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?
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.
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
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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