One of the many nice things about Christmas is that as a family, we often give each other books for presents. Sometimes we get it wrong; there was one famous year when great minds thought far too much alike and we all ended up with the same books.
This year, two of our Christmas books deal with one of the darkest periods of recent history – the attempted extermination of the Jews in the Second World War.
How do you write about such things? Does anyone have the right to create fiction about such a terrible reality? Can the story properly be told by anyone except a survivor, or an objective academic researcher? Fictionalising the Holocaust is a very risky thing; someone will almost certainly feel that you’ve got it wrong. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, for instance, by John Boyne: the viewpoint is that of the young son of a concentration camp commandant. We are asked to believe that, though he lives on site, he does not understand the nature of the camp, even when he befriends a child on the other side of the wire. The book has been very successful, and I’ve spoken to many children who love it and have been moved and informed by it – but some adults find it to be an unacceptable sentimentalisation of an appalling reality.
A Meal in Winter is by a French writer, Hubert Mingarelli. It’s much shorter than the average novel, and it’s told in deceptively simple prose, with short, direct sentences. The narrator is a German soldier serving on the Eastern Front with his two friends, Emmerich and Bauer. We gather that they are one of the Special Action Groups, whose main task was to hunt out and kill Jews. Their friendship is the main factor in their ability to survive the cold, the hunger and the morally depraved nature of their duties. One day, they are told that there is to be a new group of ‘arrivals’. It’s not explicitly stated who they are – the narrator doesn’t tell us stuff that he already knows – but it’s clear that they are Jews, and that the work that their arrival will involve is shooting them.
The only way the three friends can avoid the ‘work’ is by volunteering to go out and hunt for Jewish partisans in hiding. This they do. But though they have avoided the mass killing, they know that if they return without a prisoner, they won’t be able to use the same dodge again. Emmerich’s observant eye enables him to spot a hiding place in the woods, and they find their prisoner.
Apart from a ‘flash forward’ to Emmerich’s death, the rest of the book tells the story of their journey back to camp – the meal of the title is a meal they manage to concoct in a tumbledown deserted hovel. It all happens in that one day. The events are not complicated, but the moral landscape of an ordinary person tasked with inhuman and abhorrent duties is laid bare. Here, for instance, is the narrator as he and the others are setting off on their hunt.
My own thoughts didn’t stray far. I returned to the memory of the previous night’s dream, to my tram. But already, it seemed far away. That’s just how it is with dreams. Within a week, it would have vanished into a black hole, where it would remain forever. If only we could put whatever we wanted into that black hole…
There’s nothing explicit, but there is power in that last sentence, when we relate it to our gathering understanding of where these soldiers are and what they’re doing.
The second book, The Puppet Boy of Warsaw, is by Eva Weaver – who is German, though she moved to England in 1966. It’s about a Jewish boy who, like thousands of others, was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. Mika inherits from his grandfather a remarkable coat which contains many secrets, which help him to survive to take part in the Warsaw Uprising. (That shameful episode when the people of Warsaw rose up against the Germans, in the belief that the Russians would come to their aid. But the Russians sat on the other side of the Wistula, and waited till the Germans had crushed the Polish resistance before their tanks rolled into the ruined city.)
This is a very different book from A Meal In Winter – more expansive and conventional in style, perhaps – but part of the territory it explores is similar: the second half of the book moves away from Mika’s story to explore what became of the German soldier who exploited but also befriended him. It asks awkward questions: can there be any kind of redemption for ordinary soldiers who were required to do appalling things? How did such men live with their memories for the rest of their lives? How did their actions, their compromises – their guilt – affect their children, the next generation? How do people – and countries – heal and reconcile when unforgivable things have been done, both to them and by them?
Hard questions, which both of these books take on with courage and artistry.