A Horse Walks Into A Bar

BlogHorseWalksBarNovels by David Grossman build layer upon layer until all becomes clear.  It takes time for the fog to clear and to see the essential point of one of his novels and this latest story is no exception.  ‘Fog’ is not the right metaphor, though, because Grossman writes with great clarity.  In this case, a comedian takes the stage to perform his act and a special guest in the audience watches and comments on what can be seen.

The comedian, Dovaleh Greenstein, is telling jokes and stringing the audience along with a story from his youth.  The story is more tragic than funny and the audience has its patience stretched at times.  This is where the insights of the invited guest come in.  We see how other audience members react.

There are jokes here, some of them effective but the main point is to watch the stand-up comedian use the forum for a confessional about an event that proved pivotal in his life. The book must be read to gain the experience and it is for readers to assess how far this story is also the story of a nation.

David Grossman’s novels are in my hinterland.   What’s in yours?

Our Man in the Middle East

Jeremy Bowen is something of a BBC star as far as I am concerned.  His level headed reporting from one of the world’s hottest regions is always worth listening to.  He seems to get across complex ideas with clarity and he is not prone to that modern journalistic disease which rates feelings over facts and imagery over clarity.

This series of short (fifteen minute) radio programmes, broadcast by BBC Radio Four, allows him the opportunity to reflect on his twenty five years of reporting from the Middle East.  I remember most of the stories the covered even if many of them were long forgotten to me.  He carefully crafts a modern history of the region through returning to his news reports.

The series is not without feeling, how could it be, when as a journalist, he has seen some terrible things?  Yet, while showing his humanity he never forgets that his job is to report the facts and get the stories out.  There are brief glimpses behind the scene as well, though.  He tells the story of his dinner party for fellow journalists on the night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.

‘Our Man in the Middle East’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

I Must Belong Somewhere

I heard Jonathan Dean, the author of this excellent book, speak at the Bath Festival this year.  Having heard him talk about identity and nationality I was keen to read his story of a search into family history; his grandfather and great- grandfather had both been refugees in their early lives.  What makes this book stand out from others of a similar vein is the background in which he is writing.  The UK referendum on EU membership has changed the way we talk about belonging and foreigners.  There is a new found assertiveness among those who voted Leave for saying what they think about people who are different.  This raises questions which Jonathan Dean uses in his exploration of his own family:  would they be welcome now?  Would Britain accept people fleeing for their lives or does the fact that modern refugees mostly have different coloured skin make a difference?

BlogIMustBelongSomewhereUsing his grandfather’s diaries and letters and his great- grandfather’s memoir, the author shows that leaving home is never easy.  Trying to make a new life in a new country is full of difficulties.  What does it mean to fit in?

Throughout the book, he traces their steps, taking in significant places on both men’s journeys.  Heinz, his grandfather fled Vienna for Britain before the start of the Second World War.  With his brother, he left his parents behind to be sent to concentration camps.  Being Jewish, the need to escape to safety was obvious but they had to go without their parents.  Heinz’s story is one of becoming British.  He stayed here and raised his family as British.

David, his great- grandfather, lived out his life in the Vienna from which Heinz fled.  But this was not where he was from. Just as his son made Britain his home, the father found sanctuary in Austria as a refugee from a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine.  It is one of the fascinating aspects of this book that he returned to live in Vienna after the concentration camp experience, living among people who had been happy to see him carted off.

The book is an important one.  The rise of a new nationalism is fed by the Leave result of the referendum but casual xenophobia should not be allowed a free ride.  This book reminds us of the humane reasons for refuge and the fact that for many people seeking asylum is a necessity, not a choice.

‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

 

The Little Traitor

I loved the novella by Amos Oz called ‘Panther in the Basement’.  This film is based on that book and, even though the title is a touch too ‘cute’ for my taste, it is an interesting transposition of the story to film.  The wonderful Alfred Molina is terrific as Sergeant Stephen Crabtree, the British soldier posted to Palestine during the British Mandate.  He is a man fascinated by this land of the Bible and delighted to meet a young boy who looks able to help him understand the language. They strike up a friendship which is odd since the boy, Proffy to his friends, is brought up to hate the British and declares himself a sworn enemy.

The political is personal, though, and soon Proffy is conflicted by the difference between what he has been told about the British and what he likes about Sergeant Crabtree.  The two spend time together, usually at the British mess, and Proffy helps the sergeant with Hebrew while Crabtree teaches Proffy English.

Proffy’s friendship with two friends of the same age as him is based on their sense of fighting back against the British Mandate.  They plot ways of attacking the enemy as young boys do, oblivious to the dangers involved.  Proffy sees an opportunity to use Crabtree as a source of military information to further their freedom fighting cause but things do not turn out that way and when he is followed by his friends his secret visits to the British mess are misinterpreted.

The resulting interrogation of Proffy by a Jewish group was confusing to me: who were they and on what authority did Proffy’s parents subject their son to such treatment?  A sub-plot showing their involvement in the Haganah might explain this.  In any case, Proffy is branded a traitor in his community and he questions the nature of friendship; learning  too late that Sergeant Stephen Crabtree was more of a friend than he realised at the time.  The final scene is worth waiting for since it brings a resolution not found in the book.

On balance, the book is far better than the film, even with the presence of Alfred Molina, but the location filming adds a dimension that I could not see in my mind’s eye when reading.  The sense of Jerusalem in the 1940s is brought to life.  For this reason, the film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

East West Street

I read this book by Philippe Sands after seeing the film ‘My Nazi Legacy’.  The film shows his search for answers about his wider family in the company of two men whose fathers were important members of the Nazi regime.  Although the experiences shown in the film are covered here, the book is wider.  In particular, he shows how the work of two men from the city of Lvov were instrumental in thinking about human rights law.  The awful events in Lemberg (as Lvov was called at certain points in the twentieth century) are covered as is the approach of the allies on winning the Second World War; the Nuremberg trials are detailed in the second half of the book.

Hersch Lauterpacht was a professor of International Law.  He grew up in Lvov.  His major contribution to the trials at Nuremberg was to focus on crimes against humanity; there was no hiding behind the State, if you committed a crime, you committed a crime. The other major thinker was Raphael Lemkin, also a resident of the Lvov, and also Jewish so restricted by the anti- semitic laws in pursuing his career.  His contribution to law was to establish the concept of genocide.  He believed that the intent to destroy whole groups or races needed to be recognised as a crime.  It seemed to me that the ideas of both men overlapped, although it was not always seen this way when the trial was underway in Nuremberg and Lemberg, in particular, was frustrated that his ideas were not readily picked up.

Hans Frank features more than the other Nazi criminals as he was in charge of the area in which Lvov fell.  He was also the father of one of the men Sands had come to know.  It is this sense of the historical as personal that makes this book so powerful.

I was fascinated to learn that the idea of putting Nazis on trial was contested, especially as it looked as if some would be acquitted or receive lenient sentences.  This is not a book about Nazis, though, and it is important to remember the people who suffered.  Leon, Sands’s grandfather has pride of place in this memoir because the events formed him and allowed Sands to see history in a more personal light.  This is an amazing memoir and I was left, at the end, with a sense that it was just that the two lawyers who had the biggest impact on legal thinking in the Nuremberg trials were both Jewish and had both been pushed out by the very regime they were holding to account.

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My Nazi Legacy

This documentary from Philippe Sands was fascinating even if somewhat painful to watch at times.  Sands, an eminent Human Rights lawyer accompanies two sons of prominent Nazis as they visit sites of their fathers’ notorious careers.  The trip is made more poignant by the fact that the extended family of Sands himself were victims of the very men the sons are talking about.

Niklas Frank is the son of Hans Frank, the governor of Poland.  He has long ago denounced his father’s crimes and he does so again in this film, making it clear that we can only move on if the atrocities of the past are exposed.  At no time does he try to defend his father’s actions.  Horst von Wächter on the other hand will not concede that his father did anything wrong despite documentary evidence to the contrary.  His father was Otto Wächter, the governor of Galicia in modern Ukraine.  The tension between the three men increases as Wächter maintains that, although the regime was criminal, his father was not.  At times he suggest that things would have been worse if a man other than his father had been in charge.

Throughout it all, Sands acts with great dignity even though the position taken by Wächter exasperates him.  The film is best when it expresses the historic through the personal.  The city of Lviv or Lemberg is important in this story since it is where the family of Sands lived.  This film is in my hinterland.

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The Evacuees

This 1975 television play by Jack Rosenthal was a wonderful example of what BBC television did so well back in the 1970s.  His story of brothers who were evacuated from inner city Manchester to the coast during the Second World War was sweet and poignant.  The drama came from the misunderstandings of the childless host family who did not see why the two Jewish boys shouldn’t do what they did in a Christian home.

Jack Rosenthal’s dramas always used comedy to make serious points and there were many wonderful moments in this play, especially when three boys had only two pairs of roller skates between them and decided they had to share to run away.  Yet the serious moments are here too.  The anxiety of the mother, played by Rosenthal’s wife Maureen Lipman, when letting her children go is clear.

The elderly couple believes they are doing the right thing but the punishments increase and when these include withholding letters from the mother to her boys it seems unbelievably cruel.  The boys struggle with the desire to return home and the need not to worry their mother unnecessarily.  When the truth emerges it is in the most uncomfortable situation but handled brilliantly by the writer.

I saw this programme in 1975 when the BBC first broadcasted it and I have never forgotten it.  That is why is it in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?