Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust’

Brodeck’s Report

May 16, 2016

Spring must be here, because when we were on the Heath yesterday my yellow wellies were wonderfully redundant. In spite of the recent rain, the Heath was dry, the grass long, the air heavy with pollen, and the sunshine bright, and I rather wished I’d flung off my boots and run around barefoot.

walking book club brodeck

Emily’s Walking Book Club was discussing Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel. This novel came out in 2007 – not so long ago – and yet already it has all but disappeared from our cultural radar. Nobody in the book club had even heard of it, but, pleasingly, everyone was very glad to discover it. This is exactly what I want to do with the book club, and with this blog: bring people’s attention to really good books, which, for whatever reason, have been somewhat forgotten. Often these books are quite old, but Brodeck’s Report shows that even a decade can bring relative obscurity.

Brodeck's Report

The novel is set in a village somewhere around the Franco-German border, at a time which is hard to pin down: the blurb says ‘post-war’, and it certainly could be read as taking place after the Second World War, but Claudel is deliberately vague about this, and – as the book club noted – the only technology in the book is a typewriter, people travel on foot or by horse and cart, so it certainly has the feel of an older, somewhat mythical world. The book begins with our narrator, Brodeck, being tasked to write a report. His job is writing reports about the wildlife surrounding the village, collecting data on things like flowers and foxes. Only this particular report is on the murder of the Anderer, ‘the other’. This mysterious, flamboyant stranger recently arrived in the village: he was a man of few words but who talked to his animals, he wore strange clothes, carried old books, was always making notes and sketches of village life … and the people of the village have just killed him. In his account of the murder, Brodeck reveals a great deal more: both about his own life – including his survival of a concentration camp, which he calls the kazerskwir, or ‘crater’, and also how the village has struggled to survive enemy occupation.

It is easy to read Brodeck’s Report as a novel about the Holocaust. Brodeck’s Jewishness is alluded to, although most of the time he, and the other people who were taken to the camps, are referred to as Fremdër – which Claudel explains means ‘foreigner’, but:

… is ambiguous, as it can also mean “traitor”, or more colloquially, “gangrene”, or “filth”.

Claudel has chosen, however, not to make his story specifically about the Holocaust. His vagueness about time and place gives the story something of the feeling of a myth, fairy tale, or parable. When we were discussing it, many members of the book club referred to Rwanda, the current migration crisis, and also the book’s religious connotations. ‘Is the Anderer,’ someone put forward, ‘a Christ-like figure, who has to die to absolve the village for its sins?’

The point is that making the book only about the Holocaust and post-war France would be letting the rest of the world off the hook. Claudel’s novel examines what happens to humanity when it is pushed to the edge – and while the Holocaust is a powerful instance of this, it is not the only one.

Claudel also resists making the characters entirely good or bad. Brodeck’s first sentence tries to absolve him of any responsibility for the murder of the Anderer:

My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.

But we discover it’s not quite so straightforward as that. Even a man as good as Brodeck has done things of which he is ashamed. There is a terrible moment when he was crammed into the wagon being taken to the concentration camp and he drinks a flask of water belonging to a sleeping young woman with a baby, thereby saving himself and causing their deaths. He still feels terrible guilt for this act:

…this perpetual feeling of inhabiting a body I stole long ago thanks to a few drops of water.

Just as no one is wholly good, no one is wholly bad: the innkeeper who is complicit in the murder of the Anderer tells Brodeck of his haunting grief over the death of his own infant son. One of the most sinister figures in the book is the commandant’s wife at the concentration camp, or: ‘Die Zeilenesseniss “the woman who eats souls”’, who is ‘inhumanly beautiful’. Every day one of the prisoners was chosen to be hanged. The woman never missed a hanging, and she always came with her baby in her arms:

The baby was always peaceful. He never cried. If he was asleep, she would awaken him with small, patient, infinitely gentle gestures, and only when he opened his eyes at last, waved his little arms, wiggled his little thighs and yawned at the sky would she signal to the guards, with a simple movement of her chin, that the ceremony could begin. One of them would give the stepladder a mighty kick and the body of the “Du” would drop, his fall abruptly cut short by the rope. Die Zeilenesseniss would watch him for a few minutes, and as she did so a smile would appear on her lips. She missed nothing and observed everything: the jumps and jolts, the throaty noises, the outthrust, kicking feet vainly reaching for the ground, the explosive sound of the bowels emptying themselves, and the final immobility, the great silence. At this point the child would sometimes cry a little, I dare say not so much from fright as from hunger and the desire to be suckled, but in any case his mother would plant a long kiss on his forehead and calmly leave the scene.

It is such a disturbing image, this beautiful mother and child – clean, peaceful, calm, happy – watching this terrible ritual death. Claudel juxtaposes birth and death elsewhere in the novel too, with Poupchette, the joyful child of Emilia, Brodeck’s wife, born of a terrible act which has all but killed Emilia.

In Brodeck’s Report, we get everything: birth and death, good and evil, the very edges of humanity and all that comes in between. It was a very difficult (if also rewarding) book to discuss because there is so much in it, and all the ideas and issues are so big and bound together: guilt, responsibility, survival – huge questions of morality. But I think what makes the book so brilliant is that while it asks difficult questions, and scrutinises our behaviour so cleverly, it is not all bad and all bleak: Claudel shows us that however much evil there is in us, there is also – always – some good, some love, and some hope.

In other news, I hope you might like this piece I wrote for the Guardian about a very inspiring book club in a prison. And there was also this piece for The Spectator about why books are dangerous, and mustn’t be underestimated: I suppose they’re two articles looking at the power of books from opposite ends of the scale.

 

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Hanns and Rudolf

August 12, 2015

You’ll be pleased to hear that life at Emilybooks has improved since the last post-disastrous-holiday post. Much time has been spent making the most of Britain’s lovely sights and cooler climes. While the husband was away at a stag weekend, Vita and I summoned a few pals for a trip to Eastbourne for fish and chips on the beach and a squizz at the Towner Gallery, where there’s an excellent William Gear exhibition – you can read Rachel Cooke’s intriguing review of it in the Observer here. (We were all ready to fight any menacing seagulls who so much looked at Vita.) Another weekend, Vita resided with her doting grandparents while the husband and I disappeared off to a wedding in Scotland, and nearly reeled ourselves sick (at least I think it was the reeling, I suppose it could have been the whisky), and then, last week, another doting grandparent took us all off to a sunny spot in Gloucestershire, where we had a glorious time, not least when we attempted to inspire Vita to live up to her name by looking around the beautiful gardens at Highgrove. I had to restrain her from tugging the heads off the flowers, which I take to be a sign of great promise.

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas HardingIt was on the train up to Scotland, luxuriating in the heaven of not having to entertain a baby for the four and a half hour journey, that I read most of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding. This book did terribly well when it was published a couple of years ago and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, in part because he has a new book coming out this autumn.

Thomas Harding traces the stories of his great-uncle Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who fled Berlin for London in the 1930s, and Rudolf Höss, who became the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Harding explains why he was so drawn to the story:

In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews – and I am one – were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereotype until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me. This is a Jew-fighting-back story

Although a great deal of the book is taken up with a trajectory with which we are familiar – Aryan German from humble beginnings flourishes under the Nazi regime and acquires a great deal of wealth as he persecutes the Jews versus rich Jew managing to escape to London just in time even though this means losing most of his money and having to start again – Harding continues the story and shows what happens when the tables turn. Hanns Alexander joins the British Army and then works for the War Crimes Investigation Team; Rudolf Höss flees Auschwitz, separates from his family and goes into hiding while his family suffers acute poverty. Before long, Hanns is tasked with finding Rudolf, so we see the hunter become the hunted and vice versa. As Harding says, we see the Jew fighting back … and winning.

Hanns and Rudolf is exciting. Harding tells his story using alternate chapters – one focussing on Hanns, the next on Rudolf – and it is fascinating, sickening and gripping in equal measure to watch their lives spin out in such different directions while being pulled along by the knowledge that they will come together at the climax. It is, as it says in the puffs on the cover, ‘a thriller’.

Except, of course, it isn’t. It’s a true story; the true story of a terrible episode in our history. Hanns and Rudolf is not a novel based on, or inspired by, real events, it is the raw truth itself. Throughout his book, Harding reminds us of his tale’s truth – the prose is thick with facts, heavily illustrated with photographs, and there are many notes detailing his research at the back – but he tells it with a keen eye for the tale itself. He presents the facts in thriller form, and thereby renders history as story.

This certainly makes Hanns and Rudolf a good read. The problem is I think that, morally, this story ought to be a terrible read: a grim heavy book that makes you feel the full horror of the six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. Perhaps Harding has hit on something when he talks about how rare it is to find a ‘Jew-fighting-back’ story rather than a Jew as victim story, and no doubt it is this which lends the narrative this element of a thriller, earning cover puffs from John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. Also quoted on the cover is Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, saying the book ‘deserves a wide readership even among those who think they are bored with the Holocaust’. I think it is not OK to give being ‘bored with the Holocaust’ as an option, but perhaps there is something in this … If people really are bored with the Holocaust as presented in appropriately grim heavy books, then maybe this is why this book – a thriller – did so well. It is a very troubling idea to get one’s head around.

Even more troubling is the extent to which Harding’s storytelling prowess makes the reader empathise with one of his main characters. Rudolf.

Take this, for instance. Rudolf has just met Himmler, who’s told him it is time to implement ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish question’ at Auschwitz and that millions of people will be sent there to be killed:

Rudolf returned to Upper Silesia with mission in hand, but no clear idea how to achieve its objective. He knew he would not be able to kill enough prisoners using Phenol injections, and shooting them would not work either. Not only were bullets expensive but, from his time overseeing the executions in Sachsenhausen, Rudolf learned that executions have an emotional impact on firing squads – resulting in excessive drinking and increased suicide rates – and therefore could not be scaled up to any large degree.

Part of the solution was found two months later when Rudolf’s thirty-nine-year-old deputy, Karl Fritzsch, told him about an experiment which he had recently completed. Fritzsch had thrown some Zyklon B granules – used at the time to exterminate the camp’s vermin – into a small cell in Block II holding a group of Russian prisoners. After waiting only a few minutes, he had observed that all the prisoners had died. There were two problems, he said. First, only a few prisoners could be killed at a time; and second, they had to carry the bodies out by wheelbarrow, which caused shock and anxiety among the other prisoners. Rudolf suggested that if they used the old crematorium on the other side of the block buildings, and adjacent to the villa where he lived, they would be able to kill more prisoners. There would also be an on-site solution to the problem of disposing of the bodies.

Reading this as I type it makes me feel sick. Here is Rudolf coldly discussing the most efficient means of implementing systematic mass murder. It is hard to admit to this, but when I read this terrible passage in the course of reading the book, part of me felt: how is Rudolf going to find a solution to this problem that Himmler’s set him? And, therefore, part of me felt: clever Rudolf for working it out. This is a terrible thing to say; I hasten to add that it is all the more terrible for me to say as a Jew, whose great-grandfather was killed in the camps. But such is the power of Harding’s storytelling, that in following Rudolf’s story, I couldn’t help but see his perspective, and feel partly on his side in spite of myself. I was similarly conflicted when Hanns got closer and closer to finding Rudolf in hiding: part of me instinctively sympathised with the underdog and wanted Rudolf to find a means of escape.

I never thought I would find myself seeing the world through a Nazi’s eyes, certainly not the Kommandant of Auschwitz, and yet I did. As Harding detailed the atrocities Rudolf committed, presenting them in the way that Rudolf would have seen them, it was a real effort to force myself out of Rudolf’s head.

Perhaps this is testament to the power of the book and of Harding’s writing, but I hate to think of other people reading the book and feeling a similar empathy towards Rudolf.

In his author’s note, Harding says:

By calling Hanns and Rudolf by their first names I do not mean to equate them. Indeed, it is important to me that there be no moral equivalence. Yet both of these men were, self-evidently, human beings, and as such, if I am to tell their tales, I should begin with their first names. If this offends, and I understand why it might, I ask for your forgiveness.

Here is the real knot of the book: Rudolf is a human being, and Harding enables us to see this. And this is what is so deeply uncomfortable about the book – in encouraging us to see things from Rudolf’s perspective, you can glimpse how the atrocities happened, how it isn’t completely inconceivable for a human to oversee the genocide of his fellow humans.

There is much more to say about Hanns and Rudolf, but I shall restrict myself to just a couple more points.

Firstly, it was fascinating the way that Harding showed the significance of Rudolf’s capture and testimony. During the Nuremberg Trials, many of the Nazis were on the brink of being found not guilty because in spite of the evidence of the genocide taking place, the men denied their knowledge of it. Soon after Rudolf was arrested, he was called as a witness and confessed that at Auschwitz:

At least two and half million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half-million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about three million.

He admitted that he ‘personally supervised executions’ and gave further details of the deaths. The following day, Hans Frank, head of the government in occupied Poland, took the stand and for the first time confessed to his role in the atrocities. When asked, ‘Did you ever participate in the destruction of the Jews?’, he replied:

I say Yes. And the reason I say yes is because I have been burdened by guilt for the five months of this trial, and particularly burdened by the statement made by Rudolf Höss.

Rudolf’s testimony was key to getting the other Nazi war criminals to admit to their guilt – in capturing him, Hanns captured many others too.

And the final point to note is that Harding informs us that when so many Nazi war criminals were held in Nuremberg for the trials, ‘the Americans had instructed a panel of psychologists to conduct extensive interviews and tests with the defendants.’ Harding tells us who interviewed Rudolf: Gustave Gilbert ‘a New Yorker born to Jewish-Austrian immigrants’, and Major Leon Goldensohn, ‘a Jew who had been born and raised in New York’.

It makes me wonder, who were the other American psychologists, and what proportion of them were Jewish? Isn’t it extraordinary – and quite ironic – to think of a bunch of Jewish New Yorker shrinks interviewing this haul of Nazi war criminals? Please could someone write a book about this!

Hanns and Rudolf

Anachronistic paranoia?

January 27, 2010

So I didn’t give you the full story, when I said I went to a friend’s for dinner in South London on Saturday night. We didn’t just have dinner. We also played a game called ‘Germans in the Dark’.

Germans in the Dark is a game that I used to play when I was a child, whenever our family went and stayed with my grandparents, who lived in the countryside and had a very big garden. My brothers, cousins, occasionally a grudging parent, and I would excitedly charge up Grandpa’s practically antiquarian torch, longing for it to be dark enough outside to play. The game is essentially a version of 40 40. Everyone runs off and hides, while one remaining person – the German – counts to a hundred before coming to look for them, with aforementioned torch. Everyone who is hiding has to try to get back to the home base – which was a large metal gate – without being caught by the German. If the German sees you, there then ensues a race back to the base; if you touch it first then you’re safe, if the German does then you’re caught. But, even if you are caught, there’s still the hope that someone else will reach the base safely, and in so doing, automatically free you.

I grew up thinking this was a game that everyone played. Like 40 40, or It, or Stuck in the Mud. It was only very recently, when I suggested to some friends that we should play – we’d got bored of Sardines – that I realised it was unique to my family.

On Saturday night, after dinner, I explained the rules. It wasn’t quite as seamless an explanation as the one above, because there were several interjections. In fact it went a bit like this:

Me: Everyone goes and hides and then the person left behind – the German – comes looking.

Others: What? That’s mad. So we’re all the Jews, hiding from the Nazis?

Me: Well, yes, I suppose so. But, well, you could be black, or gay, or just English, or anyone else who Hitler didn’t like.

Others: So what happens when the Nazis find you? Do you get sent to a concentration camp?

Me: No. Then you race back to the home base – that can be the sofa – and you’ve got to try to get there first or —-

Others: The home base? So is that Israel?

Others again: No Israel wasn’t around then. It should be Switzerland.

Others: Ok, I see. So we all have to hide in the attic and then try to get to Switzerland.

You get the picture. Essentially, it became clear to me that I’d spent years of my life playing a game that was a sort of make-believe-fleeing-the-holocaust drama. Of course, when I was a child, I didn’t really process all of that. It was just an exciting game. In the dark. With a really big torch.

Rules eventually explained, the game, on Saturday, began. I raced upstairs and hid in a wardrobe, making myself as small as I could and covering myself with clothes. There was a lovely smell of washing powder. To start with, it reminded me of that bit in Midnight’s Children, where Salaam is hiding in his mother’s laundry basket. Then I heard my friend coming up the stairs hunting for everyone. He was shouting out, ‘I’m coming to get you! Where are you hiding? Where are you all, my little Jews?’ And he put on a German accent.

I heard him enter the room where I was hiding. And then a rather unexpected thing happened: I felt scared. I could hear him pacing around the room, calling things out, looking under the bed, opening the doors of the other wardrobe. Any second now, I thought, he’ll open this one, and then he’ll have found me. I could feel my heart drum inside me – almost down to my feet.

The door opened and I held my breath. A hand came in and ferreted around. It touched a shirt that was covering me, pressed down on it through to my arm hiding behind. You’ve got me, I almost said, almost bursting out of there to try and win the unwinnable race down to the sofa – Switzerland. But I didn’t. Something in me wouldn’t move at all. And then the hand withdrew, the wardrobe door banged close, and he was moving away, running out of the room towards footsteps we could both hear on the floor above.

I inhaled. I couldn’t believe that somehow he’d missed me. I almost thought he might just not have said anything so that he could have a head start in the race to the sofa. Once I was sure I could hear him moving around upstairs, I crept out of the wardrobe, down the stairs and into the living room, where I sank, relieved, into the sofa.

It was just a game. How utterly ridiculous that I was scared! But, now I try to understand that fear, I think the game tapped into a much bigger problem that I have …

The thing is, I am scared of the Holocaust. Still. Despite the fact that it happened over sixty years ago. This is because I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have survived.

I am bad at hiding. I have bad luck – it would be typical for me to sneeze when the Nazis were standing under my attic. When I would, inevitably, have been sent to a concentration camp, I would not have lasted more than about a day. A week at most. This is because I am always getting sore throats, I am very weak (my arms are practically concave where the muscles should be), I am hungry all the time, and I need lots of sleep. I am also not very good at being told what to do. And I can be a bit tactless. None of these would have got me out of there alive. And my great-grandfather was worked to the bone, made to dig his own grave, and then was shot. So there is a precedent, in my family, for not making it.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a day to remember the atrocities which happened, listen to the survivors’ stories, learn from their testimonies. The Guardian has a good article pointing out why this is so important.

One of the most charming (I know that seems inappropriate) stories I’ve heard was retold by Linda Grant, the brilliant writer, at a talk she gave back in October. She related the story of an old Jewish lady she met when researching her latest book The Thoughtful Dresser. I apologise for any inaccuracy, but as far as I remember, the story went like this:

The lady was, and always had been, incredibly fashionable. When she was sent to a concentration camp, she couldn’t bear the sexless striped outfits and compulsory shaving of heads. Determined to do something, she cut a strip off the bottom of her uniform and tied it in a bow around her head. When the guards came to inspect them, one of them said to her something along the lines of, ‘Was ist das?’ And she sweetly, naively, replied, ‘I wanted to look pretty for the inspection.’ Her cheek charmed the guard enough to send her off to help in the kitchens. And so, because of the bow, she survived.

Now that wouldn’t have happened to me. I’m not very good at tying bows. And I would have got the humourless guard who would have spat on me, or far worse.

Every now and then, I think about what would happen if … and I feel utterly panicked. Playing Germans in the Dark just brought on one of those moments. I wasn’t caught that time, but in real life I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I have termed this worrying ‘anachronistic paranoia’. It is so completely out of place, out of time, to be scared of the Holocaust, sixty-five years after Auschwitz was liberated. There are other instances of anachronistic paranoia too. I remember learning about the First World War at school and being genuinely terrified that my brothers would be called up to fight and would then be killed. And it’s not just me: a friend told me she used be scared of German bombers flying over London.

So why is it that there is this fear about things which happened decades ago? I think we’re scared they might happen again.

Wars still go on. 251 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. This war may be on a completely different scale to the First World War, but young men are still going to fight and are being killed. And Holocausts still happen. Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia … all instances of genocide on horrific scales.

I’d like to think that the fact I’m Jewish would never be counted against me, certainly would never be a cause for me to be rounded up and murdered, but anti-semitism, upsettingly, still abounds.

I rarely come across blatant prejudice against Jews – probably because most people know I’m Jewish. Just like most people who are slightly homophobic wouldn’t admit to it to their ‘gay best friend’. It is usually more subtle than that. A wry comment here, a joke in slightly bad taste, a glib criticism of ‘all those Jewish people who are destroying Palestine’.

I was appalled the other day when a perfectly respectable-looking gentleman came into the bookshop, bought two or three reasonably weighty hardbacks, engaged in friendly chit-chat, before picking up a book called Is it Good for the Jews?, laughing and then saying, ‘God how ridiculous. The thing that Jews should really ask themselves, is “why is it always us?” There is a reason, you know.’ It took me a while to process it. I couldn’t believe that a well-educated stranger would make an anti-semitic remark to another stranger while buying a book. I said nothing. My colleague, who was putting all his books in a bag, passed them over and agreed with him. I expect it was just out of politeness. He left before I’d had time to think of a suitable comeback.

I’m not sure why I was so taken aback by that exchange. On reflection, that particular situation seems to be pretty typical of the anti-semitism that I come across. It’s a kind of unstated assumption that a huge number of people have, ‘Oh yes, those Jews. Rich, moneyed, clearly up to no good, but we’re not really supposed to talk about it.’ Instead of overtly stating their prejudice, they veil it in comments like this, said to me when looking at Freefall – the new book by Nobel-prize-winning liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz: ‘Ah Stiglitz. He has the sort of name where you just know he’s going to be stinking rich. A bit like Goldman.’

The worst thing is that I don’t often have the nerve to respond. In that instance, I wish I’d said something like, ‘Aha, yes, of course! Such Jewish names! Well, as we’re all in a conspiracy to take over the world, it’s not surprising they’re minted.’ Instead, I get overcome with a cripplingly English – and not at all Jewish – embarrassment and awkwardness. I go silent, and red, and think, ‘Oh I wish they hadn’t just said that. I’ll sort of pretend not to have heard.’

And it’s that terribly British, terribly polite, embarrassment, the quiet getting on with the conversation and not stamping the prejudice out of people’s minds, that means that anti-semitism, albeit far watered-down from the Nazi version, is still rife in Britain today.

And, with anti-semitism still a presence, how can I help but feel a bit scared when hiding in a cupboard, hearing somebody traipse upstairs shouting German, pretending to look for Jews? How can I not help but worry, if it were to happen again – because it doesn’t feel completely impossible – that I wouldn’t survive? Perhaps what should be just anachronistic paranoia, isn’t that anachronistic or paranoid at all.