The lead character of my new novel was born in Vienna in 1919, his journey taking him through Dachau (and Sydney as it now turns out) to a meeting in California in 1994. Reading my way into such a life could take me another few decades. I have to keep reminding myself that my research needs to fit the scope of the book not the life.
I wandered out to the Sydney Jewish Museum
in the Darlinghurst district of the city the other day. It's a beautifully designed museum, telling the story of Jews in Australia as well as the Holocaust (Australia took in, somewhat reluctantly, 30,000 surviving Jews after 1945, DPs (displaced persons), the highest per capita after Israel).
The museum exhibits include a lot of testimony from survivors. Were it not for the Friday early closing (2pm) I'd have spent hours there. Images of children were, for me, especially poignant. A father buried his photograph of a little girl in the grounds of Dachau. That photo is on the wall here in Australia, where the father moved, but he never saw his little girl again. The museum houses 'The Children's Memorial', drops of water falling into a beautiful stone bowl which collects 1,5000,000 of them before they spill out, representing a tear for each lost child. A glass memorial is formed of photographs of these missing children, beautiful faces smiling out from before they were stripped from their families for extermination.
The aftermath of war has become the central theme of my writing. Back in the 1980s, researching my first novel ON BENDED KNEES, it was hard to find books about wartime civilian life in Germany. Now they exist. I picked up George Clare's fine memoir Last Waltz in Vienna
at the museum, picturing the members of his family from 1842-1942, the year he was forced to change his name and his parents were sent to Auschwitz, a tender depiction of that splendid loving mixed normality of family life that was destroyed. It's good to reach beyond the horrors of the numbers and the large personas of history to discover the smaller lives that bore the brunt of it all.
I've just finished Sebastian Haffner
's Defying Hitler
, written in 1939 (when the author was an emigre in London) but not published until recently. It's a clear-eyed and personal account of how a nation could be so blindly misdirected towards evil. I was most struck by a passage towards the end of the book, where the author is forced to undergo a Nazi bootcamp in order to pass his exams as a Referandar
(a legal role that opens up into being a judge). The young man has been hiding so as to avoid the need to salute passing Nazi flags. Now he finds himself wearing a swastika armband, shouting 'Heil Hitler', singing the martial songs, saluting. What happened? State-instituted terror was a significant element, but he writes compellingly of comradeship ... 'We floated in a great comforting stream of mutual reliance and gruff familiarity ... And yet I know for certain, and emphatically assert, that this very comradeship can become the means for the most terrible dehumanization.'
Chapter 39 of the book discusses 'comradeship' at length and is well worth discovering in full. I'll only quote one more part here:
'It was remarkable how comradeship actively decomposed all the elements of individuality and civilization. The most important part of individual life, which cannot be subsumed in communal life, is love. So comradeship has its special weapon against love; smut. Every evening in bed, after the last patrol round, there was the ritual reciting of lewd songs and jokes. That is a hard and fast rule of male comradeship, and nothing is more mistaken than the widely held opinion that this is a safety valve for frustrated erotic or sexual feelings. These songs do not have an erotic, arousing effect. On the contrary, they make the act of love appear as unappetizing as possible. They treat it like digestion and defecation, and make it an object of ridicule.The men who recited rude songs and used coarse words for female body parts were in effect denying that they had ever had tender feelings or been in love, that they had ever made themselves attractive, behaved gently and used sweet words for these same parts ... they were rough, tough, and above such civilized tenderness.'
I've been struck what a crude, rude bunch of men a group of barristers in England can so readily become, flicking food over formal dinner tables, guffawing at any perceived lewdness, refined and intelligent men spiralling down into crude camaraderie, locked into the adolescent mind of English public schools. I attended my own old boys' reunion last year and felt similarly uneasy, jokes directed at the few female members of staff present. How did people take those small units of love, Jewish families and others, and dehumanize them enough that they could exterminate them? This use of the tool of comradeship is an interesting perspective to consider.
Labels: Sebastian Haffner; Jewish M useum Sydney; Children's Memorial