The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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The theme of this film, set in Guernsey and London in 1946, wasn’t actually so much the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands as the fact that books bring people. So, if you happen to be reading this, and you’re doing so because you know me through book-related matters, we are living proof of that 🙂 . If you happen to be reading this for any other reason, hello – it’s always nice to know that someone actually reads my wafflings! I’m not sure how many people have found romance through books – please let me know if you have! – but a lot of us will have found friends that way.  In this age of the computer, the laptop, the tablet and the Smart Phone, book clubs and fora have become very popular.

And The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, in the film (and the book on which it’s based), was a book club … formed because its members needed to give the Nazi occupiers of Guernsey a valid-sounding excuse for why they were meeting. No, they weren’t meeting to organise clandestine resistance activities – it wasn’t that sort of book – but to eat a pork roast made from an illicitly kept pig, which was where the pie came in. I have read the book, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, but must admit that I don’t remember being particularly impressed by it; but I did really enjoy the film.  The book involved a lot of letters, but films can’t really work with letters, so don’t expect it to be too similar to the book.

It was set in 1946, as I said, so it wasn’t directly about the occupation of the Channel Islands, but several of the scenes were flashbacks to the years of the Occupation.  Is it just my perception, or was the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands something that never used to be spoken about in the UK itself?  Back in the day, the only reason I was aware of it was because it was mentioned in the Chalet School books.   It just wasn’t spoken about.  And that’s even though many of the children who were evacuated – 50% of the civilian population of the Channel Islands, including 80% of the children, were evacuated to the mainland – came to towns near here – Stockport in particular, and also Oldham, Rochdale and Bury.

Was it because there was a sense of shame that the UK was unable to stop the Nazis from occupying some of the soil of the British Isles, Crown dependencies, from using slave labour there, and from deporting some of the islanders to concentration camps?   Did people not want to admit that that had happened?  Or am I just being over-dramatic?  I just don’t remember it being mentioned.  Then that changed.  There was a drama series in 2004, called Island at War, with Joanne Froggatt as a Channel Islander who became involved with a German soldier.  And there’ve been other films and books since, notably Another Mother’s Son, and documentaries showing the fortifications built by the occupiers.  Maybe it’s just part of the general upsurge in interest in the Second World War since … I think maybe since 1945, when there was so much attention on the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day.

Anyway.  It didn’t actually start in Guernsey: it began in London, with young author Juliet Ashton.  It seemed very glamorous for 1946 – all posh clubs for dinner and dancing, smart frocks, nice hairdos, bright red lipstick, etc – but presumably the point was to draw a contrast between the life that Juliet, although she’d suffered the tragedy of losing both her parents in the war, was living, with her rich American boyfriend, and the lives of the people on Guernsey and indeed most of the other people in Blitz-ravaged London.   Then she received a letter from one Dawsey Adams, a man in Guernsey who’d bought an old book she’d sold, which had her name and address in it, and was writing to ask her if she could give him the address of a bookshop in London – there being no bookshops left in Guernsey – as he wanted to buy a particular book.  They began corresponding, and she decided to go to Guernsey to attend a meeting of the society.

OK, this was rather far-fetched 🙂 .  But, hey, it was a story.  Do people still write their names and addresses in books, by the way?  People in books are always coming across old books in libraries, with someone’s name in them.  We used to write our names and addresses – “Manchester, Lancashire, England, the United Kingdom, Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, The Universe” – in books when we were kids, but do adults still do that?  Anyway.  Juliet’s boyfriend proposed, and she said yes, but she felt that something was missing from her life and her work … you could see where this was heading.

In Guernsey, she met the members of The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society. Not all the characters from the book were in the film, but I suppose they had to cut something to get it into two hours. There were some gorgeous shots of beautiful scenery, but I have to say that it didn’t seem all that Guernesias otherwise.  In fact, I’m not sure that even the scenery was Guernesias: I think a lot of it was filmed in Devon.  The odd word of Guernsey patois was thrown in, but the characters spoke in a range of British mainland accents (with a hint of Dutch, in the case of the actor playing Dawsey).  Oh well.

She heard some of their tales about the Occupation, but there was a Big Mystery, involving Elizabeth McKenna, the young woman who’d founded the society and also the mother of a young child being looked after by Dawsey. So was Dawsey, who of course was young and handsome, Elizabeth’s partner and the father of the child? No. Phew!

At this point, it felt as if there should be some very dark secret, presumably that one of the characters had been involved in collaboration, and that that was why they were all so reluctant to talk about what had happened.  But it wasn’t really that.  The film, and the book, have been criticised in some reviews for being too cosy and fluffy … but they haven’t claimed to be hard-hitting war films, to be fair.  Elizabeth had had a relationship with a German soldier – but he was a really nice German soldier, and proof that not all Germans were Nazis, etc etc, so that was all OK.  Except that it wasn’t, because he’d been caught sneaking off to meet her, and had been shipped off elsewhere, whereupon his ship had been torpedoed and he’d been killed.  And – and this was the nearest we got to the horrors of the war – Elizabeth had tried to help an escaped slave labourer, a neighbour had informed on her, and she’d been sent to Ravensbruck.  There’d been no word of her since, and her friends were raising her child.  One of the characters, Amelia, who’d lost her husband in the First World War and her daughter and unborn grandchild in the German bombing, was terrified that the child’s paternal relatives would take her away.

Juliet got involved in it all, and decided to stay on – and her American fiancé was able to find out that Elizabeth had been killed at Ravensbruck.  So, yes, the horrors of the Occupation were there … but only in the background, though.  The awfulness of Elizabeth’s death and of the use of slave labour, the sufferings of the civilian population during the occupation, and the experience of the children who were separated from their families for over five years, all seemed very much secondary to whether or not Juliet was going to dump her fiance – and get together with Dawsey.

Which, inevitably, she did.  I always feel rather sorry for the discarded partners in “finding yourself” books/films!  The “finding yourself” element is easier to put across in a book than in a film, but there were, to be fair, quite a lot of references to feeling that things were fated, and that you knew people as soon as you met them, etc.  It’s just not that easy to get that to work in a film.  The point was also made that the book club formed a bond between several lonely people at a very difficult period in their lives, and about the incredibly importance of both books and companionship … but, because the story wasn’t actually set during that period, that didn’t come across as well as it might have done, either.

So, Juliet felt far more inspired in her writing, moved to Guernsey, married Dawsey, settled into life amongst the Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society crowd, and felt that she’d found herself. That was what the book was about, and I’m not criticising that any more than I’d criticise Gone With the Wind for not giving us detailed battlefield scenes; but it’d be interesting to see the events of the war, as they affected the characters, as they took place, rather than just hearing about them later, so to speak.  Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer died before the book was even completed, and I’m not aware that her niece Annie Barrows has any plans to write a book like that,

It’s a nice, cosy film, and, as I was feeling a bit stressed this morning, it was just what I needed.  If you’re looking to learn more about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, you may come away disappointed.  If you’re happy with a comfort film, and can get your head round the fact that a film involving one of the darkest periods of British history is intended as a comfort film, then go and see it – and you will really enjoy it.  Just don’t expect it to be something it isn’t.

 

 

The Unseen Holocaust – H2 (History Channel 2)

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It’s a shame that this programme, made a few years ago but repeated for Holocaust Memorial Day, wasn’t on one of the more mainstream channels, because there really is a problem about the lack of attention paid to the murders carried out by the Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads).  It was decided before Euro 2012, which was hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine, to make a film about the three Dynamo Kyiv players murdered at Babi Yar (Babyn Yar), which, if done properly, might have drawn attention to the subject, but it all went wrong because the director insisted on following the inaccurate Soviet propaganda version of events rather than the facts … and that sums up a lot of what’s gone on with the evidence about what the Einsatzgruppen did in Eastern Europe.  The countries mostly affected were the modern-day states of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and parts of western Russia.

It should also be noted that Romanian troops were responsible for the massacres carried out in Odessa; and that Hungarian troops were involved in the Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre, in a region of Ukraine horribly fittingly named after Bohdan Khmelnytsky.  I find the fact that Ukraine makes a hero of Khmelnytsky, the man responsible for the horrific massacres of 1648-57– there’s even a huge statue of him outside St Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv – rather sickening, and the guidebook I took to Ukraine with me in 2008 said that a lot of visitors feel that way, but that’s beside the point.

The year before, I’d been to Poland.  As soon as I said I was going to Poland, before I’d even said that one of the places I’d be going to was Krakow, people said that they assumed I’d visit Auschwitz whilst I was there – which I did.  Going back to Euro 2012, as soon as it was announced that the England squad would be based in Krakow, the press said that they assumed that some of the players would visit Auschwitz – which they did.  Everyone, hopefully, knows about Auschwitz, and the other death camps, and it’s very important that they should do so.  But it’s also important that people should know about the murders carried out by the death squads, and, as this programme emphasised, those killings aren’t really spoken, or written, about.  Krakow is a lovely, lovely city, incidentally, and it should never just be associated with visiting Auschwitz.

I’d always wanted to see Kyiv – or Kiev, seeing as it’s still better known in the West by its Russian name.  Kyiv the Golden.  The Golden Age of Kievan Rus.  Vladimir the Great.  Incredible city.  Cathedrals, gates, the Dnieper.  And, whilst our group was there, the tour guides said that they could arrange for a visit to Babi Yar (again, better known in the West by its Russian name, rather than as Babyn Yar) for any of us who felt that we’d like (if that was the right word) to see it.  When, I got back, and was boring people with holiday stories as you do (this was before everyone was on Facebook on their phones whilst on holiday), I got a lot of blank looks when I mentioned Babi Yar.  Hardly anyone had ever heard of it.  This is a site where up to 150,000 people were killed, including almost 35,000 people in one two-day massacre alone.   That was just one site.  There were many others.

When the Red Army began to regain ground, war cameramen and camerawomen took films and photographs of what they found, and this programme showed some of those. Bodies upon bodies.  Local people, traumatised by what they’ve found, mourning their dead.  The narrators of the programme also read out some of the testimonies of the few people who’d miraculously survived and of the local people and Soviet soldiers who found the bodies – those bodies which hadn’t been destroyed – afterwards. The camera personnel deserve huge credit for what they did: it’s thought that twenty-five per cent of them were killed in action.  It didn’t make for easy watching.

Jeremy Hicks, the main narrator also made the interesting point that, in a way, this has even more relevance to today than the death camps did.  It was a fair comment. There are no gas chambers operating today, but there’ve been plenty of reports in the last few years of groups of people, many of them civilians, being taken away and shot in Syria and Iraq.  Over 8,000 people were murdered at Srebrenica in 1995, and that was only a year after the genocide in Rwanda.

So why doesn’t everyone know about this, in the same way that everyone knows about the death camps?  The photos and the film reels are there.  Why hasn’t everyone seen them?  They were broadcast as part of Soviet news reels at the time – admittedly more to arouse the anger of the population against the Nazis even more than simply as a public information service, but the same’s true of a lot of official broadcasting in wartime.  But then they were pretty much shoved into a Soviet film archive and ignored for over sixty years, until they were shown to British film historian Jeremy Hicks in 2006.

Two main reasons were suggested.  On the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain, Stalin canned them because they didn’t fit with the image of the war’s impact on civilians which the Soviet Union wanted to present – the heroics of the Siege of Leningrad, the Siege of

Stalingrad, etc.  On the Western side of the Iron Curtain, even though some people must have known that there was film/photographic evidence of what had happened, there was so much distrust of the Soviet Union that no-one would have been sure how much of what they were seeing was what it looked like and how much was … well, “fake news”, to use the term we hear so much about these days.

What a tragedy.  Did Donald Trump junior hold clandestine meetings with Russian officials or not?  Does it really matter that much?  But something like this, something so important not being made available because of a desire on the one hand to manipulate the popular view of history, and on the other hand because of an inability to trust something that really is rather obviously what it looks like … that is very frightening.  However, even without this coverage, surely this is a subject about which more should have been known.

After Kyiv was liberated, in 1943, the Red Army took a number of Western journalists to Babi Yar, and also arranged for them to interview survivors.  Anatoly Kuznetsov’s documentary novel about Babi Yar was published over fifty years ago.  He defected from the Soviet Union to the UK, with evidence from survivors and even with photographic film.  And that’s looking at what was made known about just one site.  Why aren’t these massacres more widely known about, talked about and studied?  Why is the focus so much on the death camps?  Maybe it’s because what happened in the death camps, the scientific, industrialised killing, was the darkest chapter in human history, because mass shootings had been carried out before and have been carried out since, but the victims of the Einsatzgruppen deserve to be remembered too, as everyone involved in this programme repeatedly pointed out.

There was also some talk about how the suffering of some groups of people is emphasised more in the West, and the suffering of other groups more in the East.  That is something that’s been an ongoing issue in Poland, in particular.  It seems rather distasteful to look at the Holocaust like that.  Many different groups of people were persecuted by the Nazis and their allies.  It’s hardly a competition as to who suffered more or who deserves the most attention.   But the victims of the death squad, the “bullet Holocaust” to use a term which I think was coined by Jeremy Hicks, deserve to be remembered, and there doesn’t seem to be anything like the same awareness of their fate as there is of those who were killed in the camps.  I’d like to see this programme shown on prime time TV on one of the main channels.  Everyone needs to see this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the Violins Stopped Playing by Alexander Ramati

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I’ve had this book for a while, and I didn’t particularly intend to read it just before Holocaust Memorial Day, but it was probably quite an appropriate time for it. It’s one of very few books covering the subject of the Romani genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its allies – often referred to as the Porajmos, although the term isn’t commonly used by Roma people themselves.

On the subject of terminology, the book was written in the 1980s, and uses the word “gypsy”, which isn’t generally used today but was in both the 1980s and the 1940s, but getting bogged down in semantics isn’t really very helpful: it’s the story which it tells which is important.   The author, Mark Ramati – also the author of The Assisi Underground – claims (and there seems no reason to doubt his claim) to have been given the script by Roman Mirga, the protagonist, a Polish Romani and an Auschwitz survivor.

The title of the book reflects the popularity of Romani music – usually referred to as Tzigane (the Hungarian word for “gypsy”) music, or Zigeuner (the German word) musik in Central and Eastern Europe (and, obviously, in Spain, although Spain doesn’t come into this).  Roman Mirga’s father, Dymitr carried his violin with him into Auschwitz.  There, he became part of a Romani orchestra which was forced to play every time that people were taken into the gas chambers.  The book says that the idea was that the music would calm them.  The book also says that Dymitr Mirga, a particularly talented violinist, was expected to play violin solos to entertain the Nazis – but that the music also heartened the prisoners.  There’s no way of knowing whether that’s true or not, but let’s hope that it is, and that the music brought some sort of comfort in a hell on earth.  When the violins stop playing, Roman knows that his father has gone to the gas chambers.

The story’s told in the first person, and opens in November of 1942, when teenage Roman’s living with his parents and younger sister in Warsaw. The children are at school, with Roman having one more year to go, and the parents are musicians in a popular nightspotThey don’t consider themselves to be at any particular risk – until a relative comes to tell them that Roma and Sinti people have been forced into the ghetto in Lodz.

Roman’s father decides that they’ve got to escape to Hungary – at this stage an ally of the Third Reich but not actually part of it. Due to the Nazis having handed part of Slovakia over to Hungary, there is at this point a border between Poland and Hungarian-controlled territory, in the Tatra mountains.  They go straight to a Roma camp at Brest-Litovsk, which is where the family are from originally and is where Roman’s grandparents are still living.

More confusion over names. And borders.  We’re now supposed to refer to Brest-Litovsk, now in Belarus, as Brest.  I do try to remember, but I’m too used to talking about the Union of Brest-Litovsk (1596) and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918)!   After the First World War, Brest-Litovsk became part of Poland, and was renamed Brest-on-the-Bug.  Then it was handed over to the Soviets in 1939.  Then the Nazis took it in 1941.  And, to get to the bits of Slovakia which were ruled by Hungary, they crossed through Ukrainian Galicia, part of which was then in Ukraine but part of which was then in Poland.  Anyway.  The book says “Brest-Litovsk”.

Many of the people at the camp, including the leader of the “kumpania” (company/group), are sceptical about what’s being said, even when warned by a leading local Polish man that the Nazis intend to move against them, but eventually they decide to leave, and Roman’s father is chosen as the new leader of the kumpania. They head for the border.   The journey is harrowing.  Many people become ill: some don’t make it.  There are disputes and the group splits up, and some of them are attacked by Nazi Einsatzgruppen (death squads) and murdered.

Everyone is – hopefully – aware of the concentration camps and the atrocities committed therein, but there doesn’t always seem to be the same awareness of the mass killings carried out by the death squads, even large scale massacres such as that at Babi (Babyn) Yar. Without wishing to be too controversial, it doesn’t help that some of these took place with the assistance of local collaborators, and that the authorities in the countries concerned prefer to play that down, and to focus on other aspects of the wartime years instead.

They also pass close to the extermination camp at Sobibor, and are able to smell the burning flesh. Somehow, with the assistance of some of the local people, the survivors of the group make it to the border, and reach a Hungarian-ruled part of Slovakia.  There’s an action-packed border crossing scene, in which the Nazis are pursuing them and Roman’s best friend is gunned down and killed as the rest of the group cross the river: maybe some of them was added for dramatic effect, but it doesn’t really matter.

Despite the fact that this is essentially a Holocaust novel, some of the descriptions of the journey are very normal, and give an interesting picture of Romani customs. The style’s very simplistic, and it’s quite reminiscent of something like Little House on the Prairie, in the middle of all the horrors.  The reader’s shown a lot of Romani customs, and told about different groups of Roma and Sinti people.  There are also some very normal domestic and community scenes, such as Roman getting into a fight with another boy over a pretty girl whom they both fancy – and whom Roman eventually marries, with a lovely description of Romani marriage rites.

It’s good to read about the realities of Romani culture, because it’s something about which there are a lot of strange ideas and stereotypes. Well, there are two main sets of stereotypes.  There’s the romantic one – think Carmen, and the images of gold earrings and gorgeous brightly-painted caravans, and women selling beautiful lace, and, of course, music.  And there’s the negative one about crime and curses, which is so prevalent that it features in numerous Enid Blyton books and even in Jane Austen’s Emma. The stereotype of Romani people as criminals is one of the reasons why the Romani genocide was not recognised at the time: it was, horrifyingly, claimed that Roma and Sinti people had been targeted because of criminal activity, rather than as an ethnic/cultural group.

We don’t hear much about the group’s experiences in Hungary during 1943, but all seems to go fairly well … but then, in March 1944, with the Hungarian government looking to switch sides and align itself with the Allies, the Nazis march in. The Mirgas and the rest of their kumpania are taken to Auschwitz.

There’s quite a lot of documentary evidence about the Familienzigeunerlager (gypsy family camp) at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It doesn’t seem to be widely known, though.  I can’t actually remember it even being mentioned when I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2007.  The Roma and Sinti inmates there were, as the name suggests, left together as families, and initially none of the people from there were taken to the gas chambers.  But many died in the horrific conditions.  The doctor in charge of medical treatment of the camp was Josef Mengele.  It’s chilling to come across him in a book, chatting away with characters whom the reader has got to know well.  Again, it seems likely that there’ve been exaggerations for dramatic effect, but the book relates that Mengele took a shine to both Roman Mirga, who worked for him as a translator, and Dymitr Mirga, because of his musical talents.  Roman witnesses some of Mengele’s horrific experiments, especially his attempts to change eye colour, and there are descriptions of the “kindergarten” that Mengele established for Romani children under the age of six.

On August 2nd 1944, the Zigeunerlager was “cleared”: thousands of people were sent to the gas chambers.

The book tells us that Roman was saved. Only one other member of his kumpania was also saved – none other than the boy whom he’d had a fight with over his future wife.  The two of them manage to escape, and meet up with Roman’s sister, whom their father had pushed off the train taking them to Auschwitz and who’d found refuge with a Polish peasant woman.  It doesn’t really sound very likely, but who knows?  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that much if the story of this particular individual is 100% factually accurate or not.  What matters is that hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, and that everyone needs to know that.

No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control.  Bulgaria had, and still has, one of the largest Romani populations in the world, but, although the Bulgarian wartime government was closely allied with the Nazis, there were no killings of either Bulgarian Roma or Bulgarian Jews: that’s something else which deserves more credit than in gets.  Total estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, and no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials.

People in the Czech Republic are voting in a presidential run-off today and tomorrow. It’s 2018.  Tomorrow marks the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Sitting president Milos Zeman has, during his election campaign, made comments about Romani people being “socially unadaptable”.  If a political leader had made comments like that about any other group of people, there’d have been an international outcry.  It didn’t even make the mainstream news here.  Mind you, nor did November’s big far right march in Poland, and there’s only been limited coverage of the rise of the far right in Austria.  Maybe the media should take its eyes off America and the Middle East for a few minutes and have a closer look at some of what’s going on in parts of Europe.

West Germany recognised the Romani genocide in 1982, and a memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Nazis was unveiled in Berlin in 2012. In 2011, Poland recognised August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day.  It’s now marked in many other countries too, but it’s not really very well-known, and the Romani genocide just isn’t very well-known generally.  It’s not like the Armenian Genocide, which most countries refuse to recognise because they don’t want to damage relations with Turkey.  There just doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as would be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  However, that does seem to be changing now, with young people wanting to raise awareness of what happened, and hopefully that’s something that can be achieved now.

This book is not going to win any prizes for literary style, but it’s one that should be read. A film version’s been made of it as well, and is available on You Tube.  It’s a story that everyone should know.