The King of Warsaw – All 4

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This is something different.  It’s in Polish with English subtitles, so requires a lot of concentration, but it’s interesting.  It’s a crime drama set in Warsaw in 1937, and the protagonist is Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and member of an organised crime gang, whose aim is to become head of the gang – and therefore be the “King of Warsaw”.   It’s set against a background of clashes, some violent, some just psychological, between right-wing groups and left-wing groups, Catholics and Jews, and secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews.   Meanwhile, a young lad from the ultra-Orthodox community aims to join a gang after the murder of his father.   And Jakub’s wife wants to emigrate to what was then British Mandate Palestine, but Jakub feels that Warsaw is his city and can’t bear the thought of leaving it.

The first episode was really just setting the scene, but it looks promising.  Warsaw was such a mixture of cultures and factions at the time.  And it’s the same issue as with Peaky Blinders – members of a community which is marginalised, but not isolated and set apart by religion, may well be drawn to organised crime.  And at what point do you feel that you’re actually a stranger in your own city, as well as being a stranger from the Establishment?   Without going too far into the unpleasant scenes before the Cup Final, feeling estranged from the Establishment usually leads to a stronger sense of regional identity, and that seems to be what’s happened with Jakub Szapiro – but his wife can see that they’d be safer away from Warsaw, rather than trying to rule it.

A promising start.

The Crimean Circle by David Kushner

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This, as the title suggests, is set during the Crimean War.   It isn’t by a British author, and so it’s not the usual fare: there is nary a mention of Florence Nightingale, our characters watch the Charge of the Light Brigade and wonder what on earth’s going on (although, it has to be said, most of the British Army did as well, and they’re involved in the defence of Sebastopol, not in besieging it (I can’t get used to “Sevastopil”, sorry).

Crimea (I’m a British historian, OK, I can’t get used to “Krym”) is obviously much in the news at the moment.  People in the UK will, until 2014, have known it largely from the war of the 1850s.  It was a war in which Britain should never have got involved, but which was strangely popular here, and made a big impact on our culture – Florence Nightingale’s work, obviously, the Cardwell Army Reforms and the Tennyson poem, but also the use of the words “balaclava” and “cardigan”, and all those little urban roads with names like Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace.

None of that has got anything to do with this book: I’m just being Anglocentric.  Ahem.  The book is by an American author and is subtitled “A Russian Jewish Tale of the Crimean War”, which is certainly a different take on it.   Incidentally, our hero, Iosif Hirschcovich Cymerman/Zimmerman comes from Kremenets, in what’s now Ukraine, and would probably have been thought of then as Russian Poland, but, to be fair, most people would say “Russian” to mean “the Russian Empire”.

The point of the book is to highlight the issue of the forcible conscription into the Russian army of quotas from minority religious and ethnic groups, rather like the devshirme system in the Ottoman Empire.   This applied to Jews, Karaites, Old Believers, Roma people, various indigenous peoples and, after the 1830 Uprising, Catholic Poles.  With most groups, boys were conscripted at 18.  With Jews and Karaites, boys were conscripted at 12 in theory, and sometimes from as young as 8, and sent to cantonist schools.  It’s not something which is ever spoken about very much.  I think that the memory of the devshirme system still lingers in Greece, over 200 years after independence, but no-one talks about forcible conscription amongst minorities in the Russian Army.  There’s one vague reference to it early on in Maisie Mosco’s Almonds and Raisins, in which we’re told that Abraham Sandberg’s brother (who is never mentioned again) fell victim to it, but I can’t think of any other novel which even mentions it, and not even academic books say much about it.

So it’s an interesting and neglected topic: I just wish that a) the author had checked a few basic facts more carefully and b) the story had been a bit more realistic.  It’s a self-published novel, so it possibly wasn’t edited by a third party, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really silly errors which it contains.  And it’s not exactly very likely that our guy would have saved the Tsarevich’s life, been given a fortune by a count whose life he’d also saved, and then been invited to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, is it?!

We’re told that Kremenets had been under Russian rule since 1756.  Oh, come on.  The Polish partitions took place in 1772, 1793 (the correct date for Volhynia … and I’m talking about the historic province, so it’s OK for me to say “Volhynia” rather than “Volyn”!) and 1795.  The significance of 1756 was the Diplomatic Revolution and the start of the Seven Years’ War.  You can check that sort of thing on Google or Wikipedia in a matter of seconds.  There was also a reference to Job’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt.  I do not claim to be an expert on the Bible, but Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt is surely fairly basic general knowledge.  And referring to Ekaterinburg as Sverdlovsk, the name it was only given 70 years after the book was set, really was very poor.

Oh, and I also wish that the author had used the normal system of transliterating from Yiddish, rather than that awful alternative system which I don’t think anyone outside American academia can follow – khay instead of che etc.  Even Google can’t follow it.  I tried Googling a sample word using the normal transliteration and the alternative version, and Google didn’t recognise the latter.  So there!!  There were some issues with the quality of English, as well.  Maybe that was just with the Kindle version, but other errors were with the actual text – such as “two centuries ago” rather than “two millennia ago” (placing Judah the Maccabee in the 17th century!).

All right, all right, enough moaning.  What about the actual story?  I seem to have had a lot more to say about the historical background and the historical errors than I have about the story itself.   There was a bit about Cymerman’s early life, but the rest of was about his life in the army, first in Kyiv and then en route to and at the scenes of the fighting.  A number of other people also played a significant role in the book, including a brutal Ukrainian sergeant, a Jew who’d converted to Orthodoxy but said that he was only pretending to make life in the army easier for himself, and a lot of young lads who’d been taken from an orphanage in order to fill the quota from their area.  Oh, and a dog.  The dog had quite a big role.

TBH, I didn’t find the actual book that interesting.  I appreciate that the point was to show how awful life is, but there’s really only so much you can read about digging latrines and burying bodies, which was what they spent most of their time doing.  And there was a lot about weapons and battle tactics, which I know that a lot of people enjoy reading about, and which will probably really appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell and Edward Marston, but which just wasn’t for me.

Books about the Romanovs are for me though, so I was quite chuffed when our pal Iosif rand his mates saved the Tsarevich’s life at Balaclava – the Tsarevich having apparently decided to make a surprise appearance at the battle, as you do.  But it wasn’t exactly very realistic, and I’d thought that the book was trying to give a realistic portrayal of these young men’s lives.  Also, the author showed the Tsarevich’s friends referring to him as “Alex”.  Excuse me?   I’m not sure that even his close friends would have used a diminutive of his name, but, if they had, it would have been “Sasha”.  Have you ever met a Russian known as “Alex”?!

Having saved the Tsarevich’s life, Iosif just happened to meet up with Tolstoy.  And then we learned – there was a bit of a dual timeline, with one of Iosif’s descendants meeting up with a British aristocrat and telling her his family history, and it transpiring that her ancestor had given Iosif his watch after the Charge of the Light Brigade – that Iosif ended up living in Missouri, had a run in with Quantrill’s Raiders, and turned down an invitation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s show.

Sadly more realistically, Iosif’s fiancee Sima was raped by a soldier – and one of supposedly their own side, a Russian soldier.  As has happened in so many wars of the past and as is happening in Ukraine now, men rape women as some sort of particularly sick way of making war.  It’s quite rightly considered a war crime now, but that’s only happened quite recently.

Continuing with the story, Iosif was imprisoned for attacking Sima’s rapist, but he was later released, and he and Sima were married, and joined some of his comrades in a grand reception given by Alexander, now the Tsar, in St Petersburg, and received large sums of money both from the Tsar and from the family of a count whose life Iosif had also saved.   And there’s a sequel, which presumably covers the move to America.

The author is apparently a prize-winning journalist who’s also written non-fiction books.  I think this was his first foray into fiction, so maybe allowances should be made for that!   Full marks for the choice of topic, very average marks for the actual book!

 

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

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I’d somehow never come across this lovely book before.  It’s rather like a Lower East Side equivalent of Little House on the Prairie, with the same simplistic language and a sense of a family home which is full of love and happiness despite poverty, but with a greater sense of community and a blessed absence of politics.

Like Laura, Sydney Taylor’s telling the story of a quintessential American experience, an essential part of the making of the United States of America, but it’s a very different one – the lives of first and second generation immigrants in New York City in the early 20th century.  We’ve got five young Jewish American sisters, and they’re American-born but their parents seem to have emigrated to New York from … we’re not told where, but somewhere in Eastern Europe, probably somewhere in the Russian Empire.  Quite possibly what’s now Ukraine.

In addition to what we see of the family’s home life in general, there’s a sub-plot about a family friend whose long lost love turns out to be the librarian at their beloved local library, and there’s an interesting storyline about the children having scarlet fever and how they have to put a notice on the door and then have the house fumigated once everyone’s recovered.  There’s also a wonderful description of the local market: I could read that over and over again.

And much of the book’s about festivals.  These are mostly Jewish religious festivals, but there’s also a chapter about the Fourth of July, and I loved that.  I know that some people take issue with the Fourth of July chapter in Little Town on the Prairie, and there’s now a rather unpleasant school of thought that celebrating any sort of national holiday makes you some sort of bigot.  It does absolutely nothing of the sort, and the All-of-a-Kind Family celebrating the Fourth of July is the way I grew up thinking about the USA, of (with apologies to Neil Diamond) freedom’s light burning warm, of people with a dream they’ve come to share … even if most of the people with that dream did find poverty on the Lower East Side rather than streets paved with gold.

I loved this.  I’m only sorry that I didn’t come across this series 40 years ago, when I was the right age for it!

The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich

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This is the sequel to The Midwife of Venice. Our midwife pal Hannah is now working at the harem of Sultan Murad III, which is dominated by his mother, the Venetian-born Valide Sultan.  Meanwhile, her husband Isaac runs a silk business.  It includes a fascinating cast of characters – Hannah Levi, the Valide Sultan, a number of other real historical figures from the court of Murad III, a Venetian woman passing herself off as Isaac’s sister-in-law, and a girl from the Caucasian/Mountain Jewish community, but the actual plot is just too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

Historical notes!   You used to hear a bit about the Mountain Jews back in the mid-1990s, during the Chechen Wars, but you don’t any more.  Their ancestors moved from Persia to the Caucasus – mainly what’s now Azerbaijan, especially a city called Gyrmyzy Gasaba in Azeri and Krasnaya Sloboda in Russian, although the character here comes from a rural area, but also Chechnya, Dagestan, and all round there – in the 5th century AD.  What was the name of that football team which you used to hear a lot about at one time? Anzhi Makhachkala, that’s it!  In Dagestan.  Sorry, the Mountain Jews have got nothing to do with football, but apparently quite a few of them lived in Makhachkala at one time.  And I’ve now got off the point.

Back to 16th century Constantinople.  No-one’s 100% sure of the Valide Sultan’s origins, but the theory put forward in 1900, that she was Venetian-born Cecilia Venier-Baffo, is widely believed and is followed in this book..

The book starts with Leah, a young girl from a remote Mountain Jewish community, being taken prisoner and carried off to the Sultan’s harem.  At the same time, Isaac’s brother has been murdered in Venice by his mistress, a woman called Francesca.  Francesca, passing herself off as Isaac’s brother’s late wife Grazia, travels to Constantinople to demand that Isaac repay the money which his brother had lent him from Grazia’s dowry.  She also plans to kidnap Matteo, Hannah and Isaac’s adopted son, on the orders of a man who wears a false nose as a disguise (as you do) and has connections with Matteo’s birth family.

Hannah is asked to verify Leah’s virginity.  Leah had had a fiance in the Caucasus, and they hadn’t waited for the wedding, but Hannah lies in order to protect Leah from being sold as a slave.  Hannah and Leah then drug the Sultan so that he thinks he’s consummated his relationship with Leah, even though he hasn’t.  The Valide Sultan wants to break the hold that the Sultan’s wife Safiye has on him, as Safiye has only given him one son so he needs to get it together with some of the other woman in the harem, so she’s pleased with Leah.  However, it then transpires that Leah is expecting a baby by her fiance, which obviously can’t be the Sultan’s as the dates won’t match.  Hannah and two other women smuggle Leah out of the harem, and pretend that she’s chucked herself out of the window.  Everyone apparently buys this, although it later turns out that the Valide Sultan hasn’t been fooled.

Meanwhile, a rabbi informs Hannah, Isaac and Cesca-masquerading-as-Grazia that, under the Boaz-Ruth law in the Bible, Isaac is obliged to marry his brother’s widow.  His marriage to Hannah is to be decreed invalid as they have no natural children.  However, if he can raise the money to pay the loan, Grazia can declare that this marriage is invalid and he can then go back to being married to Hannah.  I did say that it was far-fetched!

Leah dies in childbirth.  Hannah takes the baby.  The Valide Sultan reveals that she knew about Leah’s escape, and gives Hannah a load of money for helping to break Safiye’s hold on the Sultan.  Hannah and Isaac use this money to pay off the fake Grazia, who is then exposed anyway.  And it then turns out that Hannah is finally expecting a baby of her own.

The depictions of Constantinople, Venice and the Mountain Jewish communities are absolutely fascinating, but the storyline is just beyond bonkers!   But it’s certainly never boring.

 

The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler

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  This is a different sort of family Holocaust memoir, partly because it’s got recipes at the back, and partly because it’s about Innsbruck.  Not Warsaw, Lodz, Vilnius, Kyiv, Minsk, Vienna, Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Berlin, Prague or a little shtetl somewhere, but Innsbruck.  And I was going to say that this is the first time I’ve come across a Holocaust book about Tyrol, but, of course, the first ever slightly Holocaust-related book I read was The Chalet School in Exile.  And, for nearly 40 years, I have tied myself in knots over Austria – land of the Chalet School (which has played and continues to play a big part in my life), The Sound of Music (which I’ve seen 85 billion times), Sachertorte (which I like to have on my birthday, and at various other times during rhe year), strudel, coffee houses, lakes, mountains, waltzes, white horses, grand palaces … and, in the not too distant past, Nazis.  I’ve got photos dotted about the house of myself in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.  Hey, I scoffed a huge piece of apple strudel from an Austrian stall at the Christmas market in Manchester last weekend.  But I still tie myself in knots over it all.

Most people probably know that, until recently, The Sound of Music had never been shown on state Austrian TV, because of Austria’s issues with itself.  And just to wander a bit off topic, Tony Warren, the late, great, creator of Coronation Street, addressed this issue in The Lights of Manchester, in which a character gets spooked during a romantic weekend in Vienna.  I even wrote a Chalet School fanfic to try to sort it all out in my head, but it really is difficult.

In this, we’ve got a British author inheriting a large amount of family papers from her Tyrolean-born father, who escaped from Innsbruck as a schoolboy in 1938, and looking into her family history – centred on the Cafe Schindler, the very popular coffee house on the Mariatheresienstrasse which was founded by her great-grandparents.  It was seized from the family after the Anschluss, but they did eventually get it back, but then sold it on in the 1950s … and it still exists.

The author seems to have started her research because she had questions about her dad and her complicated relationship with him.  I’m not sure that she needed to be so negative about him in a published book, but that was her choice.  The questions about him are never really answered, but there’s a lot in this, going back to the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, and how the various members of her family came to be in Innsbruck, or elsewhere.

There’s a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction subplot about a relative by marriage, Dr Eduard Bloch, a Jewish doctor in Linz who treated both Hitler and his mother before the Great War, and got some sort of special protection in the 1930s because Hitler had always liked him.   But the main character ends up being Hugo Schindler, the author’s grandfather – a proud Tyrolean, proud Austrian, who sometimes wore lederhosen and a little green hat, fought for Austria-Hungary in the Great War … and was badly beaten by people from his own local community on Kristallnacht, and lost his mother, sister and brother-in-law in the concentration camps.

The book takes us through the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the awarding of South Tyrol to Italy, and shows us the Schindler family setting up their cafe and how it became very popular in a city coping with the shock of everything that had happened.  Innsbruck wasn’t Vienna: there were very few non-Catholics there, and there were no “Jewish areas” – everyone lived together, one community.  But then, and this was something I found out myself when doing some research a few years ago, the events of Kristallnacht were particularly brutal in Innsbruck … and it has to be said that Tyrol has a history of intolerance of religious minorities.

And yet, after the war, the Schindler family chose to return.  The author talks about the complexities of the post-war era and how it suited everyone to cast Austria as a victim, when in fact Austria had welcomed the Nazis in.  There’s a lot of personal stuff in this book, which is, after all, a family history – family feuds, different members of the family ending up in different places, etc, but the main focus is on the Cafe Schindler, and they did eventually get it back.   The story isn’t always set out in the clearest of ways, but there’s a moving end in which the author ensures that “steine”, memorial stones marking the place where a Holocaust victim lived – I saw quite a few of them in Budapest in 2019 – are placed for her great-grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle.

Then there are recipes for Kaiserschmarm, apple strudel and Sachertorte.  I made sure that I had all of those when I went to the Vienna Christmas markets in 2019.  In fact, pretty much the first thing I did after leaving my luggage at the hotel was to rush off to the Cafe Sacher to have genuine Sacher Torte on its home patch.   Austria, land of coffee houses.  And Nazis.  But time moves on, and, as the author says, very few of the people who had anything to do with Nazi atrocities are still alive.  And the Cafe Schindler’s still there.  I very much hope to go back to Innsbruck one day, and, if I do, I’ll be calling in.

Paris Police 1900 – BBC 4

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Four episodes in, I still can’t quite decide what to make of this – but I think that we are now getting somewhere.  Bearing in mind that I’m a historian, not a crime series person, I was expecting a historical drama showing the effects of the Dreyfus Affair on Parisian society – the nasty side of the Belle Epoque.   It does do that, to some extent, but we’ve also had the police trying to contact the deceased president in a seance to ask whether or not the Dreyfusards murdered him by tampering with his Viagra equivalent, an extremist drugging the police commissioner’s wife in an attempt to take photos of his friend abusing her (fortunately, he was foiled when the dead president’s mistress recovered from a heroin-induced coma and stopped him), policemen being stabbed to death through doors, someone being murdered when his chimney was blocked up so that he was asphyxiated, a man trying to have his wife imprisoned for adultery but changing his mind when he realised that the story’d get into the papers, and an awful lot of dismembered bodies.

However, in the fourth episode, we have finally got more into the nitty-gritty of the Dreyfus Affair and everything surrounding it, and away from some of the crazier stuff.  Although we tend to associate the Belle Epoque with people doing the can-can in the Moulin Rouge, this was a troubled time in French history, with politics deeply polarised, feelings still running high about the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and, of course, the Dreyfus Affair and the associated riots in France and Algeria – which caused such strong feelings internationally that there were anti-French demonstrations in many countries, the entire British press united to condemn the French authorities, the Lord Chief Justice of England criticised the French courts, and Edvard Grieg cancelled a proposed tour of France.  It casts such a long shadow that it’s being dragged up in the current French election race, and a museum dedicated to it was opened only a couple of weeks ago.

Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer, was controversially convicted of passing state secrets to Germany, and exiled to Devil’s Island.  It then emerged that the real culprit was someone else, there were demands  that Dreyfus be released, and, in early 1898, the writer Emile Zola famously published the “J’Accuse letter”, addressed to President Felix Faure, pointing out that the case against Zola was full of holes and accusing the authorities of anti-Semitism and violating justice.  Zola was then convicted of libel.  Anti-Semitic riots broke out across France and Algeria.  Dreyfus was retried, with journalists and photographers all over the world crowding into the court, but again found guilty.  There was such an uproar that he was pardoned, but he wasn’t officially cleared until several years later.

In the middle of all this, President Faure died suddenly, apparently whilst enjoying the “company” of his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil.  And there was an attempted coup at his funeral.

Tangled up in all this was the Anti-Semitic League, which had begun life as a nationalistic league wanting revenge on Prussia but had then turned nasty.

In this series, Marguerite Steinheil is employed by the police to spy on the Guerins, the leaders of the Anti-Semitic League.  Running alongside this is a series of mysterious murders of women, thought to have been carried out by a butcher – hence all the dismembered bodies.

The sets are brilliant – the turn of the century Parisian streets in working-class areas, the gorgeous costumes of well-to-do women, and the Guerins’ frighteningly impressive rabble-rousing.  And there’s an awful lot going on, and a lot of interesting characters.  But some of it really is very strange!   However, what is never is is boring!    Let’s see what the next four episodes bring …

Ridley Road – BBC 1

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It’s not often that the TV adaptation of a book is better than the book itself, but writer Sarah Solemani, and executive producer Nicola Shindler from Whitefield, have done an excellent job with this.  Oh, and I’ll just point out that a lot of it was filmed in Manchester, in Bolton and in Ashton-under-Lyne.

It’s quite a bold move by the BBC to show this in the iconic Sunday 9pm slot, usually associated with cosy Georgian or Victorian-era costume drama, but the fact that some of the actors, notably Tracy-Ann Oberman, have spoken of their concerns at the risk of receiving abuse on social media *because* of it – especially given their experiences of such abuse in the recent past – just shows how much it’s needed.

The story’s been completely changed.  In the book – review here – the central character Vivien has recently been orphaned, moves from Manchester to London to look up someone she’d briefly gone out with whilst he was staying with her family, and finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, working against the National Socialist Movement*, and also that her late father was involved in its wartime predecessor, the 43 Group.  It’s mostly the men who are involved in the action, with the women watching from the sidelines and mopping up the blood.  However, in this TV version, Vivien is part of an overbearing family trying to push her into a marriage with a family friend, and then runs off to London in pursuit of the man she really loves, finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, and becomes actively involved herself.

I wasn’t all that keen on the overbearing family, who were rather stereotypical and seemed to have walked straight out of the pages of a Maisie Mosco book, but I think the idea was to give her a safe, cosy background and for her then to find out that danger lurks in the outside world, and you can understand the reasoning behind that, especially as this clearly is very personal to many of those involved.

Nicola Shindler’s spoken about how she herself resigned from the Labour Party because of the culture of anti-Semitism that had been allowed to flourish under Corbyn’s leadership, and Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays Nancy, has spoken about the horrific online abuse she received from Corbyn supporters.  Earlier this year, there were some deeply unpleasant incidents in which mobs drove through predominantly Jewish areas of London and Manchester, shouting threats.  And, as the story shows, and which oddly seems to be have been forgotten in recent times, people who attack one minority group will often attack another minority group too: we saw a mixed race character receiving abuse from members of the National Socialist Movement.

A bit more background information would have been useful.  We kept being told that Vivien and Jack had had some great romance, but we didn’t see any of it.  And that her parents had split them up, but it wasn’t clear how or why.  We were made aware that there’d been a big falling-out between Vivien’s parents and her uncle and auntie, who were very involved in the 62 Group, but we didn’t really find out why.  And some of the depictions of Jewish religious rituals may well have been confusing to people who weren’t familiar with them.  But it’s only a four-part series, and you can only fit so much in.

*The 62 Group.  In July 1962, the National Socialist Movement held a mass rally in Trafalgar Square under the slogan “Free Britain from Jewish Control”. A riot broke out at the rally, and, shortly afterwards, the 62 Group was set up.  The timeline got a bit muddled in the programme, but that was because the writers obviously felt it important to show the rally – to show swastikas being waved in Trafalgar Square, and people saying all sorts, because there were no laws against hate speech then.  There are a lot of issues now because it’s so difficult to stop hate speech on social media, and the programme did show how important and essential legislation is.

It also showed how easy it is for rabble rousers to whip up hatred.  Vivien’s landlady, who seemed like a harmless little old lady, was going along to meetings, where local Fascist leaders were going on about how corner shops were being forced to close down because Jewish-owned Tesco were opening supermarkets.  People twist tropes and stereotypes to suit themselves and the issues of the time, and it soon escalates.

One stereotype which the authors have spoken about trying to challenge is that of the minority groups who are victims.  This is Black History Month.  I have seen dozens of lists of “recommended reading”.  Nearly every book on those lists has been centred on accusing white people of racism, rather than saying anything positive about the achievements of black people.  This series is very much about fighting back, about challenging those who attack minorities.  The police and the authorities were seen as doing little to help, and that has some parallels with today, if not here than certainly in the US.

All in all, it’s a challenging story, and, as I said, it’s a bold move by the BBC to show it, especially in that iconic timeslot.  Nobody wants this sort of thing to be making headlines.  No minority group wants to see prejudice against them being all over the news, and becoming a political issue.  Nobody wants to have to form a 62 Group.  But the writers and actors have spoken out about how necessary this series is, and bravo to the BBC (and I don’t often say that!) for recognising that.

 

The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey by Marcia Fine (Facebook group reading challenge)

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  This month’s Facebook reading challenge was to read a book about refugees.  There are many excellent novels about refugees.  Sadly, this is not one of them.  The fact that it got the most important date in Sephardi history wrong on the very first page was not a great start, and set the tone for the rest of the book.  Furthermore, the error was with the Hebrew date, but the characters were annoyed about being forced to use the Gregorian calendar – and, given that this was in a chapter set in 1492 and the Gregorian calendar didn’t exist until 1582, I was rather annoyed too.  But that was pretty mild compared to what happened later on, when the author seemed to get the early 16th, late 16th and mid 17th centuries all ingloriously tangled up together.

I was left with the impression that the author had heard various different stories about Sephardi history and just bunged them all in together.  It was as if, say, someone had written a book about civil wars in England and claimed that Oliver Cromwell had murdered the Princes in the Tower and then recognised Henry FitzEmpress as the heir.   What a mess!   And then people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter will read this and take it as being historically accurate, which really does irritate me.

It’s a dual timeline book.  These are very popular now.  I have no idea why.  The modern timeline involved someone who lost her job because she had a bad leg after being bitten by a horrible dog (I do sympathise over anything involving horrible dogs), went off on a three month research trip with a researcher she’d only just met, and married him.  As you do.  I wasn’t really interested in that, more in the storyline about the refugees.  However, it turned out that the refugees were actually the invention of the said researcher, who was writing a novel, which confused the issue even more.

Our two refugees, teenage aunt and illegitimate baby niece, were living in Granada, which seemed unlikely as it had only just been reconquered, and were forced to leave due to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, which was unconvincing as they were actually conversos.  And why hadn’t the niece’s mother married the father?   There seemed no reason.  However, off they went to Portugal, with their parents/grandparents.  This bit was actually quite well-written, and reasonably historically accurate, with some rather good descriptions of the forced conversions which followed when the Portuguese authorities changed their policies, and the seizure and deportation to Sao Tome of children of Jewish families.

But then it just got silly.  The parents/grandparents having died (one murder, one suicide), our two girls took ship for Brazil, where they found work on a plantation.  No, no, no!   Yes, there was significant Sephardi migration to plantations in Brazil, but not until the 1630s, when part of Brazil came under Dutch rule.  Not at the beginning of the 16th century!   Yes, a very tiny number of Sephardi refugees left for Brazil at that time, but hardly any.  If you were escaping from the Portuguese authorities, you’d hardly go to a Portuguese settlement, would you?  And there wouldn’t even have been any plantations that early.

Then the auntie eloped with a slave.  Well, that’s very likely to have happened, isn’t it?!  And, again, it was too early for slavery on plantations …. especially as it was too early for plantations, full stop.  And the niece was shipped over to Amsterdam as a mail order bride.  Where she lived happily ever after in one of Europe’s most tolerant cities – and found her long-lost mother, who’d become a nun in Castile but was transferred to Amsterdam.

Oh dear.  People moved from (what’s now) the Netherlands to Brazil, not the other way round.  And not until over 100 years later.  And Amsterdam becoming a centre where religious minorities could live in peace didn’t happen until much later on in the 16th century, after the United Provinces had declared independence from the Habsburgs.

The whole thing was just a mess.   It was like when little kids think that anyone over 30 must have lived through the Second World War, because they’ve got a concept of “the olden days” but not that “the olden days” weren’t just one amorphous mass.

Amazon informs the purchaser that “the author has carefully researched the historical events”.  I beg to differ!

Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron

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This, set in Ancona during Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1797-99 is a fascinating book – something really different, about an important but often neglected part of European history.  Ancona was the first of several Italian cities in which Napoleon’s troops took down the ghetto gates, and ceremoniously burnt them; and we see that very powerful scene in the book, with almost all of the major characters present.

There’s an ongoing debate about Napoleon’s views on religious minorities.  Certainly he held prejudices against minority groups, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he gave civil rights to Jewish communities, and also to Protestant communities in Catholic-dominated areas where they’d been denied equality.  It’s quite strange to read a book which shows Napoleon as a hero, because that’s, obviously, really not how he’s usually seen in Britain; but he did bring about many changes for the better – and the effects of his actions are still felt today.

Napoleon does feature prominently in the book, but he’s only one of a rich cast of characters, mostly fictional, some real.  The protagonist, Mirelle, longs for more from life than marriage and motherhood behind the ghetto gates, but is being courted by the wealthy and influential widowed father of her best friend Dolce – a member of the real life Morpurgo family who played an important part in the events of the period.  Mirelle’s family run one of the world’s leading ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) printing businesses, but, after her father and brother are murdered by a Catholic vigilante mob, the business passes to an unpleasant relative.  This is all based on the reality of the times: Ancona was the centre of the ketubah printing industry, and there were attacks on the ghetto by vigilantes.

Meanwhile, amongst the French army are their distant relative David, who takes a shine to Mirelle whilst Dolce takes a shine to him, and his Catholic best friend Christophe, with whom Mirelle embarks on a romance.  And we’ve also got the murderer, Emilio, devout wife Francesca, and their two young children.

Emilio is fictional, but Francesca and their daughter really existed – their significance being that they claimed to have seen the eyes in a painting of the Virgin Mary move. The painting plays a big part in the book.  Napoleon is strangely obsessed with it.  And then it gets stolen – which does get a bit silly, and isn’t based on fact; and the talk about the Stolen Madonna kept making me think about the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.  The whole plot actually gets a bit chaotic at the end, with everything happening at once and some slightly unconvincing tying up of loose ends, but no book’s perfect and it does keep you guessing about exactly how things are going to work out.

There’s a lot going on throughout the book.  We see life in the ghetto, and we see how different groups of people grow up with prejudices against each other.  And we see – OK, the idea of the spirited young woman who wants a life outside the home pretty cliched, but it works – Mirelle wanting to run the printing business, but facing prejudice, led by the local rabbi, against the idea of a woman in a workplace.  We see how the changes in France have liberated Daniel, but we also see how both he and Mirelle struggle to find their way between their old lives and the new world.

A brief summary from Wikipedia:

 In 1763, some 1290 Jews lived in Ancona. During the reign of Napoleon between 1797 and 1799, the Jews were fully emancipated. The gates of the ghetto were removed and the members of the Morpurgo family became members of the city council. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat and the return of the city to papal dominion, some restrictions were put once again upon the Jewish community by Pope Leo XIII. In 1843, an old decree was revived by Fra Vincenzo Soliva, Inquisitor of Ancona, forbidding Jews to reside or own a business outside the ghetto and imposing other restrictions, but public opinion had already turned in Europe by then and the edict was cancelled shortly after until the revolution of 1848 emancipated the Jews once again.

I think it’s fairly widely-known that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, but it’s still quite strange for a reader from the Anglophone world to be reminded that this was going on in Italy as recently as the end of the 18th century – that the Jewish communities of cities such as Ancona were literally locked into the ghetto at night, and forced to wear yellow insignia when leaving it during the day.  The combination of the Enlightenment and the Code Napoleon brought about change – and that led on to the debates about secularisation and assimilation, especially in Vienna and Budapest.  France continued to be seen as the European leader in terms of rights for religious minorities right up until the Dreyfus Affair, and it was the fact that Theodore Herzl was in Paris at the height of the Dreyfus Affair which really kick-started the Zionist movement, something which has been rather misrepresented in the media in recent months.  That all goes back to the Code Napoleon, and the idea that France should have been somewhere where that wouldn’t happen.

Anyway, that’s getting somewhat off the point, but, despite the mayhem at the end, this is a very good book, and worth a read if the 99p Kindle offer’s still available.

 

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

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  A TV adaptation of this will be shown later this year, and, although it doesn’t look as if it’s going to bear much resemblance to the book, I thought I’d read the book anyway.  In the early 1960s, our heroine Vivien moves from Manchester to London, where she finds that all the people she knows there, some old family friends and a young man on whom she’s very keen, are involved in the 62 Group, a militant Jewish group working to counter the threat of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.  She also learns that her late father was involved in its predecessor, the 43 Group.

It’s not a particularly well-written book, but it’s well-meaning and it tells an important story.  There’ve been some deeply unpleasant incidents recently: we’ve had thugs from Bradford coming over to predominantly Jewish areas of Manchester to vandalise cars and shout abuse at people, a Labour councillor in Blackburn making comments which aren’t even fit to repeat, and even worse incidents in London and other parts of the South.  Some of the actors have spoken about the importance of the plotline, and I’m sure that Red Productions will have done it justice.

In the book, Vivien’s boyfriend Jack is a journalist who infiltrates the National Socialist Movement and helps to bring its leaders to justice, whilst Vivien works at a hairdressing salon.  Bearing in mind that this is set  in 1962 – and the book is based on real life events – that’s probably fairly realistic, but the TV series has got Vivien also being at the heart of the action and the danger, presumably because the idea of a strong female character was more appealing than one who was on the sidelines.   And there’s a lot of danger – there’s considerable violence in the book, as the two groups clash at rallies, and young Jewish men and young black men are badly beaten up.

There’s a Swinging Sixties vibe to it all as well – the salon at which Vivien works is in Soho, and there’s quite a bit of talk about hair and clothes and music.  And that does contrast sharply with everything that Jack’s finding out about what the neo-Nazis are up to.  There are an awful lot of minor characters, and a rather unconvincing plot about an aspiring musician who fancies Vivien and follows her around.

It’s not brilliant, as I’ve said, but it’s worth reading because it draws attention to the periodic rise of extremist elements in society, and their attacks on minority groups.   I’ll certainly be watching the TV series.  In the meantime, if you fancy giving the book a whirl, it’s currently on offer at £2.99 for the Kindle version.