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War and the Holocaust books —II

Literature that sears the soul

By Ashok Chopra

MAY 8, 1945 marked the end of World War II. Yet over 50 years later, the world is still trying to grasp the meaning of the Holocaust, to record its atrocities and to come to terms with its aftermath. Each year sees the publication of a number of war titles. In 1995, the commemoration of the liberation did result in a new awareness of backlist classics — and more than that, in a spate of new books.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Book Shop in Washington D.C. stocks over 3500 active titles. But the aging and dwindling survivor population, New English transactions of material from other languages and the recently available information from formerly communist Eastern Europe have provided a powerful impetus for the publication of new memoirs and historical chronicles.

Why does Holocaust literature bring in new readers, year after year, particularly when many think that the Holocaust has nothing to do with us? It’s because the plight of the victims is touching and moving as they were people like us. The literature is fascinating and inspirational, because it shows how people in the most difficult times can reach into their souls. And those Holocaust books which represent a balance of perspectives — that of victims, perpetrators, survivors, liberators — stay with us.

No war is lovely however much we may jazz it up. As in life, so also in war, which is after all just an extension of life and politics by other means, the individual matters for nothing. As Leo Tolstoy told us, war is only the other side of peace. Maybe that is why the literature of war is so relevant to all of us today. Perhaps, that is why it has produced some of the best literature of the century. And war literature is very popular because it brings us face to face with what we rarely need to face: danger and death and the opportunity to prove our courage.

The commemoration of the Liberation in May 1995 coincided with the release of the film Schindler’s List. It was a dramatic success. Thomas Kenearly’s book with the same title sold over two million copies, thus not only establishing a life of its own but once again becoming a proof of its readers. But before Oskar Schindler there was Anne Frank, who would have turned 68 this year. The Anne Frank Centre in New York estimates that at least 28 million copies of her diary, in 55 languages, have already been sold worldwide.

When postwar German audiences saw films of concentration camps, "they jeered in derision and disbelief." When subsequent German audiences watched the stage dramatisation of The Diary of Anne Frank, perhaps, for the first time in history of theatre, a play had gone without a single clap from the audience for they were so stunned that they remained in their seats five full minutes after the curtain fell." Two people fainted on the opening night and had to be carried out. Then the audience got up and walked out with heads bent in utter shame. Such is the power of the testimony of this young girl, who described two years hiding from the Nazis in Holland.

Anne Frank named her diary "Kitty" and its pages recorded the routines of eight people sharing desperate quarters. As she confided her first love, her ambitions, and her fears in a voice of increasing maturity, Anne captured a human loss that no statistics can measure. The hiding place was raided in August 1944, and Frank died of typhoid at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in March 1945. Her diary was published by her father to lasting acclaim in 1947, as Het Achterhuis (literally, "The House Behind").

"History cannot be written on the basis of official decisions and documents alone," Gerrit Bolkstein, education minister of the Dutch government in exile said in a radio broadcast on March 28, 1944 while urging his countrymen to "collect vast quantities of simple, everyday material" as part of the Nazi occupation. "If our descendants are to fully understand what we as a nation have had to endure and overcome during these years, then what we really need are ordinary documents — a diary, letters."

Anne Frank mentions this broadcast in her book The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition edited by Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler which encouraged her to continue writing her diary because "ten years after the war, people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate and what we talked about as Jews in hiding."

Anne Frank’s extraordinary experience in the face of immediacy of her individual experience in the face of crushing circumstances is precisely what has made the Diary one of the most compelling accounts of the planned extermination of six million Jews. The first edition published in 1947 was augmented in 1995, by the definitive edition to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her death. The new edition in no way affects the integrity of the old one which brought the diary and its message to millions of people.

"I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex, she writes in her diary on May 11 1944. "It remains to be seen whether I’ll succeed but my diary can serve as the basis. Anne Frank systematically organised her entries giving the residents of the Secret Annex pseudonyms like characters in a novel, rearranging passages for better narrative effect.

Anne Frank kept her diary from June 12, 1942, the day her parents gave her a red-and-white notebook. From the first day she addressed the notebook as a trusted friend, "Kitty" and her entries took the shape of letters giving the diary the intimacy and vivacity of a developing friendship. The growing relationship was, of course, with her own developing self — the conversion of a child into a person. "As I’ve told you many times, I’m split into two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life, and above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things. By that I mean not finding anything wrong with flirtations, a kiss, an embrace, a saucy joke. The side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper and finer. No one knows Anne’s better side and that’s why people can’t stand me..."

Anne Frank writes freely and candidly of her first kiss with Peter, the son of the family sharing her hiding place: "Oh it was so wonderful. I could hardly talk, my pleasure was so intense; he caressed my cheek and arm, a bit clumsily." But in the midst of this "normality" the clouds of war were never far away. "I simply can’t imagine the world will ever be normal again for us. I do talk about ‘after the war’ but it’s as if I were talking about a castle in the air, something that can never come true. I see eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter. We’re surrounded by darkness and danger, and in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other... I hear the approaching thunder that one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions."

The diary now 53 years old, remains astonishing and excruciating. It is a work sick with terror and tension, perhaps more so because if has been written by a child who put down her observations just as they came to her. On February 12, 1944, Anne tells ‘Kitty’: "I feel as if I were about to explode... I walk from one room to another, breathe through a crack in the window frame... I think spring is inside me." The crack in the window pane was her only passport to the world outside.

The great Czech writer Joseph Brodsky once said: "At certain periods of history it is only poetry that is capable of dealing with reality by condensing it into something graspable, something that otherwise couldn’t be retained by the mind." In that sense, one of the most noteworthy examples of its genre in modern literature is British poet and novelist Siegfried Sassoon’s The War Poems. Sassoon, who during World War I, was wounded and decorated for gallantry, declared himself a pacifist and was promptly judged temporarily insane. Out of his experiences and his lifelong aversion to war came the passionate and indignant, satirical war poetry of Counterattack (1918) and War Poems (1919) — a body of poetry which, though differing in method and temperament, succeeds in portraying not only the futility of war but also how its victims endeavour to transcend its horror. Their poetry serves as an antidote to, and is in marked contrast with, the poetry of the romantic soldier-poets typified by Rupert Brooke.

Then we have the Czech novelist Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik (1920-23), which was also successfully filmed and to this day is a much-performed play. Born in Prague in 1883, Hasek became locally famous as an anarchistic and satirical personality in bohemian circles.

Purged of its many vulgarities and coarseness, an English version of the book was first published in 1930, though a full unbowdlerised translation was not published until 1974. The then Czech government of Masaryk embarrassed by the book’s vulgar humour, found it difficult to admit that Hasek had produced a comic masterpiece, but the character Schweik clearly had universal appeal and gained an international following. A universal folk character, the wise fool, is conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army.

In civilian life, Schweik made his living by forging pedigrees for the ugly mongrel dogs he sold to the unwary. In the army, he makes his way by candour and irony, serving as an orderly to such rearguard officer types as a feckless, gambling — addicted chaplain and a womanising lieutenant. The hero appears to be an amiable fool, though he overcomes everything authoritarian and pompous in the military life in which he has to survive. Given an order, he carries it out with a lunatic thoroughness that amounts to sabotage.

Satirising both the imperial Army and police-state-tactics of Emperor Franz Joseph’s security bureaucracy, this novel found great popularity world over, particularly with European audiences, who, in the 1920s, were prepared to acknowledge the futility of war. Much of the interest lies in a carefully maintained ambiguity: one does not know whether Schweik is supremely stupid or devilishly cunning in pretending to be so.

As an archetypal story of the little man against the system. The Good Soldier Schweik has had a wide literary influence; its spirit can be seen in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), to name just one example.

One of my all-time favourite war books has been All Quiet on the Western Front — a book probably better remembered than the name of this German author Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), a soldier in the Kaiser’s army. In fact, of all the literature that came out of The Great War, this novel gained the widest public, was translated in 25 languages, and is still today regarded as one of the classic novels of men at war. A record two-and-a-half million copies were sold in 18 months.

A brilliantly realistic and unpartisan tale of a common soldier’s experiences in the war, Paul Baumer, its principal character, has since become an Everyman icon in anti-war literature and cinema. Its title — In Western nichts News — is an ironic echo of the headlines that shrugged off a generation living and dying in trenches under fire as not worth reporting as news for the home front. The book, according to Remarque "is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war."

By 1931 Remarque came out with a sequel The Road Back and was soon to be increasingly attacked by the emerging Fascist Party and All Quiet on the Western Front was publicly burned in the bonfire of books in 1933.

On August 31 1946, The New Yorker had the following notice from its editors: "The New Yorker this week devotes it entire editorial space to an article on almost complete obliteration of a city by an atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive powers of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use."

This article was later published in the form of a book titled Hiroshima. Simple but a very powerful non-fiction account of the lives of the six survivors in the months after the atomic bomb fell on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Rumanian born and Nobel Peace Prize winner (1986) U.S. writer Elic Wiesel was deported by the Germans during World War II to concentration camps, where most members of his family were killed. Liberated from the camps at the end of the war in 1945, he worked for several years as journalist. He realised, however, that his primary role as a Holocaust survivor was "To bear witness" and relate the experience of the victims of the Nazis to the world at large. And, he began to write and gave us a series of powerful autobiographical novels that, greatly increased public awareness of the destruction of European Jewry during the war. The best known of these works is Night (1958, English trans. 1960) — another classic of this century.

Night is very painful. A young boy and his father are transported from a Hungarian ghetto to Auschwitz, where they endure months of degradation, brutally and hunger. Finally, as the Red Army closes in, they are evacuated through the frozen countryside to Buchenwald. There the father dies slowly of dysentery, while his son nursery him fearfully, guiltily, resentfully.

It is here, not in the cruelty, that the sense of shock which vibrates so continuously through the book is located: "I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like — free at last!"

In Night Wiesel laments: "Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God, himself. Never."

In fact, these lamentations came after a decade of self-imposed silence about his experiences in the concentration camps. This memoir began as a manuscript of over 800 pages, but Wiesel abridged and concentrated the work to 127 harrowing pages", in which the author’s "pain lies in the discovery that neither love, filial piety, nor his intense Talmudic training can stand up against extremes of starvation and fear... As a human document, Night is almost unbearably painful and certainly beyond criticism."

Perhaps no Holocaust narrative will ever contain the whole experience. But Art Spiegelman found an original and authentic form to draw us closer to its bleak heart in his book Manus: A Survivor’s Tale. It is indeed a unique title in the literature of the Holocaust. It was first published in 1986 and won instant acclaim.

In comic-strip (or graphic novel) format, Spiegelman born in 1947, chronicles his father’s experiences in Poland and, later, in German-run concentration camps during World War II. The author depicts Jews as mice and the Germans as cats — Maus also considers the effects of those experiences upon the lives of the next generation.

And then we have Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway’s all time greats A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls published in 1940. Written in the spare, laconic style for which he became famous, the two novels glorified the "grace under pressure" of man in war. While the former novel is set during World War I, the latter is about the Spanish civil war. It was Hemingway’s most ambitious artistic endeavour as well as his greatest popular success.

The story of Robert Jordan, a young American committed to the Loyalist cause, the novel is notable for Hemingway’s evocative prose style. The epigraph, taken from one of Donne’s sermon’s suggests the work’s universal implications, "Very likely," wrote Philip Young, "there is no country in which American books are read whose literature has been entirely unaffected by Hemingway’s work. In his own country we are so conditioned to his influence that we stopped noticing it some time ago, and seldom stop to realise that the story we are reading might have been quite different or not written at all, except for him."

The popular image of both Hemingway and the books that he wrote is of rugged toughness, an exterior that masked the sensitive side of Hemingway’s character and the complexity of his work. Nevertheless, it is by the economy of his style and the starkness of his writing that he is known.

To be continued)

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