The Bird Catcher


Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  This isn’t a particularly good Holocaust film, or a particularly good film at all, but it deserves credit for telling one of the many lesser-known Holocaust stories.  It seems as if every month there’s another new book called The X of Auschwitz or The Y of Auschwitz.  I’m not for a moment criticising those books, but there’s a lot of focus on the death camps, and on what happened in certain countries; and there are other stories to be told as well.

The beautiful, historical Norwegian city of Trondheim is probably one of the last places in mainland Europe which you’d associate with the Holocaust, but it was occupied by the Nazis for five years.  In the October of 1942, it was placed under martial law.  Dozens of people were arrested and executed, and the entire Jewish population of the town rounded up.  In this film, our heroine Esther rather improbably escapes, and ends up disguised as a boy and working on a farm run by Nazi sympathisers … before blurting out her true identity in a sauna full of naked Norwegian Nazis (honestly), and escaping by sledge across a frozen lake to Sweden.  As I said, it’s not the greatest film ever, and the story’s more than a bit unconvincing, but it does draw attention to the little-told story of the Holocaust in Norway.

The relationship between Esther, or, as she calls herself, Ola, and the family on the farm is complex.  She’s originally taken there by the son of the family, Axsel, who’s got cerebral palsy.  Axsel and Esther form a close bond.  Axsel’s father, Johann, sees Ola/Esther as the strong son he always wanted … apparently not noticing that she’s actually a girl, even though they’re in close physical proximity for a lot of the time.  Johann’s wife Anna is having an affair with a Nazi officer, but, when she finds out who Esther really is, is quite sympathetic towards her – and, at the end of the film, when Esther returns to Trondheim and Anna is there, being spat at by locals as a Nazi sympathiser, Esther shows her sympathy in return.

The Nazis are around all the time – the German Nazis, and also the members of the Norwegian far right party led by Vidkun Quisling.  There’s no mention of the Resistance.  There’s no mention of anyone helping Jews to escape: Norway didn’t see the mass rescue that Denmark did, but about two-thirds of Norwegian Jews were still able to leave.  Nobody’s wearing paper clips attached to their clothes.  There’s no mention of Telavag, the town destroyed by the Nazis in a horrific atrocity which saw all the men either executed or sent to a concentration camp and all the women and children imprisoned.  There’s certainly no reference to the brave Norwegians who sailed from Bergen to Scotland in little boats, to be trained by British forces and return as saboteurs.

That’s very unusual for a story set in wartime Norway: the extent to which there was collaboration is still controversial, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the film to show so many characters as being pro-Nazi, with barely a mention of any who weren’t.  It’d be interesting to know how this film was received in Norway, if it’s been shown there.

To get back to the story, after the bit with the naked Nazis in the sauna, Esther and Axsel flee together but, sadly, the ice cracks and Axsel drowns.  Esther makes it to Sweden, survives, and returns to Norway after the war.  You do wonder why, if neutral Sweden was so close, she didn’t try to escape across the border sooner.  But a lot of things about this film don’t bear up to too much scrutiny.  The best thing about it is all the glorious shots of snowy Norwegian scenery.  But, as I said, it does show one of the many little-known stories of the Holocaust.  There are a lot of them.


My Family, the Holocaust and Me, episode 2 – BBC 1


I think part of the idea behind this series was to show that the events of the Holocaust, whilst they were 75/80 years ago, are still having a big impact on perfectly ordinary British people leading perfectly ordinary lives; and it got that across very well.  The lady whose family were arrested by the Nazis only a few hundred yards from the safety of the Swiss border, near the ironically idyllic setting of Annecy – it sounded like a story from a book or a film, but it was real life – spent her teenage years in Manchester and went to my old school, so that was certainly pretty close to home for me.  We also saw Bernie Graham, who featured in the first episode, and Robert Rinder’s mum Angela Cohen saying memorial prayers for uncles and aunties who’d been killed in concentration camps, and being overcome with emotion: these were immediate relatives whom they should have known and loved and who should have played a big part in their lives.  

And we saw Robert and Angela meeting Leon Ritz, the last survivor of Treblinka, and hear him saying that anger wouldn’t do any good and that you had to look to the future.  Finally, we heard Robert say that he’d feared Treblinka would rob him of his optimism, but that he was still able to feel hopeful.   

These two programmes really were very well done.  Personal history programmes can sometimes be more effective than ordinary documentaries, and these were a prime example of that.

We learnt last week that Bernie had always been told that his young uncle had taken his own life in Dachau.  This week, we learnt that that wasn’t the case: he’d died in the terrible conditions there.  At that point, the ashes of Dachau victims were being sent to their friends and relatives, and so there was a grave for Bernie to visit, in Frankfurt where his uncle had come from.  He was able to say the Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, there, as Angela was for her aunts and uncles at Treblinka, and it clearly meant a lot to both of them and to Robert … but so, so distressing.

The mum of Noemie Lopian, the lady from Manchester, who’s still alive and whom we met later on in the programme, had been a young child in France during the war.  She and her siblings had been sent away by their desperate parents, in the hope that the Resistance could get them into Switzerland.  They’d been part of a group of 32 children accompanied by young Jewish French Resistance member Marianne Cohn.  Only a few hundred yards from the border, they were arrested and imprisoned in the border town of Annemasse.  We saw Noemie actually visit the prison where they’d been held.

Marianne, who’d already saved the lives of many children by getting them into Switzerland, was raped, tortured and murdered.   The children were eventually freed, due to the intervention of the local mayor, and were helped to escape to Switzerland.  Noemie’s grandparents survived in hiding, and were later reunited with their children.  So that was a positive story, but, as she said, her mum had been through a horrific ordeal, and she felt that hearing the detail and seeing where it had happened gave a new dimension to her feelings for her.  

It really was a very emotional programme, all in a very natural way about very unnatural events.  I don’t always have a lot of praise for the BBC these days, but well done to them and to Robert Rinder and everyone else involved.  These two programmes were superb.


My Family, the Holocaust and Me – BBC 1


Family history programmes are becoming increasingly popular, and they do work very well: they personalise and humanise history in a way that text books and ordinary documentaries can’t do, especially when talking about the murder of millions of ordinary people.  Many Holocaust survivors, and Second World War veterans, went to their graves without talking about what had happened: there was so much that the people in this programme didn’t know about their own grandparents and great aunts/uncles.

A lot of Holocaust programmes only focus on the death camps.  That’s understandable, but it means that other aspects of what happened are overlooked.  This programme didn’t: we did hear about the horrors of the camps, but we also saw Robert “Judge” Rinder visiting the site of an Einsatzgruppen massacre on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, and we saw Louisa Clein (Maya in Emmerdale) and her sister Natalie looking into their grandmother’s involvement in the Dutch resistance, and how she gave her children up to foster parents for their own safety.  And it really was very well done.

The mass grave where hundreds of people, including some of Robert Rinder’s relatives, were buried, some of them still alive, is still there.  There’s something particularly sad about those little villages.  I’ve been to Babi Yar/Babyn Yar, but so many of the Einsatzgruppen massacres took place in little villages, or in forests, and nobody goes to visit the sites: how many people go to visit small villages on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border?  And that way of life, going back to the Middle Ages, was wiped out for good: communities in cities were to some extent rebuilt, but not those in villages.

This is highly recommended, and there’s another episode next week, which I’ll certainly watch.

We had three family stories in this.  Robert Rinder himself was looking into the history of some relatives on his father’s side.  His maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, but his paternal grandfather, who featured in the programme but sadly died with coronavirus earlier this year, was a Cockney born and bred.  However, some of his relatives died in … ah, the wonders of Eastern European moving borders.  It was part of Russian-ruled Lithuania, which was in Poland in the inter-war years, and was then split between Lithuania and Belarus, even though most of the surviving population’s Polish … so the village where they actually lived is now in Lithuania, and the village 20 miles or so away, where they were murdered, is in Belarus.  He was able to speak to an elderly lady who actually remembered the massacre, remembered hearing the screams.  She talked about how the ground was still moving as they covered it up: people were still alive.  And the grave’s there – and it’s huge.  So many people, just gunned down.

We also saw a man called Bernie Graham visit Frankfurt, where his grandparents had come from.  His grandfather had survived, and been reunited with Bernie’s mum, who’d come to England on the Kindertransport: his grandmother hadn’t.  He’d never been to Germany before, because he’d felt uncomfortable about it. There’d been some sort of family rumour that his grandmother had died after the liberation of Auschwitz, but she hadn’t: she’d died in Sobibor.  He heard her story, and he also heard about the brutality suffered by his grandfather.  His grandfather had lost an eye, and he’d often said about how that was down to the Nazis, but hadn’t talked any more about it.

Bernie, named after an uncle who’d taken his own life in Dachau, said that he felt that he’d been born into a state of bereavement: his friends would talk about their grandmas and aunties and uncles, and he didn’t have any.

And we saw Louisa Clein and her sister Natalie visiting Amsterdam, to learn about their grandmother, and her sister who hadn’t survived.  The grandmother’s story was not what you’d expect at all: she’d been involved with the Dutch resistance.  They knew that, because she’d received a certificate from Eisenhower after the war, but they didn’t know the detail, and they heard about how she’d helped Allied airmen to escape, which was fascinating.  And she’d given her children up to foster parents, and that saved their lives.

But her sister had died.  She’d been taken to a transit camp in Westerbork after refusing to wear an “S” symbol, and then deported to Sobibor, where she’d been killed.  They were able to speak to a man whose father had been this great-aunt’s boyfriend, and had actually gone to Germany to try to find her after she’d been deported.  There was a system whereby some Dutch Jews were sent to another place in the Netherlands, at Barveneld, where they were able to live relatively normal lives and she’d have stood a good chance of survival.  Having been a teacher, she was considered important enough to be put on this list – but the news came one day too late.  She’d been deported the day before.  You couldn’t make it up.  So sad.

They said that they’d known very little about her: their grandmother didn’t talk about her.  And that now they felt that at least they knew about her life, and what she was like.  And that was what this programme was really doing: it was taking individuals, it was humanising the worst period of human history.  This was their grandma’s sister, a teacher, a dancer, someone who was stubborn enough to refuse to wear an “S”, who had a boyfriend who was so devoted to her that he went into Nazi Germany to try to find her, and at least now they knew all that.  It was very powerful.

This really was an excellent hour’s TV.  Not everyone feels comfortable watching programmes like this, but they are very well worth watching.

After the War: from Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer


There was a lot of praise earlier this year for BBC 2’s The Windermere Children , about a group of young Holocaust survivors who were brought to the Calgarth Estate on the shores of Windermere to begin rebuilding their lives.  This book covers the same subject, but it’s aimed at children in the Juniors/Key Stage 2.  It’s a difficult theme to tackle in an age appropriate way, but the author’s done an excellent job of it.

Most of the adult characters in the book were real people; but the three main characters, the protagonist Yossi and his friends Leo and Mordecai, are fictional, although their experiences are based closely on those of the real Windermere Children.  As with No Ballet Shoes in Syria , the story of Yossi’s experiences in his (unnamed) home city in Poland and in the concentration camps is told through a series of flashbacks as particular incidents trigger memories, which I think works well for this sort of book.  Whilst it doesn’t actually talk about gas chambers, it does mention ashes, and it doesn’t shy away from showing shootings and beatings, and telling us that the boys’ relatives have been murdered.  But there has to be a balance between getting that message across and not upsetting young children too much: this way, readers know from the start that at least Yossi and his friends survive, and that they’re now in a place of safety.

We also see how they do begin to rebuild their lives, thanks to the wonderful care provided at the Calgarth Estate – physically, with nutritious food and exercise, emotionally, and practically as they learn English and consider what they might do when it’s time to move on.  The author’s from Leeds and there’s a very strong Leodensian bias, with representatives of the Leeds Jewish community visiting the estate and our three boys eventually deciding to move to Leeds.  I’d have made it Manchester 🙂 , and the word “London” is never even mentioned, but, OK, the point is that they’re moving to somewhere where they’ve been told that they’ll be welcome!  Another key point is that they’re moving there together.  They’ve lost all their relatives, and the communities in which they grew up have been pretty much wiped out, but they’ve got each other now; and that does come across very well.

The author’s put a huge amount of effort into this.  He’s visited not only Windermere but also Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, spoken to representatives of Holocaust-related charities and people who grew up in the Calgarth Estate area, and interviewed some of the surviving Windermere Children.  That’s a lot of work for a 176-page book for children, and it shows how much he wanted to handle a sensitive subject well.  And he has done.

My only real quibble with it was that none of the main characters were girls.  To be fair to the author, nearly all the Windermere Children were boys, but I think it would have been nice, especially with an eye to appealing to female readers as well as male readers, to have had some female input.  Having said which, most of the adult characters were female, and there was also a sub-plot involving the book, her husband and their young daughter waiting anxiously to see if their son/brother had survived the war in the Far East.  It’s the son’s safe return, and reunion with his family, which makes Yossi accept that, despite the Red Cross’s best efforts, none of his own family are going to be found: they’ve all gone, even his father, whom he hoped might have survived..

A lot of the themes will be familiar to people who watched the BBC 2 programme – the children being scared to sleep in a room on their own, the grabbing and hoarding food because they couldn’t process the fact that they weren’t going to go hungry again, the sports, the lessons, and the riding bikes without proper clothes. They’re all described very effectively, bearing in mind the target age group.  The flashbacks are dealt with very sensitively.  They are going to be upsetting for children to read, and children are going to ask parents or teachers why this happened; but that’s something that’s necessary.

We also see how Mordecai has a strong religious faith, but Yossi hasn’t: he’s lost that.  At one point, he does actually despair, and wonders why he’s even going on at all, what the point is.  That’s quite a powerful scene, when he remembers his father talking about how the Nazis wanted to dehumanise them and how the only way they can fight back against that is to keep whatever vestiges of civilised behaviour they can, even if it’s only washing their faces, and his mother, as she and her sisters went off to their deaths, telling him that he had to survive.

It’s also made very clear that they are going to be OK now.  The TV programme showed that there was some hostility towards, or at least mockery of, them from some local lads who didn’t understand what they’d been through.  That doesn’t happen here, but I think that’s due to the need for the young reader to see that the boys are safe and being made welcome.  It was a minority view anyway.  We do, however, at one point see the boys splitting into factions, largely along lines of nationality of origin, and fights breaking out, but then we see them all reuniting … to burn an effigy of Hitler.

And we’re told that Leo did return briefly to Poland, but was told in no uncertain times that he wasn’t welcome there.  This would have been twelve months or so before Kielce, so it wasn’t getting at that, but … well, this is a difficult subject, and it’s come to the fore in recent years, especially given the current regime in Poland.  I thought it was quite interesting that that was included.

Going back to Poland is never really an option.  Leo considers going to what was then Mandatory Palestine, but in the end the three friends agree to stick together, and that’s the positive ending, if not exactly a happy ending.  They’re moving on, and they’ve got each other.

Historical fiction is a very good, and underrated, way of both learning and teaching about history, and I think that this is an excellent book for enabling children of the target reading audience to understand about the Holocaust, without overfacing them with too much horror.  Highly recommended.



Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel – BBC 2


After this programme, David Baddiel tweeted that someone had shared a quote with him – “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (James Baldwin).  Confronting Holocaust denial is a horrifically difficult subject, for historians and for everyone else.  Should these people be allowed to spew their poison, especially on prime time TV, and should what they say be dignified by listening to it and responding to it?  It must have been very hard for David Baddiel, whose own grandparents had to flee Nazi Germany, to listen to a Holocaust denier, even to be in the same room as him.  But these people are out there, and what they say is out there, and ignoring them isn’t going to change that.

I was expecting this to be mostly about the “hardcore deniers” who claim that the whole thing was a hoax; but it showed that there are a lot of facets and layers to Holocaust denial, and just what a complex issue it is. It wasn’t the best-made programme I’ve ever seen, because it jumped about a lot, but it made some extremely important points. It only went so far, though. There were roads it only went a little way down, because it would just have been too dangerous to publicise some of what’s being said, on a mainstream TV channel. But it’s out there, especially on the internet where it’s very difficult to deal with; and it was brave of David Baddiel to take it on.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there

Even the most accepting of people must sometimes have wondered for whom Lee Harvey Oswald was really working, or whether the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was really an accident. Every time a popular website or social media platform experiences technical problems, you can guarantee that someone’ll claim that it’s due to dark forces sponsored by the government of AN country they don’t like. Every time there’s an election, some sore losers who are disappointed by the result claim foul play. It ranges from the history-changing to the treatment of fiction as fact to the plain silly.  Did Roosevelt know in advance that the Japanese were planning to attack Pearl Harbour? Has there been a 2,000 year cover-up over the Holy Grail meaning a bloodline rather than a cup? Is Elvis Presley alive and well and running a chip shop?

OK, lose the chip shop idea, and accept that works of fiction are just fiction, but, quite seriously, and very frighteningly, it’s not that hard for a manipulative person or group of people to put forward a plausible-sounding argument and persuade others to their way of thinking.  In a lot of ways, that’s just what the Nazis did.  Ironically, as David pointed out, the Holocaust is one of the best-documented events (for lack of a better word) in history.  All those records at the concentration camps.  All the testimonies and memoirs of survivors, and of the Allied troops who liberated the camps.  The Nazi propaganda.

The Nazis tried to cover up what they’d done

And yet, as David said, the starting point for Holocaust denial was that the Nazis tried to cover it up.  He visited the site of the concentration camp at Chelmno,  which was purely a death camp.  There were no survivors.  The bodies were burned, then dissolved using napalm and acid, and the bones were made into fertiliser … it’s so horrific that it’s hard to take in, which is another problem.  Why did the Nazis want to cover up something which, to their mindset, was a great achievement?  And how did they think they could?  How did they think people would account for the fact that millions of human beings had disappeared?   This wasn’t when the war was clearly lost, when they were afraid of what the Allies would do to those who’d been involved in the worst atrocities in human history.  This was earlier on.  No real explanation could be given – but the point was that this was the start of Holocaust denial, by the very people who perpetrated the Holocaust.

Softcore denial – existing hatreds, and a lot to take in

So that was the cover-up approach. I don’t know how relevant that is, though. Plenty of things have been covered up, but the Holocaust is not one of them. More relevant is the “softcore denial”- and there are so many different strands to this. And this also started early on, with Allied governments not wanting to release too much information about the reports coming out of Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied states. Part of that was because they weren’t sure that people would believe it. And that is undoubtedly a huge problem. There’s always been persecution. There’ve always been massacres. But it’s very hard to take in something on the scale of the Holocaust, and also the industrial nature of it.

Another issue is that this involved demographic groups who have often been marginalised and the subject of negative stereotypes. David looked at some statistics about Holocaust denial, and I’m pleased to say that the UK had one of the lowest rates, but, even here, the wartime authorities were making some very unpleasant comments about the need to stress that Nazi atrocities were being committed against blameless people – the inference being that Jews might not be seen as blameless. And it’s not just Jews. No Roma or Sinti people appeared as witnesses in the Nuremberg trials. Gay men liberated from the concentration camps, Jewish or otherwise, were sent to civilian prisons to complete their sentences. It’s all fuel to the flames of denial.

Softcore denial and changing the focus of history

It was also suggested that the Holocaust was played down because, as relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union worsened, the focus switched to fighting the Cold War and the need to keep West Germany sweet meant that there was a sense of … well, “Don’t mention the war”. I’m not 100% convinced about that. The immediate post-war ideas of a large-scale de-Nazification programme, which would have taken decades, were abandoned, and the Nuremberg trials were wound down, but I think that that was due more to lack of resources than anything else. It’s worth noting that many countries refuse even to recognise the Armenian genocide for fear of offending Turkey, though.

What is undoubtedly a major issue at the moment, and which led to the president of Poland refusing to attend the commemoration in Jerusalem of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is the approach to wartime history being taken in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe.  Again, there are many strands to this. It’s partly, especially in Poland, a feeling that the emphasis on the Holocaust means that insufficient attention is being paid to other aspects of suffering under the Nazis. I don’t really get that. It’s not a competition. But it’s certainly a big issue in Poland.

It’s also the fact that certain countries, especially former Soviet countries, want to attack the Soviets rather than the Nazis. David travelled to Lithuania, which is notorious for having had a high rate of collaboration with the Nazis. When I went to Lithuania, the local guide was a lady whose grandmother had sheltered Jewish friends and been recognised by Yad Vashem for doing so, so I didn’t experience any sort of “denial” in Lithuania. However, in Latvia, we visited a museum where we were shown a video about Latvia’s experiences during the war, and all it did was go on about how evil the Soviets were. The Nazis were barely mentioned, and the Holocaust was not mentioned at all. Everyone in the group said immediately afterwards how shocked and disgusted they were by it.

The issue David was exploring in Lithuania was the controversy that’s arisen since it came to light that a leading Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan, seen as a national hero, was a collaborator who was directly involved in facilitating the murders of Jews. This is another issue – and the end of the communist era, with its restrictions on what was and wasn’t being taught, means that more and more is coming to light about collaboration. Even in countries where there were pro-Nazi regimes or Nazi puppet regimes, the idea that it was only German Nazis who carried out the Holocaust has been perpetuated. Even Austria’s been recorded as a victim of the Nazis. Obviously no-one’s saying that more than a minority of people collaborated with the Nazis, but it’s proving hard to face up to even that much.

Softcore denial, the people who say that it’s time to move on, and the people who fling the terminology of the Nazi era around in modern politics

Then you’ve got the people who accept what happened, but say that it’s time to stop talking about it and to move on. Is that Holocaust denial? I’ve heard people say that they don’t see why the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War or the 75th anniversary of D-Day should have been commemorated. No-one would call that “war denial”. It’s ignorant, and it’s failing to understand the importance of the lessons of history. Is it denial? It’s a slippery slope, that’s the problem. And it’s usually followed by “Well, we don’t commemorate [any other event of your choice]” – and there we go, downplaying what happened.  And every person – and I see this happening frighteningly often, and it’s something that the BBC itself is guilty of – who compares modern-day politicians whom they dislike to Nazis is effectively a softcore Holocaust denier as well, downplaying what the Nazis did.

Denial and Middle Eastern entanglements

Then came a path that the programme didn’t go down. If I’d thought about it beforehand, I would have expected the highest rates of Holocaust denial to be in … well, it’s not very fair to generalise or to point fingers, but there are certain parts of Central and Eastern Europe which have a long history of anti-Jewish feeling, so I’d have said one of those.  No. It’s in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 82%. Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa too – the Middle East and North Africa, where the King of Morocco heroically refused to deport Moroccan Jews to Vichy France. This is something else: it’s the tangling up of the Holocaust with modern day political issues involving the state of Israel. The programme didn’t continue down this road.  But it’s not just an issue in the Middle East … and, whilst that was evidently adjudged not to be a matter for this programme, maybe it’s one for Panorama.

Hardcore denial, social media, and courtroom trials

I’d been expecting less about this and more about the “hardcore” deniers, but I think the programme got it right. “Softcore denial” is perhaps more dangerous.  So what did it say about the hardcore deniers? Not that much, and I think they must have decided that it would have been too dangerous to say much. There was more about what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to say than what they were actually saying. David met a representative from Facebook, and they discussed the issue of what forms of Holocaust denial are and aren’t banned, and should and shouldn’t be banned. These are very difficult questions. He spoke about a major trial in the 1970s – and the fact that, as much as the person concerned needed to be stopped and decided to be punished, it raised the profile of Holocaust denial. So what do you do?

The most famous Holocaust denial trial is the one in which historian Deborah Lipstadt took on Holocaust denier David Irving. David Baddiel met Deborah Lipstadt and her lawyer Anthony Julius (if you know the name, it’s because he was the divorce lawyer for Diana, Princess of Wales), and Deborah spoke very movingly about how distressed Holocaust survivors had handed her pieces of paper bearing the names of members of their families who’d been killed in the Holocaust. You could certainly see why she felt the need to take Irving on, and to defeat him in court. But, although reference was made to pseudo-science and fake reports, the programme wasn’t able to get to the root of why Irving would have said what he did, because how can you give someone like that airtime?

Meeting a Holocaust denier

David did speak to a Holocaust denier. And he got annoyed with himself, because he got bogged down into arguing with this man, into dignifying his lies with a response. We didn’t see that. We did see the programme making the man look like a complete fool. He was talking utter drivel, claiming that Auschwitz had bakeries and swimming pools. He got his own argument in a twist, saying that there’d been no gas chambers and that the idea had been made up by people who wanted to blame others for not rescuing them from gas chambers, when he’d just said that there were no gas chambers. He then sang a ridiculous song, accompanying himself on his guitar, about there being Mercedes cars parked outside synagogues. He came across as a total idiot. Maybe making fun of liars is the best way to deal with them.

But why was this man saying this? I can understand why a Lithuanian nationalist might not want to accept that a Lithuanian national hero collaborated with the Nazis. I can understand why people in Krakow might feel narky that tourists come to their beautiful city and use it as a base from which to see the most notorious place on earth, Auschwitz-Birkenau. I can understand that Austria wants to think of itself as a victim of the Nazis, even though it welcomed them with open arms in 1938. I understand that certain political groups find it beneficial to whip up hatred against certain demographic groups.

But why would a middle-aged man living in a small town in the Republic of Ireland, a country which was not directly involved in the Second World War and which is home to fewer than 2,000 Jewish people, say that the Holocaust was a hoax? Why would he devote time and energy to posting about it on the internet, to smashing up a TV in public as a protest against Holocaust memorial events, and to making up ridiculous songs about it? (I’m not for a minute having a go at the Republic of Ireland, and nor was David: it’s just where this man happened to be from.)

The explanation seemed to be that it was a form of escapism. It wasn’t political. He’d apparently made some attempt to stand as an independent politician, but we’re not talking about some of the extremist parties in Central and Eastern Europe, which are actually part of the political scene. It was some sort of fantasy world, that he devoted his time to in the way that other people might turn to books or films or TV programmes.  And also that it was anti-consensual: it was someone trying to make out that he was clever because he wasn’t believing what he was being told.  It’s really hard to make sense of that.  I can understand people manipulating history for political reasons.  But this sort of thing is just beyond bizarre.  But it’s out there.

Cranks can be very dangerous … and there are people out there who are far more dangerous

And yet even an idiot who sings about Mercedes cars can operate a website peddling lies, or post lies on social media.  And there are far more dangerous people out there – the likes of David Irving, who write scholarly books about this.  There’s so much rubbish out there.  And there’s no way of controlling it.

Meeting a Holocaust survivor

At the end of the programme, David spoke to a lady who’d survived the Holocaust, and she told him a little about her experiences.  So much detail, even in those few moments.  The evidence, the physical evidence, the evidence of survivors, the evidence of the Allied troops who liberated the camps, the evidence of people who lived near areas where massacres took place.

But you’re dealing with people who don’t want to know the truth, because it doesn’t suit their political ends, and you’re dealing with people who want to live in a crazy fantasy world and think that they can see something that others can’t.   David was able to make this particular guy look like a complete idiot.  Would that it were possible to do that with all the Holocaust deniers out there.

What’s the answer?

I want to say “education”, but that can be a softcore denial tool in itself – to witness, the Latvian museum.  Memorials?  Tighter control over websites?   Keep telling the true stories, I suppose is the best we can do.  And well done to both the BBC (and I don’t often praise the BBC these days) and Channel 4 for an excellent series of programmes to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Keep telling the truth.  It’s all we can do.


Auschwitz Untold: In Colour – More4


On the day I visited Auschwitz, the sky was bright blue.  The red brick of the gas chamber chimney stood out against it, and it was quite striking.  That felt wrong, somehow, as if the sky should have been full of black clouds.  I wasn’t sure that colourising footage of the Holocaust – and, despite the title of the programme, this wasn’t only about Auschwitz, but also about many other aspects of the Holocaust, including the Einsatzgruppen massacres, the ghettoes and the destruction of centuries of culture – would work, but it did.  It also included interviews with sixteen survivors, including a female Jewish resistance fighter who escaped from the Vilnius Ghetto, and a Romani man who spoke about the decimation of his community in France.

A considerable number of TV programmes are being shown to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The BBC are showing “The Windermere Children” tonight, as well as coverage of the actual Holocaust Remembrance Day service in London, and there’s a programme on tomorrow about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  Several Holocaust-related films have also been shown, and special episodes of both Holby City and Songs of Praise have been made.  The specialist history channels have also shown Holocaust-related programmes; and More 4 brought us this, the first in a two-part series.  It’s harrowing stuff, but most people seem to agree that the 75th anniversary needs to be marked on a significant scale, whilst there are still survivors with us to tell their stories first-hand.

I’m not sure what I make of the idea that a younger audience won’t be able to “get” the full horror of the Holocaust unless the footage is in colour, but there’s no denying that colour adds something to historic photographs and film, as with Edwardian Britain in Colour and some of the First World War footage which has been colourised.

I thought the inclusion of footage from several different parts of Europe worked very well, in getting across the scope of what happened. One of the first people interviewed spoke about his childhood in a shtetl in the Carpathians. The deportation of people to ghettoes can create an impression that the Holocaust was all about the destruction of urban populations: the word “shtetl” usually creates a picture of an earlier time.  There had been a lot of emigration from the shtetls to Western countries, or to Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow and other cities, but it was the Holocaust that destroyed that way of life, not urbanisation and not the pogroms.

Another survivor spoke about Lithuania – and a point was made about the armed resistance in the ghettoes. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is familiar, but armed resistance in Vilnius, Krakow, Minsk, Bialystok and Krakow was also mentioned. We were reminded of the Einsatzgruppen massacres – including some very harrowing footage, now colourised, of a mass grave. I know I’m always saying this, but there can be a tendency to focus on the concentration camps at the expense of the massacres carried out in so many places. The people of the Vilnius ghetto were shot outside Vilnius, not deported to Auschwitz.  It was fascinating to hear this lady, who’d been a teenage girl when she escaped from the ghetto, the day before it was liquidated, talk about her experiences as a resistance fighter.  There’s a film about Jewish resistance fighters, Defiance, but it’s not particularly good.  Maybe someone could make a better one.

We also saw pictures of Jewish life in Vilnius before the war. It was such an important cultural centre: the term “Lithuanian Jews” is still used to describe religious people who emphasise the important of studying. About 13% population of Lithuania was Jewish at one time, the highest in the world, and – depending on which books you read! – 50%, 65% or even 75% of the population of Vilnius itself was Jewish. There’s very little left of that culture now. As the programme said, the Nazis aimed to destroy so much historic culture. We were shown colourised footage of Kristallnacht and, 5 years earlier, the book-burnings- the flames colourised in bright orange. They burned books. Then they burned buildings. Then they burned people.

It’s a shame, really, that the title of the programme didn’t make it clear how much this was going to include.  We saw footage of huge German tanks rolling into Poland … and the Polish Army riding out to meet them on horseback, as if it were the Napoleonic Wars.  They didn’t stand a chance.  We also saw a lot of footage of the Lodz ghetto. Lodz, the textile city, the “Polski Manchester”. Dead bodies lying on the ground. Nooses in a row, ahead of a mass public hanging. And hundreds of small children, 4,000 in all, being marched off for deportation to Chelmno, to be gassed to death … the test runs for Auschwitz. Little kids. One survivor, who’d been living in Amsterdam before the war, spoke about how, after his political activist Jewish father was arrested, the Nazis came into his primary school to arrest him. He was 5 years old. His teacher tried to tell them that he was off sick, but they got him anyway. 5 years old.

The shtetls were an Eastern European thing: in Central and Western Europe, it was more of a destruction of an urban population. And such an essential part of every country – in Germany, in Austria, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, everywhere. Think Einstein, Freud, Mahler and, hey, Franz Sacher, the man who created Sachertorte. Budapest even used to be nicknamed “Judapest”. The programme – the title really didn’t explain just how much it encompassed – went back to the time just after the First World War, and explained how Jews were made a scapegoat for defeat, as if they’d been working again their own countries, the countries to which they belonged. It talked about Germany: it could also have talked about Hungary. And then there was everything that went on in the “Ukrainian People’s Republic”.

The programme made the point about what utter rubbish this was.  Two of the survivors spoke about how their fathers had fought in the First World War, one for Germany, one for Austria-Hungary, and how they’d both been decorated. They spoke about the number of Iron Crosses awarded to German-Jewish soldiers. With the shtetls, I think identity tended to be religious. Not just with Jews – in Austrian Galicia, before the First World War, Ukranians seem generally to have identified as “Orthodox” rather than as “Ukrainian” or “Ruthenian”, at least until the late 19th century. But, elsewhere, identity was national, not religious.  And then, as one survivor, deported from Budapest said, thousands of people were marched along the main streets into the ghetto, and other people passed by and didn’t even look at them.

People would have been too scared to do anything.  And there were people who tried to help.  The BBC spoke to a German woman who, as a young girl, along with her mother, provided shelter to a Jewish woman – and they also spoke to the British descendants of the woman they saved.   And, just as an aside, Songs of Praise spoke about the vital work done by British Quakers in organising the Kindertransport. But still.

One of the survivors was a French Romani man, who made it quite clear that it was officials from the Vichy government who arrested and took away most of his relatives and other members of his community.  I’m so glad (if that’s the right word) that the programme included the Romani Holocaust, because it’s not given as much attention as it should be.  We saw pictures of some of the camps in which Romani people were imprisoned – and, of course, many Roma and Sinti people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It also covered the horrible irony of Jews taken to forced labour camps having to build the railway lines which would later be used to help the Nazis to deport people to the death camps, and also to invade the Soviet Union.  Most of those alive now were children at the time.  One lady spoke about clinging to her mother’s hand as they were marched away in Budapest.  One man spoke about how he associated the word “camp” with tents and jolly outdoor eating – until he got to a forced labour camp, where he had to help to build railways, and many of those working alongside threw themselves in front of trains because they couldn’t take it any more.  One lady spoke about asking, shortly after arrival at Auschwitz, when she’d be able to see her mother – and being told that her mother had been gassed to death.  Another spoke about her father putting his hand on her head in blessing, the last time she ever saw him

The juxtaposition of the testimony of the survivors and the colourised footage worked very well.  It doesn’t always work when you’ve got a bit of film and then a bit of talking, and then a bit more film and then a bit more talking, but it did in this case.  It really was a very interesting hour’s TV.  My only quibble is that the title of the programme didn’t show just how much it encompassed – they made a big effort to include aspects of the Holocaust which are not always discussed.  Well done, More4.  This was excellent.


The Children’s Block by Otto B Kraus



This book, based on the author’s real life experiences, is about the “Czech Family Camp” which existed at Auschwitz-Birkenau between September 1943 and July 1944.  When I first started reading it, I was trying, because the first few chapters were written in quite a simplistic style, to work out whether it was aimed at adults or children; and I decided that it had to be aimed at adults because a book for children wouldn’t go into so much detail about the atrocities committed by the Nazis.  Then I remembered reading Judy Blume’s “Starring Sally J Freedman as herself” (which I’d been thinking about only recently, because it came up in a discussion about, bizarrely, party lines on telephones,) which, although it’s set in the safety of post-war Florida, makes repeated references to allegations that the Nazis made lampshades from human skin*, in the context of the Freedman family having lost relatives in the Holocaust. I was still at primary school when I read that.

There wasn’t a lot of Holocaust literature available back then, but there is now, for readers of all ages.  I sometimes think that number of novels set at concentration camps (as opposed to actual memoirs) is possibly beginning to get a little OTT.  I genuinely can’t decide whether having a load of concentration camp novels on a “2 for £8” offer at the supermarket, three days before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is good because the books raise awareness of the subject, or a bit tacky.  Possibly both?

Some of the books are better than others.  This one started slowly, but I was absolutely engrossed in it by the end.  And it’s definitely meant for adults.  Partly because some of the content isn’t for children, and at the same time, because some of the prose in the later chapters is so lyrical.  And some of it goes very deep, as the characters try to make sense of what’s happening, and to make sense of history.

This “Czech family camp” seems to have been established as a sort of show camp in the event of a Red Cross visit being agreed, and to enable prisoners to send letters back to Terezin/Theresienstadt, from where they’d been deported, to dispel reports that being sent to Poland meant being murdered.  The prisoners there were kept in slightly better conditions than those in other blocks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and those in the children’s block got better food, and were allowed lessons and games of sorts.

The camp was liquidated in March 1944, and most of the prisoners were sent to the gas chambers, with most of those who survived the liquidation being sent to the gas chambers a few months later.  Only 1,294 of the 17,517 (figures from Wikipedia) people who were in the Family Camp survived, including around 80 teenage boys.

The protagonist, Alex, is one of the teachers/supervisors in the children’s block.  He’s been told by one of the clerical staff that the family camp’s going to be liquidated at a particular date, so he knows, all the time, that he hasn’t got long to live, and that none of the children are going to grow up.   And yet there’s this amazing humanity there.  The children draw pictures, and put on plays.  When they have their heads shaved, the prisoners manage to get hold of some wool, and knit caps to cover their heads with.   They even joke on April Fools’ Day that rations are going to be increased.  I don’t know how true any of this is, but it is based on the author’s own experiences.

Inevitably, there’s an overriding obsession with food.  But there’s also a lot of talk about books – the author eventually married “The Librarian of Auschwitz” – and about art, and about music.  Music’s important from a practical basis, in that getting into the orchestra meant better rations and better treatment, but it’s not just that: it’s about remaining human.  Despite everything, many of the prisoners have not been brutalised: they retain a lot of who they were before.  Quote from Viktor Ullmann, who was deported from Terezin to Auschwitz and was murdered there, and whose music was played at the Holocaust remembrance event held in Jerusalem yesterday, attended by Prince Charles and many other senior dignitaries – “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live.”.

Relationships are formed.  In the case of our guy Alex, it’s a genuine romance, with one of the other teachers.  She’s an artist.  She takes art lessons with the children – and earns extra food rations by drawing family trees and pictures of naked prisoners for Mengele to use in his “research”.  In other cases, however, it’s coercive, either the trading of sexual favours for extra food rations, or because a woman has taken the fancy of one of the guards.  There are also strong suggestions of rape being committed by some prisoners against others.  Not all the prisoners have retained their humanity.

Most of the children aren’t brutalised, but they’re inured to death, because they’ve been seeing it for so long.  They’re even keen to watch the trains arriving, carrying thousands and thousands more people to the gas chambers, because it’s something to do.

I said “despite everything” – the book doesn’t go into graphic detail, but it doesn’t shy away from anything.  It talks about people being shot for leaving their labour groups because they need the toilet, about groups coming back from their day’s work carrying the bodies of those who’ve died during the day, and it talks repeatedly about the gas chambers, and the never-ending stream of people going into them, more and more arriving every day, how for every one person murdered it seemed as if another ten were coming in right behind them.

Yet people want to live.  When those who weren’t gassed on arrival are inspected, people try to stand out straight, to puff out their chests, to make themselves look stronger than they are.  They’re enduring inhumane conditions, and they know that death is probably inevitable and that it’s just a question of when, but still they want to live.  Some of the women even go willingly into relationships with the guards for that reason alone.  Some of the men are happy to work as Kapos for that reason alone.

There are things you don’t think of.  There are no birds, because any that come near tend to sit on the fence … and are electrocuted.  There are hardly any flowers, only a stray one here and there.  Many of the children, too young to remember life before Terezin, have never seen a flower.

And Alex and the others try to teach the children right from wrong.  Alex wonders about this.  In those conditions, what sense does it make to teach children not to steal from each other, or not to cheat at marbles?  There’s quite a lot of philosophy, and historical theory, as the characters try to find some sort of rationale for what the Nazis are doing, and to make sense of history.  Why do people spell Khmelnytsky’s name the Polish way, Chmielnicki?  It annoys me!!  They also talk about possible ways of trying to change the course of history.  Communism?  Zionism?

There are plans for a revolt, or for escape, but they know that, realistically, they can’t succeed.  But they wonder why the outside world’s doing nothing.  There’s an interesting discussion when a new group of people arrive, and the existing prisoners say that they can’t believe anyone’s so stupid as to believe that being deported east means being sent to a labour camp rather than being murdered, because how could labour camps possibly require so many people, including young children and the elderly.  The new prisoners say that they’d heard rumours about the mass murders in the gas chambers, but couldn’t believe them because it was just too much to comprehend, that such things could really happen.

It’s a lot to think about.

We don’t find out what happens to the main characters, in the end.  Lisa, Alex’s girlfriend, disappears.  Has she been killed?  Has she been moved to another camp?  Has she simply been moved to another block?  The reader will probably assume that she survives, because Mengele admired her drawing so much, but we don’t actually know.  Alex isn’t sent to the gas chambers when he expects to be: he’s selected to be transferred to another camp, because he’s young and strong.  But we don’t get as far as the liberation, so we don’t know if he lives that long.  We can but hope.

There are so many of these books now – the Tattooist/Librarian/Pharmacist of Auschwitz, etc etc etc.  That’s good, in that it raises awareness of the subject, but some of the books have had poor reviews, and some people have raised concerns about fictionalising events at the concentration camps.  This one is very good, though.

(*In the interests of those historical accuracy, it should be said that those particular allegations probably weren’t true.)

I don’t usually read so many Holocaust books in one month, but the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau has focused many historians’ attention on the subject.  It’s unfortunate that Poland and Russia have seen fit to have a spat over it, it’s unfortunate that Messrs Macron, Pence, Netanyahu and Putin decided to use their speeches at the commemorations in Jerusalem to make digs about current political issues, and it’s unfortunate that the BBC have offended people with an inappropriate report by Orla Guerin, but I thought that Prince Charles spoke very well.  As he said. “We must be vigilant in discerning these ever-changing threats; we must be fearless in confronting falsehoods and resolute in resisting words and acts of violence.  And we must never rest in seeking to create mutual understanding and respect.  We must tend the earth of our societies so that the seeds of division cannot take root and grow. “

Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon


As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I was pleased to find a rare book on the neglected subject of the Romany Holocaust.  The book also draws attention to the also difficult and little-discussed subjects of the removal of Yenish children from their parents by the Swiss authorities, and psychiatric treatments in the inter-war years.  Unfortunately, much of it just isn’t very good.  It jumps about too much, parts of it are written in a strange made-up dialect, and some of the storylines seem to belong in a Victorian penny-dreadful rather than a Holocaust novel.  However, parts of it are genuinely moving and powerful, and there are just so few books about the Romany Holocaust that I’m still glad to’ve found it.

The eponymous Jakob is an 8-year-old boy, described (repeatedly) as “a half-blood gypsy child of Roma and Yenish”, living in hiding in Austria in 1944.  He’s become separated from his parents and two younger siblings, and was on the run when he was taken in by a farmer, who is also hiding two Jewish men.  It’s a promising idea for a book, and some of the descriptive narrative is excellent – although some of it is really OTT purple prose – but it’s just not very well put together.

It’s not coherent, for a start: it jumps about confusingly between “the present”, which is written in the present tense, what happened the previous year, Jakob’s mother’s past, and Jakob’s father’s past.  On top of that, Yavy, Jakob’s father speaks in an utterly bizarre dialect which sounds like a cross between Cockney gone wrong, Yorkshire gone wrong and West Indian gone wrong.  I have no idea what the author was trying to achieve with that – presumably to create some sense of him being an outsider?  All the narrative involving him is also in this bizarre dialect, making it quite hard to read.And there are too many bitty storylines, none of which are properly developed – which is a shame, because each of them is quite interesting by itself.

I initially took “of Roma and Yenish” to mean one Roma parent and one Yenish parent, so I got very confused when it turned out that Jakob’s mother, “Lor”, short for “Glorious” (??), was from a well-to-do family in Somerset … except that her parents weren’t as upper-middle-class as they made out.  her dad was the son of a butcher from Newcastle (one attempt at Geordie dialect, all wrong!) who’d inherited a huge tobacco firm from a distant cousin.  As you do.  The book said that the West Country was the centre of the British tobacco industry.  I didn’t get that at all … but the author’s based in Bath, so must know Somerset a lot better than I do.   Lor’s mum was the daughter of a Polish heiress who’d drowned herself.  And presumably a British father.  It was all just too complicated for a 300-page book that was supposed to be about something else.

Lor (the name really didn’t work at all)’s mother took her own life.  When Lor tried to do the same, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Austria.  The accounts of the strange and deeply unpleasant treatments there could have been very interesting, if difficult to read, but they were skipped over in a few pages – before Lor ran off with Yavy, who was working there.  Posh woman is sent to an institution abroad and runs off with a gypsy?  It sounds like something out of a Victorian penny dreadful.

Yavy, not Jakob, is the one who’s half-Yenish and half-Roma.  Yenish on his mother’s side.  The Yenish are a traveller group living mainly in Germany and Switzerland.  Between the 1920s and the 1970s, and especially in the 1930s, many Swiss Yenish parents were put into institutions and their children taken away.  We learn that Jakob’s father was one of those children.  We’re also told that his father fought in the First World War – presumably for Austria-Hungary, as he (the father) seems to have grown up in Austria – and that he remembered often seeing him tending war graves.  I’m not sure what that had to do with anything.  We learn that Yavy was born in Switzerland, but it’s not clear why they were then living in Austria, and then were living in Switzerland when the children were taken away.  Maybe it’s just meant to reflect a traveller lifestyle, but the way it comes across as muddled and confusing.

The book scrapes surfaces but doesn’t go deeply into anything – which is such a shame, because, as I’ve said, each of the storylines could have made such a good book.  We get a few tantalising glimpses of Yavy’s life as a child taken away from his parents, first sent to an orphanage and then put out to work,  first at a farm and then at the hospital where Lor was being treated, but not enough to tell us much.  Why the Swiss authorities would have sent him to work at an Austrian hospital makes about as much sense as the rest of the random moving about; but the horrific story of a child being taken away from his parents as part of some sort of cultural re-education programme, like the Lost Generation in Australia, could, like Lor’s time in the psychiatric hospital, could have been very interesting … but we only get a few pages of it.

We also hear little bits about the two men being hidden at the farm, and about the farmer who’s hiding them, but, again, not much. It dips into so many storylines, but doesn’t develop any of them.

It’s only at the end where we see how good the book could have been, where there are very powerful passages telling us that Roma children were killed by the Nazis either by dashing their heads against a tree or by drowning, or by being torn to pieces by dogs.  And we learn that Jakob suffocated his baby brother, to save him from a worse death at the hands of the Nazis.  We see that he was sent with the adults to face the Einsatzgruppen, told to dig his own grave.  We can only assume that his parents both died, but that somehow he escaped from the pile of bodies – there are stories like that, from Babyn Yar and other places where massacres were carried out.  I was expecting to hear that his parents had died in a concentration camp, but I’ve often said that more attention needs to be paid to the killings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen.  It was a very powerful chapter.  It just showed how good this book could have been.  But it was just too bitty.

Then it jumps back again, and we find that Lor and Yavy hoped to get their children out of Austria, into Switzerland and on to England.  Lor talks about Vimto … which would have been quite touching had she not said that it was fizzy.  Vimto is not supposed to be fizzy, and you certainly couldn’t get fizzy Vimto in the 1930s and 1940s.  Minor point, OK, but it annoyed me!!   But it’s quite a touching section about the idea of a green and pleasant land, and, how, instead of ending up there, four of the five family members ended up being murdered.

Or maybe five, because we don’t know what happened to Jakob.  The Nazis came to the farm where he was hiding, and he fled.  The reader is left to wonder whether or not he survives, and also what happens to the two Jewish men and the farmer.  It’s not a satisfying ending, but it’s a well-written one.  Parts of this book are so good.  It had a lot of potential, but there were too many bits of too many different things, and so the book as a whole didn’t really work for me.

But, because of the importance of the subject matter, I’m still glad to have read it.  No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide … I don’t like to use the word “Porajmos”, because some people find it objectionable. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control.  Total estimates of those killed usually vary between 220,000 and 500,000, and some historians put it even higher, maybe even as high as 1,500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, and no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials.  And not much has been written about it – although I’ve read that that’s because Roma and Sinti culture doesn’t place much emphasis on history and memoirs, not because of lack of interest or lack of concern.  There doesn’t seem to have been the same persecution of the Yenish people, but there are certainly some documented cases of deportations.

We’re now coming up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and of the other camps.  There are still some survivors left, and it was good to see some of them being recognised in the New Year’s Honours List for their work in sharing their stories, but, as time goes on, we’re just going to have to learn their stories from books, be that text books, memoirs or novels.  When it comes to the Roma, Sinti and Yenish people, there aren’t many of those written accounts around, so even a fictional one is precious.  I just wish this one had been better.  It could have been: it had potential, and some bits of it were excellent.  But it was just too bitty.  Oh well.  Still worth reading.


My Grandparents’ War – Channel 4



What a wonderfully inspiring, and timely, account of how Helena Bonham Carter’s maternal grandfather, a Spanish diplomat, saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews trying to flee Nazi-occupied France, by issuing transit visas which enabled them to cross Spain to reach the safety of Portugal and its Atlantic ports.  He sacrificed his career by acting without the authority of his government, and, as someone with a Jewish father and a Jewish wife – through whom Helena is related to the Ephrussi family of “The Hare with Amber Eyes” fame, incidentally – he may well have had concerns for his own safety; but he put all other considerations aside to do what he felt was right.  So too did Helena’s paternal grandmother, who helped many Czechoslovakian Jewish refugees to enter Britain, and spoke out publicly against the Nazis to the extent that her name was placed on a Gestapo blacklist.

War heroes come in many different guises; and I hope this programme got the viewing figures it deserved, because plenty of people could learn a lot from the stories of Don Eduardo de Propper Callejon and Lady Violet Bonham Carter.  Helena, who was able to meet the descendants of some of those whose lives they saved, must be so proud of both of them; and I think it’s probably done viewers good to be reminded that the world can produce people like them.

This was the first of a four-part series in which actors and actresses will be exploring their grandparents’ role in the Second World War. Like Who Do You Think You Are, it’s exploring history through individuals’ family history, and showing them talking to both relatives and experts, but it’s different in that it’s focusing on recent events, involving people whom the celebs concerned knew and loved – although, sadly, in Helena’s case, they died when she was very young.  And, as is said in so many programmes about the Second World War, most people who lived through it didn’t talk about it: so many of us don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to about our relatives’ roles in the war.  It’s also, like the recent Gary Lineker programme, reminding us about the contributions made by people in areas that are sometimes neglected: the Arctic convoys and the war against Japan are going to feature in the programmes to come.

The Propper de Callejons were part of the exodus of around two million people leaving the Paris area as the Nazis approached.  They went, like the French government, to Bordeaux, and Eduardo Propper de Callejon signed up to thirty thousand exit visas at the Spanish consulate there.  He was signing them day and night: his hands were seizing up and he was having to bathe them in salt water. Without him, most of those people would have been murdered by the Nazis.  He saved their lives. One of those he saved was Ludwik Rajchman, who went on to become the founder of UNICEF, and we saw Helena meet his granddaughter, in a very emotional scene.  She’s still got some of her family’s passports from that time, bearing Eduardo’s signature.

The Spanish government had ordered that no visas be issued without the passports first being sent to Madrid. Even if the authorities there had agreed to issue the visas – highly unlikely, given the pro-Nazi sympathies of Franco’s Foreign Minister – it would have taken too long: the Nazis were advancing rapidly through France. So Eduardo signed them anyway, and, as a result, he was demoted, and his career never recovered. We were told by Helena’s uncle and cousin that he never got over that, but also that he never sought praise or recognition for the heroic work he’d done. However, in 2008, 36 years after his death, he was recognised – thanks, interestingly, to the testimony of Otto von Habsburg, who’d also fled Paris for Bordeaux and was issued with a visa by Aristides Sousa de Mendes, the Portuguese consul, with whom Eduardo was working – as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem; and we were shown a video of the ceremony.

When I went to Lithuania, I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to a lady whose grandmother had saved her Jewish neighbours by hiding them throughout the Nazi occupation. If she’d been caught, she would presumably have been killed along with them. She was also recognised by Yad Vashem.  You’d like to think that, in those circumstances, you’d have been that brave, but, in reality, most people would not – and I suppose you can’t really blame people for that, but you can have the highest admiration for those who were.

Meanwhile, in London, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, nee Asquith, a close friend of Winston Churchill, was giving public speeches against the Nazis well before the war had even begun. Her name was placed on a Gestapo blacklist, and she would have faced imprisonment and probably execution had Britain fallen. She also criticised the authorities here for not taking in more Jewish refugees, and personally sponsored refugees to enable them to enter the country.  In another emotional scene, Helena met a woman – a Liverpool woman, by the sounds of it – whose family had been able to leave Czechoslovakia the day before the borders were closed, after Lady Violet agreed to act as their guarantors. Her own middle name was Violet, given in tribute to Helena’s grandma. Without her intervention, the family would probably have died in a concentration camp.

The Bonham Carters might well have decided to leave London when the Blitz began: it’s hardly as if they were working-class East Enders with nowhere else to go. But they stayed, and, not only that, but Lady Violet volunteered as an air raid warden – and we were reminded that around 2,500 air raid wardens were killed during the Blitz. On top of that, and being a governor of the BBC, she campaigned for equal way for female full-time air raid wardens, who were only getting paid 70% as much as men doing the same job.

What an incredible family. And it didn’t even stop there – we also heard about how Helena’s uncle, Mark Bonham-Carter, hit the headlines by escaping from a POW camp in Italy and walking 400 miles to reach the British lines. Sadly, his brother-in-law, who also escaped from a POW camp, was shot dead. Violet was hit very hard by her son-in-law’s death, but continued her work in both politics and the arts.

Channel 4’s history programmes aren’t always the greatest, but this one was superb – although, quite frankly, it would have been difficult to go wrong with an incredible family history like Helena Bonham Carter’s.  Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 don’t generally bring current political events into programmes about the horrors of the Second World War era, and that’s a good thing – but I think it’s worth saying that, at a time at which hardly more than a day seems to go by without yet another parliamentary candidate having to be removed because of inappropriate remarks on social media, it really is particularly moving and reassuring to hear stories like these.  You’re rather moved to wish that senior politicians had even a fraction of Eduardo and Violet’s integrity. If anyone’s reading this, and didn’t see the programme, you might want to try finding it on Catch Up: it really is worth watching.

The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover


This book ends with a journalist from Manchester praying at the Viennese graveside of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who managed Eusebio’s Benfica to two victories in the European Cup. It’s certainly something different.  I read a *lot* of books on Central European history and I read a fair few books about football, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that combined the two before. The author clearly got extremely involved with his subject, and he does a great job of drawing the reader in as well.  I’ve read better-written books, but (it was only 99p on Kindle special offer, and) it was a fascinating story, both from a historical viewpoint and from a footballing viewpoint.

Football history as political history isn’t really a big thing in England, but it is very much so in many other countries.  We’re seeing that at the moment, with FC Barcelona issuing official statements about the situation with the Catalan independence leaders being unfairly jailed; and it can tell us a lot about politics and about in general.  The author obviously feels very strongly that insufficient recognition has been afforded to football players and managers who were affected by the Holocaust, both those who were killed and those who survived against the odds, and, amongst other things, he’s seeking here to redress a little of that balance.

This is a biography of Bela Guttmann, a Hungarian footballer and manager, whose name is surprisingly little well-known considering that he was the first manager to win the European Cup twice – although, as the author points out, managers weren’t as high-profile in his day as they were later. OK, everyone’s heard of Matt Busby and Bill Shankly, but how many non-British managers from the ‘60s can you name? Guttmann, although he doesn’t sound like the pleasantest of people – he was always falling out with players and club officials, and was involved in a rather unsavoury incident involving a fatal car crash – had a fascinating career, and a fascinating life in general.

He started off at Torekves, and then moved on to MTK Budapest, who aren’t one of the top Hungarian clubs now but won six titles in a row in the 1920s … and was with them whilst they were managed by Herbert Burgess, who was from Manchester and played for both United and City – he was one of the group of players, Billy Meredith et al, who moved from City to United after the 1905 bribery affair at City. The author clearly enjoyed getting in as Mancunian links as possible. Gold star for that!

Then he moved on to Hakoah Vienna, the all-Jewish Viennese team who won the Austrian league title in 1925. If the idea of a top football club in which all the players were of one religion seems weird now, remember all the hoo-ha when Mo Johnston became the first Catholic to sign for Rangers? It wasn’t that long ago! Hakoah were the poster boys of the “Muscular Judaism” movement of the inter-war years, which saw a far higher proportion of Jewish players and managers in football than there’s been before or since.  In terms of clubs managed by Austrian and Hungarian Jewish managers of this generation, we’re looking at, amongst others, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Torino, Feyenoord, Panathanaikos, Flamengo, River Plate … these are some of the biggest club names in world football.

The author clearly feels that this is a part of footballing history that’s been forgotten. However, it was largely a Central European thing so it’s perhaps understandable that it hasn’t received much attention in English-speaking countries.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that TV coverage and European club competitions brought about increased awareness of domestic football in other countries.  And the fact that Hungarian football in general, domestic and international, was so good in the 1930s has largely been forgotten: most football fans are familiar with the Magical Magyars of the 1950s, Ferenc Puskas (whom Guttmann managed in the late 1940s) & co, but certainly far less so with the teams of the ‘30s.

Hakoah went on a number of overseas tours, and became the first Continental club side to beat an English club side in England. Their victims were West Ham, LOL.  However, the club inadvertently shot itself in the foot with a tour of the US – seeing what a rapturous welcome they received there, as opposed to the anti-Semitism they so often encountered in Austria, Guttmann and a number of other players chose to join American teams. However, he later returned to Hakoah, also spent some time with Twente Enschede in the Netherlands.

In 1938, he got a much-prized permanent residency visa for America, and with many Hungarian Jews desperate to get away, you’d have thought he’d have grabbed it both hands – but, instead, he returned to Hungary, to become manager of Ujpest, and consequently ended up being in Hungary all through the war years, under the Nazi-allied Horthy regime, the Arrow Cross regime and then the Nazi occupiers. He was hidden for a while by the family of his Catholic girlfriend, but was then sent to a slave labour camp – alongside Ernest Erbstein, who later became manager of Torino and sadly died in the 1949 Superga plane crash. He survived, but many of his relatives were killed at Auschwitz.

After the war, he spent time as manager at umpteen different clubs – in Hungary, Romania, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece and Austria, as well as a spell as manager of the Austrian national team – but the pinnacle of his career was his first spell at Benfica, during which time they won the 1961 and 1962 European Cups. After a falling out with the club’s directors, he’s supposed to have said that Benfica wouldn’t win another European Cup for 100 years, and some Benfica fans genuinely believe that this was a curse – including Eusebio, who’s prayed at Guttmann’s grave to ask that the curse be lifted!- and that it’s the reason they haven’t won the European Cup since, despite losing five finals! He died, aged 82, in 1981 – not exactly in poverty and obscurity, but not all that far from it.

So that’s the actual story, but there are various themes running all the way through it. One is football tactics and managerial styles, with numerous references to Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho (who was manager of United when the book was written) and Pep Guardiola. Another is the impact of politics on football. Hakoah Vienna were shut down within a few days of the Anschluss. Kispest, the year after Guttmann left them to move to Italy, were taken over by the army, and renamed Budapest Honved.  They were just referred to as Honved when I was a kid. We knew that Honved, Steaua Bucharest etc were army clubs, and that Dynamo Moscow were the Soviet police team, and so on, and it didn’t seem weird at the time because it was just the way it was … but it doesn’t half seem strange now, and it must have seemed even stranger at the point at which the clubs were actually taken over by the authorities. It’s not just an Eastern bloc thing either – when you look at the impact of politics on Bayern Munich, Barcelona … just be very grateful that we’ve never had these issues here.

And another is the ongoing history of anti-Semitism in Europe. Every chapter in which Guttmann moves to another European city is prefaced with a short account of an incident in that city or area involving anti-Jewish persecution – mostly from the Middle Ages, and not directly relevant to the subject matter, but clearly something that the author wanted to get across.

I think what most struck the author, though, was the fact that Guttmann didn’t speak about his wartime experiences. No-one in the footballing world really knew about his time in a slave labour camp until David Bolchover researched and published this book. Obviously a lot of Holocaust survivors didn’t talk about their experiences, because they found it too painful … but the impression you get with Guttmann is that he didn’t say anything because he thought it might affect his career, or, at least, because he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that this had happened to him.

Last December, I went to Munich for the Christmas markets, and, whilst I was there, I went to see Bayern Munich’s stadium and museum. Bayern, who had a Jewish president and manager in the 1930s, were deeply affected by the onset of Nazism, but it wasn’t really spoken about until the 1970s, because they became seen as a great West German success story and no-one wanted to dwell on the horrors of the past.

In former Eastern bloc countries … this is a really sensitive area, and one which is still a big issue now, and it’s hard to think how best to put it. There does seem to be an ongoing issue with coming to terms with the past, even now. There haven’t been the educational programmes, or, until recently, the museums or memorials, which exist in the West. In Hungary and Romania, in particular, there’s the very delicate subject of the extent to which the local population were involved. And now, at least in Poland and the Baltic states, there seems to be an increasing emphasis on Soviet atrocities, with Nazi atrocities being emphasised less as a result. It’s a very difficult area to speak or write about, because it is so sensitive. And times are changing now. But it is an issue.

In June, Poland played Israel in a Euro 2020 qualifier in Warsaw, and, before the match, there was a ceremony to commemorate Josef Klotz, who scored Poland’s first ever international goal, and later died in the Warsaw Ghetto.  I didn’t know his name.  I’d heard of Hakoah Vienna, but I hadn’t heard of Maccabi Warsaw or Jutrzenka Krakow, the clubs whom Klotz played for, both of which (as far as I can gather) were dissolved in 1939.  As the author says, this is a part of European footballing history which isn’t spoken about.  This is a biography of a man who had a very interesting life and career, but it’s also a real eye-opener into a neglected area of history.

And, yes, footballing history does matter.  It tells us about life, and society.  The governments of both the UK and Bulgaria got involved after the recent disgraceful scenes in which black English players were abused and Nazi salutes made by Bulgarian “fans”.  And scenes like that show exactly why everyone should be aware of stories like this.  Very interesting book.