In Memoriam: The Role Of Literature In Remembrance
January 2020 sees the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau when the horrors of the Holocaust were, at last, revealed to the world. Just to make my position clear: I cannot understand how anyone can deny the Holocaust and I believe that succeeding generations should be reminded of it in order that we may learn from the mistakes of our predecessors, and to avoid inflicting similar inhumanities in the future – we can live in hope.
Books can play a huge part in providing cultural capital, in opening our eyes to the drama of real life, to the rights and wrongs, to events and circumstances which we (thankfully) do not experience first-hand. Reading about them can spark an interest, perhaps a thirst, to know more, so that, eventually, we may make informed opinions.
In the literary world of the Holocaust, Anne Frank is a name known to most of us. Her diary is her legacy; it survived when she did not, and Dear Kitty
has been read by many thousands who have wept for its young author. Another name is Oskar Schindler.
is perhaps the best-known modern film to deal with the Holocaust - a copy of it was sent to every secondary school, and Citizenship teachers were advised that all Year 9 students - fourteen year olds - should watch it. It was a dramatisation of the lesser known book, Schindler’s Ark
, of course, and Liam Neeson was, in my opinion, rightly acclaimed for his portrayal of the eponymous lead.
by Thomas Keneally is not an easy read for several reasons, not least its content, but that is no reason to neglect it. The moment at which Schindler realises that what he thought was snow falling was really ash from the crematoria chimneys is darkness made visible, and his horror is real.
John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
is not a comfortable read either, especially given the devastating ending towards which the reader is led, with increasing, almost incredulous, horror. Book and film end slightly differently but the tragedy remains, and we should not ignore it because it is not sugar-coated.
More recently, Heather Morris has written the harrowing stories of real-life prisoners in a hell-hole. The Tattooist of Auschwitz
, and Cilka’s Journey
are compelling and honest. Morris herself says she does not tell the story of the Holocaust, she tells Holocaust stories and she does so with respect for the dignity of those who suffered.
A lesser known, but equally emotive, novel, is Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich
. Far from recent, it is nevertheless a worthy read. It follows the fortunes (or more appropriately, misfortunes) of Friedrich, a Jewish boy living in Nazi Germany, from 1925 to 1940. The book traces the changes in laws introduced in Germany which slowly eroded the rights of Jews and stripped them of their dignity.
It is a relatively easy book in terms of vocabulary and reading age but the issues are (or should be) thought-provoking and difficult to handle. Midway through his narrative, Richter tries to explain why so many Jews remained in Germany rather than attempting to flee when the rumours began to circulate. Partly, he suggests, they could not believe that man could, once again, inflict such inhumanity on fellow man and therefore felt no need to leave; by the time they did believe it, it was too late.
This short novel explores friendship, injustice, abuse of power, childhood innocence, family and history. The characters themselves are fictional but their experiences and suffering, the choices they are forced to make, reflect the real experiences of so many. There are touching moments: the empty cone, for example, links pride and poverty, while the plaintive knock at the door towards the end, tears at the heart strings. The pogrom is frightening in that it shows the power of the mob – any mob - and how easy it is to be swept along on a tide of hysteria. And don’t miss the metaphor of the garden gnome which connects the beginning of the book to the end.
While Richter clearly criticises the Nazi rule of law, he, thankfully, does not render an apocryphal German stereotype, and he has produced an absorbing addition to the genre.
is published by Puffin