Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Europe - In or Out?

Oh, this wretched referendum being forced on this country against our will!  Who wants a referendum except those who want us to get out of the EU?  Certainly, I don’t, and I don’t know many people who do.  I have always regarded myself as European to the core, and never a Little Englander, so I fervently hope that there are more people who think like me out there voting on June 23rd than those who don’t.

I come of a family for whom Britain’s connections to Europe dominated throughout the years of my childhood during the second World War, and one which had suffered deeply and often tragically from the xenophobic and racial hatreds which led to the war.  Unhappily, these now seem to be rearing their very unpleasant heads again, as poor suffering migrants, escaping the kind of persecutions my mother’s Austrian Jewish family had to suffer, are now being made scapegoats for many of the real problems people in this country (never the rich, mind you) are suffering.

I think we are going through strange and extreme times, of which the referendum is one symptom, as are the other odd signs of this, such as Donald Trump’s successes in the States, the rise of increasingly right-wing, almost fascist parties in Europe and the corresponding, and necessary, rise of parties of protest, such as those in Greece or Spain, and even what is happening to the Labour Party in this country.  The political uncertainties all this creates raise disturbing echoes of those at other troubled times, most obviously in the 1930s, which led to the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria, my mother’s and my birthplace. 

In turn, this has been accompanied, for me personally, by a renewed interest in the tumultuous background to my earliest years during the war.  By coincidence, several things have concurred to bring this period of European life to the forefront of my thoughts, among them the reading of some highly interesting books which have illuminated this period for me.  First there is the recently published book by Philippe Sands, the international lawyer, called East West Street :  On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, a book of great interest not just to lawyers but to all those whose family suffered persecution under Hitler.  Philippe Sands interleaves his legal discussions relating to the background to the Nuremberg trials with discoveries about the history of his own family in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Co-incidentally, there are connections with my own family, since Philippe bought my mother’s house in Hampstead, and my mother’s cousin helped him decipher and translate some of the handwritten German documents he discovered during his search for his family.

The reading of this book also coincided with a re-introduction through a friend to an Austrian writer, Ilse Aichinger, whom I remembered reading some years back but had completely forgotten about.  She told me of Ilse Aichinger’s only novel, called in its first English translation, Herod’s Children, published in its original German in 1948, with the translation appearing in 1956.  This book, too, is about the period of the second World War, and follows a group of Jewish children in Vienna whose only permitted playground is a graveyard.  It is not a realistic representation of Viennese life under the Nazis, but a kind of mythical transposition viewing the world through a child’s eyes.  It is a book which deserves a much wider readership than it has at present.  So I am now on a mission to try and interest Daunts’, my favourite bookseller, to re-publish it, as it deserves to be out there again as one of the discoveries of forgotten masterpieces which they pride themselves on publishing.

Finally, to round off these few weeks of immersion in the past, I saw an amazing film called Son of Saul, about a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp, who is part of the Sonderkommando, those prisoners who were set apart and given a few more months of life in order to act as guards shepherding their fellow Jews into the gas chambers.  He thinks he sees the body of his son, and the film is the story of his despairing attempts to find a Rabbi amongst the prisoners so that he can give his son a proper burial.  I was persuaded to see the film only after a friend reassured me that you do not directly see any of the terrible events taking place, but as dim background to the camera’s view which is trained always upon the father, particularly just on his face.  It is one of the most moving and, yes, uplifting, films I have seen.  Go and see it if you can still catch it.

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