Two tales of the Holocaust

A child survivor and an academic present widely differing approaches to this period of tragedy and horror.

CHILDREN AND an old woman on the way to the death barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.  (photo credit: GERMAN FEDERAL ARCHIVES)
CHILDREN AND an old woman on the way to the death barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
There are many theories about why Holocaust literature is still surfacing more than two generations after the end of World War II. Conventional wisdom has it that many survivors who could not bring themselves to talk about the atrocities they experienced, suddenly feel in the twilight of their lives that they must hand down a legacy to their children and grandchildren, or are afraid that if they don’t speak out now and contribute to what is already known about the Holocaust, the world will forget and allow it to happen again.
In fact, it has already happened again, though not to the same extent.
Genocide is genocide, whether or not one cares to call it a holocaust, and those who seek a better, more humane world cannot ignore the shocking examples of genocide throughout the post-World War II 20th century and even the 21st century.
Not all Holocaust literature is written by Holocaust survivors. Some is written by historians. Some is written by second-generation survivors who share the burden of living with one and sometimes two parents who cannot escape the nightmares of the past, who scream in their sleep, who wake shaking in terror, who hide bread in secret places around the house, who shudder at the sound of a siren. And some is written by fiction writers, and the reader is often left wondering where distortion has taken over from fact.
The two books Let Me Tell You a Story by child Holocaust survivor Renata Calverley and Holocaust as Fiction by William Collins Donahue could not be more different in content or in style.
Calverley’s memoir, written from the standpoint of a child in simplistic language, is a quick, easy read. I went from cover to cover in a single session.
In contrast, Donahue’s magnum opus on author Bernard Schlink’s “Nazi novels” is a book written by an academic for academics and not really for mass consumption. It was a tough road to hoe, with way too many allusions from one page to the next, plus 41 pages of footnotes.
Calverley, who came to England as a motherless child after the war, was reunited with her father, who had been a doctor in the Polish army in exile.
She spent the greater part of her life as a teacher and as someone who strongly identified as a British national. A few years back, she was going through some papers when a photograph of her mother fell out from the pile. She had no recollection of having ever seen the photo before. For that matter, she barely remembered what her mother looked like. But suddenly, as she looked at the photograph, memories began to unfold, and she decided that she owed it to her daughters to tell the story of what she had endured in war-torn Poland – and so the book evolved.
She had not been a shtetl child. She was three years old when war erupted.
Her mother was a lecturer at the university in Przemysl. Her father was a doctor. Her maternal grandmother lived in the same house. The family was affluent and assimilated. One day they were living in spacious premises, and the next they were pushed into the ghetto, living in one shabby room with strangers, being subjected to unsanitary conditions, verbal abuse, far less food, none of the culinary luxuries of the past. When the young Renata grew anxious, her grandmother would tell her a story to calm her down. But one day, her mother and her grandmother were taken away, never to return.
Calverley was far too young to fend for herself. Over time, she was passed from hand to hand – Jewish hands, gentile hands. So many people played a role in enabling her survival. Her non-Jewish nanny had been able to whisk her out of the ghetto under the very eyes of Nazi soldiers without any of them realizing.
But her nanny couldn’t keep her and passed her on to someone else. Relatives traced her and paid for her keep. Some of the Poles who looked after her were not very nice people, and kept threatening to get rid of her if the money didn’t arrive on time. Nonetheless they fed her and gave her a place to sleep, and one even taught her to read.
Even those who looked after her only for the sake of a few extra zlotys were risking their lives to do so, and did not betray the little Jewish girl with the blonde hair and blue eyes, who at one point found herself in a Catholic orphanage.
People kept telling her that she must never reveal her Jewish origins, and though she was very bright, she could not fathom why she had to be silent on this matter. Because the Germans don’t like Jews, she was told – to which her constant response was: “But I haven’t done anything wrong, I’m a good girl.”At one stage, while in the orphanage, she nearly gave the game away. Her appearance was so Aryan that the head of the orphanage wanted to send her to Germany to be adopted by a German family. When interviewing her, he asked what had happened to her mother, and she made the mistake of telling him. But the relative who came in the nick of time to take her out of the orphanage managed to fudge the details of the girl’s background, and also lied about where she was taking her. Once again, the child was saved.
Because her family had been assimilated, they had many non-Jewish friends who helped some of her relatives to acquire false identities and to spend the war years in relative comfort. Thus her last place of residence in Poland was with a great aunt and uncle who lived in a nice apartment, who lavished love on her and who indulged her every whim.
From the bewildered little girl who had lived such an insecure existence, she became a spoiled brat – a factor illustrating how quickly children adapt to new circumstances.
Unlike most memoirs of the Holocaust years, the author does not dwell on her negative experiences. When she witnesses her cousin being shot in the head by a Nazi soldier, it is a brief mention with minimal detail. She has not been haunted by her memories. It’s as if they waited for a time in her life when she would be ready to confront them again.
DONAHUE, PROFESSOR and chair of Germanic languages in Duke University’s Literature Department, as well as a member of the Jewish Studies Executive Committee, utilizes highbrow terminology that is not common in everyday speech, introduces too much German into the text and frequently makes passing references to writers, books and films with insufficient explanation to readers who may not be familiar with these subjects.
The overall impression is that the book is a composite of lessons that he gave to his students, who had obviously read Schlink’s books and watched the movies based on them, and whose curriculum included most if not all of the other writers mentioned.
Yet difficult though this book was to read, it was definitely thought-provoking in the attitudes that it presented in relation to Holocaust literature and history.
Whether fact or fiction, much of Holocaust literature is written from the perspective of the Jewish victims, most often Auschwitz survivors.
The world does not like to think of Germans as victims, but Germans, even those who were members of the Nazi Party, considered themselves victims of Hitler and the system, just as many Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in the hope of saving the lives of relatives and friends, or who hoped to save their own lives in the camps by removing and sorting the belongings of dead camp inmates, believed themselves to be victims of the system.
People became obsessive about being exculpable.
The generation of Germans born after World War II could not comprehend what their parents and grandparents had done or why they had done it, and the parents and grandparents often kept silent about the grisly past, making every effort to resume life as it had been before the war.
Although postwar Germany was officially seeking out Nazis and bringing them to trial, the number of Nazis who rose to positions of influence in politics, the judiciary and industry was not only amazing but alarming.
During the war, the German judiciary, which was supposedly well-educated, civilized and sophisticated, was unbelievably uncivilized in its attitude to Jews, Gypsies and others the Third Reich considered a blot on humanity.
Donahue questions how people whose education should have guided them in another direction could become so inhuman so quickly.
The book also suggests that all of us have a strain of inhumanity in our characters, and that this could come to the fore depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The thought is extremely disturbing.
Schlink’s prize-winning novel The Reader – which was first published just under 20 years ago – is the story of Michael Berg, a teenager who has an affair with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year-old, illiterate tram conductor who helps him when he becomes ill. Part of their relationship is based on him reading to her, not knowing that she is incapable of reading herself. He reads the classics to her, and she becomes entranced.
Their relationship is sexual more than romantic, and sometimes she is unforgivably cruel to him. Eventually the relationship peters out. Seven years later, Michael, now a law student, goes with fellow students to listen to the war-crimes trials of a group of middle-aged women who had served as guards at an Auschwitz-related camp for women. The defendants had done nothing to save the lives of 300 women who had been evacuated from the camp and been locked in a church that was bombed and caught fire. All the guards had to do was unlock the door; instead, they allowed the hapless captives to die an agonizing death. Michael is shocked to discover that one of the defendants is Hanna, who makes no effort to deny her guilt and even accepts responsibility for things she did not do. The reason: She does not want the authorities to know that she is illiterate.
Donahue dwells a lot on this aspect, wondering to what extent the Nazis exploited illiterates and gave them a sense of power and self-esteem by appointing them as camp guards.
The Reader also makes the point that Hanna eventually teaches herself to read while in prison, but receives tapes of Michael reading to her. On the eve of her release 18 years later, she commits suicide. This raises other questions.
How many people, illiterate or otherwise, who were part of the Nazi system felt remorse afterward? How many were unable to live with themselves? How many took their own lives because they could not live with the memories of what they had done? Donahue brings all these questions and other conscience-related issues to the attention of the readers of his book.
Because there is so much to probe, and because the questions he raises apply to others besides the well-educated sectors of society, it is a pity that his style of writing puts his book outside the realm of those who would need a dictionary to fully comprehend it.