Category Archives: Holocaust Literature

Saved to Remember, Frank Vajda

It is hard to know what is most awe-inspiring about this book – Vajda’s story of survival or all that he achieved in the years following his liberation. Both narratives are extraordinary.

I read this book as I do most Holocaust memoirs, with a deep breath, stealing myself against what is about to unfold and waiting for the triumph of a magnificent spirit. Vajda’s book fulfilled most of the expectations. It describes his family, the life they lead before the war, their relationships and experiences. It explains in stark detail the war itself, how he survived and most specifically his encounter with Raoul Wallenberg at age 9.

Vajda’s introduction clearly sets out his reasons for writing:

I survived by a series of near misses and coincidences.  Although not being mutilated physically, I became scarred emotionally as a result. Being able to recollect in writing these events and their effect on conditioning my subsequent responses is an opportunity I am grateful for…

… This narrative however is secondary to my prime motive of expressing feelings of sorrow and shame, and, as much as any single person can, trying to prevent the recurrence of circumstances that culminate in racial mass murder.

It is impossible not to be moved by Vajda’s story and by the brave clarity with which he narrates it. However, what impressed me most about Frank Vajda is the brief CV which accompanies his entry on the Booktopia website.

Frank Vajda AM, Officer 1st.cl. Royal Order of Polar Star (Sweden), MD FRCP FRACP, is a consultant neurologist, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, Director of the Australian Pregnancy Register of Antiepileptic Drugs, Past President of Epilepsy Society of Australia, International Ambassador for Epilepsy, Member of the International Pregnancy Register Board, Head of the Free Wallenberg Australian Committee and Founder of Raoul Wallenberg Centre of Clinical Neuropharmacology.

This combined with Vajda’s reference to close friend Jacob Rosenberg whose magnificent poetry is beyond inspiring, led me to further investigate Vajda’s CV which I found online, an impressive 50 page document clearly exposing Vajda as ambitious, dedicated, a gifted physician, and a high achiever. I poured slowly through his CV, marvelling at his contribution to academia and his honours, appointments and long list of qualifications. I was left feeling conflicted for here is a man who has achieved greatness as a neurologist, helped hundreds if not thousands of people through his work and changed the face of neurology through his research and so much of all that he has achieved has come about because of the devastation and tragedy of the Holocaust. So much of who he is seems to come as a direct result of all he lost. How does one reconcile these contradictions? Vajda has done just this by making it his mission to honour those who were lost and to bring recognition and honour to heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved so many lives.

In my mind, while Wallenberg is clearly Vajda’s hero, Vajda himself is a hero for telling his story and for bringing so much richness to our world.

Not only should you read Frank’s book because of the light it sheds on this dark period of human history; but you should also make sure that you are present to hear Vajda talk about surviving the Holocaust which he will be doing on a panel at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on August 28th.

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No Stars at the Circus, Mary Finn


9781406347333It is August, 1942 and Jonas Alber is ten years old. It is hard to write a review about a book that begins with such a beautiful narrative voice… There is something truly humbling about trying to compete with that voice. Jonas begins the book with his “Last Will and Testament” and goes on to explain why he is writing this Will as a ten year old:

“I am living in rue Cuvier now because Signor Corrado brought me to see the Professor yesterday. He fixed it up for me to come here and be safe. So far, I have been safe in this house for one day.”

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear to readers that Jonas has been separated by his family who have been rounded up by the Nazis. Jonas’ journey into hiding has taken him through a circus, into the arms of some simply wonderful characters and finally to the safely of the Professor who we discover was Jonas’ mother’s music teacher when she was younger.

What struck me about this book was the wonder that was woven into such a terrifying period of our history. Jonas finds safety in such unusual places and the innocence with which he perceives his experiences is both refreshing and sad.

While this book didn’t touch me in the same way that Leon Leyson’s memoir did, I still think it’s an incredibly valuable young adult book about life during this period. If you’re a fan of good YA historical fiction, I highly recommend this book and I will certainly be on the lookout for more books by the stellar Mary Finn.

The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal

sunflowerI am sure that you are all familiar with the name Simon Wiesenthal. He was not only an author and a brilliant academic, but he was also heralded for his tireless work in identifying Nazi criminals and bringing them to justice. He leaves behind an endless legacy which is primarily expressed through The Wiesenthal Centre, a global Jewish human rights organisation that confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. Wiesenthal is probably most remembered for his role in capturing Adolf Eichmann and bringing him to justice.

This book, The Sunflower, recounts an experience that Wiesenthal had whilst in a work camp/concentration camp during the Second World War. Taken out of the camp to work at a school now converted to a hospital, a nurse takes Wiesenthal to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. This man had asked the nurse to find him a Jew to whom he could confess his sins.

The soldier is seriously injured and clearly dying. He is burned and his face is wrapped in bandages, hidden from view. He proceeds to unburden himself to Wiesenthal, reaching out to him and preventing him from leaving the room. Wiesenthal is immobilised. He does not know whether to flee or stay and bear the weight of the confession.It is a complex and fraught situation, one with no proper response. Wiesenthal, the concentration camp survivor listens to the SS soldier’s words and then walks away, unable to provide the absolution which is sought. He wears this torn sense of guilt on his sleeve for years, incapable of giving himself absolution for sitting and listening to the confession. Wiesenthal’s solution is to seek out the soldier’s mother in an effort to unburden himself to her and make her wear the burden of her son’s sins… even in this endeavour he fails for he cannot destroy the mother’s illusion of her son as “a good boy” who would never do any wrong. Wiesenthal walks away. However, he leaves us with this question:

You who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”

The remainder of the book presents a symposium of responses from various recognisable people – The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Cynthia Ozick and Primo Levi to name a few. I found this part of the book very difficult to read. The essay responses to Wiesenthal’s question are very short and what I wanted was more of a dialogue about this issue, rather than just a one sided response. At times I found myself vehemently disagreeing with the respondent’s but that was simply frustrating. I don’t think there is an answer to Wiesenthal’s question … I think that only God can forgive and in my mind, Wiesenthal had no power to take this man’s confession nor to bear the weight of the lives and legacies of the hundreds of people who died at his hand.

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Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery, Helen Waldstein

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I haven’t yet finished this book but I am so enjoying its journey that I couldn’t wait to share it with you!

Letters from the Lost is a most beautiful memoir about the ties which bind people and how language can so clearly paint the picture of these bonds. The book is constructed around a series of letters that Waldstein discovers after her father has passed away. Through these fragments, Waldstein reconstructs the past which her parents so carefully kept from her, or rather, protected her from.

Waldstein’s father was fortunate to receive the last exit visa from a clerk at the time that Hitler invaded Prague in 1939. Waldstein took his wife and then young child, Helen, to Canada where they started a new life as farmers. In Canada, Helen’s parents did their best to ensure that she had the best that they could offer. At times this meant hiding the fact that they were Jewish.

Helen follows this trail of letters back to Europe where she is reunited with the house keeper whose scent she still remembers and where she is forced to come to terms with the enormous loss that plagued her family over the decades that passed since their escape from the destruction wrought by Hitler.

The story is told with such incredibly sensitivity and at times awe that it is marvellously readable and very emotive. I am drawing it out because I simply don’t want it to end… through the extracts from these letters I feel as though I have come to know all the aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins that Helen knows only as a distant echo of a memory. I, like Helen, am relearning the past and despite the underlying sorrow, it is a beautiful journey.

The Street Sweeper, Elliot Perlman

It’s not often that one reads a book which is so utterly devastating for so many different reasons. It’s not often that one finishes the last page of a tome and then immediately goes back to the beginning to start reading it all over again, to relive the magic and the austerity of the writer’s genius and to follow again the fragments of threads which connect this narrative and hold it together. It’s not often that one sighs, holds one’s breath, sucks back tears and then sits for hours, replaying segments, feeling the imagined remnants of the writer’s language played over the tongue, backward and forward, backward and forward, backward and forward. In the darkness of the early morning, well before morning, that time when it is no longer today and we are teetering on tomorrow, this book filled my world and twelve hours later I am still reeling.

Perlman made me want to write. He made me want to sit for hours and sift through words until I found a string of them that together manufactured a meaning that would hold true for someone other than myself. He made me want to crawl into the pages of his book and to breathe in the air of his brilliance and drown there. He made me think and savour and relish.

In an interview, Perlman has said that this book, was “a little advertisement for the inalienable dignity of the individual.” I cannot think of a more dignified writer to be a champion of this cause. Perlman’s gift is that he can caress characters and situations so that they purr for his readers. Reading this book, I found myself standing there, whispering to inmates at Auschwitz, SS guards lurking at every corner. I was next to Sonia as she stood staring into the fridge, searching for nothing but yearning for comfort and understanding. I was with Adam in that basement when he unearthed those archives and started sifting through them, making a discovery that literally made me tingle.

Perlman says that “Stories can be so cathartic and so enlightening and comforting and educational and they can give people a sense of a world they didn’t know before,” he says. “They can make the isolated feel included; they can make people who feel misunderstood feel better understood. And the great works of literature will always be with you. They’re not fickle the way people are.” How right he is …

It is hard to capture the subject matter of such a fluid book and this makes it a challenge to review. On one level this book is a magnificent, epic story which traverses the globe. On another, deeper level, it is an ode to memory and the need to witness and testify:

“Memory is a wilful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. It can capture you, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.”

There was much that stood out in this text, but I have chosen to share two paragraphs with you which have stayed with me. Both of them are descriptions about the ghetto and Auschwitz, material which represents only one segment of this story but speaks volumes about Perlman’s tenderness and the scope of this novel.

“Nothing, not even the ghetto, could have prepared him for this, and for the rest of his life each day for him would be without the sun… This was his first shift, his first day on the job, but it was the middle of the night. Suddenly it was neither day nor night for him but some new time he had never experienced. If day followed night there would be an end to it as there was for other jobs but there had never been a job like this, not ever. Seeing the mountain of corpses that waited for him, Mandelbrot knew that ‘day’, as he had known it, had ended forever. It had ended not just for him but also for the world.”

“people lost continence and many were pushed down into a mess of blood, urine, vomit and excrement as people with memories, affections, ambitions, relationships, opinions, values and accomplishments all merged into a tangled phalanx of human beings a meter deep covered in their own fluids, all of the gasping, their bodies jerking, their faces distorted by their agony. With their brains and their organs increasingly depleted of oxygen with every second , it was in a state of unimaginable terror and pain that they had their last thoughts. They were no longer people.”

Perlman has said that he was partly inspired by Abba Kovner poems so it seems apt to include some of those poems here:

Death Is Not To Be Preferred

When leading a band of harried fighters
or standing face-to-face with the enemy,
holding out in the siege
and standing alone
on the ramparts,
he never said death is to be preferred,
that life is negotiable;
anxious
frightened
by severe privations
he never asked anything
of Almighty God
but to grant him favor
and ease his pain
when he leads the congregation
in communal prayer;
and forgive our sins
in love
and joy
and gladness
and peace
O God,
Mighty
And Awesome.

Out of the Depths, Israel Meir Lau

This is one of those special books that you want to read slowly in order to savour every word and every part of the story.

There is no doubt that Rabbi Israel Meir Lau’s life is in itself miraculous. He was one of the youngest survivors of Buchenwald Camp, the descendent of an uninterrupted line of 38 generations of Rabbis and against all odds, he himself became a Rabbi, eventually becoming Chief Rabbi of Israel. A startling story.

What makes this book so special is that Lau has told his story with tenderness and awe, and while there are moments where readers will have to pause in order to recover their composure, as a whole this autobiography tells of the wonderful capacity of the human spirit to survive, of the value of connections with others and the intensity of the faith in the Divine. I was struck by Lau’s commitment to learning and the way that he navigated through so many lonely obstacles because he believed in continuing his father’s legacy. The enormous empathy that he gained as a result of his experiences is clear – especially when he recounts his relationship with the late King Hussein.

There were many stellar moments in this book and I have chosen only one to encompass Lau’s personality and life experiences. Lau gives this speech at French convalescence home where he and his brother, Naphtali, went after Buchenwald was liberated. The event occurs when a group of people come to visit the orphans staying there, and amongst them is an adult survivor who wants to address them. All he manages to say are “only three words in  Yiddish: ‘Kinder, taiyereh kinder …’ (Children, dear children)” before he bursts into tears. Lau’s response to this scene is recorded below:

“If you will allow me, I would like to say a few words on behalf of my friends. We would like to thank you. Not to thank you for coming, because we did not want this visit. Not to thank you for the gifts, because we do not want them. We want to thank you for the greatest gift of all, which we received from you just a few minutes ago, and that is the ability to cry. When they took my father and mother, my eyes were dry. When they beat me mercilessly with their clubs, I bit my lips, but I didn’t cry. I haven’t cried for years, nor have I laughed. We starved, we froze, and bled, but we didn’t cry. For the past few months, before and since the liberation, I have had the feeling that I am not a normal person, nor will I ever be. That I have no heart. That if I can’t cry when I am supposed to, I must have a stone in my chest instead of a human heart. But not any more. Just now I cried freely. And I say to you, that whoever can cry today, can laugh tomorrow, and he is a mensch, a human being. For this I thank you.”

*

While this book has left an indelible impression on me for many reasons, there were several moments where I felt uncomfortable with the way that Lau was seeming to give himself accolades – this was most obvious when he gave an account of his position as Chief Rabbi and all the people he met and things that he did. Compared to the tone and nature of the early Lau, as told in this narrative, this part of the text rang hollow for me …

Nonetheless, I was riveted to the end and my overall feeling is that here is a man worth listening to:

“Moshe Chaim is the first candle in the private Hannukah menorah I have been privileged to create. My wife is the base of that menorah, from which the candles, our eight children, went out into the world and I am the gabbai, whose role is to help those candles that they will spread their light and proclaim, each in a special way, the miracle of the victory of eternal Israel.”

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.

The Messenger, Yannick Haenel

I got this book courtesy of the good people at textpublishing. I heard great things about Haenel’s work so I decided to put it aside until such time that I was ready to devote my total concentration to it.

I have studied quite a bit about the Holocaust, doing a course at the Sydney Jewish Museum, visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust museum in Washington and reading various fictional and non-fictional accounts. I have met Elie Wiesel and revelled in his softly spoken brilliance. For a time I was overloaded with Holocaustisms and couldn’t stomach reading any more or thinking further about the unfathomable events which transpired in Europe during World War II.

So, it was with a bit of angst and trepidation that I opened The Messenger last week and started to read. Having completed the book I am unsure how to describe it. It is clearly faction – a fictional account of factual events. It is  part documentary and part narrative, a story about Jan Karski, a non Jewish Pole who lands up involved with the Polish underground, trying to publicise the fate of the Jews of Poland to the rest of the world. Karski’s mission is doomed but makes for fascinating reading. He visits concentration camps, meets with dignitaries like Churchill and Roosevelt and tries desperately not to lose himself beneath all the hardship that he witnesses.

Haenel’s book is an attempt to explore some of the complex issues involved in bearing witness. Karski as a protagonist is a perfect example of the challenges that anyone has to endure in order to survive witnessing horror. He is torn apart by his desire to bear witness to what he has seen in a public fashion. He speaks about his experiences until he can, quite literally, no longer speak any more and is rendered silent. He realises the futility of his need to give voice to the horrors:

“In the end, what touched them was not the fact that the Jews of Europe were being exterminated, it was that I felt so miserable. I was the one who touched them, not the fate of the Jews, and even less that of Poland. Of course, they found it all terrible; of course, they wanted the Nazis to stop inflicting such horrors.”

Through his text, Haenel gives voice to some of the deeper issues surrounding the Holocaust – why did the Allies not intervene earlier? Why did they feign ignorance? Why did they not bomb the camps? Haenel has no answer, but the very fact that he raises these questions in the manner in which he does so, was intriguing.

“I have lived through the end of what was called ‘humanity’. You must be careful about that word, I used to tell my students, it may even no longer be possible to use it correctly, because it has served as an alibi for the worst atrocities, it has been used as a cover-up for the most abject causes, both in the West and in the Communist countries. The word ‘humanity’ has become so compromised during the twentieth century that, each time it is used, it is as if we start to lie. It is not even possible to talk about ‘crimes against humanity’, as people did in the sixties … speaking about ‘crimes against humanity’ implies that a part of humanity has been preserved from barbarity, but the barbarity affects the entire world, as was shown by the extermination of the Jews of Europe, in which not only the Nazis were involved, but also the Allies.”

What Karski comes to terms with is that he cannot escape his responsibility to keep telling the story: “A witness’s life is no longer his, it belongs only to his testimony, and this cannot be stopped. It is impossible for a witness to bear witness just once; when you start bearing witness, you have to continue doing so ceaselessly, your words can never stop, and everyone should be able to benefit from them.”

I was torn, with Karski, by this book; torn by Haenel’s massive task to explore these issues and torn by revisiting the history of the horrors of the Shoah. This is one of those remarkable must read books. It is the duty of every person to grapple with the complexities of these gross atrocities against people and to try, on some level, to ensure that such a nightmare is never repeated.

The Final Solution, Michael Chabon

This was my introduction to Michael Chabon, inspired by the nonchalant remarks of Howard Jacobson (of Finkler fame). I had before only encountered Chabon on the periphery of my attention, mentioned by others in the distance, buried beneath other things which captured my interest.

Having no idea what to read as an introduction to Chabon’s work, I picked this one up in the library primarily because the title appealed to me and I found myself wondering what connection to Hitler’s Final Solution Chabon might be implying.

The book is described as a “story of detection” and on the surface it is clearly that, very much sculpted from the tradition of good ol’ Sherlock Holmes. The genre sits nicely with this text and I think that it allows Chabon to make some very perceptive social commentary specific to the time period which he describes.

While the story of detection is clearly at the forefront of the plot, what is much more interesting is the dialogue between what is said and what is kept hidden or silent. The book features our trusty detective whose wisdom is buried behind his old age. The mystery surrounds a Jewish boy who is mute, silenced by the horrors that he witnessed in Europe during the Holocaust which is still raging. The whereabouts of his family are not explored and readers can only surmise that they have perished and the boy’s own survival is clearly, on some level, miraculous. The boy’s solitary companion is a parrot who is verbose, singing and chanting apparently random numbers in German.

There is so much irony here: a boy who has much to say but cannot find words, a parrot who prattles, saying much but meaning little, an old detective who communicates in silence with his bees. The tension between these elements in quite magical and enables Chabon to not only present some wonderful characters, but to also engage with complex issues against the backdrop of complex times.

I will definitely be reading Chabon again!

New York Times Review

Al Confino, A Child by Eric Lamet

There is always something interesting to find  in an autobiography or memoir. This book was no exception. It tells the true story of a boy who flees Vienna with his parents at the outset of World War II as the Nazi’s invade. The child’s parents are separated and the father disappears. The mother and child are relocated in Italy and are interned in a small village which to them seems largely uncivilised. There they wait out the war.

One of the strengths of this book is clearly the fact that it tells the story of life for internees in Italy during the war. This is not the usual Holocaust narrative and so it is refreshing (that’s not really the right word to use in these circumstances …) to read of the lives of those who survived the war in different circumstances.

While this aspect of the book intrigued me, I found the bulk of the text very difficult to read. At times I was bored and I can’t quite work out why. Were my expectations so far off or was the book poorly narrated? I don’t think I felt “let down”, simply not engaged in the way that I would have liked to have been.

I can recommend this book only in as much as it reveals such fabulous detail about Italy at this time and that it is a memoir and that in itself makes it worth reading. Personally, I have read other Holocaust memoirs that have been far better crafted and which have gripped me more fervently.