Tag Archives: Holocaust

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.

Two Brothers, Ben Elton

two broIt’s been too long since I last read an epic tale like this one. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read such a captivating drama since Gregory’s Wideacre trilogy had me  captive.

Elton’s book gripped me from the first page and had me hanging by a thread until the very end. There was only one moment where he lost me, but I’ll forgive him that because the book itself was just too otherwise perfect.

Elton weaves two narratives. The first in the past, Berlin 1920 to be precise. The story of a Jewish woman who gives birth to twins. The story of this woman and her family forms the basis of the narrative and unfolds parallel to the birth of Hitler’s Nazi party. Elton has managed to convey the flurry of insanity which engulfed Germany in this post war period. The uncertainty, the beauty, the mania. He does it while simultaneaously moulding Frieda Stengel and her beloved husband, Wolfgang, into characters that we as readers have no choice but to love.

Elton’s second narrative occurs in 1956. And about this I will say nothing for it will simply spoil the magic of the two tales.

For me, part of the aura of this book was the historical context but never did that over power the magic of Elton’s characters. The generous Frieda, her two sons, her trumpet playing husband and of course the beautiful Dagmar and loving Silke.

This book will surely resonate with me for a long time and if you are a fan of historical fiction I can’t recommend it enough. You will not be disappointed.

A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead

I am really irritated. I wrote this wonderful (clearly I’m biased) blog post about A Train in Winter but didn’t quite get to finish, was interrupted mid sentence and failed to save the post. And it was long and I spent quite some time really pondering what I wanted to say because this is one of those very important books that should be read by many many people. It is one of those books that lingers with you as you read it and then afterward churns in your mind, bits and pieces of the text and its weight popping like bubbles in still air. POP.

I finished reading Moorehead’s book over two weeks ago and it has taken me this time to mull over it, to weigh it like a precious stone, to try and make peace with it. I don’t think I’ve succeeded. It is too dense, too weighty, too intense – perhaps just too important – to be the kind of book that one can read and then shelve and leave in the dust of other books. This book asks to remain.

A Train in Winter tells the story of  “Forty-nine of the 230 French women, thirty-four of them communists, who had left Paris twenty nine months earlier on the Convoi des 31000, had lived to see the end of the war. A hundred and eighty one of their friends and companions had died, of typhus, brutality, starvation, gassing; some had been beaten to death, others had simply given up. Not one who had been over the age of 44, and very few of the youngest, were still alive.”

The women spent two years and three months in German camps where they “witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged.

An ambivalence marked them all. They no longer felt themselves to be the same people and, looking back at the young women they had once been, full of hope and confidence and excitement, they marvelled at how innocent and trusting they had been. There was no innocence left, in any of them; and they would not find it again.”

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed this book. From the outset I found it challenging and at times I had to force myself to continue, to plough through the forests of political context and the brief snippets of introduction to the lives of the various characters who litter its pages. But there was no doubt in my mind, from the very first words of this tome, that this is a book that every human being should read, must read.

What Moorehead has accomplished in this one text is mammoth. With amazing dexterity and patience, she has woven a tapestry of France during the Second World War, of the political climate, the people who dared to think differently and speak out and the machinations of the Nazi war machine. And, she has done it all without focusing on ‘the Jewish Question’. The combination of all these elements results in a text that seethes with the tension of the period and I think the absence of a Jewish focus makes this text even more powerful. This is not to imply that Moorehead belittles or diminishes the significance of what happened to the Jews of Europe under Hitler; rather by presenting the experiences of these women, her book creates a more complete picture of what was going evolving beneath the facade of French society during this period.

While the background of France and the War was interesting to read, what was more intriguing was the final segment of the book which shed light on the post-war period, the ‘Return’ and the French responses to this return of refugees and prisoners of war:

“Working day and night under an avalanche of papers, prosecutors considered untainted by the occupation assembled dossiers on 311,000 suspected collaborators and presented them to various courts of justice. A large number of documents was conveniently found to have mysteriously disappeared. Sixty thousand cases were shelved. Of the rest, just over three quarters of those charged were found guilty. Seven hundred and sixty-four people were executed and 46,145 sentenced to ‘national degradation’ which meant that they lost voting rights, were banned from membership of a union and from a number of professions and that they forfeited medals, decorations, honours and pensions.”

While I have grown up with the number 6 million firmly etched in my consciousness, I found myself appalled to read about the sheer volume involved in the Nazi enterprise. Why had I not really comprehended the extent of this before? Why had I not learned more about those who escaped appropriate punishment?

“And there was no always sufficient evidence to convict the clearly guilty. In the dock, in courts all over Europe, those charged argued that they had only obeyed orders, that they had been under duress themselves and that they were victims of mistaken identity.

On trial in Warsaw, Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, struck the court by the calm with which he described the gas chambers, explaining, with technical precision, the process of asphyxiation and how roughly a third of the people died at once, while the others ‘staggered about and began to scream and struggle for air’.”

There was one episode in the book which captured the absurdity of the situation: “Cecile, returning to the 11th arrondissement in Paris, was approached by the policeman she knew had given her away. He put out his hand and smiled. She turned her back on him.” To think that people thought that things would simply return to the way they had been …

And all of these women were heroes: “Marie-Claude was the only survivor of the Convoi des 31000 to be called as witness at Nuremberg. She appeared on the 44th day of the trial, on Monday, 28 January 1946. Dignified and articular, her fair hair wound in a plait around her head, she described, in firm, clear sentences, what she had seen and experienced in Birkenau and Ravensbruck. She answered questions about her arrest in paris, her friends and colleagues shot by the Germans, her months in La Sante prison; then she talked about the journey from Romainville to Auschwitz, the roll calls, the brutality of the guards, the gas chambers. She used the word nous, us, because she was speaking, she said, not just for herself but for the 229 women deported with her. She talked about Alice Viterbo, the singer with only one leg, who had fallen in ‘the race’ and begged Danielle to give her poison before she was driven away to her death…. Later she would say that, sitting in the witness box, looking across at Goring, Bormann, Donitz and von Ribbentrop, she thought to herself: ‘Look at me, because in my eyes you will see hundreds of thousands of eyes staring at you, and in my voice you will hear hundreds of thousands of voices accusing you.'”

The integrity of these women clearly illustrated by Cecile’s response to this event:

“When, the following year, Israel proposed to confer on her a medal as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, she refused to accept it, saying that everything that she had done in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck was only natural, logical and born of a ‘moral obligation’.”

And then how to comprehend the reality of a return when these half people made their way back to their homes to try and re-assemble their lives:

“What all the women found almost hardest was how to find the words to describe what they had been through. Having imagined telling their families exactly what it had been like, they now fell silent. Often as it turned out, the families did not really want to hear: the stories were too unbearable to listen to.”

Many of them felt as though they had never returned at all:

“Charlotte arrived back in Paris with the feeling that she had indeed survived, not as herself, but as a ghost, floating in a world that in some way did not exist.”

Despite the enormous sorrow that litters the pages of this book, what I learned from reading it was the magnificence of the power of friendship, how it can inspire a person to survive against all odds, how important it is to help us feel human and I think that it is this that haunts me:

“They learnt, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise … And they would agree that there were times when the past and the memory of the camps was more real to them than the world about them … Charlotte longed for the first year of return to end, so that she would no longer be able to say to herself: ‘a year ago, at this time…'”

I’ve always thought that people who write about the Holocaust – both survivors and others  – do so in order to ensure that people never forget while at the same time trying themselves to forget. How does humanity move on after a Holocaust like this – how do people become human again? It is impossible to fathom.

“In Charlotte’s “book Auschwitz and After, she spoke of having two selves, an Auschwitz self, and an after-Auschwitz self, like a snake shedding its skin in order to gain a new one; always, she feared that the skin might grow thin, crack and that the camps would get hold of her again. Only, unlike a snake’s skin, her skin of Auschwitz memory, so deeply etched that she could forget no part of it, did not disappear. ‘I live,’ she wrote, ‘alongside it. Auschwitz is there, unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory.’

There were thus two kinds of memory: the now, which she called ‘ordinary’ memory, and the ‘me or then’ which was la memoire profonde, deep memory, the memory of the senses. The first allowed her to see Auschwitz as part of a narrative, something that had happened and ended, and it made going on possible. The second condemned her to feel that Auschwitz was never, and would never be, over. The thinking, ordinary memory allowed her to transmit the facts; the feeling memory enabled her to convey a glimpse of the unimaginable anguish that accompanied them. Like Paul Celan and Primo Levi, she used careful, stark words, beautifully balanced and without embellishment, in order to touch the reader by appealing to the senses. She wanted, she would say, to carry her readers into Auschwitz with her, to make it as real for them as it had been, and would always be, for her.”

I count myself as lucky – I have never known such tragedy. I have never had to contemplate the true enormity of this experience and I have never feared for my freedom. I live in comparative luxury, with ‘first world problems’ and I try and never forget to be grateful for these small things.

“Mado, who was 22 when she had been sent to Birkenau, told Charlotte that when her first baby was born after the war, she was overwhelmed by a feeling of immense happiness, but that almost at once she was invaded by ghosts of the women who had died without knowing this particular delight. ‘The silky water of my joy,’ she explained, ‘changed to the sticky mud, sooty snow, fetid marshes.’

Then she went on: ‘The life we wanted to find again, when we used to say ‘if I return’ was to have been large, majestic, full of colour. Isn’t it our fault that the life we resumed proved so tasteless, shabby, trivial, thieving, that our hopes were mutilated, our best intentions destroyed?’… So she had decided not to talk any more about Auschwitz. ‘Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive … I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.'”

The Storyteller, Jodi Picoult

ImageIt’s hard to put into words what moved me so about this book. It certainly wasn’t the subject matter as I have read many books about the Holocaust which have shaken me more, been more vivid, stolen my breath. Likewise, it wasn’t the characters, as I know Picoult’s work and am always captivated by her ability to craft an individual with words and make them leap off the page. It also couldn’t have been the narrative structure for other authors have done far better at the weaving of multiple threads of a narrative and when I think of woven tales I always conjure Ondaatje’s In The Skin of a Lion:


After half an hour the powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters. In this way even a silent daughter could put on the cloak and be able to break through her chrysalis into language. Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story. (p.157)

So, I can only think that I fell into Picoult’s book because it was just so easy to do so … Her style is simply put, neat. Everything fits together and there is a logic to her structure that made this book a pleasure to read, despite the subject matter. While at times I found her use of magic realism in the ‘storyteller’ sections of the book somewhat facile and obvious, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book itself. 

This is a book about so many things: love, death, life, relationships, humanity, evil, conviction, fear. And all of these themes are explored in the 3 different worlds that the text occupies. Firstly, the world of The Storyteller, a fictional place which unfolds in italics.

“My father trusted me with the details of his death. ‘Ania,’ he would say, ‘ no whiskey at my funeral. I want the finest blackberry wine. No weeping, mind you. Just dancing. And when they lower me into the ground, I want a fanfare of trumpets, and white butterflies.’ A character, that was my father. He was the village baker, and every day, in addition to the loaves he would make for the town, he would create a single roll for me that was as unique as it was delicious: a twist like a princess’s crown, dough mixed with sweet cinnamon and the richest chocolate. The secret ingredient, he said, was his love for me, and this made it taste better than anything else I had ever eaten.”

And then there is the world of the past:

“The ghetto was a ghost town. We were a beaten, gray stream of workers who did not want to remember our past and did not think we had a future. There was no laughter, no hopscotch remaining. No hair ribbons, or giggles. No colour or beauty left behind.”

And finally,the world of the present:

“I don’t believe in God. But sitting here, in a room full of those who feel otherwise, I realise that I do believe in people. In their strength to help each other, and to thrive in spite of the odds. I believe that the extraordinary trumps the ordinary, any day. I believe that having something to hope for – even if it’s just a better tomorrow – is the most powerful drug on this planet.”

In the aftermath of the reading, these three worlds float around in my head, still bumping into each other and trying to find a place to rest. I have no doubt that they will remain there for quite some time to come.

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.


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

Emil and Karl

Yankev Glashteyn’s book Emil and Karl is one of those startling and breath taking books that everyone should read.

Originally published in Yiddish in 1940, Glashteyn wrote this book after he visited his ailing mother in Europe prior to the outbreak of World War II. The book is prophetic on so many levels and clearly captures the traumatic tone of the times – for Jews and non-Jews alike.

The story is set in Vienna in 1938 and follows the lives of two 9 year old friends, Emil and Karl. Emil is Jewish, his father has disappeared and he is left alone after his mother can no longer cope with events. Karl, an Aryan, is also alone after his mother, a Socialist, is forcibly taken away.

The book begins with:

Karl sat on a low stool, petrified. The apartment was as still as death. He looked at the pieces of the broken vase scattered on the floor. Several times he reached out with one hand to pick up an overturned chair lying beside him. The chair looked like a man who had fallen on his face and couldn’t get up. But each time Karl tried, he could only lift the chair up a little bit, and then if fell down again. It was even quieter in the kitchen and the bedroom – so quiet he was afraid to go in there.

The narrative recounts the lengths to which Emil and Karl went in order to survive in this tumultuous and torturous time. The book contains some horrifying moments, near death experiences and accounts of tremendous abuse. However, it is also filled with insights into extreme kindness and sacrifice. Glashteyn carefully treads this balance with humility and honesty.

By far my favourite character in this book was Hans, an activist who disguises his intentions by feigning madness. His role in this text is to touch on the insanity of this period and to illustrate the great lengths which many people were forced to go to in order to survive.

There are many things which will stay with you from this text … the fragility of life, the horrors of war and ultimately, the comfort of friendship.

Although it is primarily a young adult book, this is a must read for everyone.

Review from the New  York Times.

Not Me

In between things, I have read Lavigne’s book Not Me. The premise of this book fascinated me: son tending to father stricken with Alzheimer’s discovers that father might not be the noble holocaust survivor that he believes him to be, that he is in fact a Nazi war criminal. As I said, fascinating! On many levels this novel worked… The relationship between the father and son is fraught with all sorts of guilt and this is neatly amplified by the son’s relationship with his own son and, in fact, his ex-wife. The characters’ relationship with Judaism is also interesting and illustrates some of the complexities faced by second generation survivors. However, the main thrust of this novel is the narrative found hidden in a series of journals supposedly left to the son and written by the father. These journals expose the father as a Nazi war criminal, a cog in the Nazi war machine and as a twisted and at first, immoral human being. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the author’s message is that humanity in its very nature is a complicated and layered beast, that people can change and that we should never underestimate the bonds of love and the lengths that ordinary people will go to in order to defend and protect those bonds.

However, while this should be a great book, it falls short in many central ways. There are far too many loose strands in this narrative – the relationship between the son and his sister is resolved in a way that by its nature requires further exploration. The son, Mikey, as a character is scatty and loose, somewhat deranged in parts without inspiring any empathy from readers. His own connections to those around him are vague. While this might be an element of his character, it works against him for readers do not feel connected to him, and instead of him bearing some sort of hero stance, he mostly comes across as an irritating idiot.

Am I glad I read this one? Yes. It was a most unusual story and has led me to consider morality and humanity from alternate perspectives. I’d be interested to know what others thing?

For a review and discussion of this text, see the link below. Apart from the fact that the author of this link has spelled the son’s name ‘Mickey’ when my version of the text clearly says ‘Mikey’, it’s a good discussion!

interesting review