No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

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This is a very well-written children’s book, telling the story of a family of Syrian asylum seekers in Manchester in the style of a traditional ballet book, with the Mary Martin/Miss Arrowhead role of the fairy godmother ballet teacher poignantly being filled by an elderly lady who came here as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.  It really does get across the messages of the situation in Syria and the issues faced by asylum seekers – and also the teacher’s experiences as one of the Kindertransport children eighty years earlier, making the point that there are refugees in every generation – in a way that the intended audience, probably children aged around 9 to 12, will be able to understand. Older readers will get a lot from it too.

11-year-old Aya, her mum and her baby brother have come to Manchester from Aleppo: what’s happened to her dad isn’t explained until later on.  At the start of the story, they’ve already been here for several months, but there are flashbacks to what happened in Syria.  I’m not normally keen on books which jump around like that, but I can see that starting in Aleppo and describing the war there might have been too much in a children’s book.  Like many people fleeing Syria, they’d led a happy and comfortable life there, the dad being a doctor – who’d spent some years working in the UK and spoke fluent English, which he’d taught Aya.

They came to the UK via Turkey and Greece, so, because they should have claimed asylum in Greece, the first EU member state they came to, their claim for refugee status in the UK is complicated. I don’t want to get political – and the issues around the asylum situation are far more multifaceted than the author seems to want readers to believe, even allowing for the fact that she’s writing for children – but I don’t think anyone could argue that the asylum claim process isn’t inefficient and doesn’t take too long; and we see that the family are in limbo for months whilst they wait for a decision.  They receive help from volunteers at food banks and advice centres, but also meet with some hostility from their landlord when they cannot pay their rent.  The author’s keen to make the point that her characters have their pride: when a kind girl gives Aya some old leotards and ballet clothes that she’s grown out of, Aya feels uncomfortable about being seen as a charity case.

The book doesn’t try to explain all the complexities of the war in Syria and who’s on which side and why – does anyone, never mind a child of around 11, actually understand that? – but it explains that attacks on peaceful protests spiralled into civil war, and it doesn’t shy away from describing bombings and telling us that Aya lost friends in the bombings, and that other people she knew were detained and haven’t been seen since.  Children in the intended readership age group are old enough to know about this, and fiction is a very good way of getting the message through.

We learn that Aya was injured by shrapnel and has a permanent scar as a result, and also that her mum is struggling physically and mentally after leaving Syria too soon after the difficult birth of her son.  The combination of that and the fact that she (the mum) doesn’t speak English puts a huge amount of responsibility on Aya’s shoulders.  What can bring joy and hope back into her life?

And that’s where we get this fascinating mix of genres – the title of the book is an obvious act of homage to Noel Streatfeild, and this is a very 21st century story combined with a traditional Girls’ Own story.  In the community centre where they go for advice, ballet classes are being held in another room – and we learn that Aya had ballet lessons back in Aleppo and was very keen.  There’s a moving scene later on in which some of the girls in the class are surprised to learn that there were ballet classes in Syria, a country they only associate with war, and Aya is sad that they don’t initially realise that life there was once perfectly normal.

In true GO style, Aya goes to watch the lessons, is invited to join in, and is so brilliant that Miss Helena, the teacher, offers her the chance to attend classes without paying – but, evidently understanding that she doesn’t want to be seen as a charity case, invites her to pay her way by helping out in the classes for younger children.  We later find out that Miss Helena, who was originally from Prague, came here on the Kindertransport, alone, and became a world famous ballerina.

Having Miss Helena in that role of what I’ve called the “fairy godmother ballet teacher”, a classic ballet book trope, is inspired.  She later tells Aya all about her own experiences – and this again is something that’s so important for children in the intended readership age group to know – and the point is made so well that war and persecution and refugee crises happen in every generation, over and over again.

Aya makes friends with a girl called Dotty, the daughter of another world famous ballerina – who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. There’s a sub-plot about how Dotty doesn’t really want to be a ballerina.  That’s very Lorna Hill – think Mariella Foster and Vicki Scott.  And the girls in the class arrange a concert to raise funds for the refugees – that’s very Girls’ Own too.

In some ways it is a classic children’s ballet book, and yet at the same time it’s a million miles away from Ballet Shoes or A Dream of Sadler’s Wells.  It’s all woven together very cleverly.  Aya and Dotty get locked in at the ballet studio after staying late to practise, standard enough storyline … but then Aya has a panic attack, and we learn about how she and her family travelled from Syria to Turkey in a container on a lorry, and nearly suffocated.  And about the conditions in the refugee camp.  It doesn’t spell out the dangers there, especially for women and girls, but there are mentions of it being unsafe to go out at night, of screaming, and of Aya feeling uncomfortable at the way some of the men look at her.

It is a children’s book, despite some of the hard-hitting subjects it covers, and adult readers will need to suspend disbelief over some aspects of it.  If Miss Helena started attending ballet classes before the Second World War, she must be the oldest ballet teacher in the world!  And would Dotty’s posh family, who live in a mansion – in an area near woodland, so does that suggest Alderley Edge? – be sending their daughter to ballet classes in a community centre in an underprivileged area miles away?  But try to ignore all that – it’s necessary for the story!

Dotty’s family have got their own swimming pool.  Dotty invites Aya to swim in it with her … and that brings about another flashback, this time to the flimsy boats making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when we find out that the boat Aya’s family were in overturned, as so many did, and her dad drowned.  There are all these juxtapositions – from a ballet studio to a refugee camp, from a swimming pool in a mansion to people drowning whilst being taken across the Aegean in boats that aren’t fit for purpose, by unscrupulous traffickers who care nothing for human lives.

And Dotty, and another girl in their ballet class, are auditioning for the Royal Northern Ballet School.  Sadly, this doesn’t actually exist 🙂 .  But think Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet School, but based near Manchester.  If Aya can get a scholarship there, she’ll be entitled to stay in the UK because she’ll get a study visa.  She’s missed the preliminary auditions, but Miss Helena manages to swing it so that she can be seen anyway.

Just as an aside, it doesn’t specify which part of town any of the action’s taking place in, but there are some definite clues on the journey to the ballet school.  They seem to be heading across town on the Mancunian Way, and then out on to Chester Road, past the two Old Traffords 🙂 .  So they must be based on the north side of town, to need to cross town to get to the south side … which suggests the Cheetham Hill/Crumpsall area.  Then they keep going, so that’ll be straight down the A56 in its various incarnations south of the city centre, and it sounds as if the ballet school building is based on either Dunham Massey or Tatton Park.  I just had to try to work that out!

As Aya rehearses for the audition, she remembers dancing in the refugee camp, and thinks about how dancing is universal.  I’ve also seen videos of little kids in refugee camps playing football, just like little kids do in Manchester and Madrid and Munich.  Football, dancing, singing …  they don’t care who you are or where you are.

Of course, the audition is on the same day as the final asylum hearing.  Aya’s overcome with anxiety, and also with feelings of guilt at the thought that, if she succeeds, she’ll be granted a student visa but her mum and brother may still be deported.  And – this is very Girls’ Own, in a very un-Girls’-Own scenario – she faints in the middle of it all.  She doesn’t feel that she can go on, until Miss Helena explains that she lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and turned round all the survivor guilt into believing that she had to make the most of the chance that she’d been given and that dancing was her way of making something beautiful out of the saving of her own life and the loss of theirs.  The pairing of the two characters who’ve both been through so much, in the traditional ballet book roles of the poor but brilliant student and the fix-it teacher, is a very clever touch, and very well executed.

I won’t give away the ending.  But I will mention the afterword, in which the author talks about “lightbulb books” for children, and how that’s the sort of book she’s tried to write.  She’s certainly ambitious: she talks about aspiring to write something that’s like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword and also like Ballet Shoes, The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells books.  Time will tell how this book’s received, but I do hope that a lot of people will read it, and get a lot out of it.  It uses the term “the kindness of strangers” over and over again.  That’s something that we should all aspire to.

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The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

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 Based on the author’s family’s own experiences in wartime Hungary, this book reaches areas that other Holocaust novels usually don’t, including the treatment of men who were both gay and Jewish, the sinking of refugee ships, the Hungarian forced labour battalions, the “unseen Holocaust” of mass shootings and the attempts to identify victims and let survivors know what had become of their loved ones once the war was over.   It’s had mixed reviews – have people not got the patience to read long novels any more? – but I thought it was excellent.

The main character, Andras, whom I think is based on the author’s grandad (or maybe her great-uncle) is one of three brothers from a lower middle class family in a small Hungarian town. Restrictions on the numbers of Jews admitted to Hungarian universities in the 1930s mean that he’s unable to pursue his dream of studying architecture at home, but he’s able to get a place to do so in Paris instead. His brother, meanwhile, goes to study medicine in Modena. Once in Paris, Andras becomes part of a circle of friends, all Jewish students from various different countries. One will eventually emigrate to what was then Palestine. Another will suffer particularly horribly because he’s gay, but will survive and become a hero of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Looking for a job because funding for Hungarian Jewish students is withdrawn, Andras becomes involved in the world of the arts, and begins a relationship with Klara, a ballet mistress who’s a connection of someone who met in Budapest, and who has a complex and troubled history.

It’s a very long book, and there are a lot of characters, a lot of politics and a lot of romance. If anyone’s reading this, I highly recommend reading it for yourselves and finding out all about the characters and what happens to them!   Andras is unable to continue his studies when the Hungarian authorities refuse to renew his visa. He has to return to Hungary, and he and Klara marry and settle in Budapest – but he’s conscripted into one of the forced labour battalions in which so many Hungarian Jewish men died, and sent to Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

There are a huge number of characters in this, and a lot of small sub-plots, some little more than a few lines, drawing attention to various aspects of the history of the times. We learn that Mendel, Andras’s childhood best friend, qualified for the 1936 Olympics – “muscular Judaism” being a big thing in parts of Central Europe – but the Hungarian authorities refused to let him compete because he was Jewish. As Oswald Mosley did in Britain, far-right groups try to whip up trouble in pre-war France. There are social class issues: Klara is from quite a well-to-do family, whereas Andras is not. At one point, both families, plan to flee to Palestine, but the man they hope will arrange it for them has doubts following the sinking of the Sturma, a refugee ship refused entry by the British authorities and then hit by a Soviet torpedo. Andras’s labour battalion is billeted in a former orphanage: the children have all been murdered.

The basic plot isn’t actually that complicated, though, so I don’t seem to be writing very much – I know I go on at great length sometimes!! – but there’s a lot of detail, and there’s a huge cast of supporting characters. As you do with Holocaust novels, you hope that they’re all going to survive, whilst knowing that many of them probably won’t – and, inevitably, that’s what happens.

We live through the agonising wait of the survivors in Budapest, as they wait for the lists of names of identified victims. I was going to say that it’s a bit like the famous scene in Gone With The Wind where the women wait for the casualty lists to come in from Gettysburg, but it’s even worse, because identification is being made by exhuming bodies from mass graves and looking for papers or dog tags or any other form of identification.   The work to identify all the victims is still going now, as are similar projects to try to identify the victims of other genocides. The place where the characters in this book go in search of news is somewhere I’m due to visit next month.

But the book does end on a hopeful note, with miraculous survivals, and then the leap forward to 1956, and the emigration to America … seen as the land of the free.

Considering how long this book is, I’ve really not written very much. I can’t fault the history, so I’ve got no moaning to do!   And, as I’ve said, it’s more about the detail and the back stories and the sub-plots than it is about the main plot and what happens to the main character, and I think that’s why some people have criticised it, saying that it’s too long for what it is. But I don’t agree with that: I don’t think there was really anything in this that didn’t add something, and I think the author’s tried very hard to write a different sort of Holocaust novel, and succeeded. It takes some reading, because it is long, and there are a lot of characters, but it’s worth the effort.

The Last Survivors – BBC 2

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I’d have said that there was quite a lot of attention paid to the Holocaust; but recent surveys have shown that over 50% of German schoolchildren have never heard of Auschwitz, 20% of French people aged between 18 and 34 have never heard of the Holocaust, 41% of American adults aren’t sure what Auschwitz was, and 5% of British adults don’t believe that the Holocaust took place.  Hopefully this is ignorance, rather than some sinister political forces manipulating history for their own ends, but it’s very worrying.  Ignorance can easily facilitate manipulation, and is best answered by education – and it was a shame that the BBC, put this programme, showing the testimony of some of the few remaining survivors living in Britain, over on BBC 2 and head-to-head with The Voice and Les Miserables.  But at least the programme was made, and shown – on Holocaust Memorial Day.  On the same day, a Polish far-right group held a demonstration at Auschwitz, at the same time as the official commemorations were taking place.  And all forms of hate crime seem to be on the rise.

We’re supposed to learn from history, but something’s going badly wrong somewhere.

The people interviewed, now mostly in their late 80s, had been children at the time of the Holocaust.  Some had survived Auschwitz, others has survived other concentration camps.  Some had been old enough, or convinced the Nazis that they were old enough, to be used for forced labour, rather than being sent to the gas chambers.  Others had been at camps which weren’t actually extermination camps.  One of them, the well-known cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, had been saved from the gas chambers at Auschwitz at the last minute, when a chance remark about her musical studies had led to her being given a place in the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, which had saved her life.  One way or another, they’d all somehow survived, and come to Britain.  You’d think that living through such horrific conditions would weaken your constitution, for lack of a less Victorian way of putting it, but these incredible people were all hale and hearty, and extremely eloquent.

It was very personal, and that worked really well.  Statistics and pictures and film reels are effective and hard-hitting, but listening to someone’s personal story gets a message across in a way that nothing else does.  The stories of loss – even more than their own horrific experiences, they were telling their stories of loss – of the ordinary families, ordinary communities, which had been destroyed, of the relatives and friends who’d been murdered.

One man had never been able to find out what had happened to his little brother.  He himself had been out as part of a forced labour gang, and, one day, when he returned to his barracks, his brother and three other little boys had disappeared.  He said that he knew they must have been murdered, but part of him had never quite stopped hoping that his brother was alive somewhere: you hear these occasional stories of miraculous reunions.  And there was the man with the school photo of his class in Prague, taken in 1942.  He’d made it his mission to find out what happened to all his classmates, and had labelled the photo with stickers – red for those killed in the Holocaust, blue for those who’d survived.  There were a lot more red stickers than blue stickers.

Another man had kept trying to draw his murdered mother and sister: he had no photos of them.  He’d managed to produce a likeness of his mother, but said that he couldn’t get his sister’s face down on paper, so he’d drawn an abstract picture as a representation of him.  A well-known sculptor said that most of his sculptures had the face of his murdered father.  His younger sister had died in a concentration camp, and their elder sister had had to take her body outside and leave it on a pile of other bodies: there was nothing else to be done.  And no justice to be sought.  A man remembered seeing the flames from the chimneys at Auschwitz and, having seen his mother being taken away to the gas chambers, wondering which flame was her.

Why would anyone think that people would make this up?  And what is thing in Poland about trying to make it into some sort of competition?  Yes, there is an issue in that not much has been written about some of the groups affected by the Holocaust – the Roma and Sinti communities, gay men, people with physical and mental disabilities, for example.  More research and greater awareness is badly needed.  And no-one is denying the fact that the Nazis murdered many Poles who were not Jewish.  But what’s going on in Poland has a lot to do with the manipulation and misrepresentation of history, and it just shows how frighteningly easy it is for things to reach that stage.  This demonstration only numbered around two hundred people, but … that’s still two hundred people.

Many of those interviewed, although not all, were the only survivors of their families, and had presumably also been separated from friends, neighbours, and anyone else from their childhoods.  Most of them had married British partners, and had children and grandchildren.  How does that work, when someone close to you has been through such horrific experiences, and you’ve lived an ordinary life?

The partners seemed to cope quite well.  Or maybe they just didn’t want to say much, being of the stiff upper lip generation.  But the children were obviously struggling.  One woman said that she’d felt resentful as a child, because her mother had been too focused on trying to rebuild her life.  Another woman got frustrated with her father, whilst they were actually visiting Auschwitz, because he wasn’t expressing his emotions and he kept saying that part of the reason he was anxious was just that he was bothered about missing the coach.  She obviously adored him, and she then got tearful and hugged him; but she was obviously finding it frustrating.

The children and grandchildren seemed keener on expressing emotions about what had happened.  The survivors themselves said that that was something they couldn’t do.

It was interesting that several of them were involved in the arts, either as professionals or as amateurs – could that be a way of letting emotion out?  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was defiant, saying that she wasn’t going to let people see her spilling her emotions all over the place.  Another woman said that she didn’t dare to cry, because, once she started crying, she’d never be able to stop.  The man who went back to Auschwitz said that he was crying inside, all the time.

There certainly seemed to be a consensus that, afterwards, they’d focused on rebuilding their lives and moving forward.

And also that they hadn’t wanted to revisit the places of the past – until now.  There were three return journeys.  One was the visit to Auschwitz, with the man whose daughter wanted him to express his emotions more.  His young granddaughter also accompanied them.  One of the women said that she found it difficult to see adverts for sightseeing trips to Auschwitz – on the hotel noticeboard, along with adverts for sightseeing trips to the Wieliczka salt mines.  It’s a difficult one.  I suppose it has sort of become a tourist attraction, and I remember being quite shocked to see people taking photos of themselves and their travel companions there.  I did take some photos of the site, but I certainly didn’t want any photos there with myself in them, and the fact that anyone did made me quite uncomfortable.  But I think it’s a very educational experience, and I do think it has to be open for people to visit.  There was nothing there that I found disrespectful or sensationalised.  I wish I could say the same of the Warsaw Ghetto: there was a souvenir stall there which was selling things that were in extremely poor taste.  Hopefully that stall’s not there any more.

Another was the visit by the man whose brother had disappeared, to consecrate memorial stones in his home town of Kassel.  It was the first time that he’d actually said memorial prayers for his brother, acknowledging that his brother was gone and saying that he was at least thankful that his brother had had a few years of a happy and loving childhood.  He also said that he hoped that people would stop to look at the memorial stones, but accepted that they wouldn’t.  You don’t, do you?  Names on park benches.  Blue plaques on buildings.  War memorials.  Statues in city centres.  But they’re there.  And Kassel was acknowledging what had happening.

There are a lot of Holocaust memorials in Germany.  The main one’s in Berlin.  This is the main German memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, I should say: there are also memorials to other groups.  They shouldn’t be separate: there should be one memorial to all the victims.  But there isn’t.  Anyway.  It’s an odd-looking memorial – a lot of concrete blocks.  Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, visiting it on the third of the return trips, her visit to Germany to address the German parliament, said that she’d rather have had a garden as a memorial.  But it’s there.

There was a lot of talk about “Germans”.  I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but … is that a hallmark of the wartime generation?   Things said or written now tend to refer to “Nazis” rather than “Germans”.  Neither term is entirely accurate, when talking about the perpetrators of the Holocaust.  In the immediate post-war era, every country other than Germany was presented entirely a victim, which was certainly not entirely the case.  And this is part of the Polish right-wing issue again.  And, conversely, all Germans were stigmatised – look at the carry-on when Bert Trautmann signed for City.  I don’t know what the right term is.  We haven’t really got one.

She spoke so well, saying that it’s understandable that today’s Germans do not want to identify with what happened.  Why should they: it wasn’t their fault.  But that it must never be forgotten.  There’s a lot of talk about “never again”, but look what happened in Cambodia, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur …

At the end, we saw one of the women dancing round her house.  She said that she’d been denied her youth, her teenage years, so she was having them now.  That was lovely.  The whole programme was very watchable.  Moving rather than harrowing.  I don’t know what the viewing figures were, but I hope they were good.  It’s just very unfortunate that the people who most needed to hear what was being said won’t have been watching.

 

Castles Burning by Magda Denes

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I’m revisiting Hungarian history at the moment, and this particular book also ties in with Holocaust Memorial Day (which is tomorrow).  It’s a different sort of Holocaust memoir, partly because the situation in Budapest was different to that anywhere else, and partly because, whilst it’s aimed at adults, it’s told from the point of view of a child.  Magda Denes somehow manages to be very entertaining whilst never shying away from the details of life in the “international ghetto” in Budapest, the militant secularist Zionist resistance group with which her brother was involved, and – over a third of the book – her time as a Displaced Person once the war was over.  She felt for many years that she wasn’t entitled to talk about her experiences, because of a sense that only those who’d been survived concentration camps or massacres had that right; and she only wrote this book when she was dying.

I read a newspaper article last year, which sparked off a lot of discussion in a Facebook book group to which I belong, saying that it was inappropriate for Anne Frank to have become the face of the Holocaust (for lack of a better way of putting it), because her diary isn’t about concentration camps.  The author seemed to have completely missed the point of The Diary of a Young Girl – that it humanises all those horrific statistics about the numbers of people killed, by showing that they were all just ordinary people.  Anne Frank wrote about squabbles with family members, and about fancying Peter van Daan, just as any other teenager might have done, because she should have been just like any other teenager.  Likewise Magda’s observations about family dynamics, school, and so on.

Holocaust memoirs don’t have to be about concentration camps.  Many Holocaust victims died in massacres, in forced labour battalions, or in ghettoes.   Survivors’ experiences are valid whether they survived camps, ghettoes or forced labour, or whether they went into hiding.  And they’re valid no matter what group of persecuted people they come from: the current right-wing Polish government seems to think that it’s some sort of competition, which it assuredly isn’t.  No-one’s comparing different experiences: it’s not a question of comparison, and it’s certainly not a competition.  It’s very sad that Magda Denes felt unable for so long to speak out.  And, from what she said, many other people in similar situations felt the same.

Following Prince William’s visit to the grave of his great-grandmother, Alice of Battenberg, Princess Andrew of Greece, last year, there was quite a bit of talk in the media last year about the Jewish family whom she’d helped to hide in wartime Athens.  When I went to Lithuania, I had a long chat with a tour guide (I don’t think she was used to British tourists being au fait with Lithuanian history.  I’m weird!) whose grandmother had hidden a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation.  In Assisi, one of my favourite places, tens of Jews were saved by being hidden in the Basilica of St Francis.  There are a lot of these stories, but they aren’t often told.

They usually involve heroism, on the part of those who risked their own safety to hide those at risk, and sometimes, where families were separated, on the part of those who sent children away to try to save their lives, knowing that they’d probably never see them again.  And, when thinking about the Budapest ghetto, the first name that usually comes to mind is that of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of people by issuing protective passports and arranging sheltered accommodation under Swedish protection.

Distressing as any sort of Holocaust story is, these tales of heroism are also quite uplifting.  The way in which this one starts is anything but.  Magda Denes came from a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest.  Her father was a well-respected publisher.  In 1939, fearing for his safety, he liquidated the family’s assets and fled to America, leaving his wife and two young children behind, with nothing.  He was supposed to be sending for them, or at least sending them money, but he never did.  It was brave of her to write about that.  You don’t expect stories like that … and yet, of course, the fact that he was a complete bastard, who scarpered with all the family’s money and left his wife and kids to face their fate, didn’t make him any less of a refugee and potential victim of persecution.   There’s a lot to think about, with this book.

Magda, her mother and her brother moved in with her mother’s parents, who weren’t well-off and weren’t overly pleased at having three extra people in their small home. At this point, no-one in Budapest was actually either in hiding or in a ghetto.  However, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany, and, in 1938, began to introduce anti-Jewish laws – around 5% of all Hungarians, and around 23% of the population of Budapest, being Jewish.  The Hungarians got an extremely raw deal when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered after the First World War, and that, along with fear of the Soviet Union, explains although obviously doesn’t excuse the Nazi alliance. The laws became more and more restrictive as time went on

In 1941, foreign Jews living in Hungary, mainly refugees from Poland, were deported to Ukraine.  It’s thought that they numbered around 16,000 of the 23,600 people massacred by German, Hungarian and Ukrainian forces at Kamianets-Podilskyi.  Many Jews were killed, along with many Orthodox Serbs and Romani people, were killed by Hungarian forces who occupied Vojvodina, either killed outright or in appalling conditions in the copper mines, and many Hungarian Jews also died in forced labour battalions.

The book didn’t really say much about this, or about anything that was going on between 1939 and October 1944 – but, from the viewpoint of a small child, there probably wasn’t much to say.  There was an interesting interlude in which Magda was diagnosed with TB and sent to a sanatorium, where treatment included eating as much fatty food as possible, lying outside whilst wrapped in blankets and receiving blood transfusions from her mother.  She made a full recovery.  There was quite a bit about food shortages, but, other than that, nothing was really specific to the war, never mind to the Holocaust … but always with the background of the increasing restrictions.  Normal and yet abnormal.

Despite what had happened in 1941, the Hungarian government didn’t allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the camps, until relations between the Hungarian authorities and Nazi Germany deteriorated, and the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944.  Deportations began in May 1944 … but not from Budapest.  Jews in Budapest were forced to live in designated houses, marked by yellow stars and horrendously overcrowded, but not deported.  It’s not entirely clear what was going on, but it is clear that, by this time, reports about what was going on in the death camps were circulating around the world.  It seems that there were plans for mass deportations of Jews from Budapest in the summer of 1944, but that they never took place, after intervention from, amongst others, President Roosevelt and King Gustav V of Sweden.  What was going on?  Had the Hungarian authorities decided that the Nazis were going to lose the war, and were trying to avoid making themselves look any worse than they already did?  And why was Budapest treated differently to the rest of Hungary?  It’s thought that around a third of those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau were from Hungary, and yet the deportations from Budapest itself were stopped.   Was it just a matter of timing, in terms of external intervention?

In October 1944, the Hungarian government negotiated a ceasefire with the Soviets, to which the Nazis responded by facilitating a takeover by the far-right Arrow Cross party.  Most of the book is set from this time onwards.  They forced the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, and began deportations from Budapest to labour camps and death camps.  There were also mass shootings of Jews on the banks of the Danube.  This has been in the news lately: during some work being done in the area, bones were found, almost certainly those of the victims of those massacres.  Israeli divers have begun an operation to recover the bones, planning to give them a funeral, but some Hungarian Jewish community leaders are unhappy about it and feel that the bones should be left undisturbed.

Even before the Arrow Cross takeover, a number of foreign diplomats – Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg is the best known, but there were others too, from Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, and Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish Hungarian lawyer who bribed Adolf Eichmann to let 1,600 Jews leave Budapest for Switzerland  – had been trying to try to save as many Hungarian Jews as they could, by issuing them with passports, and enabling them to live in houses which had been declared part of their embassies and were therefore not legally Hungarian territory – the so-called “International Ghetto”.

This formed a big part of the book, and it’s well worth reading because it is something unique to Budapest.  Magda was initially taken to stay in a house under the protection of the Spanish Red Cross.  Tragically, it was later raided and those there killed, but, by then, she’d been taken to stay with family friends.  En route, she and her mother were shot at by Arrow Cross men who knew her mother from her former job and recognised them: this apparently wasn’t uncommon in Budapest.  She then joined her mother, brother and other relatives at a building under the protection of the Swiss consulate.  It’s written from the prospective of a child, and she was more concerned about why they’d all gone there without her than anything else, but we then learned what was going on there.  It wasn’t just a safe house – not that it was all that safe, with 3,600 people crowded into a building which was only meant to house 400, food short, disease rife and the city under siege.  It was the headquarters of an organisation trying to help people to escape.

I’m not particularly au fait with the Hashomer Hatzair movement.  Apparently it’s still a well-known Jewish youth organisation, operating in many countries, but it hasn’t got any branches in the UK so the name isn’t really known here.  It (thank you, Wikipedia!) began life in Austro-Hungarian-ruled Galicia just before the First World War, and became popular in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe, partly as one of the many Scout/Guide type groups which became so popular in many places in the inter-war years and partly as a Zionist socialist group, with wings of it affiliated to far left organisations.  It was only one of many Zionist groups, and one of the more extreme ones, but, as I say every time I get involved in a discussion on the Middle Eastern situation, Zionism was originally largely a left-wing, secular movement: the idea of it as a right-wing, religious movement is very recent.  Anyway, that’s another story.

This group was heavily involved in organising the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and, in Romania (where many of its leaders were executed), Lithuania and Hungary, in gathering intelligence and trying to help Jews to escape or to go into hiding.  Magda’s mother and brother became very involved in it, doing work such as forging identity documents and warning people of planned deportations.  Later on, we saw Magda’s mother and aunt carrying two sets of identity papers, one set showing them as Jews and the other as Catholics, and fumbling in their bags, trying to decide which set to use.  The grim humour of this book makes it very readable.

The work they were doing was extremely brave and heroic, and saved many lives.  However, the organisation itself sounds quite dictatorial.  The “committee” organised everything that went on in this building, and everyone had to do as they said.  And their views were quite militant: I gather that organisation’s anti-religious views cause issues between it and other Zionist organisations even now.  Although the building was under Swiss protection, at one point the Nazis shot at committee members, and a woman was killed.  Someone wanted to hold a memorial service for her, and asked for volunteers to form the quota of ten post-barmitzvah males without whom the Jewish prayers for the dead aren’t supposed to be said.  Magda’s grandfather and many other men wanted to step forward, but didn’t dare do so for fear of angering the committee, who didn’t want any form of religious service being held.

Without wanting to write a great long essay about the Dreyfus affair and Russian narodniki and religion being the opium of the people and all the rest of it, I do get the idea of Zionism and secularism … but that sort of militant secularism, making people feel afraid to hold a religious service when they’d just suffered a bereavement, if that was what they wanted to do, just sounds very … Soviet?   But this organisation saved many lives – and, after the war, helped Magda and the other surviving members of her family again and again, to leave Budapest, and during the time they spent in Paris, and even when they were in Bilbao, waiting to take ship across the Atlantic.  There are a lot of nuances and complexities in this book, right from the beginning when the publisher who’d bravely spoken out against the Nazis spinelessly abandoned his wife and kids.

Again, it’s very unclear what was going on, but it seems that, in January 1945, plans were afoot for the German troops in Hungary to murder all the remaining inhabitants of the main ghetto, and that this was stopped – according to some reports, because Raoul Wallenberg told the German commander that, if it went ahead he’d ensure that he was tried for war crimes once the war was over.  Other reports say that it was Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman posing as a Spanish diplomat, who saved the Budapest ghetto.  It really is frustrating that we can’t seem to find out.  Nor can we find out exactly what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared – probably executed by the Soviets on allegations of espionage.

Meanwhile, Budapest was under siege by the Red Army, and also undergoing intense aerial bombardment. The ghetto was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945, and the city of Budapest surrendered unconditionally in the February.  The behaviour of the Red Army in Hungary was beyond appalling, with thousands of women raped and all able-bodied men conscripted for forced labour.  However, the lives of as many as 90,000 people in the Budapest Ghetto were saved.  But it was too late for Magda’s brother, captured and shot dead a week earlier.  So close to survival, but he didn’t make it.  Her cousin lived to see the liberation, but the Red Army sent him to take a message behind German lines, and he never came back.  Her grandfather died of an infection, too weak to fight it after years of poor nutrition.  Her mother, aunt and grandmother survived.  So did her uncle and another cousin, who survived Mauthausen.

This was still only halfway through the book.  With Budapest in chaos, Magda and her mother and aunt decided to leave.  They got on a train, any train, and ended up in Debrecen.  The book used “Russian” instead of “Soviet” all the way through.  Most American authors do that.  It really, really, annoys me!  That didn’t go well, so they returned to Budapest.  And, still only eleven years old, she went back to school, and life was supposed to return to some sort of normality, but it couldn’t.

She does an excellent job of describing how she couldn’t cope with normality.  She didn’t want to read, or go to the pictures, because she’d get lost in the world of a book or a film and then it’d all hit her again afterwards.  And her mother felt oppressed by the new communist regime, and decided that they had to leave.  Going to Palestine was ruled out because, at that point, only very few immigrants were being allowed in.  Zionist contacts got them false papers, and they were able to reach the American sector of Austria and register as Displaced Persons.  There were millions of, maybe as many as twenty million, Displaced Persons in post-war Europe, maybe more.  Most were able to return to their countries of origin – or were forcibly repatriated.  Over a million couldn’t, because of fear of persecution.  Displaced Persons camps were set up.  Magda and her mother, aunt and grandmother found themselves in a camp in Bavaria.

Life in the camp … it reminded me a bit of things I’d read about internment camps on the Isle of Man, except that obviously this was in far different circumstances.  The people there became a community. They organised a school – although this meant Magda learning Yiddish, as most of the other pupils were Yiddish-speaking.  Incidentally, the book could have done with a glossary: a lot of Hungarian, Yiddish and Hebrew terms were used, which not all readers would have understood, and they organised variety shows. And she was OK with that.  It was normality that she couldn’t cope with.  Eventually – and why did the useless father apparently do nothing to try to get them visas for America? – some relatives who, for some reason, had ended up in Cuba, gave then affidavits (presumably guarantees in terms of financial support?), and they were then taken to Paris, to wait for full visas.  It all seems to have been very complicated.

Her use of language is wonderful, and her description of being a Displaced Person is in some ways more powerful than her description of life in the ghetto.  She couldn’t deal with being in Paris, a city that the Nazis had been persuaded not to destroy, because it was too grand, and too beautiful, and people were living too normally: she couldn’t process it.  She was sent to school and made a friend, but the friendship didn’t survive the other girl seeing the chaos in which the Denes family were living, in a hostel full of Displaced Persons.  Silly expression, isn’t it, “Displaced Persons”?  It sounds so mundane.  The grim humour came into it again – she remarked on the number of books showing life as an émigré in Paris to be glamorous and exciting.

Struggling at her French school because of the language barrier, she was sent to a school for Hungarian émigrés, but it was a disaster.  As much as she knew that none of the children there were responsible for her brother’s death and everything else that had happened in Budapest, she couldn’t cope with being around Hungarians who weren’t Jewish, because they seemed to represent the people who’d torn her life apart.

This is an incredibly sensitive area, even now.  Maybe especially now, with the rise of the far right in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.  No-one’s trying to point the finger, to make any suggestions of collective responsibility, and certainly not to blame anyone now for things that happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but, despite what the Eastern Bloc regimes in particular tried to teach, it wasn’t all about Nazi Germany.  Also, this was why so many people couldn’t go back to their places of origin.  Some did, but many felt that they couldn’t.

Eventually, the visas came through.  There was a nice interlude in Bilbao, where, the civil war long over and Spain having been neutral during the Second World War, there were no food shortages: there were some fascinating descriptions of the family’s reactions to seeing the food stalls in the markets.  And then the ship across the Atlantic.  It docked in New York.  Magda was eventually to end up there, but not yet, and, with the idea of America, the land of the free, in her mind, she longed to disembark, but knew that she couldn’t.  Then, bizarrely, her father came to visit them – and just moaned that New York was full of crime.

The book ended with their arrival in Cuba.  I’d like to have known more, about how they got on in Cuba, and about how she eventually ended up in New York, but it was a positive ending.  They’d survived.  A new life lay ahead.   And she’d thought her story didn’t deserve to be told.  It did.  It really, really did.

The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler

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This is an uncomfortable book to read, but so are most of Richard Zimler’s books. It shows how a circle of friends in 1930s Berlin are targeted by the Nazis because one is severely autistic, one has giantism, two have dwarfism and some are Jewish.  We also see former communists rushing to cover up their political pasts and present themselves and their families as Nazis.  Quite a lot of the plot is centred on the Nazi policy of forced sterilisation, and it does focus the reader’s mind on the persecution of groups of people whose treatment has not always been given as much attention as it should have been.

It’s supposed to be the fourth (and final) book in the Zarco series, but, although one of the main characters is a descendant of the other Zarcos and there are various references to the Kabbalistic mysticism of the other books, there isn’t really much of a link. The Zarco books are essentially connected with Portugal, and Portugal doesn’t feature in this one at all.  It also involves a relationship between a teenage girl and an elderly man, and there’s a murder mystery mixed up in it all as well.

Richard Zimler’s books are quite weird generally, and this one’s actually considerably less weird than the second and third Zarco books!   Part of it reads a bit like a Judy Blume book about a girl’s issues with school and boyfriends and hairstyles, and then there’s all this absolutely horrific stuff about what the Nazis did to her friends.  It does a good job of portraying the huge contrast between the culture of Berlin in the early 1930s – think Cabaret – and what came next, as seen through the eyes of Sophie, who links all the other characters together, and of the horrors of the Nazi era and how it tore apart the lives of people who were just minding their own business.

I have to say that I preferred the three earlier books in the series, but that’s probably just because Nazi Germany isn’t particularly “my” subject. This one’s worth reading because there are very few novels, or books in general, about the groups of people represented by some of the characters in this book – Hansi, the boy taken to hospital for TB treatment and gassed to death because he was classed as mentally disabled, Heidi, the female dwarf who was forcibly sterilised without her knowledge whilst being treated for a miscarriage, and Vera, the giantess who was forced to attend a medical appointment where an abortion was performed on her and she was then forcibly sterilised. There were also many other groups of people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and their stories need to be told.  It’s happening, but, even now, it’s only happening gradually.

Hitler’s Holocaust Railways with Chris Tarrant – Channel 5

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It’s a horrible irony that railways, once the ultimate symbol of human progress, were a sine qua non of the Nazi atrocities. Chris Tarrant’s said that he had nightmares after visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t, but it was certainly a very disturbing experience. When you’re there, you can see the railway lines which brought over a million people there from across Nazi-occupied Europe. Without the railways, it would have been almost impossible for the Nazis to have carried out mass murder on the almost unimaginable scale that took place. This programme saw Chris, in a journey through Poland, the Czech Republic and Poland, explore various aspects of what the Nazis did, and the role that the railways played in that.

There are a lot of historical railway programmes around these days. Most of them have quite a romantic feel to them. This one was chilling. It was cleverly done, with a long railway journey taking in various different places and tied in with the timeline of events.  And it was good that it didn’t just focus on the death camps – because some Holocaust programmes do do that, and it’s important to remember that many people either died in ghettoes, because of the conditions there, or were killed close to their homes, whether at large scale killing sites like Babyn Yar or in woodlands near isolated villages.

The programme began in Nuremberg. I’ve been to various places in Germany and very much liked most of them – I have particular soft spots for Cologne/Koln and Oberammergau – but I did get the creeps a bit in Nuremberg, so I was interested to hear Chris say that he found it unsettling as well. The Nazis held annual rallies there from 1923 to 1938, the infamous Nuremberg Rallies. Thousands of people attended them – and they travelled there by train. Those huge propaganda events could not have taken place without the railways, and Chris visited the main station where people would have arrived, and followed their tracks along the local line taking them to the area, now a sports field, where the rallies were held. The Nazis had it all very well organised. Chris said that he wouldn’t like to be there after dark. I’m not surprised.

From there, he travelled on through the Sudetenland, talking about how the railways made it possible for the Nazis to get their troops to all the countries they invaded. Movement of troops by rail’s been important since the mid-19th century, so it’s hardly something specific to the Nazis, but it was still a valid point. He was openly critical of the Munich Agreement, but that’s another story.

On to Prague – and this was one part of the programme which showed how the railways had been used for good, as we heard about the wonderful work done by Doreen Warriner and Nicholas Winton in helping refugees to leave what was then Czechoslovakia. Chris spoke to an elderly Jewish lady who, aged 12, had come to Britain on the Kindertransport. It was very moving hearing about how the children had been separated from their parents – although this lady’s family had eventually been reunited, and had all survived – but at least some lives, around 10,000 in all, were saved.

He then met another elderly Jewish lady, who’d been in the ghetto/camp at … the programme referred to it by its Czech name, Terezin, but I’d’ve thought it was better known by its German name, Theresienstadt. She travelled with him on the train journey, and went round the remains of the camp with him. Again, it needs to be remembered that many victims of the Holocaust died at sites other than death camps: around 33,000 people died at Theresienstadt. This lady, who later became an artist, had drawn pictures depicting her time there. One thing she hadn’t drawn, but bravely spoke about, was seeing a group of young boys hanged because they’d tried to send letters to the women’s part of the camp, to tell their mothers than they were OK.

Thousands of people were deported by train to Theresienstadt – and then the railway line was extended right into the camp, to facilitate the deporting of people from the camp to mass execution sites further east, and then, as the plans for the Final Solution were put into practice, to Auschwitz.

The pictures of those overcrowded trains, from all over Nazi-occupied Europe, carrying people to the extermination camps, are very familiar. Chris, as he travelled on to Berlin, touched on the subject of complicity. How much did people know?   He visited the site, now a memorial, from which deportations from Berlin to the death camps took place. Those being deported were made to pay for their own transport. And he travelled on one of the railway lines along which those trains travelled. It’s a sort of heritage railway now. People go for nice days out on it, like we might go on the East Lancashire Railway or the North York Moors Railway. As he said, they’ve probably got no idea of its history.

Into Poland – and his first stop there was at Gniezno. It’s supposed to have been the first ever capital of Poland. During the war, the Nazis operated a huge railway building yard there. They forced 150,000 prisoners to work on the railways, something that’s not often mentioned.

As Chris said, additional trains were needed because of the invasion of the Soviet Union – but, infuriatingly, he kept referring to it as “Russia”. It is very, very annoying when people do that, and, given the number of people killed by the Nazis in Ukraine and Belarus, it’s particularly annoying when people do it when talking about the Second World War. Whilst I’m having a moan, he also completely mispronounced the name of his next stop, Lodz, over and over again. The researchers should have checked that. Gah!

And he didn’t mention that it was a textile city. Well, I would have done. I’ve seen the sites of the Warsaw and Krakow ghettoes, and those in Vilnius and Riga, but I haven’t been to Lodz … but it always strikes a particular chord with me because it was a textile city, and referred to “Polski Manchester”. Anyway. Like all the major ghettoes, it was close to a railway station: people were brought there from many other places. The sites were chosen largely for that reason. Had Auschwitz, Oswiecim, not been close to a major railway junction, it’d just be a quiet Polish town which most people would never have heard of.

He travelled through the site of the old ghetto on a local tram, and pointed out the former Gestapo HQ, now a pharmacy. OK, I suppose they have to use the buildings for something, but … imagine going into a shop and knowing that it used to be a Gestapo HQ. Ugh. Once there, he met up with 89-year-old Arek Hersh, from Leeds, who, as an 11-year-old boy, was forced by the Nazis to work on the railways, taking away the bodies of men who’d dropped dead from overwork and starvation, and had later escaped from the Lodz ghetto before ending up back there and being taken to Auschwitz. He accompanied Chris for most of the rest of the programme.

The programme showed the Jewish cemetery in Lodz. In addition to the many graves of people who’d died in the ghetto, there were plaques commemorating those who’d been killed at Chelmno. Confusingly, whilst Terezin is better known by its German name, Chelmno is usually referred to by its Polish name, but the programme used its German name, Kulmhof. Oh well, the name doesn’t really matter that much. It was a kind of stately home and surrounding estate, out in the forest, which the Nazis took over and turned into a death camp. People, mostly from Lodz, were brought by train to the nearest railway station, and then taken to the camp by lorry. And it was the experimental death camp. They had mobile death vans. They probably looked a bit like ice cream vans or delivery vans or mobile libraries or whatever, but people were locked into them and poison gas from the exhausts diverted inside. Another step towards the establishment of the gas chambers.

And from there to Auschwitz, where, as I said, you can still see the railway lines which brought all those people there, most of them to their deaths.   There’s no way that all those people, or the building materials and supplies used there, could have been taken there without the railways. It’s so horrible that the railways, the wonderful, romantic railways which enabled people and goods to travel far and wide, which we associate with everything from The Railway Children to Brief Encounter to Harry Potter, with all those lovely heritage railway lines which you can travel on, with the incredible scenic railway trips which you can go on in Switzerland or Canada or India or the Scottish Highlands or any one of umpteen other places, with those really famous trains like the Trans-Siberian Express and the Orient Express, were used like that.

Arek Hersh showed Chris around Auschwitz, so to speak, and explained what conditions there had been like. Then Chris went alone to see the gas chambers. It was a really lovely sunny day, without a cloud in the clear blue sky. It was like that the day I went to Auschwitz, as well. It felt all wrong, somehow, as if it should have been snowing.

Chris spoke movingly about six million people having been killed in the Holocaust. I don’t like to criticise on a point like this, and it is a very sensitive and difficult subject to address – but no. No-one really knows how many people were killed in the Holocaust, but some estimates put the number as high as seventeen million. Certainly at least eleven million. It’s a difficult area, and it’s something that has unfortunately been exploited by far right elements in Poland, who claim that the killing of non-Jewish Poles is overlooked. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Many people who were not Jewish were also murdered by the Nazis – Roma and Sinti people (many of whom were killed at Auschwitz or Chelmno), Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Serbs, and people from Germany and elsewhere because of their political or religious convictions, or because they were gay, or because they had physical or mental disabilities. I really don’t like to criticise on such a sensitive subject, but the programme could have made that clear.

Arek Hersh told Chris about how he’d been taken on one of the death marches, in the snow, with temperatures 25 degrees C below freezing, as Red Army approached and the Nazis evacuated the camp. He’d been moved from camp to camp – and then taken on one last railway journey, on a coal train, to Theresienstadt. He was liberated by the Soviets, and was one of the “Windermere Boys”, the 300 young Holocaust survivors brought Windermere to recuperate. Windermere, to where, from the 1840s, where trains have carried so many people from industrial parts of Northern England to spend some time in the most beautiful part of England. Most historical railway programmes are about romance and beauty. It sounds daft, when you think how mucky steam trains can be, but it’s true. This one was anything but.

It was very well put together, and it explained different aspects and different stages of the Nazi atrocities very clearly. Chris was obviously moved by what he saw, and it must have been difficult for the three people he spoke to to discuss their experiences, but it was done sensitively without ever being lecturing or over-emotive.  A good job done on a very difficult subject.

Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust by Toby Sonneman

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Earlier this month, the Italian government announced plans to carry out a census of Roma people.   Last week, an attack on a Roma camp in Lviv left one person dead and several others injured; and it wasn’t the first attack on a Roma camp in Ukraine recently.  The president of the Czech Republic has described Roma people as “asocial”.  There’s also been “ethnic cleansing” of Roma people in Kosovo – an area much in the news this week, for rather bizarre reasons relating to Swiss footballers – due to allegations that they sided with Serbia during the Kosovo conflict of the 1990s.  Stalin used false allegations of siding with the enemy to deport thousands of Chechens and Crimean Tatars from their homes.

A lot of Nazi-related terminology is being used lately, in relation to everything from American immigration policies to the World Cup.  Some of it isn’t being used appropriately, but the Italian government’s plans, in particular, do have worrying connotations of what happened during the 1930s and the Second World War.

It’s not known how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, but estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials, and, despite the designation of August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day, the Romani genocide is not widely discussed and maybe not even widely known..

There doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as might be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  The only two books I’ve found on it in English are And The Violins Stopped Playing, which I read earlier this year, and this one.  And The Violins Stopped Playing was a memoir, written in the form of a novel, given to a non-Romani third party to publish on the author’s behalf.  This one is written by an American Jewish woman whose German Jewish father escaped from Nazi Germany, and who says that she had always felt an affinity with gypsies (she used the term “gypsies” in the book, published when that term was still widely used) because of the Holocaust, in which many members of her family were killed.

So neither of them are “direct” memoirs as such, but, in writing this, Toby Sonneman worked closely with Reili Mettbach Herchmer, a Sinti woman who’d moved from Germany to America, and some of her relatives, most of them living in Germany, who told of the horrors they’d experienced under the Nazi regime.   It’s not a very well-written book, it has to be said.  The grammar and syntax leave rather a lot to be desired, and it jumps about a lot.  However, what is has to say is important.

For a start, it explains clearly the difference between Roma and Sinti culture, which very few books do.  There have been Sinti communities in central and northern Europe for many centuries.  Roma communities lived mainly in southern and eastern Europe – many in the Danubian Principalities (that’s me using the term I’m used to from reading a lot of Russian history!  The areas that are now, roughly speaking, Romania and Moldova), where it was legal to hold Roma people as slaves until 1856 – until the 19th century, when some groups moved into other areas.  When I was a kid, gypsy (the term we used then) ladies would sometimes knock on the door, selling pretty lace or clothes pegs: I didn’t know until this week that that is a Sinti “thing” only, and it would be very unusual for a Roma lady to do that.  So that’s all quite interesting to read.  It’s so easy to lump cultures and traditions together – the author uses the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish cultures and traditions as a comparison.

However, the book is about the Romani genocide – I’m not going to say “Porajamos” because that term isn’t generally used by Sinti and Roma people – and not about culture and tradition.  A textbook would start with something scholarly.  This starts with strudel.  Reili, who like Toby’s father was from Bavaria, welcomed Toby to her home with platefuls of strudel.  A relative of mine always used to make strudel when we went to visit her.  Did the recipe come from her grandma, who was born in Austria?  I don’t know, and, seeing as she’s been gone for nearly twenty years, I can’t really ask her now, but Toby Sonneman made such a good point about how it’s recipes that get passed down through the generations.

Some people emigrate because they’ve been offered good jobs in another country.  However, historically as now, most people have emigrated to escape poverty and or persecution, and have taken very little with them but the clothes on their backs – but they’ve been able to take recipes, in their heads.  A couple of generations down the line, the descendants of those immigrants don’t speak their language, and, in many cases, don’t dress like them, or follow their cultural or religious practices, but the food tends to live on.  And spread.  Manchester’s Curry Mile, the Birmingham baltis, the Scouse (originally lobscouse) brought to Liverpool from the ports of the Baltic, the New York bagel, the ice cream vans that bear Italian surnames, the Swiss origins of the lovely cakes you get in Bettys … and, if you believe the story, the original recipes for fish and chips were brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  There are a million and one other examples: being a very greedy person, I could write about food all day.

I know it seems a strange thing to pick up on, when writing about a book about genocide, but it is very true that food tends to survive everything.  Toby Sonneman said that recipes were the nearest thing that her family had to heirlooms.  The same could probably have been said about Reili Mettbach Herchmer’s family.  It’s an interesting thought.

Another point she made was that the Romani genocide doesn’t have a “face” in the way that the Jewish Holocaust has Anne Frank.  It’s horrible to think of someone as being the “face” of a genocide, or of any other form of horror and persecution.  There was a lot of talk in April, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, of Stephen being the face and the personification of the horrors of racism in the UK.  The famous picture, in September 2015, of the dead body of little Alan Kurdi focused attention on the Syrian migrant crisis.  I’ll never forget the faces of Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, the two young lads killed by the IRA bombing in Warrington in 1993.  No-one’s legacy should be that, to personify and symbolise such horror – but it is so very true that it’s the personal accounts, and the faces, that really bring it home to people just what has been done.  All those shoes, and false teeth, that you see in the museum at Auschwitz, all of which once belonged to someone.  And that’s why personal accounts are so important.  They do a lot of things that all the scholarly works in the world can’t.

A lot of Holocaust memoirs have been published, even if not by Roma and Sinti survivors, and that means that a lot of what’s in this book is tragically familiar – the introduction of laws persecuting particular groups of people, the taking of people to concentration camps, the experiments carried out by Josef Mengele and others, the question of whether or not those living close to the concentration camps – Dachau is very close to residential areas outside Munich, where many of the Mettbach family lived – knew what was going on, the horrific conditions in the concentration camps, and, of course, the gas chambers.  But every personal story is that little bit different, every experience is that little bit different.  And it is personal – and personal accounts are what really brings it home to the reader.

There’s also a lot in this book about forced sterilisation.  That isn’t really addressed in And The Violins Stopped Playing, and it’s not generally addressed in the memoirs of Jewish survivors because it was Roma and Sinti people who were the target.  The idea of the Final Solution would have meant that forced sterilisation of Jewish people was pointless, because they wouldn’t live to have children, but there seems to have been some idea of … a postponed genocide, for lack of a better way of putting it, by preventing Roma and Sinti people from being able to have children.  Former soldiers were even given a choice of going to the gas chambers or being sterilised and then released.  There are some graphic and very distressing descriptions of what was done to Reili’s relatives, both male and female, some as children, some as adults.

This has never been spoken about much until recently, because of cultural taboos, but it should be noted that forced sterilisation of Romani people was carried out in the 20th century in a number of countries, including Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, the last places you’d associate with that sort of policy.  It was particularly common in Czechoslovakia, and then in the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the country split into two, and was going on as late as 2003 or 2004 – yes, 2004.  An online petition was launched earlier this year to demand compensation for those affected: this is not something that’s just part of the past, this is something that’s affecting people to this very day.

This isn’t the world’s greatest book, but it’s an important reminder of something horrific, that happened within living memory, that is still not spoken about very much.  And can you imagine the headlines, and the international outrage if the Italian interior minister announced plans to carry out a census of any other community?   But next to nothing’s been said about this.  It’s horrible.  It’s frightening.  A lot of unpleasant stuff is going on in Europe and in the United States at the moment, but this is arguably the worst of it.  This isn’t a great book, but it would be great for people to read it.