jews and have suggested that the character of David Golder, and of Soifer, are evidence of this. While Soifer is something of a caricature, it is a caricature of meanness, not of Jewishness. And Golder represents the ruthless, amoral pursuit of wealth through speculation that brought Western economies to their knees in the Great Crash the same year in which this book was published. 

In my view David Golder is a novel that explores the corruption of personal standards, of moral values, of human relationships that the pursuit of wealth brings with it. No-one in this novel is happy. Only the young man has hope of a better future, and he has been warned that this is a chimera. In my view Irène Némirovsky was writing about a world with which she was familiar, not expressing anti-Semitic sentiments.

The 1929 Club

The 1929 Club, organised by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings bloggers post their responses to books published in 1929 on their blogs and these are listed on the organisers’ pages.

Stuck in a Book reviewed this novel in March 2010, and you can find the review by clicking on this link.

Heavenali also reviewed David Golder, in August 2016, and admired it. Her review is here.

David Golder, first edition cover

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky, first published in French in 1929. English translation by Sandra Smith published by Vintage in 2007. 159pp

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The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Choosing non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury can be tricky. But for the 1940s there was really no choice. To begin with I was reluctant. I sought other important books by women. In the end, it had to be this book. Anne Frank’s Diaryis my choice for the 1940s in the Decades Project on Bookword. And it has to be this book for a simple reason. The 1940s were defined by the horrors of the Second World War, and amongst the horrors was the Holocaust in which Anne Frank was first a witness and then a victim. We must never forget.

Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist, has examined bodies in mass graves, following the paths of brutal armies and militias. Her job is to find the truth of what happened to the people in such graves. She describes the impetus to do this work in this way:

We need to show that ‘our humanity transcends the worst malevolence of which our species and nature are capable’. Sue Black (2018) All That Remains: A Life in Death.

Ann Frank’s Diaryis hard to read, for we know that her brief and bright life ended in Bergen-Belsen just weeks before its liberation. But to reread it is to know again that there is humanity in the world, even in the face of the worst malevolence.

Some facts

Anne Frank was born on 12thJune 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany. Her family moved to The Netherlands in 1933 in response to the Nazi regime in Germany. When Holland was occupied and Jews being taken away, her family went into hiding. Her father, mother and older sister joined with another family (called the van Daans by Anne Frank) and later a dentist and all eight people lived in the Annexe at 263 Princengracht. The house is a fixture on the Amsterdam tourist trail.

They remained in hiding from July 1942, a month after Anne had begun her diary, until 1944 when they were arrested on 4thAugust. The last entry in the diary is dated 1stAugust. Anne was sent to Auschwitz, and then on to Bergen-Belsen with her sister. They both died in the typhus epidemic probably in February or March 1945. The camp was liberated on 12thApril. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor from the Annexe.

The text of the diary

Two secretaries had worked in the building and supported the people in hiding. They found the pages of Anne’s diaries strewn over the floor after the arrest. Miep Gies locked them away in a drawer. When Otto returned, and it was clear that Anne had not survived, Miep gave the diary to Anne’s father.

He devoted the rest of his life to publishing and promoting Anne’s diary because of its simple resonance with people and its positive message. It was not an immediate best-seller, even in Holland. A shortened version was published to begin with. But gradually as it was translated, and as her father decided to publish the full text, it became better known and more widely read.

Anne had revised some of her original text herself, because in 1944 the Dutch Government in exile announced that it would publish eyewitness accounts after the war. Anne provided pseudonyms for many people, and revised early entries. But she hoped it would be published.

And why should it be read even now?

We must never forget. A thirteen year old girl, lively, vivacious, inquisitive, was growing up in Amsterdam with her life ahead of her. She stands for the many, many people who suffered under fascism and from the antisemitic policies of the Nazi occupiers. It is in the everyday stories of lives destroyed that we can begin to understand the damage wrought by such policies.

This is a young girl’s account of being alive, growing up in restricted circumstances. She is an adolescent, highly self-conscious, very analytical, very sensitive. In distressing and difficult circumstances she hones her beliefs and comes to honour particular qualities in people – equality, honesty, unselfishness, kindness, listening, asserting oneself and so on. And she tries to carry on being alive as best she can, missing the natural world, fresh air, her friends, varied activities, school. She tries hard to remain positive. She mostly succeeds.

This is one book where knowing the ending, or the absence of ending, provides the impetus to read. It is a compelling story: so many months in hiding, so many tiny battles and irritations with the other occupants of the Annexe, so much time to survive, so many hopes, fears, alarms, and even hopeful news when in June 1944 they heard about the invasion: D-Day, at last. There should have been a happy-ever-after.

But we do need evidence, as Sue Black says, that humanity can transcend our species’ worst malevolence. Anne Frank’s diary does provide such evidence, also bearing witness to her father’s determination to do the right thing for her, and to the helpers who kept the family alive.

Anne Frank 1940 (school photo, photographer unknown)

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank, first published in a short form in 1947. I used the Penguin revised and definitive edition of 2003. 350pp

Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty, edited by Otto H Frank and Mirjam Pressler.

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the previous three books in the Decades Project:

My Own Storyby Emmeline Pankhurst(1914)

Another look at A Room of One’s Ownby Virginia Woolf(1928)

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain(1933)

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Some Tough Reading

I have chosen to read some pretty tough books recently. They all concern the large-scale political events of the 20th and 21st centuries, and all concern wilful and intentional policy of inhumane treatment towards others. Depressing indeed!

The books refer to Russia in the time of Stalin’s great purges, Paris and Auschwitz in the 1940s, China from the 1930s through to Tiananmen Square and the plight of refugees in Europe today. Books take you to places you have never been, but can profoundly depress you while you are there. What follows is a kind of inhumanity Mash-up.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I put off reading this novel, and then I had to restart it. It was difficult to read. With brilliant story-telling gifts Madeleine Thien retells the history of China through its effects on several generations of one family and their friends. At the centre of her narrative is Sparrow, a Chinese composer, and Lai his friend and a brilliant concert pianist. But the story stretches back from the wanderings of Sparrow’s mother in the 1930s and forward from the starting point of the novel when Sparrow’s daughter meets Kai’s daughter in Toronto. The fathers have both died.

What links them through this terrible period of Chinese history is music and literature in the face of oppression and mob enforce repression.. Music and literature forge family loyalties, even in the face of violent opposition to Western culture, or any artistic expression.

The stories of the family members over time merge, as they wander off, surface again in distant provinces, often in exile or in terrible prison camps. They suffer enforced re-education, the mob mentality of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, the demonstrations and repression of Tiananmen Square. The willingness of the people to try to do as bidden in order to make China better is heartrending in the face of so much brutality. One asks: and today?

It’s a captivating book and one that I have frequently seen read on train journeys.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) Published by Granta 473pp

Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Fiction prize 2017

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

Endpaper for Into The Whirlwind

This book is a memoir, beginning with an account of the author’s arrest in 1937, accused of betraying the Revolution. Sentenced to 10 years in solitary, she endures two in the company of Julia before being sent on to a labour camp in East Russia.

From the moment she is sentenced she has no knowledge of her husband, or of their children (seeing only one of her sons in later life). It’s a grim story, beginning with the Kafka-esque accusations that began the great purge, the cult of personality. The conditions under which the first three years of her sentence are served are so appalling both in isolation and in the work camp, that one wonders anyone survived. At each stage the women support each other, learn how to deal with their warders and those who control their lives. This volume (but not her imprisonment) ends in 1940, and she continued her memoirs in another volume, up to the point of her rehabilitation in the 1950s.

The personal cost of Stalin’s monstrous campaign to ensure his own rule is vividly revealed. Remaining human was a constant struggle, to do with clothes, footwear, keeping warm, eating and acts of generosity towards others.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967) Published by Persephone Books 344pp

Translated from the Russian by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari

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

While this book is a story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) it is also a depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. It focuses on the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. It leaves us to imagine what happened to their menfolk, friends, children 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.

I included my reflections on this book in a post about visiting Auschwitz, Bookword in Poland.

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

And just in case you think that this kind of inhumanity doesn’t happen any more in Europe, I refer you to the recent post reviewing a novel about refugees in Germany: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

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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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