The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain is one of my favourite authors.  Her work is always thought provoking and she writes with fidelity to her characters.  This novel has an air of sadness hanging over it as we trace the life of Gustav who grows up during the time of the Second World War but in neutral Switzerland where the war should not affect him.  The fact that his late father was a policeman who died when Gustav was still a child shows that neutrality does not mean free from harm.

BlogGustavSonataTo his mother, Gustav’s father was a hero and this is how his story is told but there is a darker secret that Gustav unravels later in life; a story of moral courage in times of difficulty.  His father helped Jewish refugees enter the country when the government had closed the door.  This act had implications for his livelihood and possibly his liberty but it is the mother and son who suffer.

When Gustav makes friends with the Jewish boy, Anton, who has ambitions to be a concert pianist, he enters a world with a mother and father who dote on their son.  That their family life is so different from his own leads to reflection on fate and fairness.  The friendship endures even though their lives take different paths.  While Gustav makes friends, his mother cannot build bridges with a Jewish family when Jewish people were significant in the fate of her husband.

The novel is about settling for things in life.  Gustav grows into adulthood, reasonably successful in his chosen career yet with a gap.   His friendship with Anton endures despite the latter’s departure for bigger cities and it is only towards the end that the gap for Gustav is filled in a way that is unexpected but completely appropriate.

There is a cast of characters around Gustav who represent the various reactions to life’s vicissitudes.  ‘The Gustav Sonata’ is ultimately a sweet novel if that word can be used without it seeming to dampen the praise.  Let me say that, at the end, I was so pleased the way it turned out for Gustav.

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From East End to Land’s End

BlogEastEndLand'sEndI enjoy reading about history but especially the less well known aspects of key events from the past.  I thought I knew a lot about evacuees from London; my father was one, evacuated to Kent for the duration of the so- called phoney war and back in time for the Blitz!  This history by Susan Soyinka is fascinating and uncovered areas I had not previously considered and revealed new facts.  For example, there was highly efficient planning by the government for the evacuation of children from the larger cities but next to know co-ordination of their return. As a consequence, the authorities were unable to say with any certainty where children were.

The story told here is a specific one, though: Jewish children from the East End of London were evacuated with their school to Mousehole, beyond Penzance in Cornwall. The cultural change experienced by both locals and evacuees is related in an oral history that reveals the best of humanity as well as the resilience of people in times of war.

Many of the children from the Jews Free School were the ones who were not in the first wave of evacuation to Cambridgeshire.  As bombs fell more often on London, they were sent away by their parents and Cornwall was the designated receiving area.

The memories are well handled by Susan Soyinka who is clear when inconsistencies arise or where memories conflict with the records.  In part, the author shows us how she went about researching this history as she discusses her methods as well as her findings.

There are some remarkable insights into how the Jewish religious practices were kept alive in an area far from a synagogue and the story of the refugee children from Europe who, speaking no English, were also evacuated.  Their suspicions of trains and train journeys were understandable.

‘East End to Land’s End’ is a fascinating book.  It 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?

 

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?

 

The Naming of Parts

At school when studying O Level English Literature, we had to read poems from ‘The Sheldon Book of Verse’.  This poem was one I remember so well, mostly because of the way it was read to us by the teacher.  We had to prepare for the lesson by reading it ourselves at home, which I did.  It left me cold and meant little to me but it came alive when, next day, our English teacher read it.  His reading brought out the essence of the poem, so much so that I cannot now read the poem without hearing him read it to us.  It proved that teachers really can open minds.

The Naming of Partsbloghenryreed

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, 
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, 
We shall have what to do after firing. But today, 
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighbouring gardens, 
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see, 
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel, 
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures, 
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers: 
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt, 
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance, 
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards, 
For today we have the naming of parts. 

Henry Reed