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The Book Trail: The Holocaust Edition

I begin today’s edition of The Book Trail with a poignant memoir, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back.  As ever, I have followed the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ link on Goodreads to come up with an interesting list of tomes.

1. But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens 9780571328024
In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens was arrested in occupied France, along with her father. They were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. When they arrived, they were forcibly separated. Though he managed to smuggle a last note to her via an electrician, she never spoke to him again.  But You Did Not Come Back is Marceline’s letter to the father she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death has enveloped her life. With poignant honesty, she tells him of the events that have continued to haunt her, of the collapse of their family, and of her efforts to find a place in a changing world.  This is a breathtaking memoir by an extraordinary woman, and an intimate and deeply moving message from a daughter to her father.

 

2. The Heavens are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val (preface by Jonathan Safran Foer) 8302861
In the 19th century, nearly five million Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement. Most lived in shtetls—Jewish communities connected to larger towns—images of which are ingrained in popular imagination as the shtetl Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof. Brimming with life and tradition, family and faith, these shtetls existed in the shadow of their town’s oppressive anti-Jewish laws. Not Trochenbrod.  Trochenbrod was the only freestanding, fully realized Jewish town in history. It began with a few Jewish settlers searching for freedom from the Russian Czars’ oppressive policies, which included the forced conscriptions of one son from each Jewish family household throughout Russia. At first, Trochenbrod was just a tiny row of houses built on empty marshland in the middle of the Radziwill Forest, yet for the next 130 years it thrived, becoming a bustling marketplace where people from all over the Ukraine and Poland came to do business. But this scene of ethnic harmony was soon shattered, as Trochenbrod vanished in 1941—her residents slaughtered, her homes, buildings, and factories razed to the ground. Yet even the Nazis could not destroy the spirit of Trochenbrod, which has lived on in stories and legends about a little piece of heaven, hidden deep in the forest.

 

6197853. Wallenberg: Missing Hero by Kati Marton
A fearless young Swede whose efforts saved countless Hungarian Jews from certain death at the hands of Adolf Eichmann, Raoul Wallenberg was one of the true heroes to emerge during the Nazi occupation of Europe.

 

4. The Diary of Mary Berg by Mary Berg
After 60 years of silence, ‘The Diary of Mary Berg’ is poised at last to gain the appreciation and widespread attention that it so richly deserves, and is certain to take it’s place alongside ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ as one of the most significant memoirs of the twentieth century. From love to tragedy, seamlessly combining the everyday concerns of a growing teenager with a unique commentary on life in one of the 556980darkest contexts of history. This is a work remarkable for its authenticity, detail, and poignancy. But it is not only as a factual report on the life and death of a people that ‘The Diary of Mary Berg’ ranks with the most noteworthy documents of the Second World War.   This is the personal story of a life-loving girl’s encounter with unparalleled human suffering, a uniquely illuminating insight into one of the darkest chapters of history. Mary Berg was imprisoned in the ghetto from 1940 to 1943. Unlike so many others, she survived the war, having been rescued in a prisoner-of-war exchange due to her mother’s dual Polish-American nationality.  Berg’s diary was published in 1945 when she was still only 19, in an attempt to alert the world to the Nazi atrocities in Poland, when it was described as “one of the most heartbreaking documents yet to come out of the war.

 

5. Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel by Gotz Aly
1839242When the German Remembrance Foundation established a prize to commemorate the million Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust, it was deliberately named after a victim about whom nothing was known except her age and the date of her deportation: Marion Samuel, an eleven-year-old girl killed in Auschwitz in 1943. Sixty years after her death, when Götz Aly received the award, he was moved to find out whatever he could about Marion’s short life and restore this child to history.  In what is as much a detective story as a historical reconstruction, Aly, praised for his “formidable research skills” (Christopher Browning), traces the Samuel family’s agonizing decline from shop owners to forced laborers to deportees. Against all odds, Aly manages to recover expropriation records, family photographs, and even a trace of Marion’s voice in the premonition she confided to a school friend: “People disappear,” she said, “into the tunnel.”  A gripping account of a family caught in the tightening grip of persecution, Into the Tunnel is a powerful reminder that the millions of Nazi victims were also, each one, an individual life.

 

6. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman 458673
One of the few survivors of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, Holocaust scholar Gutman draws on diaries, personal letters, and underground press reports in this compelling, authoritative account of a landmark event in Jewish history. Here, too, is a portrait of the vibrant culture that shaped the young fighters, whose inspired defiance would have far-reaching implications for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which pique your interest?

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One From the Archive: ‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

A Love Like Blood is Marcus Sedgwick’s first novel for adults.  He is acclaimed as a young adult author, and has turned his hand to a varied range of subjects within his fiction.  The prologue of his newest offering opens in Sextanio in Italy in 1968, and its beginning is certainly intriguing: ‘Dogs are barking in the night.  He’s somewhere in the broken village on the hilltop opposite me’.  Using such prose, Sedgwick is able to set the scene within A Love Like Blood immediately. 

In the first chapter, which begins in Paris in 1944, the reader is taken into the narrator’s memories.  ‘Paris,’ Charles Jackson explains, ‘was free, and I was one of the very few Englishmen to see it’.  Our narrator is twenty five years old at this point in time, and is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, an experience which he explains threw him straight into adulthood.  It is an interesting technique to begin a book close to the end of the Second World War rather than at its beginning, and it does work well here.  Sedgwick puts across the point that the city is so changed from one week to the next, and the way in which he portrays this information contributes to the strong sense of history which the novel holds.

On a trip to a chateau just outside Paris to view some artefacts with his CO, one of the items which Charles is shown is said to be one of the earliest known depictions of vampires.  He is startled and has to hurtle outside to get some fresh air.  He finds himself wandering into a bunker and there, he witnesses a man ‘drinking’ from a wound upon the body of a young woman.

Throughout, the sense of place and its importance in the grand scheme of things has been well thought out.  The book moves from Paris to Cambridge and back again.  On his second trip to Paris, Charles finds the couple whom he saw in the bunker eating in a busy brasserie, and he decides to follow them.  He is an honest narrator, but there are times at the start of the book in which he seems too preoccupied with himself and his own problems.  Just at the point that this begins to become a little wearing, it stops altogether.

Elements of mystery are tied up with those of horror in the novel, and the way in which the plot unfolds does not feel too dissimilar to that of Dracula at times.  Blood is, of course, a central theme – Charles becomes an expert in haemotology, and there is also the presence of the vampire, for example.  Although some of the elements of the plot are quite other-worldly, it is still, oddly, eminently believable.  Foreboding drips in here and there, and whilst things are able to be presupposed to a point by the reader, there are many surprising moments which aim to throw us off the track.  Sedgwick’s writing is easy to get into, and is not stylistically complex in any way.  Indeed, it does not feel too dissimilar to the style in which he writes for his younger audience.  In A Love Like Blood, he has crafted a great novel, and the plot points have been well placed into the whole so that there is not a dull moment.

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One From The Archive: ‘The True Story of Hansel and Gretel’ by Louise Murphy ****

First published in 2013.

9780142003077I am drawn to stories set during the Second World War, particularly when those stories are involved with survival.  I will read anything to do with this topic, from the diaries of those who hid from captors, to fictional accounts of the ways in which both capture and death could be evaded.  I also love fairytales, and modern day adaptations of old favourites.  I had therefore had my eye upon Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for quite some time, and began it as soon as I had procured a copy.

Throughout, I found the novel incredibly powerful – unsettling so at times.  The sense of place and atmosphere which Murphy built up were truly stunning.  I loved the way in which she transferred the fairytale to a believable historical setting – World War Two in Poland, where two young children – renamed Hansel and Gretel by their father so that they appear to be more German – are left in the woods.  They soon come across the house of an elderly lady named Magda, who is purported to be the town’s ‘witch’.

Throughout, Murphy has successfully brought some of the horrors of the Holocaust back to life, and she describes the struggle for survival which Hansel and Gretel and their new family endure so poignantly.  Each scene, particularly with regard to the darker ones, were incredibly vivid.

The author has created a wonderfully crafted and memorable tale, which I found very difficult to put down.  Murphy’s ideas were so clever throughout, and the original tale woven in so cleverly, that I am hoping she will continue the theme of updating fairytales, making them fit into both our generation and our history.

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Two Reviews: ‘A World Gone Mad’, and ‘What Was Lost’

A World Gone Mad by Astrid Lindgren ****
9781782272311Astrid Lindgren’s wartime diaries, which only became available to the public in 2013, have been translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.  It is fascinating to view the Second World War from the perspective of a housewife – and later an incredibly writer, publishing her beloved Pippi Longstocking close to the war’s end – in a neutral country; thus far, I have largely read accounts like this one from either Western of Eastern Europe, and a Northern perspective was rather refreshing.

It goes without saying that Lindgren writes incredibly well, and the translation has been handled both competently and admiringly.  Many of the entires are rather short, and not every day is covered, but the whole is perhaps all the more compelling for it.  Lindgren discusses what has happened in the wider world at any given time, as well as closer to home; how rationing does not affect the Swedes, for instance, but all she has read from elsewhere is focused upon the shortages of even basic foodstuffs.  A great amount of emphasis is placed upon Scandinavia, and the effects upon it.  Lindgren’s diaries are a real joy to read.

 

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn **** 9781906994259
O’Flynn has been on my radar for quite some time.  I was undecided about which book of hers I would begin with, and chose this only because my boyfriend had a copy of it (although he doesn’t know where it came from, it must be said).  From the very beginning, I did like Kate’s character; she intrigued me.  I definitely preferred the sections which included her to those with Lisa and Kate, et al.; whilst in retrospect I can see that they were pivotal to the plot, they failed to come to life for me in quite the same way.  What Was Lost is well written and well pieced together; I’m surprised it’s a novel which hasn’t been more hyped up, if I’m honest.

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‘Survivor’ by Sam Pivnik ****

9781444758399‘Sam Pivnik’s life story is a classic testimony of Holocaust survival. In 1939, on his thirteenth birthday, Sam Pivnik’s life changed forever when the Nazis invaded Poland. He survived the two ghettoes set up in his home town of Bedzin and six months on Auschwitz’s notorious Rampkommando where prisoners were either taken away for entry to the camp or gassing. After this harrowing experience he was sent to work at the brutal Furstengrube mining camp. He could have died on the ‘Death March’ that took him west as the Third Reich collapsed and he was one of only a handful of people who swam to safety when the Royal Air Force sank the prison ship Cap Arcona, in 1945, mistakenly believing it to be carrying fleeing members of the SS. Now in his eighties, Sam Pivnik tells for the first time the story of his life, a true tale of survival against the most extraordinary odds.’

My sister purchased this as a gift for me when she visited Auschwitz back in August.  It is a Holocaust account which I hadn’t heard of before; I do not remember seeing any information about it upon its release, and have come across no reviews on Goodreads or blogs regarding the thoughts of its previous readers.  Regardless, as a History nerd, the premise appealed to me immediately, and I only waited for a couple of weeks before reading it.

Pivnik’s account is thorough, and all the more heartbreaking for it.  Usually with collaborative memoirs like this, I do not usually find that the prose style is quite up to scratch, but here it was refined, and read beautifully.  The prose style is fluid, and very much suits the piece.  Survivor is brutal in places; I expected this to be the case, but some of Pivnik’s descriptions were far more chilling than I had anticipated.

Pivnik’s bravery is paramount to his account; he survived conditions which millions did not.  The very fact that he writes so humbly of his own efforts is extraordinary.  It was astounding to discover how much he went through, and yet still came out of the other side eager to live and contribute.  Survivor is an incredible memoir, which is sure to appeal to those who enjoy reading historical accounts of the Second World War.  There is so much to think about whilst reading, and so much to get choked up about too.  Survivor is an incredibly important book, and one which I wish I had heard about sooner.

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‘The Auschwitz Violin’ by Maria Angels Anglada ***

The history nerd within me is absolutely fascinated by books which take World War Two as their focus, particularly so in instances where fact and fiction have been woven together.  Such is the case in Maria Angels Anglada’s novella, The Auschwitz Violin.  Translated into English by Martha Tennent, it was originally published in Catalan.  Anglada, who died in 1999, was one of the most important figures in Catalonia, as well as one of the region’s most prestigious authors.

The Auschwitz Violin has been on my radar for a number of years, but I was only recently able to find a copy via my local library system.  Standing at just 109 pages, this book is a slim one, but even before beginning, I expected it to pack quite a punch.

Each chapter opens with an authentic document of World War Two; the first of these details the fatal shooting of a Jewish woman along the ghetto border, who is trying to steal turnips from a cart.  The novel proper begins in Krakow in 2001, with a concert musician named Climent, who becomes fascinated by the violin of a fellow player, and wishes to know its origins: ‘When the lesson finished, Regina placed her violin in my hands.  I tried it, and the strings responded to my every appeal. like pliant clay being molded in my hands’.  Her uncle, Daniel, made it, she tells him, to ‘the same measurements as the Stradivarius’.  Regina decides to give Climent photocopies of all of the material which she has collected about the Holocaust, in which the majority of her family were murdered.9781849019811

Throughout, the third person narrative voice has been used to detail Daniel’s story.  He has been imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp, tasked with building a wooden greenhouse, in which ‘Commander Sauckel, a refined but sadistic giant of a man, was determined to cultivate gladioli and camellias’.  Whilst giving his profession as a cabinetmaker, Daniel is actually a luthier, a violin maker.  When we first meet him, he is being harshly whipped for the crime of oversleeping.  Anglada quickly build a picture of the horrific conditions which surround her protagonist, and continually reasserts his place within the camp: ‘No nightmare, he thought, could possibly be worse than the cruelty that surrounded them, pervaded them, as inescapable as the air they breathed’.

As soon as the camp command finds out about Daniel’s true profession, he is told that he has just one day to repair a violin, otherwise he will face grave consequences.  This process of mending also helps to mend him, giving back the humanity which he had been stripped of upon arrival: ‘He was himself once again, not a number, not an object of taunting ridicule.  He was Daniel, a luthier by profession.  At that moment he thought of nothing other than the job at hand and the pride he took in it’.  As one would expect, there is information here which deals with the making of violins, but it does often feel as though it has been rather overdone, and it overshadows other details of the plot.  Some of the scenes which detail Daniel’s craft also tend to be a little long, or rather repetitive.

Anglada details how Daniel comes to rely on those around him in some ways: ‘His fellow inmates – lice-infested, like him, to a greater or lesser degree – provided a warm, familiar reassurance’.  The details which have been written about so simply carry with them a haunting quality: ‘From the ceiling hung corpses and violins’.  There is a flatness to the whole, though, and it is rather too distanced – the fault of the third person perspective, perhaps.

Catalan authors seem to do novellas well, but I must admit that I have a preference for Maria Barbal’s Peirene-published Stone in a Landslide, which I read a couple of months before The Auschwitz Violin.  Whilst it deals with entirely different subject matter, the aforementioned seems to have had a tighter handle both over characters and scenes, and is not so abrupt in some places as The Auschwitz Violin tends to be.  There may be a problem with the translation which takes some of the human element away, and there is a definite lack of emotion here; but nevertheless, the strong story in Anglada’s novella deserves to be read.

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Reading the World: Poland

I have never visited Poland, but I am absolutely fascinated by the country’s history, particularly with regard to its position during the Second World War.  Here are five books which I would highly recommend if you are interested in reading both fiction and non-fiction set within the country.

NB. I am fully aware that this list is incredibly war-oriented; if you have any recommendations for other Polish fiction, or books set within Poland, please do let me know.

  1. Clara’s War by Clara Kramer (Ebury Publishing, 2009) 9780091924416
    ‘On 21 July, 1942, the Nazis took control of the small Polish town of Zolkiew, life for Jewish 15-year-old Clara Kramer was never to be the same again. While those around her were either slaughtered or transported, Clara and her family hid perilously in a hand-dug bunker. Living in the house above and protecting them were the Becks. Mr. Beck was a womaniser, a drunkard and a self-professed anti-Semite, yet he risked his life throughout the war to keep his charges safe.Nevertheless, life with Mr. Beck was far from predictable. From the house catching fire, to Beck’s affair with Clara’s cousin, to the nightly SS drinking sessions in the room just above, Clara’s War transports you into the dark, cramped bunker, and sits you next to the families as they hold their breath time and again. Sixty years later, Clara Kramer has created a memoir that is lyrical, dramatic and heartbreakingly compelling. Despite the worst of circumstances, this is a story full of hope and survival, courage and love.’
  2. Maus I & Maus II by Art Spiegelman (Penguin, 2003)
    ‘”Maus” is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. “Maus” studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.’
  3. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson 9780141399676
    (Penguin, 2o12)
    ‘”22 Britannia Road” by Amanda Hodgkinson is a heartbreaking and powerful novel about wartime secrets and the difficulties of adjusting to postwar life. It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made them a home in Ipswich. However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has criss-crossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help put his own dark past behind him. But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them unless they together confront what they were compelled to do to survive. ‘
  4. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (Jonathan Cape, 1956)
    ‘Although the silver sword was only a paper knife, it became the symbol of hope and courage which kept the Balicki children and their orphan friend Jan alive through the four years of occupation when they had to fend for themselves. And afterwards it inspired them to keep going on the exhausting and dangerous journey from war-torn Poland to Switzerland, where they hoped to find their parents. Based on true accounts, this is a moving story of life during and after the Second World War.’
  5. The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman (1946)
    ‘The powerful and bestselling memoir of a young Jewish pianist who survived the war in Warsaw against all odds. Made into a Bafta and Oscar-winning film.’

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