I come of a family for whom
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
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
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.