Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown”

Tim Dee’s Four Fields: ‘Without fields – no us. Without us – no fields.’

Tim Dee’s <em> Four Fields</em>: ‘Without fields – no us. Without us – no fields.’

Tim Dee is a BBC radio producer and a very fine writer. His first book The Running Sky was a superb meditation not just on bird-watching, but on life.  Last month I read his latest book Four Fields, in which Dee’s subject is, broadly, the way in which humans across the planet have shaped the landscape through cultivation. Succinctly summing up the idea that lends unity to his book, Dee writes:

Without fields – no us. Without us – no fields.

Continue reading “Tim Dee’s Four Fields: ‘Without fields – no us. Without us – no fields.’”

Berlin: books that created the city that haunts our imagination

Berlin: books that created the city that haunts our imagination

All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts.
– Ivan Chtcheglov

When people of my generation travel to Berlin they arrive with their heads stuffed already with images of the city soaked up from decades of newspaper and newsreel coverage and from books – both non-fiction and a plethora of spy fiction and novels that have created the city that haunts our imagination.

This summer we spent a few days in Berlin, and before we left I read a few books either about or set in the city, revisiting some old favourites and catching up on some more recently published works. Here then is a quick survey of some of the books that allowed me to walk the streets of Berlin before I even went there. Continue reading “Berlin: books that created the city that haunts our imagination”

Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place

Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place

The genesis of Philip Marsden’s latest book, Rising Ground, was his acquisition of an old, decaying and overgrown Cornish farmhouse. It is subtitled ‘A Search for the Spirit of Place’, and a few pages in, Marsden explains how, after writing a series of books cataloguing journeys he had made to distant lands he came to write one which follows him as he sets out on foot from his new home. Continue reading “Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place”

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

This summer I’ve read two short, critically-acclaimed novels by Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, and The End of Days, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize. I have to say that both books left me a little cold.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, where her father was a physicist and philosopher, and her mother an Arabic translator. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. She is also an opera director, and still lives in Berlin. Erpenbeck’s grandparents both lived in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. After 1945 they became important cultural figures in the socialist East Germany. They are figures which suggest that there is much that is drawn from her own family’s history in these two books.

End of Days cover

The central character in The End of Days is a Jewish woman born in a small Galician town in the early 20th century. In a sequence of five alternate lives, each separated by an intermezzo, Erpenbeck imagines the different courses the woman’s life might have taken, and how the impact of those different lives might have had on others around her. It’s a bit like one of those old silent films in which the pratfallen clown rises up to live another day.

The scope is ambitious: from the provincial borderlands of the Austro-Hungarian empire to Vienna, Moscow, East Germany, and finally the reunified Berlin of the post-Communist years. Published in Germany in 2012 and now available in a careful English translation by Susan Bernofsky, the novel takes its German title from the saying Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend, meaning: ‘It isn’t over until the end of all days.’

The protagonist seems to have died in the first sentence:

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.

The child being  buried is an eight-month-old Jewish girl in a small Galician town around the year 1900. The child’s mother stands by the grave and, as each handful of dirt is thrown in, mourns the death of the girl, wife, and old woman her daughter might have become:

She doesn’t know how she can bear it that her child’s death still persists, that from now on it will persist for all eternity and never diminish.

After the child’s death, certain events unfold: the baby’s goy father emigrates to America; the mother learns that her own father was killed in a pogrom; the family is torn apart. But Erpenbeck is less interested in what happens than in what might have been: the possibilities foreclosed by, but seemingly coexisting with, the child’s death. The other night I watched an Horizon documentary about the concept of multiverses: Erpenbeck’s story has that sort of flavour. Each of the intermezzos which punctuate the narrative enable Erpenbeck to shift gear and imagine how things might turned out differently in one of these parallel universes.

It’s certainly a clever way for Erpenbeck to extend the lifetime of her protagonist from a Jewish shtetl in Galicia in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire to an old people’s home in 1990s Berlin. Her heroine meets death several times: as a fragile infant sickening in a freezing winter to a fall downstairs that kills an eminent Communist writer in 1960s East Berlin. Each time she dodges death, enabling the writer to refashion her history: each sidestepped fate opens the door to another kind of destiny.

Each intermezzo and subsequent ‘book’ introduces a new twist. What if, for example, the teenage protagonist is heartbroken by being rejected in love and induces a virtual stranger to kill her in a suicide pact? But what if that doesn’t happen and instead she becomes a writer and a Communist who settles in Moscow with her husband? What if doesn’t die in the Stalinist purges and labour camps but goes on to be a celebrated writer who wins the Goethe Prize?

Well, I’m always ready for a novel that embraces the sweep of Europe’s 20th century, and I don’t mind a good helping of modernist allusion. But, I have to say that I found this one uneven and ultimately unconvincing (the section set in the Soviet Union, in which Erpenbeck’s leaden prose aims to emulate the doublespeak of Stalinism is a particular slog).

Although there are many effective passages, overall I found Erpenbeck’s prose mannered with its deliberate distancing in which names are rarely used and identities muddied with characters often identified only in terms of their relation to others (‘daughter of’, ‘mother of’, ‘son of’, etc).

And then there’s the question of what it all meant – all these alternative lives? The cruelty of fate? The randomness with which a person’s life can intersect with history? This might be unfair, but at the end I felt it was like the great-grandmother in the story who sings a song about a man who makes a coat out of a piece of cloth, and when that is tattered makes a vest, and on and on, until he makes a button, ‘and a nothing at all out of the button, and in the end he makes this song out of nothing at all.’

At the end of the novel, after her heroine has endured death four times and lived through Europe’s 20th century turmoil in four cities, Erpenbeck finally grants her a name as she introduces us to the frail nonagenarian Frau Hoffmann in a Viennese nursing home. Her son Sasha, travels to Vienna where he enters an antiques store to buy his mother a present. Unwittingly, as he browses, he handles the very same edition of the Complete Works of Goethe that once belonged to his mother. He takes a fancy to them, but decides not to buy them.

You know, she says, I am afraid that everything will be lost – that the trace will be lost.

What trace? her son asks.

I don’t know any more: from where or to where?

The scene in the nursing home that follows is masterful, as the son sits by  his dying mother contemplating the journey into – where? what? – upon she is about to embark:

Never has he known as little as he does now. The only thing he knows is that his not-knowing is as deep as a river on whose distant shore there must be a very different world than the one he lives in.

This moment seems to echo the epigraph from WG Sebald’s Austerlitz with which Erpenbeck prefaced the novel, which itself echoed Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film concerned with the workings of memory, Last Year at Marienbad:

We left here for Marienbad only last summer.
And now – where will be going now?

What follows, in the closing passage of The End of Days, is the best piece of writing in the whole book:

In this land to which his mother is crossing over, no longer able to understand anything she once understood, she will no longer need any words, this much he understands. For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim-that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now-and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowed within the earth: the springs, the roots, and the dead; the cry of the cuckoo of to one side would be just as real as the stones crunching beneath the sole of his shoe, as the coolness of the evening and the light falling through the leaves to the ground before him, as his hand that he is using to stroke his mother’s back, feeling her bones beneath her thin, old skin, bones that will soon be laid bare-briefly, sharply, clearly, he knows for one instant what it would feel like if the audible and the inaudible, things distant and near, the inner and outer, the dead and the living were simultaneously there, nothing would be above anything else, and this moment when everything was simultaneously there would last forever. But because he is a human being – a middle-aged man, with a wife, two children, a profession-because he still has some time ahead of him, time during which he can look up something he doesn’t know in an encyclopedia or ask one of his colleagues, this knowing free of language passes from him just as suddenly as it arrived. He’ll be prevented from seeing this other world with the eyes of his mother for a good earthly time, by the absence of the most crucial thing: the going away.

In a Guardian profile of Jenny Erpenbeck, Philip Oltermann made this interesting observation about this scene, noting an aspect of the book that had completely passed me by:

While The End of Days starts out as a portrait of a personality, it is, by the end, also a book about something much bigger: the disappearance of the faiths that help us to make sense of death. When the woman dies as a baby, her Jewish parents cover the mirrors, open the windows and sit with their silent grief for seven days. Even in socialist East Germany there are still rituals: the guards dip their flags in tribute at her state funeral, there is an elevated cushion presenting her medals. But when she dies for the final time, her son can only react to her death with despair: “As his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.”

Erpenbeck Visitation cover

Earlier, in the Spring, I had read Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous novel, Visitation, published in English in 2011. The central character of that book was a house, one which had witnessed, in microcosm, the complicated history of East Germany in the previous hundred years – and even beyond, through geological time.

From prehistoric times through to the Third Reich and the collapse of the GDR, a Brandenburg country estate and the mansion built on it witnesses the growth and death of systems, the rise and fall of dynasties. The elliptical narrative traces the lives those who live in the house which is throughout a sort of silent observer of the waves of human activity in the 20th century that lap at its gates.

In an interview with Quarterly Conversation, Jenny Erpenbeck explained that the house actually stands on a lake in Bradenburg, a summerhouse that belonged to her grandparents, where she spent holidays for eight weeks every year:

It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.

The book features a mosaic of characters (as in The End of Days, few are given names) who all have connections to the property. Their stories are told in a dreamy, ethereal style, interwoven with glimpses of the seasonal labours of estate gardener:

After the Russians have pulled out, the gardener prunes the shrubs and bushes in the hope that they might bud a second time.

Although her prose is generally distancing, Erpenbeck embeds vivid descriptions of terrible events. In the chapter entitled ‘The Cloth Manufacturer’, she takes a small Jewish family tree and unsparingly chronicles its felling. These are the neighbours of the architect who owns the estate and he is a complicit bystander. The fate of the grandparents in a Nazi gas truck is told in one sentence:

Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before.

Later, the architect is also forced to flee his treasured home, having fallen foul of the post-war East German authorities. Closing up the house,

He buries his pewter pitchers among the roots of the big oak tree, the Meissen under a bushy fir, and the silver in the rose-bed right next to the house. Rest in peace. He knows that two hours from now he’ll be sitting in the S-Bahn to West Berlin, his fingernails still rimmed with dirt.

This is the sort of book I expected that I would really appreciate. But, in all honesty, it left me unmoved: an exercise in style, it seemed to me, rather than a real engagement with its characters or the events that affect them.

Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text

Representations of the Holocaust: stage, screen and text

To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Two very different representations of the Holocaust seen in the last 48 hours are the subject of this post. The first is the stage adaptation by Children’s Touring Partnership of  Irish novelist John Boyne’s ‘fable’ for younger readers, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, set in Auschwitzthe second a documentary film, Night Will Fall, about the army photographers who filmed the horrific scenes revealed when British forces entered the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

Over one million children under the age of sixteen died in the Holocaust. At death camps like Auschwitz children under 14 were usually murdered in the gas chambers within an hour of arrival.

Those arriving at Auschwitz would join the notorious queue for the ‘separation platform’: older women and mothers with young children directed to the left, those aged over 14 and deemed ‘fit’ for work to the right. To survive, it was essential to end up on the right. Prisoners who knew the fate that lay ahead on the left whispered warnings: ‘Don’t say you are too young, don’t say you are ill – say you are able to work. Don’t say you belong together, that you are mother and child.’

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
– Elie Wiesel, Night

Auschwitz: the Selection

Those Jews selected for work were sent to a separate building for registration. Prisoners would be registered, before undressing, placing their clothes on a hook, together with their shoes. They would then be tattooed with a registration number, shaved of all body hair, disinfected and forced through showers that were either extremely cold or painfully hot. Once showered, prisoners were given the infamous striped pyjamas, hat and a pair of wooden clogs. They were marched to the blocks to begin their life within the camp.

Lucie Adelsberger, a paediatrician and Auschwitz survivor, described the life of the children who survived the selection in her memoir, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story:

Like the adults, the kids were only a mere bag of bones, without muscles or fat, and the thin skin like parchment scrubbed through and through beyond the hard bones of the skeleton and ignited itself to ulcerated wounds. Abscesses covered the underfed body from the top to the bottom and thus deprived it from the last rest of energy.

According to Adelsberger, ‘the problem for us in Auschwitz was not whether selection, but when and how … no Jewish prisoner reckoned on ever leaving Auschwitz alive’. Many of the children who had been selected to live were subject to the experiments of the notorious Josef Mengele, who would inflict incredible suffering on Jewish children, Gypsy children and many others. His ‘patients’ were put into pressure chambers, tested with drugs, castrated, frozen to death, and exposed to various other traumas.

Survivors of Mengele's experiments
Survivors of Mengele’s experiments on children at Auschwitz

The Holocaust is now regarded as a defining historical event – one whose meaning, could we but fathom it, might provide offers a key to understanding history and what humanity is capable of. At the same time, it is a subject deeply resistant to the imagination. For Elie Wiesel, a novel about Auschwitz was either not a novel or not about Auschwitz.

Theodor Adorno’s 1949 statement -‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ – is often advanced in support of the argument that it is impossible to represent the Holocaust (though he did later write that ‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream’). Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi was firm in his belief in the necessity to tell the story of those consumed in the Holocaust, because, for the Nazis ‘it did not matter that they might die along the way, what really mattered was that they should not tell their story’.

Many people – many nations – can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection … so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us.  The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as an alarm-signal.
Primo Levi, Preface, If This Is A Man

Today, it is generally accepted that representing the Holocaust by means of survivor testimonies is a positive and desirable (with trusts and charities set up specifically to preserve and re-tell those stories). There is still considerable debate, however, about whether this dark period of history can be respectfully represented in fiction. Primo Levi was himself uncertain that the more bestial aspects of the Holocaust could be a fit subject for fiction: ‘Our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man’. He thought that only those who had survived Auschwitz had the right to the hell they had experienced, though in The Drowned and the Saved, he even questioned whether they were fit to do so, since those who had fathomed the depths of human degradation did not come back to tell the tale.

So how should we judge the presumption of Irish novelist John Boyne whose ‘fable’ for younger readers about the unlikely friendship between the nine-year-old son of a German concentration camp commandant and one of its young Polish Jewish prisoners has sold more than six million copies around the world since it was published in 2006?  Turned into a film in 2008, Boyne’s fable has reached an even wider audience.

And, as Damon Fairclough notes in this review of the play, Boyne’s novel has since become a favourite text in schools ‘not only because it tells a powerful story about two children – two lads from different worlds who become pals – but also because it acts as a gateway into the most shattering event in human history.’

Now there is a new touring stage adaptation from the Children’s Touring Partnership. Last night I went to see it at the Liverpool Playhouse with my daughter who teaches at a local primary school.

The story, concerns nine year-old Bruno, the son of a commandant at Auschwitz, who, naturally enough perhaps, knows little about the Nazis (other than their leader is ‘the Fury’) or of the persecution of the Jews (though he is being taught to despise them as inferior beings).

All he knows is that he has been uprooted from his home and friends in Berlin to live with his sister and mother in ‘Outwith’, in the house attached to his father’s new place of work. In this desolate place there is nothing to do and no one to play with. That is – until he meets Shmuel, a boy who lives in a strange place on the other side of a barbed-wire fence and who, like the other people there, wears striped pyjamas.

Neither of us had read the book on which the play is based. It’s almost certain that a play of less than 90 minutes will have lost something in translation, and that it would need good acting and effective staging in order for the audience to suspend disbelief and accept as a ‘fable’ this story of an unlikely friendship between two boys, forged in the most grotesque of surroundings.

In her review for the Liverpool Echo, Catherine Jones began by noting that it ‘asks its audience to take the kind of giant leap of imagination which storytelling, after all, thrives on’. But, she then continued with a withering criticism of ‘a simplistic story’ in which the young Jewish lad, Shmuel has not only evaded immediate end death in a gas chamber that faced most children on arrival at Auschwitz, but somehow has the freedom to loiter near a fence (strangely not electrified), where he encounters a bored Bruno who is looking for a playmate.

Jabez Cheeseman as Bruno and Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Jabez Cheeseman as Bruno and Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Sarah and I differed in our view of the play, but we both agreed about the quality of the acting and production.  The two leading child actors (Jabez Cheeseman as Bruno, Colby Mulgrew as Shmuel) are both nine years old and acquitted themselves very well. Director Joe Murphy sets the action on a largely bare stage that rotates at certain key points to emphasise movement, such as when Bruno, playing at explorers, dashes through the woods and encounters the fence – and Shmuel. The short scenes are introduced by typeset captions projected onto the bare timber wall that forms the back of the stage.

Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel will take him from innocence to revelation. His exploring will end in what is described in the final projected caption as his ‘big adventure’, when he will be consumed by the terrible process that is beyond his understanding.

In the end, Bruno and Shumel devise a plan to play together. Shumel gets Bruno a pair of ‘striped pyjamas’, Bruno gets a spade and digs his way to the other side. Inside the camp, the boys are caught in a selection. Bruno’s mother notices he is missing from home and a search party sets out to look for him – but it is too late. Bruno and Shumel have been taken to the gas chamber.

Dominic Cavendish gave the production a scathing review in the Telegraph, in which he wrote that it is ‘distressing for all the wrong reasons. … about as bogus as it’s possible to get without becoming a grotesque travesty…. fanciful dreck masquerading as an oblique history lesson’.

But others have argued that Bruno’s innocent acceptance of Shmuel as a human being, just like him, who deserves his friendship, compassion and help, makes Boyne’s tale acceptable, even moving. While everyone else fails to looks beyond their prejudices, Bruno reaches out to the boy he has been told is sub-human and his enemy. He sees Shmuel as no different to himself. He also recognises that their house-servant Pavel, a camp prisoner and former doctor who treats his injuries after he has fallen from a swing, is a good man, not vermin, as his father and tutor tell him.

Auschwitz survivor Eva Neumann made this comment on the film version, quoted on the Film Education website:

The only message I can tell you is that if you are a child and you’ve got no prejudices about nations and enemies – and these children in the film were not told, one was suffering and the other one wasn’t but they didn’t know, they were innocent – and it just shows that children are innocent. …They show us, these two kids, that friendship and human feelings which have not been spoilt by the outside world, is very very important.

In an interview John Boyne has justified his approach in similar terms:

For me, a 34-year-old Irish writer, it seemed, the only respectful way to approach the subject was through innocence. Through a fable told from the point of view of a rather naive child who couldn’t possibly understand the horrors of the thing he was caught up in. I believe that this naivety is as close as someone of my generation can get to the dreadfulness of that period.

Personally, I can only see any notion of innocence in this context as symbolic. Bruno is only a year away from being enlisted (for certain, given his father’s position) in the junior branch of the Hitler Youth, the Deutsches Jungvolk, for boys aged 10 to 14.  (In the second half of the play, it would appear that his sister Gretel has joined the parallel organisation, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls.) Mandatory membership of these organisations for all young Germans after 1936 was probably one of the most significant ways in which Nazi ideology maintained its grip, though in making that statement I am aware that some might have resisted mentally – as did for instance, Hans Scholl, the brother of Sophie Scholl and one of the leading figures of the anti-Nazi resistance movement, White Rose, who was at the same time a member of the Hitler Youth.

There’s another aspect of Boyne’s fable that is worrisome to me: when the German boy dies along with his Jewish friend, it can seem as if the real tragedy is not the murder of more than a million Jews in the camp, but the unfortunate murder of one boy who doesn’t belong in the camp and who doesn’t ‘deserve’ to die.

Where John Boyne’s tale fits into the evolving narrative of Holocaust representation in literature is as an example of the modern tendency to try to find a message of hope there – to extrapolate from the horror an affirmation of humanistic values. This is commendable – essential, even. But there is an alternative perspective, summed up in Elie Wiesel’s chilling words from A Plea for the Dead:

In truth, Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history. What Auschwitz embodied has none. The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God’s name. At Auschwitz the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none. Numbers have their own importance; they prove, according to Piotr Rawicz, that God has gone mad.

Many hold to the view that Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour documentary, Shoah is the only suitable representation of the Holocaust to be captured on film because it refuses to represent that which cannot be represented. The documentary features only location shots of concentration camp sites in the present day and interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators.

In his essay Who Owns Auschwitz? the Hungarian Imre Kertész, who was deported at the age of 14 with other Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, and whose best-known work, Fatelessness, describes the experience of a young boy in Auschwitz, once wrote in an essay how, over time, depiction of the Holocaust had become stylized to ‘nearly unbearable dimensions’. Even the term ‘Holocaust’ had become a stylization, “an affected abstraction from more brutal-sounding terms like ‘extermination camp’ or ‘Final Solution’.” As more and more is written about the Holocaust, he argued, its reality – the reality of human extermination – increasingly slips away, out of the realm of the imaginable:

The concentration camp is imaginable only and exclusively as literature, never as reality. … More and more, the Holocaust is stolen from its guardians and made into cheap consumer goods. Or else it is institutionalized, and around it is built a moral-political ritual, complete with a new and often phony language.

Life Is Beautiful
Life Is Beautiful

But, perhaps surprisingly, in that essay Kertész offered a film to challenge that position – one close in conception to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, though far superior in my view. Life is Beautiful, the film directed by the Italian actor and comedian Roberto Benigni, whose father survived three years of internment in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, also views a concentration camp through the eyes of a child. On its release Benigni was strongly criticised for situating his concentration camp story within a fantasy or fairytale that, critics argued, disrespected the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors, simply to provide its audience with escapist pleasure.

More than with any other historical event, we tend to judge representations of the Holocaust by their ‘accuracy’.  In this sense, both John Boyne’s text and Benigni’s film are problematic. If we regard these works as designed to help a younger generation learn from the past then their accuracy would need to be questioned. Most crucially, in light of the fact that generally children under 14 years of age were killed as soon as they arrived at a concentration camp.

But, Kertész proposed – in an argument that could be applied also to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – that the soul of Life is Beautiful is authentic because ‘it moves us with the power of the oldest kind of magic, the magic of fairy tales’:

At first sight, this fairy tale looks pretty awkward on paper. Guido deceives his four-year-old son Giosue into thinking that Auschwitz is just a game. Participants in the game receive points for successfully overcoming difficulties, and the winner will receive a ‘real tank’. But does not this device of the ‘game’ correspond in an essential way to the lived reality of Auschwitz? One could smell the stench of burning human flesh, but still did not want to believe that all of this could be true. One would rather find some notion that might tempt one to survive, and a ‘real tank’ is, for a child, precisely this kind of seductive promise. […]

At the end, the boy sees his ‘prize’ rolling toward him – the ‘real tank’. But here, sadness over the ruined ‘game’ overwhelms the story. We now understand that, somewhere else, the ‘game’ would be called civilization, humanity, freedom – everything that humans ever regarded as valuable. And when the boy, reunited with his mother and suspended in her arms, cries out ‘we won!’ his words come to resemble, through the power of this moment, an elegy shot through with grief.

Children at Auschwitz liberation by photographed by Russian soldiers
Children at the liberation of Auschwitz photographed by Russian soldiers

Astonishingly, there was, for a short time only, one group of young children in Auschwitz who lived with their parents in the ‘Family Camp‘ established by the Nazis in September 1943 with an initial consignment of five thousand prisoners deported from the Terezín ghetto.  Unlike previous transports, they received unusual privileges: on arriving at the camp they did not undergo the usual selections, and families were not divided. In December 1943 and May 1944, more transports from Terezín brought a further 12,500 prisoners.

One of those children was Otto Dov Kulka, who was ten when he arrived at Auschwitz. Two years ago, aged 80, Kulka finally set down his memories of that time in a remarkable Holocaust memoir, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, that has been compared to the work of Primo Levi.

Incredibly, in the Family Camp children attended a rudimentary school, plays and concerts were performed by the children, usually attended by high-ranking SS, among them Dr Josef Mengele. Like Bruno in Boyne’s tale, ten year old Kulka was a curious child: there’s a terrifying account in his memoir of what happened when he decided to find out whether the barbed wire of the fence was ‘really electrified’, and dared himself to touch it. (He still bears the scars.)

Only later did Kulka learn that the Family Camp had been intended by Eichmann to deceive inspectors International Red Cross who were expected. Its inmate’s reprieve was only temporary: in the summer of 1944, with the Russians advancing ever closer, the Auschwitz Family Camp with its ‘children’s block’ was liquidated. Kulka survived by a fluke. Later he was forced on the long winter death march out of the camp ahead of the advancing Russians. His father survived the camp, but his mother died during the evacuation.

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death begins with Kulka describing his return to Auschwitz in 1978:

Travelling in the opposite direction on the road that led me, on 18 January 1945, and on the days that followed, out of that complex about which I was certain, about which we were all certain, that it was a complex no one ever came out of.

He enters the camp complex:

I walked along the track, between the tracks, where grass now grew, through that gate, for the second time –but that day on foot, under my own steam. I went to a place where I was sure of my way. It was one of the camps that should have been there, but in place of the camp, stretching from horizon to horizon, were rows –forests –of brick chimneys that were left from the barracks that had been dismantled and had disappeared, and tottering concrete pillars, each leaning in a different direction, and rusting shreds of barbed wire on this side and on that side –some lay still, others crept in the damp grass –the damp wet grass –from horizon to horizon. And the silence. An overwhelming silence. Not even the sound of a bird was heard there. There was muteness there, and emptiness there. There was astonishment that these landscapes –which had been so densely crowded with people, like ants, with armies of slaves, with rows of people making their way along the paths –were silent. Were deserted. But everything was there: there was that forest of concrete pillars –one could almost see them proud and erect, with those taut steel wires, as on the day we entered, at night –as in that night illuminated with a pageant of lights passing over our faces at the slow entry of the train to that ‘corridor of lights, to the Metropolis of Death’.

Ruins of part of the electric fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Ruins of part of the electric fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau

He recounts a recurring dream:

That night dream always brings me back to the same immutable law by which I end up back inside the crematorium and, by some roundabout way, through canals of dark water, through trenches and hidden openings, I dig beneath the barbed wire and reach freedom and board a train, and at one desolate station at night a loudspeaker calls my name, and I am returned to the place I am bound to reach: the crematorium. And however much I know that I must be caught, I always know, too, that I must be spared. It’s a kind of circle, a cycle of Tantalus or Sisyphus, or of whatever myth we choose to invoke that is germane here, which returns in an endless vicious circle to the same place. I decided to descend those stairs. I knew I first had to ascend that broken wave of the roof. I climbed onto it and crossed its entire length, waited there for however long I waited, and finally descended the stairs that led down. I descended stair by stair, in the place where all those whose names and images I remembered had descended, and all those –myriads upon myriads –whom I had seen being swallowed up in endless rows into the crematoria and afterwards I imagined how they rose in fire and flames into the illuminated night sky above the chimneys.

Transport to Auschwitz
Transport to Auschwitz

Later he describes the great mystery of their arrival at Auschwitz – the miracle of there being no selection, ‘a miracle whose meaning no one understood’:

On that ramp, on that railway station platform onto which we stepped, every transport of deportees was received at Auschwitz with the same well-known procedure –the selection –after which most of the new arrivals were sent to the gas chambers and the minority, those who were fit for work, were sent, after disinfection and a change of clothes into prisoner’s garb, to one of the labour camps inside Auschwitz. In our case, we were all sent to one camp, our heads were not shaved, we were allowed to keep our own clothes, and the veteran inmates who visited the camp explained to us that this was a great mystery, which none of them could fathom.

Kulka speaks of his rudimentary education in the Family Camp – ‘in which I encountered history for the first time, music almost for the first time, and also death’ – an education which also embraced:

… the skeletons, and also the selections, which we saw from afar, and we knew; and also those images which preoccupied me, disturbed me, but were part of the day-to-day reality: the images, particularly toward evening, as dark descended slowly across the skies of Poland, when we watched the crematoria burning with a quiet constant fire, and the flames a few metres high rising above the red-brick chimneys of the crematoria, and the smoke billowing and rising above the flames, and the riddle that engaged us, me especially: how does it happen that the living, who enter in their masses in long columns and are swallowed into these structures made of sloping roofs and red bricks, are transformed into flames, into light and smoke, then disappear and fade into those darkening skies? In the star-strewn night sky, too, the fire continues to burn, quietly. That belonged to everyday life.

In one episode Kulka speaks of ‘the terrible absurdity’ of playing in the children’s orchestra, of playing

… that song of praise to joy and to the brotherhood of man, Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony … opposite the crematoria of Auschwitz, a few hundred metres from the place of execution, where the greatest conflagration ever experienced by that same mankind that was being sung about was going on at the very moment we were talking and in all the months we were there.

There is a striking passage in which he describes an image of the summer that he spent as a child in Auschwitz, an image that persists in his memory, part of ‘a private mythology which I am conscious of, a mythology that I forged’:

Another leap in time, to a different landscape and different colours. The colour is blue: clear blue skies of summer. Silver-coloured toy aeroplanes carrying greetings from distant worlds pass slowly across the azure skies while around them explode what look like white bubbles. The aeroplanes pass by and the skies remain blue and lovely, and far off, far off on that clear summer day, distant blue hills as though not of this world make their presence felt. That was the Auschwitz of that eleven-year-old boy. And when this boy, the one who is now recording this, asks himself –and he asks himself many times –what the most beautiful experience in your childhood landscapes was, where you escape to in pursuit of the beauty and the innocence of your childhood landscapes, the answer is: to those blue skies and silver aeroplanes, those toys, and the quiet and tranquillity that seemed to exist all around; because I took in nothing but that beauty and those colours, and so they have remained imprinted in my memory….

There is almost no return to that Metropolis, with its sombre colours, with the sense of the immutable law that encloses all its beings within confines of allotted time and of death; that is, there is almost no sense of a return to that world without a sense of return to those wonderful colours, to that tranquil, magical and beckoning experience of those blue skies of the summer of 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau….

The colour is the colour of childhood, a colour of innocence, a colour of beauty. And this too is an immutable law from which there is no escape. There is no escape from beauty, from the sense of beauty at the height and in the midst of the Great Death which governs all.

There’s a crucial passage in Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (at least in relation to the present discussion) in which Kulka asks himself: Is something wrong with me? This is with reference to the fact that he has read none of the books, seen none of the films (not even Shoah), or any of the dramas that seek to understand or present the experience of Auschwitz. He feels only alienation:

And everyone reads these books –they sell thousands of copies –so they obviously speak in a uniform language to all those myriad readers. Yet I cannot find in them what they seek to convey! It’s a completely different world! The only response I feel able to express is alienation; all that is authentic is the authenticity of the alienation. Therefore I ask: in what am I different? Something is wrong with me!

He finds an answer in Kafka’s story of the man standing before the Gate of the Law:

This man who stands before the Gate of the Law actually asks the same question – and it is one of the last questions he asks, driven by his insatiable curiosity, as the gatekeeper jests. He asks: ‘Tell me, after all this is the Gate of the Law, and the Gate of the Law is open to everyone.’ To which the gatekeeper says: ‘Yes, that is so.’ Then the man says (if I remember the text correctly): ‘Yet in all the years I have been sitting here no one has entered the gate.’ And the gatekeeper nods his head and says: ‘Indeed.’ The man asks him to explain this puzzling fact, and the gatekeeper does him this one last mercy and says: ‘This gate is open only for you, it exists only for you, and now I am going to close it.’

For Otto Kulka, Kafka’s story provides the key:

Everything I have recorded here – all these landscapes, this whole private mythology, this Metropolis, Auschwitz –this Auschwitz that was recorded here, which speaks here from my words, is the only entrance and exit –an exit, perhaps, or a closing – the only one that exists for me alone. […]

This is the only meaning I can find for the puzzle of the occupation of my present with that past, which I experience constantly, in which I create constantly, to which I escape constantly, in which I create landscapes intermixed with scenes of childhood reality and time and of the onlooker, of the big boy looking with puzzlement at all this, and who, before it is shut – before that gate is shut – asks these questions and, at least to this mystifying matter, seems to have found an answer at last.

Children at the liberation of Auschwitz
Children at the liberation of Auschwitz

The previous evening, in anticipation of seeing The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, I sat down to watch the recording I had made of Holocaust: Night Will Fall, a documentary shown on Channel 4 to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in January.

André Singer’s documentary is a film about a film that was never completed – or shown. It tells of the experiences of the British soldiers who were the first to reach the major Nazi concentration camps in western Germany in the spring of 1945, and the armed forces camera crews who filmed the almost unbelievable scenes they encountered there.

‘It’s hard to imagine for a normal human being,’ says Sergeant Benjamin Ferencz about his arrival at Buchenwald. ‘I had peered into hell.’ Then he breaks down, an old man weeping at appalling memories. ‘It’s not something you quickly forget. It’s a little hard for me to describe.’

Night Will Fall poster

Holocaust: Night Will Fall is about the making of a planned British government documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.  Working for the Ministry of Information and making use of British, Soviet and American footage, Sidney Bernstein (later founder of Granada Television) aimed to create a documentary that would provide lasting, undeniable evidence of the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes. He gathered a wealth of British talent to work on the film: his friend Alfred Hitchcock had an advisory editorial role, a young Richard Crossman wrote the script, and the film was edited by Stewart McAllister, who had collaborated with Humphrey Jennings on celebrated wartime documentaries for for the Crown Film Unit.

Night Will Fall Sgt Oakes and Sgt Lawrie of the Army Film and Photographic Unit
Night Will Fall: Sgt Oakes and Sgt Lawrie of the Army Film and Photographic Unit

Bergen-Belsen was the first concentration camp to be liberated by the British forces in 1945. Little was known by the Allied forces at that stage about the extent, or even existence of such camps. The Russians had liberated camps in Poland in late 1944, but their information had been considered unreliable and propagandist by British military intelligence, and thus dismissed.

Holocaust Night Will Fall
A scene from Holocaust: Night Will Fall

So the forces personnel entering the camp were not prepared for what they encountered. The footage captured by the army camera crews is horrifying to watch. The camera is unflinching in its steady observation of filth and death, the mountains of corpses in varying degrees of decay.  A review of the film on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website makes this point:

Watching the slow, clear images of multitudes of mutilated corpses on a cinema screen is nauseating. The victims are dehumanised and are denied dignity in death – the reason that HMDT never reproduces photographs or film of the dead bodies of people killed in genocide. Yet this graphic rawness was necessary to fulfil the film’s function. The cameramen were instructed to film everything they saw, to show that it happened, to ensure nobody could deny it happened, and ‘to provide a lesson for all mankind’.

In instructing his cameramen what and how to film, Bernstein compiled an archive of footage which not only revealed the scale of the atrocities that had been committed, but also contextualised it, helping to piece together the role that German soldiers and citizens had played.

Hitchcock’s input was crucial in this respect, helping to build the context and complicity of the German people by demonstrating how close German towns and settlements were to the camps.  He also recommended the use of long panning shots to undercut any suggestions that the footage had been manipulated.

Fritz Klein, the Nazi physician later hanged for his role in atrocities at Bergen-Belsen
Fritz Klein, the Nazi physician later hanged for his role in atrocities at Bergen-Belsen

The film shows German SS officers forced to watch as thousands, of emaciated bodies are bulldozed into mass graves, while captured German soldiers perform the most unpleasant jobs, such as carrying bodies to the graves.

Unusually, the film shows survivors recovering once they had been liberated, were being fed, and receiving medical attention. Attention is paid to the psychological aspects of recovery – there is a sequence which describes how survivors, especially the women – demanded proper clothes, and the impact of their receiving recycled garments from the camp stores.

Night Will Fall is also about the process and politics of making the orginal film: despite Alfred Hitchcock’s editorial involvement, German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey was never released due to changes in the political climate. It was quietly shelved following disagreements between the British and the American governments regarding the nature of the film. The pressing realities of the Cold War, and the need to build West Germany up as a bulwark against communism, quickly sapped the desire of the Allies to continue forcing the German people to confront the crimes of their regime.

The 1945 film footage languished in the archives of the Imperial War Museum for six decades as an unfinished rough cut. Then, in 2005, the IWM began work on the restoration and completion of the film, using the original shotlist and script to finish the editing from the existing rushes. It’s unclear, however, whether German Concentration Camps: Factual Survey will be given cinema or DVD release.

The title of André Singer’s film is derived from the last line of narration in the 1945 documentary: ‘Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.’

Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.
― Primo Levi, If This Is a Man

See also

Austerity Britain: the way we were

Austerity Britain: the way we were

I’ve embarked upon the history of my time.  David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain is the first in a planned history of post-war Britain that begins on VE Day in 1945 and will finally close in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1948, so Kynaston’s remarkable project almost exactly mirrors the years of my birth, schooling, university student life, and entry into the workforce as a college teacher in the 1970s. Kynaston is a contemporary, born in 1951, the year in which this first volume ends.

Reading Austerity Britain is quite different to reading more conventional histories of a particular period.  Although Kynaston deals with the full range of topics you might expect from a social or political history, he is less concerned with the political manoeuvrings between or within parties than with trying to capture the feel of daily life as experienced by individuals of all social classes, drawing upon sources, many of which give voice to the anonymous majority who go unrecorded by the histories. Continue reading “Austerity Britain: the way we were”