Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz, Denis Avey

I can’t say enough about this book. I don’t even know where to begin or how to find the works to properly convey the magnitude of what is written here and how it is expressed.

I will simply say that this is one of the most important books that I have ever encountered and been privileged enough to read. I have fortunately read widely about the Holocaust and the tragedies of WWII both from an historical and a personal perspective, but, I have never read anything like Avey’s account.

I have visited Yad Vashem and the Washington Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum in Sydney and each has been profound and moving and austere. I have read Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and countless others. And I have been stilled by the enormity of what they endured and how they managed to convey the intensity of the horror that they experienced and over which they triumphed. I have done courses about the Holocaust, read poems about the Holocaust, seen photographs depicting the trauma and the chaos and the inhumanity.

I find myself pondering what it is that Avey has done which so distinguishes this book?

I think that the only way to explain how moved I was by this text is to use Avey’s own words, taken from the point of the book where he is explaining how he swapped clothes with a Jewish prisoner and took his place in Auschwitz, giving up the security that his Prisoner of War status afforded him:

“I lay and listened to the wheezing and groaning of the others in the dark. Someone was rambling to himself, endlessly repeating the same locked-in phrases. He was not alone. There were the screams of people reliving by night the terrors of the day, a beating, a hanging, a selection. For others it would be the loss of a wife, a mother, a child on arrival. When they awoke, the nightmares continued around them. For them there was no escape.

When you give up, you don’t even feel pain any more. Every emotion or feeling is cut away. That’s how they were. That’s how it was.

I struggled to breathe again. It was stiflingly hot and there was the putrid smell of ripening bodies. Auschwitz III was like nothing else on earth; it was hell on earth. This is what I had to come to witness but it was a ghastly, terrifying experience.”

“It was days before I was able to reflect on those hours in Auschwitz III and appreciate the utter desperation of the place. It was the worst thing you could do to a man, I realised. Take everything away from him – his possessions, his pride, his self-esteem – and then kill him. Kill him, slowly. Man’s inhumanity to man doesn’t begin to describe it. It was far worse than the horror I faced in the desert war. Then I had an enemy before me and I did my duty. I was good at it and so I survived.”

I think that Avey’s text is so powerful because the impact that the bestiality that he witnessed had on him is so clear in the way he describes things:

“People talk about man’s inhumanity to man, but that wasn’t human or inhuman – it was bestial. Love and hate meant nothing there. It was indifference. I felt degraded by each mindless murder I witnessed and could do nothing about. I was living obscenity.”

This obscenity haunted Avey for over 60 years, tormenting him with nightmares, leaving him bereft of a language which could broach the horrors he had witnessed.

I loved this book. I think that Avey’s message will stay with me for ever: bad things only happen when righteous people do nothing.

Denis Avey, you are a great man and clearly deserving of a place in heaven.

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The Book of Lies, Mary Horlock

Textpublishing provides the following outline of this book:

Guernsey, 1985. Fifteen-year-old Catherine Rozier has a secret she can no longer keep to herself. It’s about the night her best friend fell from the cliffs.

Twenty years earlier, Charlie Rozier stands at the edge of the same cliffs, looking for a confession of a different kind. He thinks he was betrayed by his friend during the Occupation, and now he wants the truth to come out.

This stunning debut from Mary Horlock is about the conflicts and trials of growing up, the secrets of families, and the repressed histories that we all harbour. Captivating and moving, it is a journey with two characters whose unique voices the reader will not easily forget.

It sounds captivating. It wasn’t.

I really and truly struggled with this book. I so desperately wanted to like the characters, to be drawn into the plot and to be carried away into another time and place. But, none of this happened. I found the first part of the book terribly boring, slow moving and at times confusing. I felt as though there was something there waiting to be discovered but it was never really revealed. My position as reader in this relationship was frustrating to say the least and I read on to the final page only because of this feeling that buried here was something great.

Despite the challenges that I faced in actually completing this book (read: it took me a REALLY REALLY REALLY LLLLLOOOOOOONNNNNNGGGGG time!), what I found most interesting was the context of Guernsey during WWII. In fact, I was so taken by this background that at times I found myself researching some of the events and descriptions which Horlock provided in outlining the backdrop for part of the story.

When I go back and reread the book’s opening, it doesn’t seem so bad. It actually captures some of the elements which so attracted me to the book in the first place. For a moment I have to consider that perhaps I have missed the book’s essence … but no, I don’t think this is the case. I wasn’t convinced on too many levels – even the title didn’t seem to fit with the angst that this book described. Poor Cat, fat and lumpy she seemed to me, totally out of place, exactly as I imagine Guernsey to be, funnily enough (not that I have anything but assumptions to base that on!). But, rather than empathise with Cat, I found her irritating. She grated on me as I imagine she grated on her peers. And, to top it all off, I found Nicolette’s actions totally over-exaggerated and unrealistic, especially toward the end as Cat tries to recall the events of the night on the cliff. Whether Nic’s behaviour is described in this way as a means to convey Cat’s version of events (a type of justification), I cannot be sure. Nonetheless, there are too many moments in this text where Nic seems excessive in terms of characterisation.

Feel free to read some other reviews here, here and here.

What has stayed with me most from this read is how relieved I am that I finally reached the last page!

(As an aside, I have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and I found that a far more endearing read.)

The Snowman, Jo Nesbo

I don’t know quite what happened between me and this book, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t get it and it bothered me so much that I kept reading and reading and reading and reading in the hope that I would get it, that I would be suddenly struck down by what the hell was going on. There were moments when I really found myself feeling as though I had missed something – and not something small and insignificant, mind you, but something central to the narrative, a key part of the story – and then there was this nagging feeling that plagued me: is this book written in a language that I don’t understand? Am I losing my mind??

But, I’m getting carried away. Let me start at the beginning – I loved (and I mean, really L.O.V.E.D) the opening of this book:

“It was the day the snow came. At eleven o’clock in the morning, large flakes appeared from a colourless sky and invaded the fields, gardens and lawns of Romerike like an armada from outer space. At two, the snowploughs were in action in Lillestrom, and when, at half past two, Sara Kvinesland slowly and carefully steered her Toyota Corolla SR5 between the detached houses in Kolloveien, the November snow was lying like a down duvet over the rolling countryside.”

This is the setting for the eerie (read: absolutely terrifying) action which follows with the appearance of a mystery snowman described by a little boy, Jonas: “It was, as his mother had said, big. Its eyes and mouth were made with pebbles and the nose was a carrot. The snowman had no hat, cap or scarf, and only one arm, a thin twig Jonas guessed had been taken from the hedge. However, there was something odd about the snowman. It was facing the wrong way. He didn’t know why, but it ought to have been looking out onto the road, towards the open space.”

Later that night, after Jonas’ father has left town on business, the little boy wakes up from a nightmare to find his mother has disappeared and the snowman is still outside, its “pebble-eyes … gleaming”. On searching, Jonas finds that the house is empty and on the stairs he feels something wet under his feet – “as if someone had been walking with wet shoes. Or wet feet.” It is at this point that I was gripped by the intensity of this narrative and perhaps this is what caused my disappointment, I felt as though I was going to be sucked in by the whirlwind of this narrative but instead, after this magnificent snippet of action, I was left hanging loosely, having come unstuck.

“In the porch he stuffed his feet into a pair of his father’s large shoes, put on a padded jacket over his pyjamas and went outside. Mum had said the snow would be gone by tomorrow, but it was still cold, and a light wind whispered and mumbled in the oak tree by the gate. It was no more than a hundred metres to the Bendiksens’ house, and fortunately there were two street lamps on the way. She had to be there. He glanced to the left and to the right to make sure there was no one who could stop him. Then he caught sight of the snowman. It stood there as before, immovable, facing the house, bathed in the cold moonlight. Yet there was something different about it, something almost human, something familiar. Jonas looked at the Bendiksens’ house. He decided to run. But he didn’t. Instead he stood feeling the tentative, ice-cold wind go right through him. He turned slowly back to the snowman. Now he realised what it was that had made the snowman so familiar. It was wearing a scarf. A pink scarf. The scarf Jonas had given his mother for Christmas.”

I was left with goosebumps.

Unfortunately, they never returned and this book has left me feeling quite bereft. Others seem to have loved this book – see here, here and here. What have I missed?