Clifford’s Blues by John A Williams

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This is another novel about some of the less well-documented victims of the Holocaust.  In this case, the protagonist is a gay black man, imprisoned in Dachau from 1933.  He comes under the protection, of sorts, of a Nazi officer he’s met before, in return for sexual and musical favours.  The book’s in the form of a diary, which I wasn’t sure would work, but which does because it means that a huge amount can be included as notes on what he’s witnessed or heard about.  The horrific medical experiments carried out in the camp, the forced sterilisation of mixed-race people in the Rhineland, individual executions, mass executions, outbreaks of disease, deportations to “the East”, new groups of people arriving.  It also refers to so many different groups of people, many of them groups whose experiences at the hands of the Nazis tend to be overlooked.  That makes it sound really harrowing, but it’s actually very readable.

On a different note, it spends a lot of time comparing Nazi attitudes on race to those in the southern states of the US, which I believe caused a lot of controversy when the book was first published.  And it talks about the Evian Conference of 1938, at which 32 countries failed to agree to take in Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s got messages that’re worth reading, especially in the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Our guy is an African-American called Clifford Pepperidge, and he’s a jazz musician – so I’m wondering if the World on Fire scriptwriter had read this.  He’s been working in Berlin in the “Cabaret” world of the Weimar Republic … but then, in 1933, he’s found in bed with a male American diplomat.  The other guy claims diplomatic immunity and flees the country, leaving Clifford to his fate.  At Dachau, Dieter Lange, a man he knows from the Berlin scene, now a Nazi official, arranges for him to be classified with a green triangle, as a criminal, in there for drug-dealing, rather than with a pink triangle, as a gay man, which would have meant his being treated far worse, and also arranges for him to work in his house.  In return, he’s treated as a sexual plaything by Lange, his wife and her lover.  He’s also expected to play at a Nazi social club.  (Would a Nazi social club have had a black musician playing?  It does in this, anyway.)

There’s a lot in the book about the different concentration camp badges, and the different categories of prisoner which they denote, and the double triangle badges which were used to denote someone falling into more than one category.  It also talks about groups of people coming in and being moved out, and how they interacted with each other, which is quite unusual for a Holocaust novel, and makes you think.

There was no official classification for black prisoners, because, probably due to the very small numbers of black people in Germany at that time, they weren’t rounded up and sent to camps in the way that Jewish or Roma or Sinti people were, so it’s hard to know how many people were affected, but it’s thought that many black people, were arrested as alleged criminals or political prisoners.   Certainly there was a programme of forced sterilisation in the Rhineland, for mixed race children fathered by black French soldiers during the post First World War occupation, and the book does refer to that.   We also see something of how gay men were particularly singled out for ill-treatment, and as the subjects of medical experiments.

As to the comparisons with the US … much of the book’s set in the 1930s, before the very worst of the Nazi atrocities, and there are undeniably some parallels in terms of banning mixed marriages, and classifying people according to what percentage of particular ancestry they have.  It’s a very controversial area, though, and I’m not comfortable with people drawing parallels between the Nazis and any other regime.  But the author has got a point, in some respects.  And what’s said about the Evian Conference is most certainly valid.  I’m not entirely sure that a concentration camp prisoner would have heard quite so much war news, but, for the purpose of the book, the reader needs to accept that he hears rumours from newly-arrived prisoners and that he’s sometimes able to listen to the radio.

There are a few bits which readers might need to Google. I’d assume most people are familiar with the names of top black musicians and sportsmen of the 1930s, but maybe younger readers might not be. There are couple of sentences in pig Latin, which I haven’t read for years – thank you, Beverly Cleary, for teaching me pig Latin! And references to Haitian voodoo.

It’s not particularly well-written.  Although the book’s written in the form of a diary, is there really any need for quite so much swearing and crude language?  Also, the author repeatedly uses “English” for “British” and “Russian” for “Soviet”, which is very annoying.  However, it packs a lot into 300 pages, especially as regards groups of Nazi victims who do not always receive that much attention, and it gets better as it goes along.

Towards the end, when he hears about the liberation of Auschwitz and what the Soviets found there, Clifford (who, despite being in the home of a Nazi official, manages to listen to the BBC World Service in the radio, which doesn’t seem very likely but you just have to accept that, or else the book won’t work) says that now he can think about how big and how evil everything that’s happened is, and how he heard all about evil from preachers in church but none of that could ever have prepared him for this.  Maybe that’s why the focus is on the death camps, because mass shootings and mass imprisonments, even if not on that scale, had happened before, so people could get their heads round them.  But there are other stories to be told too. 75 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, there are still many Holocaust stories to be told, and the experiences of black people and gay people, and indeed black, gay people – this book did make a lot of reference to people with more than one “badge” – are amongst those which we still need hear more about.

And, at the end, it mentions a man who Joseph Nassy, who really existed – a Surinam-born mixed race American, working as an artist in Belgium at the start of the Second World War, who had Jewish heritage.  He was held in internment camps which were close to Dachau geographically but where the rules of the Geneva Convention were honoured, and drew many pictures of life there.  It’s a unique story.  So is everyone’s.