‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s

Featured‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s

In the years of optimism we would read books and puzzle over why, in the heart of civilized Europe, people had happily abandoned democracy, believed fantastical lies, and stood by or enthusiastically joined in as those deemed to blame for the nation’s ills were murdered in their millions. In these dark days, and on this Holocaust Memorial Day, understanding is beginning to gnaw at our bones like an ague.

In times like these, the message of certain books I have read recently seems to illuminate a simple truth: that authoritarianism insinuates itself into peoples lives without drama, but with a kind of quotidinian ordinariness that slowly dispenses with facts. Continue reading “‘Drifting towards great catastrophes’: premonitions from the 1930s”

Son of Saul: Auschwitz in unrelenting close-up

<em>Son of Saul</em>: Auschwitz in unrelenting close-up

In recent days I’ve made two journeys back into the dark heart of Auschwitz courtesy of a book and a film. But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ moving memoir addressed to her father. Aged fifteen, she survived the death camp, but her father did not return. The acclaimed film Son of Saul was my second encounter with the horrors of Auschwitz. Despite the praise heaped upon László Nemes’s film, I have my reservations. Continue reading Son of Saul: Auschwitz in unrelenting close-up”

But You Did Not Come Back: love letter to a lost father

<em>But You Did Not Come Back</em>: love letter to a lost father

Marceline Loridan-Ivens is one of around 160 living survivors of the 2,500 French Jews who returned after the war, of the 76,500 sent to Aushwitz-Birkenau. ‘I was quite a cheerful person’, she writes in the opening words of But You Did Not Come Back, her moving memoir addressed to her father. Aged fifteen when she and her family were rounded up by French police before being despatched to Auschwitz, she survived but her father did not return.

After seeing the acclaimed film Son of Saul, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ slim volume has been the second journey back into the dark heart of Auschwitz that I have made in  recent days. Continue reading But You Did Not Come Back: love letter to a lost father”

My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement

My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement

A couple of weekends ago in The Observer, there was an article, 50 documentaries you need to see, introduced by Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s Storyville. The following night the Storyville slot on BBC Four featured an outstanding documentary concerned with history, guilt and justice directed by David Evans in which human rights lawyer Philippe Sands – whose family, all but one, were Jews murdered by Nazis at Lviv – accompanied the sons of two prominent Nazi leaders on a journey across Europe and into the darkness of the past shared by all three men. Continue reading “My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement”

After Bosch: Visions of a 20th century hell

After Bosch: Visions of a 20th century hell

Loop Visions of a hell where unspeakable cruelties are inflicted upon the damned by fearsome devils who take the utmost pleasure in their satanic work. I emerged from the 16th century nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch on display in the unparalleled 500th anniversary exhibition at Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch into the bright sunlight of a spring afternoon. An hour later, after a ten minute bus ride out of town, I came face to face with the barbarity of a 20th century hell.

Vught was the only official SS concentration camp in occupied northwest Europe, established in occupied Holland. Political prisoners began its construction in May 1942. The first inmates arrived at the camp before it was finished at the end of 1942, the already famished and abused prisoners marched from the railway station in the village of Vught along country lanes to the camp. Socialists, communists and trade unionists, resistance fighters, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and Roma – and, above all, Jews. There were families: married couples with their children, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Continue reading “After Bosch: Visions of a 20th century hell”

‘My story isn’t about Auschwitz, it’s about life after Auschwitz’: Goran Rosenberg

‘My story isn’t about Auschwitz, it’s about life after Auschwitz’: Goran Rosenberg

With Holocaust Memorial Day imminent (details at the end of this post), Goran Rosenberg’s deeply moving memoir, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, compels us to think about why it is important to maintain the memory of the Holocaust – and to contemplate its meaning today. Continue reading “‘My story isn’t about Auschwitz, it’s about life after Auschwitz’: Goran Rosenberg”

Ensemble 10/10 explore Europe’s 20th century fault lines

Ensemble 10/10 explore Europe’s 20th century fault lines

In the gilded elegance of the Concert Room in St Georges Hall last week, Ensemble 10/10 led a small but enthusiastic audience on a journey through the aesthetic and  political fault lines that shattered 20th century Europe.

As always, Ensemble 10/10 – a splinter group from the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – was led by Clark Rundell, who always communicates energy and enthusiasm for the pieces on the programme. I like these occasions for Rundell’s concise, informed introductions to each work, and because I get to hear music that is challenging and which I met never otherwise get to hear.

For example, the main event at last week’s concert was to be the world première of Bosnian Voices by Nigel Osborne, unknown to me at that point, whose new work sets to music verses composed by people of all faiths and backgrounds from the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia. Continue reading “Ensemble 10/10 explore Europe’s 20th century fault lines”

Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin: the moral conscience of Germany

Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin: the moral conscience of Germany

Did any German artist confront the suffering of the first half of the twentieth century as directly as Käthe Kollwitz did? Through the years of war, political turbulence and social strife that defined her life, Kollwitz kept alive the moral conscience of Germany.

For fifty years Kollwitz lived and worked in working class Prenzlauer Berg, in the family home that also served as her studio and doctor husband’s surgery. The building was destroyed during the Allied bombing of the Berlin in 1943.  Today, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum can be found a world away, on elegant Fasenstrasse. Continue reading “Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin: the moral conscience of Germany”

Living with history: a Berlin city centre walk

Living with history: a Berlin city centre walk

Germans live with history, Berliners especially so.  The city is dense with memorials and museums, each of which documents or remembers an aspect of the country’s fractured past. In the previous post I wrote about three examples of the memorialization of the Holocaust in Berlin. In one short walk in the centre of the city the visitor will encounter several more. Continue reading “Living with history: a Berlin city centre walk”

Stumbling over the past in Berlin

Stumbling over the past in Berlin

Just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed in Berlin, in cobbled and tree-lined Fasanenstrasse, I found outside number 42 eight small brass plaques embedded in the pavement. They record the deportation from this town house of eight Jewish Berliners to their deaths in the east. Continue reading “Stumbling over the past in Berlin”

Peeling the Onion: Gunter Grass has the last word

Peeling the Onion: Gunter Grass has the last word

When the death of Gunter Grass was announced recently, among the obituaries and appreciations I read were words of praise for his infamous memoir, Peeling the Onion, first published in Germany in 2006.  I remember reading a few reviews when the English translation came out a year later, and being put off. Probably, I read Michael Hoffman’s ill-tempered review in the Guardian which dismissed it as ‘a long and miserably bad book’ Continue reading “Peeling the Onion: Gunter Grass has the last word”

Dresden and the history of bombing

Dresden and the history of bombing

All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist… It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5

In Dresden on 13 February, they commemorated the 70th anniversary of the RAF air raid that reduced the city to rubble.  The RAF attack – carried out by 800 bombers on a cloudless night – was  the most destructive raid of the second world war. In the firestorm  that was unleashed around 25,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed in a few hours. It remains by far the most controversial British wartime act. Continue reading “Dresden and the history of bombing”