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.

 

 

Clifford’s Blues by John A Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jews Queers Germans by Martin Duberman

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This book, which can’t decide whether it’s a novel or an academic work, traces prejudices in Germany from the Harden-Eulenburg affair, which brought down the Kaiser’s inner circle and sparked a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash which those involved in the associated trial naively hadn’t seen coming, through the First World War and the “Cabaret era” of the Weimar Republic, and on to the rise of the Nazis.  There’s not as much about the royal family as I was expecting, but all sorts of well-known figures from the arts world of the time – Degas, Nijinsky, Colette, Josephine Baker, Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw and numerous others – make appearances.  It’s not particularly well-written: I can just about live with the lack of commas in the title, because I think it’s the author’s way of showing that many key figures at the time were Jewish and gay and German; but having a 334-page book which isn’t divided into chapters is not ideal, books being written in the present tense can be irritating, the dialogue’s very clunky and it jumps around too much!   However, it’s an interesting take on a pivotal period in world history, and how people manipulate old prejudices in order to further their own political ends.  Also, one of the key figures in it has some sort of Manchester connection, but I can’t get to the bottom of it and it’s really annoying me!

It’s supposed to be a novel, written around three main characters – Graf Harry von Kessler, son of a German banker father and an Anglo-Irish mother, a diplomat and patron of the arts, on whose diaries much of it’s based, Walther Rathenau, businessman and liberal politician, and Magnus Hirschfeld, doctor and gay rights campaigner whose work was mentioned a lot in A Terrible Splendor. However, it would really have worked better as an academic book.  There are pages and pages of information about history, law, politics, scientific theories and philosophy, and much of the dialogue is just the characters repeating factual information to each other.  I never felt that I got to know any of them: there was no plot and no characterisation.

It’s quite bitty, as well – all the more reason why it would have benefited from being broken down into chapters.  It’s split into six parts, to be fair, but couldn’t half do with being split into chapters within those.  Also, whilst I’m moaning, it annoyingly refers to “England” and “Austria” rather than “Britain” and “Austria-Hungary”, doesn’t seem to realise that Disraeli converted to Anglicanism, and spells “principle” as “principal”!

Having said all that, the actual information is quite interesting.  It was the Harden-Eulenberg affair that I was really after, and about a quarter of the book covers that – with the Kaiser, who was portrayed sympathetically in The Summer Queen, coming across here as the very nasty piece of work that he really was.  The book opens with a conversation between the Kaiser and the Grafin von Moltke. To cut a long story short-ish, she claimed that her estranged husband, a general in the German army, was having an affair with the Kaiser’s best friend, Philipp von Eulenburg-Hertefeld, the Kaiser’s best mate and the leader of their so-called “Liebenberg Round Table” group of close male friends. Eulenburg & co came into conflict with another political clique, led by Friedrich von Holstein. There was a lot of tension over foreign policy, and over the Kaiser’s rather absolutist style of rule. At the same time, a number of military officers were tried by courts-martial for being gay, and six of them sadly committed suicide.

Journalist Maximilian Harden, a supporter of the Holstein clique, decided to bring von Eulenburg down by publishing reports about him and von Moltke. Moltke sued him for libel, and various other names were brought into it.  Strangely, the book suggests that Harden actually admired von Eulenburg and thought he was a good influence on the Kaiser, which makes no sense and completely contradicts what everyone else says about the whole affair!  Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent doctor who’d long been campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the German Empire, especially after observing how many of his gay patients had tried to commit suicide, was one of the key witnesses in the trial, naively thinking that proving that senior army officers were gay would do away with negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, it backfired badly, with the far-right claiming that Hirschfeld, who was gay and Jewish, and Harden, who was a Lutheran convert but had previously been Jewish, were conspiring against straight, “Aryan” German men. There was a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash. Von Eulenburg’s influence was ended, but, however unpleasant he and his cronies may have been – they’re known to have held strong racist and anti-Semitic views – they’re also now seen as having had a moderating influence on the Kaiser.

Did the trial and its aftermath lead to a culture of what would now be called “toxic masculinity” in the upper echelons of Berlin society?  What was its personal and political effect on the Kaiser?   That was what I was hoping the book would discuss, but, instead, it jumped on to Harry Kessler’s travels in Britain, France and Greece!   All sorts of well-known arty figures, and a few obscure ones, get mentioned in this section, and then we jump back to politics with the introduction of Kessler’s friend Walther Rathenau, who would later play an important role at the German War Ministry during the Great War, and then become Foreign Minister. Wikipedia says he had business interests in Manchester, but I can’t find any more information about that and it’s really, really annoying me!!

So we go from arts to politics, and then, just as we’re getting into the build-up to the Great War, Kessler and Rathenau fade into the background and there’s a section about Magnus Hirschfeld, his theories about sexuality and gender identity, and his campaign, backed by many others, for gay rights.   Whilst it’s probably quite well-known that the Code Napoleon gave civil rights to religious minorities, it’s not very well-known that it also decriminalised homosexuality … but that didn’t apply in the German Empire, or, obviously, the British Empire.  Some of Hirschfeld’s theories read rather strangely now, but he really was a pioneer in his field.  Sadly, being gay, Jewish and what would now be called a gay rights activist made him a target for the far right – but he himself was a strong German nationalist, as was Rathenau (who was Jewish but not gay) and Kessler (who was gay but not Jewish), which I think is what the lack of commas in the title’s getting at, and the far right don’t get at all.  There’s also some interesting commentary on the differences between attitudes in Germany, France and Britain.  But this is not historical novel stuff: it’s stuff that belongs in an academic book.  I do not know why the author tried to present it as a novel!

Then Hirschfeld fades back into the background, and Kessler and Rathenau take centre stage again, having long discussions about Martin Buber and anti-Semitism.  Kessler’s presented as quite a liberal figure until this point, but, once the Great War starts, the book shows him developing more right-wing views.  Hirschfeld, by contrast, adopts more radical views.  We also see him defending the rights of gay men to serve in the Armed Forces.  It does feel a bit more like a novel at this point, but we’re still very detached from the characters … which is a shame, because they all seem rather interesting.

We then move on to the political and social chaos after Germany’s defeat.  It’s particularly unfortunate that we don’t really get to know Kessler, because he seems to have known everyone!   He was pals with the leader of the German delegation at the Versailles peace talks, as well as knowing anyone who’s anyone in the arts world.   This bit’s well-known – the war guilt clause, and the attempts to blame Germany’s defeat on Jews.  I honestly hadn’t realised just how much violence there was in Germany at this stage, though.  Over 350 political figures were murdered by right-wing extremist group Organisation Consul.  I’d have expected the book to focus on Rathenau’s role in the Treaty of Rapallo, in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to renounce all territorial claims and claims to war reparations against each other, but, instead, we get Rathenau talking to Kessler about Zionism.

Maybe this is the author’s way of saying that Rathenau’s assassination, in 1922, was because he was Jewish?  Was it?  Or was it because he was seen as a liberal?  Or accused of having links with communism?  Probably all three.  We do see that trade union leaders call on their members to down tools for a day and stage demos in honour of Rathenau.  He’s seen now as some sort of martyr to democracy … but he’s not very well-known in Anglophone countries, so it’s nice to see him playing a big part here.  Still can’t sort out the Manchester connection.  Apparently it was something to do with an electrical power station.  Could it have been the one at Radcliffe?

Hirschfeld isn’t killed, but he is badly beaten up.  This is the “Cabaret” era, and Hirschfeld does actually get involved in that: he promotes various films, and he’s friendly with figures from the arts world.  Max Harden also reappears at this point, having not been mentioned all through the war.  It’s all just so bitty!

Then, with the rise of the Nazis, another character enters the fray – Ernst Rohm, one of Hitler’s closest friends and allies and leader of the Stormtroopers.  There’s a strange parallel between the Harden-Eulenburg affair and the Night of the Long Knives, and it’s never usually picked up on.  I was going to say that I suppose it’s because what the Nazis did later was so horrific that it seems inappropriate to compare the rise of the Nazis to anything else, but some people seem to throw the word “Nazi” around strangely casually these days.  Anyway.  The views of Rohm and his circle on political and military affairs brought them into conflict with other members of the Nazi party, and, just as had happened with Eulenburg, his homosexuality was used against him by the faction who wanted to bring him down … although the author rather overlooks the fact that this was more of a common or garden power struggle than anything else.

Strangely, the author doesn’t actually draw the parallel.  There’s a lot of talk about about homophobic attitudes within the Nazi party and within German society in general.  We see how the Social Democrats attack the Nazis by associating them with homosexuality.  We see how the Nazi party tries to make a link between being Jewish and being gay.  This happens throughout history – people exploit hatreds and prejudices against different groups by making links.  It can be anything.  Sometimes there’s some sort of logic to it, e.g. linking Catholics and Jacobitism.  Sometimes there’s none at all. e.g. linking Jews and Communism.

But, as I’ve said, the author doesn’t link this back to events at the start of the book – and that says a lot about how bitty it is, and how there’s no real plot.  We see Hirschfeld travelling the world, before eventually settling in France.  We see Kessler also settling in France.  But there’s no real conclusion, and no bringing together of the different aspects of the book.  It was an interesting idea, and the author, himself both gay and Jewish, obviously feels incredibly strongly about both anti-Semitism and homophobia and is trying to raise awareness of where they can lead.  There’s a huge amount of information in this: he’s obviously done a lot of research.  But it does read as if someone’s bursting to tell you something and they just want to get it all out there, without making it particularly clear or easy to take in.  Good idea, not particularly good execution!

The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler

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

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

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

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