Tag Archives: WWII

A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940):Iris Origo

Some books serve as incredible mirrors of history. These books have the power to create a range of emotions in the reader: disturbed, sad, horror.  I felt uncomfortable and disturbed by Curio Malaparte’s books The Skin and The Kremlin Ball. Teffi’s Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea was poignant rather than uncomfortable–a haunting read, and when I finished the book,  I found myself thinking about the many people she encountered on her epic journey.

Iris Origo’s A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940), also from New York Review Books, another mirror of a particular time, doesn’t have that uncomfortable feeling, and neither is it haunting. Instead imagine an Anglo-American woman of considerable privilege, brought up in Italy, married to an Italian, living on a grand estate in Tuscany, who records events with intelligent, cool detachment and a growing sense of unease, as they occur in 1939-1940.

A chill in the air

The book opens with Iris Origo on a train “packed” full of squadristi–“the fascists della prima ora, those who belonged to the first squads of 1919.” The men are headed to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Fasci and also to hear a speech from the Duce. It’s a brilliant opening which shows fascism deeply embedded in society, ‘respectable’ fascists who look “good-natured, friendly and peace-loving. About 80% of them belong unmistakably to the working-class; the others look like small tradesmen or employees. Impossible not to like them; impossible too not to feel that Fascism was, in its beginning, a genuine revolutionary movement of the people.” 

The rumors of war are just that. Yes, there’s unrest in the world, and as events unfold, Origo takes particular note of the newspapers, again with that cool detachment she recognises shifts in attitudes. There’s a “sympathetic tone now adopted towards Russia,” which she intelligently realises “suggests that there may be some foundations in the persistent rumours of a German-Russian rapprochement.”

Although Mussolini makes speeches about arming the country, Origo expresses the thought that people are “entirely right in saying that Mussolini intends to avoid war,” and yet she speculates about “Mussolini’s capacity to act as a moderating influence on Hitler.” Meanwhile foreigners are expelled, foreign papers are not available, while “voluntary exodus” requires German subjects to move back to Germany and Italian subjects of Austrian origin to “move either to Germany or to other Italian provinces.”

Other restrictions kick in, there’s the last day that cars can be used, and on this day, the author visits old friends. The sale of coffee and tea is forbidden, and the English leave the country “except for a few very old ladies, who can’t move.” Still the general mood is that “it won’t come to a real war: the Duce will get is out of it somehow.” The diary notes how people manage, or fail to manage, the depression of anti-fascist neighbours, the mothers who worry that sons will be hauled off to fight. The war creeps closer and the mood darkens…

Iris Origo initially admired the Duce; her husband was, at one point, the president of the local fascist consorzi (landowners’ association). As the diary continues, we see the author’s attitude shift until she is galvanised into action, and that’s the story that continues in her book: War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary 1943-44. Sometimes book introductions are spoilers, and while the introduction, written by Lucy Hughes-Hallet, explains some of what happens in the book, it also explains who Iris Origo was, her connections, and her politics. I’d recommend reading it prior to starting the book.

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The House by the Lake: Thomas Harding

In 2013, Thomas Harding traveled from London to Berlin in order to visit the weekend house in Groβ Glienicke built by his great-grandfather, Dr Alfred Alexander, a house which, by necessity was abandoned by Harding’s Jewish family in the harsh year of 1936.  The house “was on the front lines of history–the lives of its inhabitants ripped up and remade again and again, simply because of where they lived.” That statement is true for many of the holiday home’s inhabitants. Harding’s relatives were lucky enough to escape to London after his great-grandfather, who had long held the opinion that “his countrymen would see sense, that they would finally understand the madness of Hitler and his cronies,” finally agreed that the family must flee.

The Alexanders’ lake house was an idyllic holiday home for the well-to-do Jewish family. In the 1890s, a wealthy businessman, Otto Wollank with an eye for a bargain, bought a large estate near the Groβ Glienicke lake, fifteen kilometres outside of the city of Berlin.  Under Wollank, a former member of the Danzig Death’s Head Hussars, initially the estate prospered, but by the mid 20s it faced ruin. Wollank decided to lease out lakeside land which could tempt wealthy city dwellers to establish second homes in the country. Consequently, in 1927 Dr Alexander leased the land for 15 years and built a modest lakeside home for his children.

The location of the lakeside home turned out to have an impressive historic significance. Post WWII, the Berlin wall ran (inconveniently) between the lake and the land, so it’s easy to imagine the difficulties residents faced. But even before that, extreme political views arrived in Groβ Glienicke, marking the village out as an early area of turmoil.

The house by the lake

Wollank’s son-in-law, Robert von Schultz, was a rabid anti-Semite, “a product of the street battles of the 1920s, believing in the violent overthrow of the government, the supremacy of the German people and the importance of race.” Von Schultz was the regional leader of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and with the company von Schultz kept at the Wollank estate, soon there were “rumours of abductions, midnight interrogations and even torture.” Yet in spite of this, many of the leasehold tenants who had holiday homes on the Wollank land were Jewish.

The Night of the Long Knives saw von Schultz imprisoned, questioned, and placed on trial. In the meantime, his wife was approached by a representative of Herman Göring who asked her to sell a large part of the estate–a section which was later to used as an airfield– the airfield Hitler used “for his personal journeys, including to his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, providing a degree of privacy that he could not find at Berlin’s other airfields.

Once the Alexanders fled to England, the occupancy of the lakeside house fell into freefall. Residents lived there as they fell in and out of political favour, and during the Soviet occupation post WWII, the village became the site of a series of horrendous unsolved murders. Later, the house, under communal living, was at one time occupied by a somewhat lackadaisical Stasi informant known as “Ignition Key.”

When the author arrived to inspect the home (for the second time) in 2013 he found a wreck of a house that was “now owned by the city of Potsdam,” scheduled for demolition, and the author was told that in order to save the building, he would need to prove “it was culturally and historically significant.” That’s where all the research comes in.

It’s impossible to write the history of this house without writing a mini history of Germany–such was the impact of politics on the residents of this house. Readers may find themselves familiar with some of the historic information included here, but nonetheless, this is a remarkable story.

Review copy.

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Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Goebbels confides in his diary on 7 August.” Then there will be some shooting.”

Berlin 1936: Sixteeen Days in August from Oliver Hilmes offers a kaleidoscope view of the Olympic games through the stories of a range of people: Nazi leaders, diplomats, socialites, writers, journalists, spies, nightclub owners, and, of course, the athletes. All this is set against the city of Berlin: a city in flux with the glories and decadence of Weimar culture fading fast–although some people were slower than others to catch on to the new reality and the horrific future.

The book, which contains some marvelous photographs from the period, begins on August 1, 1936 with the president of the International Olympic committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, who according to Goebbels’ diary entry is one of “the Olympians [who] look like the directors of a flea circus.” This comment sets the tone for the book: appearance vs reality. For while the Olympics are solemnly held with respect for tradition, to Hitler, the games were a wonderful opportunity for propaganda. Already, on page 16 when the games open, Hitler is presented with a “symbolic Olive branch” which is followed by the athletes, who “represented by the German weightlifter, Rudolf Ismayr–take the Olympic oath.” Then in a break from protocol “after taking the vow, he waves  a Swastika flag instead of the Olympic one.”

Parties and receptions: the Olympics are swathed with glittering events. As journalist Bella Fromm notes, “The propaganda machinery is trying to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.”

But behind the scenes of the Olympics, interesting events are taking place. Interior Minister, Wilhem Frick ordered a “gypsy manhunt day,” and two weeks before the Olympic games opened, around 600 people are rounded up and dumped in a camp on the outskirts of Berlin. The publication of the Nazi hate-rag Der Stürmer is suspended while all these important foreign visitors are in town.

There’s a ‘while Rome burns’ feel to the book. Berlin’s famous nightclubs are still operating, but “the Quartier Latin is a volcano, and patrons dance on its edge.” Similarly, The Ciro Bar and The Sherbini bar are thriving, but time is running out…

Underneath the idea that life in Berlin is ‘normal’ we see glimpses of the seemingly innocuous ‘Travel Union Club’ otherwise known as Legion Condor, well armed, heading to Spain. And then there’s the “free German press in exile” who publish and smuggle into Germany a 16 page pamphlet.

“Get to Know Beautiful Germany: An Indispensable Guide For Every Visitor to the Olympic Games in Berlin.” The cover featured an idyllic German landscape, but inside a map pinpoints almost all of the then-existing concentration camps, penal facilities and court prisons. ‘SA torture chambers have not been included,” a footnote read. “They are too many in number.”

In Berlin, American Author Thomas Wolfe who “doesn’t like Jews” mouths off about how “people are free to speak and write and think some things in Germany that they are not free to speak and write in America. For example, in Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America, you are not free to say this.” But Wolfe expresses this naive opinion to the wrong person: Mildred Harnack, and it’s from her that for the first time, Wolfe hears the term, “concentration camp.

Since arriving in Berlin, Wolfe has never seen any public evidence of the tyranny she described. But what if Germany is putting on a show to fool him and the other Olympic visitors? What if the Games are just a gigantic piece of propaganda? And what if the Germans Wolfe meets every day are just extras in an exceedingly horrible play?

Berlin 1936 is initially a dizzying read, but then the central idea of appearance vs reality takes over. The author’s original approach to a slice of history is compelling and effective. Each chapter is prefaced with the report of the weather (there’s great irony here) and police reports are scattered through the text. At the end of the book, there’s a section ‘what became of.’ and in this chapter, the author traces the lives of some of the characters mentioned.

Review copy

Translated by Jefferson Chase

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Children of Nazis: The Sons and Daughters of Himmler, Göring, Höss, Mengele and Others. Living with a Father’s Legacy: Tania Crasnianski

A few years ago I watched Hitler’s Children, a documentary which explored the lives of some of the offspring of the Nazi elite. It was a fascinating film, and so when I saw Tania Crasnianski’s Children of Nazis, I knew I wanted to read it.

Under scrutiny here are:

Gudren Himmler

Edda Göring

Wolf R. Hess

Niklas Frank

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr.

The Höss children

The Speer Children

Rolf Mengele

One of the many things I carried away from Hitler’s Children was the range of reactions experienced by the younger relatives of the Nazi elite. Some were in total denial, while others were horrified when they finally learned the truth, and the same is true in the book. Children of Nazis presents each chapter with a brief history of exactly what each father did, followed by a description of the child’s upbringing, what happened after the war, and the child’s opinion of the father’s actions. These children had very different upbringings: Gudren Himmler had a secluded, claustrophobia “provincial bourgeois” upbringing while Edda Göring was treated like a Nazi princess, growing up in a castle with an actress mother and a flamboyant father who wore full make up and was addicted to morphine. Some of the children had excellent loving, relationships with their fathers, while others did not. Some of the children saw Jews from the concentration camps, while others were removed from that aspect of the war. Some children had happy home lives while others did not. Is it more difficult for a child of a leading Nazi to accept the father’s guilt if the child were removed from all signs of the war? If a Nazi father is a cold, remote man, is it easier to accept his responsibility in the genocide? How could the children brought up at Auschwitz deny their father’s responsibility?

Children of Nazis

But there are commonalities in these childhoods. After the war, many of the mothers were arrested and the children were isolated from broader society. As social pariahs, they were barred from schools, housing, and employment. And since, post 1945,  the mothers of the children remained faithful to the ideals of the Third Reich, this often threw the children exclusively into Nazi circles. There are also stories here of kindness shown to the children and this seemed to pay off in a big way. Pastor Lohmann, for example, “who made it his mission to open his doors to the children of the Nazi party, showing them it was possible for people who were not like them to love them.” Or the Jewish owners of Saks Jandel who kept Brigitte Höss’s secret that her father was the commandant of Auschwitz.

All these case studies cause the reader to question how we would have reacted in such cases. If these men were “good” fathers, and by that I mean kind and attentive to their children, how would a child put their father’s monstrous behavior out-of-the-house into any sort of context?

“There must have been two sides to him. The one that I knew and then another…. She also questioned the official number of Jews sent to their deaths: “How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed.” (Birgitte Höss)

I particularly liked the chapters on Niklas Frank, the son of “the Butcher of Poland,” and Martin Adolf Bormann Jr. The chapter on Frank details how, as a child, he would go with his mother to the Warsaw ghetto. They arrived in a chauffeur driven limousine and Frank recalls as how as a young child, he noted corpses on the pavement, thin children dressed in rags staring at the car. Frank says his mother used the ghettos “as if they were discount stores especially designed for the Frank family.”

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr was sent, as a punishment, to a Nazi Party academy at age 10 and when the death of Hitler was announced, the news stunned the students:

For me, that was the end. I remember the moment vividly, but I cannot describe the silence that greeted the news … it must have lasted four hours. No one said a word, but eventually people began to go outside, and almost immediately, there was a gunshot, then another, and another. Inside, no one spoke, there was no sound, only the gunshots outside. We thought we were all going to die…. I saw no future for myself. Suddenly, behind the bodies that covered the courtyard, another boy, who was eighteen, appeared. He invited me to come sit next to him. The air smelled fresh, birds were singing, we were still alive. I know that, if we hadn’t been there for each other in that precise moment, neither of us would still be here. I know it. 

The author mentioned that while she intended to meet all of her subjects, “in the end,” she only interviewed one, Niklas Frank. Many of the subjects were dead, while others did not wish to be interviewed for a range of reasons. The author says something that really stuck “It is also true that some of these sons and daughters feel it is easier to be the ‘child of’ certain of these men rather than others.”

And this brings me to Dr Mengele. I can’t rate the Nazis listed in the book from 1-10 from best to worst. That’s not a job I want, but I can say that there’s something particularly repugnant about Mengele. The chapter on Mengele details the meeting between The Angel of Death and his son.

Children Of Nazis is a sobering read. These children were raised in the cult of the Third Reich, and were indoctrinated in those Aryan philosophies. Some managed to break free, but some did not.

Review copy

translated by Molly Grogan

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Line of Separation (German miniseries)

German Literature Month 2017

Just as I begin to feel burned out when it comes to books or films about WWII, I come across something new and fresh. In this case, it’s the German three-part miniseries Line of Separation (also known as Tannbach) The series takes place in the fictional village of Tannbach but the situation evokes the very real village of Mödlareuth.  Mödlareuth was partly located in Bavaria and partly in Thuringia. After WWII, the village was divided in half with the northern half of the village falling to East Germany and the southern half belonging to West Germany. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.

As fellow blogger Lisa knows, I am a fan of the series A French Village, a programme which follows the fates of various characters as they adjust to life under German Occupation. The series (which I’ll admit does have a couple of plot holes, but who cares?) shows the slippery slope of choices faced by several of the characters when asked to ‘cooperate’ with German officials. Line of Separation, a three-part miniseries with each part about 90 mins long, depicts life for the villagers as they transition, abruptly, from life under Hitler to life under the Americans, to life under the Soviets. Naturally, there are casualties and plenty of moral dilemmas along the way. Are the opportunistic more morally culpable than the idealogues?  Are those who disbelieve more courageous than those who swallow the Kool-aid to save loved ones? And what about those who accept the propaganda because it’s too frightening to object or is it perhaps just easier? These are all questions you will ask yourself as you work your way through the series.

Part I: The Morning After the War opens at the manor house of the aristocratic Prussian von Striesow family.  Father Georg (Heiner Lauerbach) is AWOL (and in hiding) from the German army after serving on the Eastern Front. That leaves daughter Anna von Striesow (Henriette Confurius) and mother Caroline (Natalia Wörner) at home. German refugees trying to flee the carnage take refuge at the von Striesow estate, but they encounter tragedy as Germans come hunting for Georg von Striesow and run right into American troops.

This first episode introduces nearly all of the main characters that we follow over the course of the series. Taking refuge at the von Striesow estate is seamstress Liesbeth Erler (Nadja Uhl) and her two sons Lothar (who’s actually Jewish and not her son at all) and the very serious Friedrich (Jonas Nay). These three characters are central to the drama that unfolds. Liesbeth is a proactive forward thinking character, and there’s just a small amount of info dropped about her background.  Another main character is Hilde Vöckler (Martina Gedeck), mother of a German soldier.

The Schobers are another important family. Herr Schober, who really is a nasty piece of work, had three sons–one who died in the war, another who is missing on the Eastern Front and Heinrich who is crippled and therefore stayed at home. A local girl, Lisa Prantl, who’s pregnant by a French forced labourer sniffs the way the wind blows and makes a beeline for Heinrich Schober.

Under American Occupation, at one point the villagers are gathered together and shown footage of the liberation of Buchenwald, and many of the villagers, particularly older residents, are in denial and remain secretly loyal to Hitler. One elderly lady mutters that Herr Hitler cannot have known that this was happening, and we’ll see where that thought leads her later. Party membership cards are hidden or destroyed, and being Jewish or Communist may be good or bad depending on who is asking the questions. Fingerpointing begins when local Nazi, the opportunistic Schober, who has kept meticulous details of who did what during the war, begins ingratiating himself with the American forces. Already just what everyone did or didn’t do during the war begins to be muddied. But by the end of episode one, the Soviet army shows up, and all is set for change.

Episode II: The Expropriation sees Soviet politics taking hold of the village. Those safe under the American occupation are at risk under the Soviets. Land is divided into 5 hectare holdings and for many of the villagers, or newcomers who have lost everything, communism offers hope for the future. Not so for Anna von Striesow who stands to lose everything. The Soviets use concentration camps for prison camps so Buchenwald becomes NKVD Special Camp Number 2. Known Nazis or anyone suspected of wrong doing are shipped off, many to disappear into mass graves.

This episode shows life in flux for the villagers. Many adapt quickly–especially the young who haven’t yet learned to be wary of ideology and promises of a golden future. Konrad Werner (Ronald Zehrfeld), a District Commissioner sent to Tannbach by the Soviets oversees land division, and while he doesn’t like or appear to agree with everything that happens, he sees the reform (and sells it this way) as a (fairly) bloodless redistribution of wealth.

Episode III: My Land, Your Land. It’s 1952. The Soviet instituted farms aren’t quite working out for the small farmholders. They can’t make a living on the pieces of land they have. The mantra from local authorities who run the town is that the West is a pervasive negative influence on their goals. Well…. yes, but then people are trying to get out not get in, so do you choose to believe the propaganda and swallow it whole and perhaps be a little happier? Or struggle against a system that allows for so few personal choices?

The village of Tannbach operates with a dividing line–an ad hoc border. One half controlled is by the Soviets, the other half by the Americans, and the border is operated by villagers who know each other well.  At first, passage from one side to another is possible, but smuggling is rife and escape is common. A crackdown is inevitable, but what is unforeseeable is that it’s an event that forces villagers once again to make political choices.

Line of Separation is a remarkable series which places a very human story into a political context. We see politics and ideology imposed onto a way of life, and how people scramble to meet new demands for conformity. While the series examines the lives of a just a few characters, there are some big ideas here, huge chunks of history and so inevitably some things are not examined. Count von Striesow’s actions on the Eastern Front are hinted at in the third episode, and up to that point, he’s painted as rather decent. A couple of the scenes are overdone. At one point for example, villagers are carted off to an unknown fate, while other villagers object calling out “It’s just like the Jews.” Yes we get it.

Still this is vastly entertaining and the series illuminates a corner of history I, for one, knew nothing about. This miniseries is highly recommended for German Literature Month. Yes I know it’s not a book but you get to read subtitles. According to IMDB there’s another series on the way.

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Hitler, My Neighbour: Edgar Feuchtwanger with Bertil Scali

Edgar Feuchtwanger (b. 1924) had a happy childhood with loving parents. His uncle was author Lion Feuchtwanger, and the Munich-based Jewish Feuchtwanger family mingled with intellectuals of the day. It’s 1929 and 5 year-old Edgar describes an evening with family when the subject of Mein Kampf comes up. Although the talk is light (who wrote the best book, Hitler or Lion Feuchtwanger), the subject matter is not: Lion Feuchtwanger, who was an early, vocal critic of the Nazis, argues that they will all be in trouble if Goebbels and Hitler have their way:

“Hitler’s a thug,” Uncle Lion replies, “a former prisoner, a schemer leading a band of good-for-nothings. They’ll do anything. They’re like the barons in the Middle Ages wanting to add another kingdom to their land. They want castles, gold and serfs. Like the barons, they’ll use the Jews to whip up hatred in the masses, who are just as superstitious as in those days.”

“Which is the gist of your novel,” says my father.
“Which is selling better than Mein Kampf.”

Of course we all know what lies ahead for Germany and the Jews, but these are still early days. As this memoir continues, the years pass, and Hitler comes into power, but before that, in 1929, the Feuchtwangers gain a new neighbour. Hitler moves in across the street. His house has the name of his cleaner “Winter” outside, but everyone knows who really lives there. Even at this point, members of the Feuchtwanger family debate Hitler’s staying power. By 1933 when Hitler is appointed Chancellor, the question of leaving Germany arises, but the family still remains. In 1934, Edgar is woken up by noise in the street outside of Hitler’s house as The Night of the Long Knives takes place.

Hitler my neighbour

In any household there’s the reality of the adults and the world of children. Little Edgar goes off to school, sucking up propaganda, innocently drawing swastikas without realizing their significance, and attends a screening of Triumph of the Will. Edgar is aware of danger and while he worries when his parents leave the house, he seems largely oblivious to the specific danger pointing towards his Jewish household.  By 1936, however, when Edgar loses his beloved nursemaid due to Nuremberg Laws forbidding Jews to employ staff with “German blood” under the age of 45, the realization of his Jewish identity hits hard. Soon Edgar is ostracized by former playmates at school.

The memoir recreates the surreal nature of having Hitler as a neighbour. Edgar can literally see Hitler’s apartment from a window. Here’s a man who controls what is happening to the Feuchtwanger family, and yet he passes Edgar and glances at the child and his nursemaid “quite benevolently.” Edgar notes Hitler’s social life and how he regularly hosts lunches for “a bevy of twenty girls.” The Feuchtwangers even go to the same dentist as Hitler. Hitler remains a distant figure for Edgar, an object of curiosity–in spite of the fact he lives right across the street. His presence is marked by lights behind curtains, noises during the night, and various comings and goings. This is a remarkable story.

I’d intended to read Hitler, My Neighbour for German month, but it was originally written in French.

Review copy

Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Katalin Street: Magda Szabo

“In my dreams I call out to them, but they keep on walking, until finally they disappear from sight.” 

Magda Szabo’s wonderful novel, moves from 1934 to 1968 as it follows the fate of three neighbouring Hungarian families who live in Katalin Street. When the book opens in post WWII, surviving members of the families live, communally, not far from their original homes. These surviviors have been washed through various sweeping events: from normality to fascism and now … “social rehousing” under communism in a depressing Budapest flat “on the sixth floor of a relatively new block.” 

No work of literature, and no doctor, had prepared the former residents of Katalin Street for the fierce light that old age would bring to bear on the shadowy, barely-sensed corridor down which they walked in the earlier decades of their lives, or the way it would rearrange their memories and their fears, overturning their earlier moral judgements and system of values.

[…]

But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.

First seen in the 30s, the families are the widowed noble Major Biró and his son Bálint, whose care is overseen by the housekeeper, Mrs Temes; earnest schoolteacher Elekes, his frivolous wife, and their two daughters, Irén and Blanka. Finally there’s the Jewish family, the Helds, with war hero, dentist Dr. Held hoping his medals bring protection for himself, his wife and their only child, the fey, fragile Henriette. After WWII, the Elekes are the only intact family. The Helds have been exterminated, but the ghost of little Henriette lingers over the families, unable to move on, curious about the fates of the people she knew so well.

Katalin street

The novel opens in the 50s with the straggling members of the two surviving families, now three generations deep, living together in the tiny flat with just a few pieces of furniture from their former homes. Mr Elekes, whose belief system has been completely destroyed is taken out for a walk twice daily “as you would a dog.” Blanka, who clearly is disturbed, lives far away on a Greek island, and her strange disconnection isn’t seen as a cause for alarm by her mother-in-law, but the signs of a good “biddable” daughter-in-law. The plot goes back in time to 1934 with some of the story told by Irén and with the narrative also slipping into third person. These characters discover that their morality clashes with ever-changing politics; it’s “no longer safe” to mention friendships or beliefs. A man can be a war hero one day and an enemy of the people the next. A woman can be a good party member one year and a Stalinist informer the next.

If the idea of a ghost as a character puts you off, as it did me, then be reassured. Somehow, in this quiet, melancholic novel, Magda Szabo creates a ghost as a believable character. The surviving characters, haunted, literally and figuratively, cannot move away from their shared pasts, and so it seems perfectly natural that Henriette should remain locked in connection with those she knew in life. She can visit the past and the present, yet unable to help the people she observes, she serves as a witness of the terrible cost these living characters have paid for survival.

In spite of its serious subject matter, there’s a glorious lightness to the novel. Yes, surviving characters are irrevocably destroyed by events that took place, but there’s a playfulness here which pulls the story from depression, and the playfulness is mostly manifested in the ghost of Henriette who is able to visit the home of her past and drop in to visit her loving parents as they go about their daily tasks. Henriette rubs elbows with their ghostly forms but they have the tendency to become disturbingly immature in the presence of their parents.

When they spoke to her they did so as the parents she had known, but if their own parents came looking for them, or if they wanted to be with their parents, they would instantly change and become noisy and boisterous. Mr Held. once so quiet and reserved in his speech, would begin to fret, or shriek with laughter and gabble nonsense;upon which her grandfather whom Henriette would in normal circumstances have been delighted to see, would seize him by the wrists and swing him around until he squealed with joy. Whenever Mrs. Held saw her own parents approaching she would immediately push Henriette away and start to yell, “Mummy, Mummy!” clapping her hands and spinning around.

Henriette shows us an alternate version of time in which the trials of the present are a mere phase. Henriette, who longs to see the people she loved as they once were–happy and optimistic–is perhaps, ultimately, the luckiest character of the lot. The living “ached with longing for the dead,” but at least she can visit the past that the others dream of.

review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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The Revolt: Nina Berberova

“But reality in the past and present is all twisted and smashed.”

Nina Berberova’s novella The Revolt is a well crafted gem–the story of how WWII intervenes between two lovers. The story opens in Paris with two lovers, facing an unknown future, about to be parted. Olga, a Russian émigrée, who lives with an uncle, a famous writer, is about to say goodbye to the Swedish Einar. It’s September 2, 1939, the day after Hitler invaded Poland. Einar talks of Olga coming to Stockholm, of them travelling to Brazil, of a trip to Russia. They don’t know yet how bad things will become–how travel will become much more difficult and fraught with danger. Many promises are made–promises which prove impossible to keep.

the revolt

The German occupation is marked by four very different visits made to Olga and her uncle: each visit reflects the ever shifting times. The emphasis here is in time passing with an almost dreamlike quality. Olga writes to Einar but the letters are returned unopened and marked “address unknown.” Olga never forgets Einar, and then seven years after they parted, Olga travels to Stockholm to collect an inheritance….

To say more would be to spoil this slim, subtle understated novella, but I will say that Olga who has, as we say these days, no closure, is given an opportunity for love once again. But this time the price is too high.  Sometimes second chances are not the gift they appear to be.

In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed and we ourselves are filled, transfused, with hopes. 

For Olga, love comes at a price, and the question becomes: is she willing to pay it or not? There’s a lot of talk in our society about ‘unconditional love’–a term, frankly, I’ve never understood. This book explores the price we are willing to pay for love–a topic that goes hand-in-hand with that twisty term: unconditional love. And while unconditional love asks how far a person can go before we stop loving them, Berberova asks how much Olga is willing to sacrifice to be with the man she loves.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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Repent in Haste: John P. Marquand (1945)

“You can’t help what life makes you, can you?”

Although John Marquand (1893-1960) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for The Late George Apley, he seems to be out-of-fashion and little read these days. I came across his name when watching a film version of one of his books: H.M Pulham esq. I’ve picked up a few dusty copies of his books over the years and decided to start with Repent in Haste, mainly because I couldn’t find much information about the book online. This is possibly because it’s one of the few books he wrote that wasn’t turned into a film.

Repent in Haste is set in WWII after Pearl Harbor. It’s a short book, a very focused story running at just over 150 pages. This is the tale of an unlikely relationship formed between Briggs, an older journalist and a young Lieutenant, Boyden nicknamed Boysie. Boysie was in a torpedo carrier plane that was shot down, and he along with two other crew members survived in the ocean for two days on a rubber raft. Boysie and Briggs meet at a press conference in Hawaii, and at first Briggs isn’t impressed by Boysie, a “typical American boy, and the same sort of dull normality,” but they meet again months later when Boysie is assigned to the support carrier, Rogue River. The war has changed and this time Briggs gets to know Boysie better. This time Boyden leaves a different impression:

The only trouble, Briggs was thinking, was that if you knew too much about anyone, even someone like Lieutenant Boyden, there began to be lights and shadows.

Briggs is returning stateside and Boysie asks him to go and talk to his family and his wife, Daisy in New York. Boysie met Daisy in Pensacola and after one of those whirlwind wartime courtships they married. There’s a bond between the two men; Boysie calls Briggs ‘Pops,’ and Briggs, underestimating the younger man, assumes a protective fatherly role. Boysie, who at first appears to be naive, a rather dull hero, has survival reserves. At times, it’s fair to say that the war, and the things he’s seen, have not appeared to alter Boysie, but that’s not true. Briggs meets Boysie three times over the course of the novel, and by its conclusion, he’s finding it not so easy to bounce back–in spite of his philosophy to not let anything ‘bother him’ and not to get too attached to fellow soldiers.

“There are a lot of new kids here,” Boyden said. “It makes me kind of tired looking at all these new kids–all full of the old wham-wham. It’s a very funny thing. I keep thinking I’m back on the Rogue. It seems more real than here. It’s taking longer to snap back.”

As Boyden tried inexpertly to express himself, his words had a clumsy eloquence. He talked of the Rogue River as he ate. There had been a swell crowd of kids aboard and Boyden had been “in.” He knew he had been in, as soon as that blast had landed him on the deck. When he got up and found he was all right, he knew he did not have to bother about himself. It was the other kids that bothered him.

“Seeing them shot down,” he said, “is different from seeing a whole lot of kids catch it on the deck; and kids shut in up forward, burning up-oh boy.”

You had your mind on other things when the ready ammunition magazines began exploding, but cleaning up afterwards-oh boy! Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. “Let’s get squared away,” he said, “and get back and polish off that Scotch.”

There’s something about this book that I liked a great deal. It feels very real, very plausible and quite poignant in its portrayal of how people behave during war, the personal choices they make, and whether or not they will be indelibly altered by their experiences.  It’s a deceptively simple book, and by that I mean, there are no scenes of war and fighting–all the action takes place off the page, so we see soldiers trying to relax and wind down after combat missions. Marquand shows us a humble hero, a young man who lacks the eloquence and wisdom to articulate his survival philosophies.  In spite of all that has happened to Boyden, he’s still essentially who he was before combat, although after each battle, he finds it harder to snap back to normalcy and with his natural optimism, he’s destined to make the same mistakes.

And here’s a marvellous quote I’m adding since there’s so little about this book online:

The black sand of the beach lay just in front, with wrecks of landing craft washed against it and with new ships pushing in. He could see the colored markers, and the tanks and jeeps crawling inland. He could see the bursts of mortar shells dropping near a supply dump, and the greenish figures of a reserve Marine battalion moving through the dust. Further inland there was a line of tanks, and he could see the flash from their guns and the sudden spurt of flame thrower. He had thought it was a great show once and now it was commonplace–only another part of the Pacific war and so much a part of ordinary living that it became puzzling to think of home. You could accept an environment of violence and sudden death but, once you faced it, it was hard to understand the attitude of those who had not.

The novel was published in 1945 and at the moment of writing this post, it’s listed as a crime novel on Wikipedia. Given the date of its publication, there are some wince worthy moments: “slant-eyed Joes,” and the capturing of Japanese trophies. Some of the language is archaic. My old copy is a rejected library book and from the looks of the stamps inside the cover, this book was checked out A LOT in 1946 and 47 and then … nothing…

Boyden was right-war was nothing but a repetition, a series of the same anecdotes that grew monotonous with the telling. 

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The Road to Ithaca: Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor’s novel, The Road to Ithaca, from Bitter Lemon Press is the 5th novel in the Martin Bora series (Goodreads lists it as number 10). This book finds Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora in Moscow in June 1941 (the period of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact is about to dissolve), hobnobbing (somewhat nervously) with the likes of Stalin, Beria and Erskine Caldwell, when he is ordered to Crete to pick up 60 bottles of “choice Cretan wine” for the monstrous Beria. It seems like a fool’s errand–a lot of bother just to curry favour with a Russian ally  but once Bora arrives in Crete, he’s diverted to the investigation of the murder of a Red Cross representative who was a friend of Himmler’s. With the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau fearing the “potential repercussions,” Bora is assigned to investigate and solve the “grave incident involving the illustrious citizen of a neutral country.” 

On one hand, it looks like an open-and-shut case. During the recent German invasion of Crete, German paratroopers apparently approached the home of Swiss national Dr Professor Alois Villiger and murdered everyone inside–the professor, his housekeeper and other employees. This was observed and photographed by British Sgt Major Powell whose whereabouts are currently unknown as he’s hiding in the mountains. POW Lt Patrick Sinclair is in possession of the camera. Sinclair subsequently reported the incident to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

the road to ithaca

Accompanied by a coerced American woman as a guide and a local police inspector, Bora approaches the crime knowing that “the conquest of the island had been a bloodbath,” with the German paratroopers hostile to the combative Greek civilians. Bora is under pressure to close the case “before the International Red Cross intervenes or Reichskommisar Himmler sends someone,” and he’s given just one week to come up with answers. …

Martin Bora is a morally complex character who is shown to be caught in a knotty labyrinth of treacherous shifting political allegiances, and unbeknownst to Bora, the war is about to take a dramatic turn. Bora is torn between duty, honour, integrity and loyalty, and in order to survive “the habit of hiding his thoughts had become second nature.” This explains why Bora’s ruminations are not vocalised, so we read this character’s internal dialogue. Bora possesses a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as the title suggests, many of Bora’s thoughts centre on Greek mythology. Part of the interest I felt was in knowing that the things Bora struggles with will shortly overwhelm him. To paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘he has miles to go….’

This is a crime novel, and one that captures a tragic moment in human history:

More and more, the street resembled a funnel of liquid sunlight; its narrowness crowded with litter and vehicles dissolved, human shapes malted into it. Purgatory must be something like this, Bora thought, a cramped pass that is we only slide through it leads to the Throne of God. But there’ll be no stench of death there. 

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a problem feeling sympathy for Bora, but I did feel interest. On another note, Wikipedia has an interesting page on the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

Note: Although this is Book 5, other translated books in the series take Bora farther ahead in the war. Tin Sky is set in 1943, Liar Moon is set in 1943, A Dark Song of Blood is set in 1944. At some point, I’d like to go back and read these books in order. (Lumen is set in 1939)

Review copy

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