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.

 

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits

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This award-winning book has been described as “Quentin Tarantino meets Fiddler on the Roof”.  It’s not quite like that, but it’s certainly different.  Marks for setting a book in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century without it being centred on St Petersburg (I love St Petersburg dearly, but most people didn’t actually live there) and marks for writing a Jewish historical novel which isn’t about the Holocaust.  But it’s a bit weird, and there isn’t really much of a plot.

The theme, if there is one, is running away from it all.  If you go back a few generations, a lot of families have got a story of Uncle A who ran off (as opposed to emigrating in an orderly, planned kind of way) to America, or Cousin B who ran off to Australia, or someone who mysteriously disappeared from the records and was never spoken about, often leaving a spouse and children behind.  And it’s practically always a man.  In this book, it’s a woman.

Rather than St Petersburg, we’re in Motal, which (thank you, Wikipedia) was a “shtetl”, a small village with a mainly Jewish population (like Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof), in Belarus.  Well, it was in Russian Poland at that time, then in Poland between the wars, then Belarus.  And we have a Manchester link here 😉 , because it was the birthplace of Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, who spent three decades living in Manchester.  I know that people needed to know that.  All books should have Manchester links.  Obviously.

Motal has a problem with husbands running off.  This is a double problem, partly because it leaves families without their breadwinners, and partly because, under Jewish law, deserted wives are unable to remarry, even after many years, unless their husbands are either definitely known to be dead or else provide a written document of divorce.  There are a lot of minor characters, and all the men, for some reason, have double-barrelled first names, so it’s all rather confusing; but the main point is that the husband of one Mende does a runner, and Mende’s sister, one Fanny, decides to run off to find him.

Fanny is regarded as a bit strange anyway, because, as the title of the book indicates, she’s the daughter of a ritual slaughterer (i.e. someone who slaughters animals for food in accordance with the laws about kosher meat), and, unusually for a woman, she learnt the slaughtering trade too. And she gets involved in various adventures with men who’ve all left their villages due to being conscripted into the army.  The Russian Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, required different demographic groups to provide a certain number of boys for military service, where, if they weren’t members of the state religion, they’d be put under pressure to convert.   Fairly early on, she gets attacked by bandits, and kills them with the ritual slaughter knife which she carries around.  Then she gets chased by members of the secret police, who seem to have come out of a Carry On film.

It’s a very strange book, and, as someone who prefers “ordinary” historical fiction, I wouldn’t normally read something like this.  However, as I said, it’s very difficult to find books that are set in the Russian Empire but aren’t about aristocrats or revolutionaries in St Petersburg.  And it did make some interesting points about wanting to escape life in a small village, especially under the many legal restrictions that the population’s under.

The main problem with it is that anyone who’s not familiar with the background is going to find it incredibly difficult to follow.  I do actually like it when books assume that the reader knows the background and don’t patronise me by explaining it.  However, I do accept that not everyone has studied Eastern European history and culture, and that the average Anglophone reader may not be familiar with the Pale of Settlement, the Polish partitions, the Khmelnytsky Massacres (big gold star for using the transliterated Ukrainian version of the evil Khmelnytsky’s name, because people sometimes use the Polish version and that really annoys me) or the use of the nickname “Iron Tsar” for Nicholas I.  There are also a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew words, and references to some religious practices which are now only followed by ultra-Orthodox communities and which most people will not have come across.

A glossary would have been useful.  Give people a chance, eh?   Especially in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests, a lot of people are trying to broaden their reading horizons by choosing some books about different cultures, but I can imagine some readers being rather put off by the use of a lot of terms with which they aren’t familiar, without any explanatory notes.  Yes, I know there’s Google, but even so!

Anyway, if you fancy something different, this is certainly different!  But it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.  If you read it and don’t get something, please let me know, because I absolutely love giving people lectures on 19th century Eastern European history, but I have terrible trouble getting anyone to listen 😁!

 

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi

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This is about four generations of women living in Jerusalem, from the closing years of Ottoman rule, through the period of the British Mandate, and on into the early decades of Israeli independence.   It’s written in quite a rambling way, and jumps backwards and forwards in time, so it’s not particularly easy to follow; but it’s an interesting portrayal of the life of a family in changing times and under different regimes.  It also makes a change to read a book about a (Sephardi) family who’d been living in Jerusalem for many generations before Ottoman rule ended, rather than an Exodus/One More River type immigration novel.

The women are supposed to be linked by a common thread, which is that they all (except the youngest) marry men who love someone else.   That’s not actually that important to the story, but the context of the different relationships is.  This is a Sephardi family who’ve lived in Jerusalem for many generations, whereas most novels about the British Mandate period feature recent immigrants from either Eastern Europe or Britain or the US.  The first two generations of husbands weren’t allowed to marry the women of their choice because the women were Ashkenazi, and that was an absolutely no-no, no more to be considered than marrying a Muslim woman or a Christian woman.  The third generation husband loved an Italian Catholic woman whom he met whilst serving with the British Army during the Second World War, an interesting reminder of how many men from the “Yishuv”, the Jewish population of Mandatory Palestine, served with the British forces.

The “Beauty Queen” is the third generation woman, badly injured in a bombing during the unrest surrounding the end of the British Mandate, but the book’s no more about her than it is about her daughter, mother or grandmother, and her sisters feature strongly as well.  The family undergoes various financial ups and downs, and it’s always the women who end up having to sort things out.  The book’s about their personal relationships and problems, with the historical events just forming the background, but the historical events are very much there.  The author isn’t very complimentary about the British administration, but I think it has to be accepted that the mandatory periods in the Middle East were not Britain or France’s finest hours.

Much more than being an Israeli book, it’s a Sephardi book.  We see all the traditions, such as naming children after grandparents, and the author’s tried very hard to show how Sephardi women in Mandatory Palestine would have spoken.  She’s actually gone a bit overboard – surely no-one said “may he/she be healthy” after every single name they mentioned – but she deserves marks for effort!  Saying “pishcado y limon” to ward off the evil eye comes up a lot – I’d never heard that before. There are lots of Ladino words thrown in, without being translated: I did GCSE Spanish so I was OK with this, but someone who doesn’t know any Spanish or Ladino might get very confused!

It was quite confusing to read generally, because of the rather rambling narrative, but it was something different and I did enjoy it.

The Bird Catcher

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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

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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

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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.

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton

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This is a very interesting book, although the style won’t appeal to everyone, about the Kindertransport and one of the women who was most important in it.  Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, known as “Truus”, was a Dutch (Protestant) woman involved in rescuing Jewish children, initially connections of her own friends and acquaintances, from Nazi Germany, from as early as 1933, going to Germany herself and bringing them to the Netherlands, which became more and more difficult as all countries tightened immigration rules.  When the British government agreed to the establishment of the Kindertransport programme, in 1938, Truus was asked by the Refugee Children’s Movement in Britain to travel to Vienna, meet Adolf Eichmann there in person, and try to persuade him to agree to let children from Austria be evacuated.  He tried to trick her by saying that the plan could go ahead if she could arrange for exactly 600 children to leave, in a very short space of time – and she managed to do it.

In total, around 10,000 children were brought to safety in Britain.  The book ends in 1939, but Truus continued to help refugees throughout the war, despite being arrested more than once, turning down the chance to leave the occupied Netherlands for safety in Britain herself.  She was unable to have children herself, and the book shows the sadness that this caused her and her husband Joop, but became known as the “mother of 1,001 children”.

The book’s partly about Truus, and partly about three fictional characters – a teenage boy, a teenage girl, and the boy’s younger brother – who become three of the 600.  The style of writing isn’t the most readable I’ve ever come across, but it’s a fascinating story.  We see Truus in action, and also her home life, and we see how the lives of the two teenagers, misfits who’ve become close to each other,  and their families are torn apart.  There’s also a toy Peter Rabbit.  I’m not sure how big Beatrix Potter was in inter-war Austria, but rabbits seem to be a bit of a thing in books about children escaping from the Nazis.

We also see just how quickly things changed in Austria.  It wasn’t a gradual process as it was in Germany.  Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, was opposed to the Anschluss, and Austria had no equivalent to the Nuremberg Laws until it was taken over.

The title of the book refers to the last Kindertransport train, which was from Prague, to depart before war declared.  It never reached the Netherlands, and no-one knows what happened to the children on it – but, sadly, I think we can probably imagine.  It does have a link to the characters, but it’d be a spoiler to say what.

Some of the language jars slightly: no-one in 1939 said “chalkboard” rather than “blackboard”, and a British person would have said “disembark” rather than “debark”.  OK, OK, that’s nitpicking; but it’s quite a strange book, with newspaper cuttings (which I think are actually fictional, although what they say is factual) about the latest events included in between every few chapters.  I thought it worked quite well, but people might find it off-putting.

It’s also quite unusual in that not only do Hitler, Eichmann and other Nazis feature as characters but we actually see things from Eichmann’s point of view in some scenes.  He has to be included because Truus did meet him in person, but it’s quite strange when we actually “see” his thoughts.  And the book does jump about a lot, between the different characters – not just the main characters, but various minor characters as well.  However, it’s a very interesting story – both the part about Truus, largely based on fact, and the part about the children, who are fictional but who speak for so many real children who were parted from their families by horrific events, but whose lives were saved,

The Kindertransport was sanctioned by the government here in that they agreed to make an exception to the immigration laws in the case of the children concerned,  but it was all organised by private individuals.  The treasurer of the Refugee Children’s Movement went to my old school, and two of the prominent committee members name-checked in the book went to our brother school.  Sorry, I just had to say that!  I’m not just being cliquey, honestly: I’m making a point that these were ordinary people, not aristocrats or politicians or celebs.  They put in a huge amount of work to persuade the government to agree to it, to raise money and win popular support, and to find homes for the children.  We’ve rather lost that civil society thing now: governments are expected to deal with anything and everything.  The work that these people did, on a voluntary basis, was very admirable, to put it mildly.

But they, at least, were safe in Britain – it was Truus who actually went into the Third Reich, putting herself in danger, to bring the children out, and without any personal reason for doing so, only that she wanted to help.  I’ve read better books than this, but it’s an amazing story, and she was an amazing woman.

 

 

The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

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 As a  reader of historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this, the first of a series of three novels about unpopular medieval queens of England, the protagonist of this one being Eleanor/Ailenor of Provence, wife of Henry III.  It was entertaining, well-written, and as historically accurate as a book about the Middle Ages can be.  Both the real and historical characters came across very well, and there were some gorgeous descriptive passages.  It was also good to see a book about the reign of Henry III, which, despite being one of the longest in English history, tends to be overlooked, Henry being overshadowed by his baddie father John and his majestic son Edward I.

However, as a historian, I had a problem with the fact that the book stopped in 1253, missing arguably the three salient moments in Ailenor (the spelling used by Carol McGrath)’s time as queen – Simon de Montfort’s rebellion, her expulsion of Jews from her lands, and the attack on her barge, showing just how much she was disliked, by the people of London.  The author said that she stopped the book there because it was when Edward became engaged to Eleanor of Castile, who’s going to be the main character in the next book.  So, although she was clearly keen to try to rehabilitate Ailenor’s reputation, I don’t think she was deliberately avoiding those controversial moments.  But I would take issue with the positive view of Ailenor presented by this book, because of them.

However, that doesn’t alter the fact that it was a very, very good historical novel.

Ailenor’s poor reputation is based largely on the fact that so many of her Provencal/Savoyard relatives were given prominent positions in England, and also on the extravagance of the court in her time.  No-one’s denying that that’s true, but the book played up other aspects of her life and personality – her intelligence, interest in culture, happy marriage and devotion to her children, and also reminded the reader that she was only around 13 at the time of her marriage.  It did hint at the alleged rift between her and Henry at one time, and covered all the machinations at court and beyond it, and the wars in Gascony, very well, without going to deeply into politics or warfare to an extent that a reader of a novel might not be looking for.

A lot of this involved Simon de Montfort, and Simon’s wife, also Eleanor, Henry’s sister, was another major character in the book, told almost entirely from female viewpoints.  There was also a sub-plot involving a fictional character, Rosalind, an embroideress, and her romance with and eventual marriage to one of Simon de Montfort’s squires.  Embroidery featured a lot, which was very interesting.  I think we tend to associate embroidery with Flanders/Burgundy, and forget the importance of medieval English embroidery.

Rosalind was at one point suspected of being a Cathar, due to rumours started by a spurned ex-suitor.  The point of the plotline was that she spent some time in a nunnery, doing church embroidery, but it was interesting to see the Cathars mentioned, which is rare in a novel set in England.  It didn’t mention the horrific persecution of Cathars in Occitania by Simon de Montfort’s father (also Simon) – we’re talking burning people alive and gouging people’s eyes out –  nor did it mention the persecution of Jews by “the” Simon himself.  The de Montforts were not exactly a very pleasant family, even bearing in mind the attitudes of the time.  People have taken issue with the fact that so many institutions in Leicester bear Simon de Montfort’s name, whatever his role in the Provisions of Oxford and the Barons’ War.  I appreciate that this wasn’t a book about religious persecution, but I felt that a book about Eleanor of Provence might have made more mention of it.

However, as I’ve said, it was a very entertaining and interesting novel, and I did enjoy it, and shall be looking out for the one about Eleanor of Castile when it’s published.

 

 

 

 

 

After the War: from Auschwitz to Ambleside by Tom Palmer

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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.