Chasing Shadows by Hugo Gryn, with Naomi Gryn, Penguin Books (2001).
My mother's husband used to listen to Hugo Gryn on Radio 4 and admired his calm, compassion and restraint when talking about the Holocaust. I bought this book for him - in the mistaken belief that everyone wants to read the biographies of people they admire. Really I think, it was me that wanted to read it, but it was during the non-reading period of my life, so it has sat on the bookshelves ever since; a sort of aspiration. I was inspired to dig it out again after reading The Hare With the Amber Eyes, recently.
I did very much enjoy it. I have to say that the beginning, which focuses on Gryn’s family history and early childhood, didn’t particularly grip me. There was something very lovely though, in his portrayal of the Jewish community of Berehovo, where he grew up; particularly in its communal inter-dependence, and it’s focus on learning. I’d like to be able to say the same about my family, although I suspect for us, as for a lot of people, formal learning comes to seem like a young person’s game. In Gryn’s case too, I suspect I am idealizing – for by learning, I think he is referring for the most part to a quite narrowly religious study. Nonetheless, I do very much admire (and aspire to) the idea of continual learning and study.
Much of the early part of the book is made up of funny stories about his childhood and his relatives and he makes frequent use of exclamation marks! – which makes him seem warm and open, but also old-fashioned and maybe limited as a writer. Clearly though, as Nazi policies begin to affect Gryn and his family directly, his writing takes on what is becoming the familiar tone of testimony – witness being borne to something horrendous. I suppose the nearest thing I have to compare it to is the first part of Primo Levi’s book, If This Is A Man.
For me, there is something very different about Gryn’s account though. He seems freer, more resilient, even strangely light-hearted at times. I think this is down to several things – his youth, for example. I think I read that he was 15 when he was liberated, at the end of the war. Perhaps because of his youth, there were people in positions of power in the camps who took to him, and tried to help him out occasionally (e.g. p.221). He also writes about smuggling himself out of the brick factory in Berehovo, where the Jewish people had been detained prior to being taken to concentration camps, and then smuggling himself back in again, having dug up a small stash of bank notes he had buried in the garden before his family were taken away (p.152). He wanders around observing people and asking what they’re up to (p.148), and at Liberose, the labour camp he went to after Auschwitz, he talks about occasionally being able to find some secure spot during the day and hiding out for several hours (p.230). Certainly such possibilities never arose in Levi’s account.
There’s a measure of personality difference too though. As noted earlier, Gryn comes across as warm and open, a teller of funny stories alongside the somber ones, and these don’t stop altogether on his family’s internment. He also has a habit of taking time to appreciate the comparatively pleasant moments – although sometimes this comes across rather strangely. For example, he talks about when his family were loaded into the train to Auschwitz: ‘We were the first to get in, and secured a corner. Most of the people in the wagon were friends of ours and we were confident that we would come to no clashes, though nobody entertained illusions about any pleasantness.
‘When everybody was inside, gendarmes came round and shut the doors. As it was still early afternoon, the light coming through the windows was quite sufficient, and soon everybody was preparing to settle down.’ (p.168) It sounds almost genteel.
Then his description of his first shower at Auschwitz: ‘speaking for myself, it was the first thing I really enjoyed. A hot shower! I washed myself and then Dad’s back, and Dad in turn rubbed my back. This went on for a few minutes until suddenly the water stopped, but before we had time to say ‘Oh, dear!’ a fresh shower of ice cold water came pouring down. That was hell!’ (p.179-80)
His inadvertent discovery of, and near escape from, the gas chamber (p.190) sounded a little disingenuous, retrospectively staged.
But the strength of the book I thought, came partly in the firsthand account that he gives, and partly also in his later reflections which his daughter (who published the book after his death) collected at the end. Indeed, if you think – as I did initially – that Gryn didn’t really seem to experience the horrors that others did, the last couple of chapters will change your mind. He talks for example, of being party to the killing of one particularly sadistic SS guard (p.235) and of another guard being caught and strung up in the courtyard outside the hospital after liberation, by ‘some of the boys’ – presumably liberated prisoners. (p.242-3)
In the final chapter, he talks about the difficulty of maintaining self-respect, and therefore surviving the experience emotionally. He also refers to the difficulty of believing in one’s own innocence, which I thought at first was a reference to survivor’s guilt – something he also talks about. I think though, that actually he was referring to a different type of guilt – the kind one may be made to feel when accused and imprisoned of something, but no self defence is possible and no one else steps forward to intervene. ‘Being in slave labour camps after Auschwitz,’ he writes, ‘gave me a measure of breathing space. I had periods of reflection, especially about guilt – and one early realization was that I was not guilty. I knew that I was innocent and that, contrary to appearances, it was our gaolers who were the guilty ones. It was a conviction that I never lost, even though everything around us was designed to convince us otherwise.’ (p.249) I don’t think I ever considered this before. Nazi Germany seems such a clear case of evil versus innocence. That those who were persecuted were ever in doubt about this never crossed my mind.
Gryn also addresses the question of how to explain the Holocaust if one believes in God, which seems almost impossible to answer. But Gryn came to his own understanding. ‘People sometimes ask me ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ I believe that God was there Himself – violated and blasphemed. The real question is ‘Where was man in Auschwitz?’ (p.251)
The impression one is left with at the end of the book is of Gryn’s great moral conviction and courage – no so much in surviving physically, but in his emotional survival and strength, and his ability to address the issue, and to face Holocaust deniers, in the years since.
Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews, by Albert S. Lindemann, Cambridge University Press (2000).
When I was at university, I did a module on anti-Semitism, and this was the key text. As far as I remember, they stopped short of insisting that everyone read it – stating simply that certain chapters would be up for discussion on certain days. I remember at the time, being incredibly impressed by it (I bought it, didn’t I?), but at the same time finding the idea that I could read a whole, large, densely-academic book for a single module, quite impossible. It wasn’t only that we had various modules (all with their own long book lists), and only a matter of days to get the required reading done, but also that I was living alone for the first time – struggling with loneliness and enforced sociability with people I didn’t have much in common with, and unfamiliar practicalities such as feeding myself, laundry, cleaning, managing my own time and money. For most of my time at college, I think the major portion of my energy went into such mundane things. Looking back, it’s clear that reading this should have been non-negotiable – and I should have read a whole lot more besides! But, better late than never I suppose.
Albert Lindemann enters into this subject extremely cautiously, as if into a minefield, whilst at the same time clearly having some vexations of his own to vent. The field is marred, he argues, by a lack of scholarly thoroughness. Looking at some of the late nineteenth century writers for example, who have apparently been presented as the predecessors of the Nazis for their antisemitic pronouncements, he argues that their positions were more nuanced than previously suggested. Many of them would have been horrified by the thought that violence against Jewish people might in any way have been considered justifiable.
In particular, Lindemann takes issue with two ideas that he says characterize previous scholarship. Firstly, the idea that antisemitism is a completely irrational ethos, entirely divorced from reality, and usually found in people who have no contact at all with Jewish people. Secondly, the idea that talking about ‘the rise of the Jews’ is somehow dangerous, and plays into the hands of antisemites. On the contrary, he says, Germany did have a large number of Jews compared to countries like Britain and France; as a group, Jews did do well in the late nineteenth century; they were overrepresented in particular professions.
The picture that arises from Lindemann’s analysis of pre-1914 Germany and its Jewish population was, for me, entirely new. He describes a quite lively debate over the issue of Jewish assimilation, and a certain confidence, even arrogance, and a spirit of criticism among Jewish writers which caused much irritation among some of their Gentile counterparts. Those Jewish responses to antisemitism that I have seen have always centred around the horror of the Holocaust, so it was fascinating to see a different perspective.
It was interesting, (and often quite embarrassing) reading the marginal notes I wrote as a student. One of the few things I agree with my twenty-year-old self about is that Lindemann’s discussion of antisemitism, and relations between Jews and Gentiles, creates quite a strange, indeed almost racist atmosphere – ‘racist’ in the sense of suggesting some kind of innate, determinative difference. The subject matter means that, from the outset, Jews and Gentiles are divided, and treated as quite separate groups. And whilst Lindemann starts out with the premise that today we don’t find any significant difference in ‘race’, in discussing a society where apparently everyone did, the objective (or modern) disregard for race is not always a key part of the discussion.
This strangeness is intensified by Lindemann’s tendency to talk about ‘kinds’ of people, as though social tendencies are somehow integral and permanent. For example, on p.233, he refers to ‘those members of society prone to violence and vandalism on the streets’, and on p.234, he says that ‘Captain Dreyfus’s story has been too tempting, too appealing to the popular, vulgarizing kind of historian’.
So too, there was something a little odd, I thought, about Lindemann’s attempts to refute the idea that antisemitism was based on fantasy and had little to do with Jews themselves. ‘It is particularly inaccurate and misleading,’ he says, ‘to insist that these anti-Jewish leaders were lashing out at targets they knew nothing about. Nearly all of the prominent anti-Semites of these years had regular, even intimate contacts with Jews… Von Treitschke’s ire at Graetz’s writings was hardly the result of baseless fantasies, and Goldwyn Smith’s anger at Disraeli was based on the fact that Disraeli had mocked him. Smith and others who attacked Disraeli in anti-semitic language also simply differed with Disraeli on political and foreign policy issues.’ (p.271) But there is a world of difference surely, between one man disliking another simply for personal or political reasons, and his extending that dislike to an enormous group of people who he feels must share the characteristics of the one. Lindemann has explained the first position, but not the second; even after his analysis, it is still perfectly sensible to say that antisemitism has little to do with Jewish people as a group.
I loved the territorial breadth of this book, and the temporal breadth. By discussing the situation of Jewish people in Europe before the First World War, it felt like the book filled in the missing first half of the story. I thought that it gained something by not centring directly on the Nazis – although obviously the Holocaust was still a dominant presence. I also loved that academic thing where the writer begins by reviewing the field of study as a whole and evaluating its weaknesses. It does seem strange that the book has no bibliography though.
Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985, by Adrienne Rich, Virago Press (1987).
Back in college (and not reading my course texts), I collected books on the women’s movement. The second-hand bookshops of York were apparently hotbeds of second-wave feminism, so I had lots of books published in the 1970s. I didn’t read many of them (this was my non-reading period) – it just seemed important to keep them. I bought this book back then. I had heard of Adrienne Rich elsewhere but I was not (am still not) familiar with her poetry.
I do really like her prose writing though. She has both sincerity and authority about her, and although the book was in parts particularly dense and theoretical, there were many moments of wonderful clarity.
One thing that struck me quite forcibly was her discussion of racism within the feminist movement. Rich grew up in the American South, and the issue seems to have been one of immediate importance to her. It surprised me how much of the language and argument she uses has echoes in the Black Lives Matter movement today. She talks about intersectionality and ‘having work to do’ within herself, and the term ‘anti-racism’ crops up repeatedly. (p.82-84) For some reason, I had assumed these were modern phrases. It made visible the links between academic work and popular movements, that I hadn’t appreciated before.
I found Rich very pragmatic and helpful on a subject which, sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be any way of addressing at all. ‘I have come to wonder,’ she writes, ‘if guilt, with its connotations of being emotionally overwhelmed and bullied, or paralysed, is not more a form of defensive resentment or self-protection than an authentic response to the past and its warts… I would like to ask every white woman who feels that her guilt is being provoked in discussions of racism to consider what uses she has for this guilt and how it uses her, and to decide for herself if a guilt-ridden feminism… sounds like a viable way of life.’ (p.82) In other words, whilst we should all be trying to ‘unlearn the norm of universal whiteness’, as she puts it elsewhere, guilt is not a particularly productive response.
In ‘Towards a More Feminist Criticism’, she has this to say. ‘No one is suggesting that the women with all or many of the privileges of white skin, heterosexuality, class background is thereby disqualified from writing and criticizing. However, I believe she has a responsibility not to read, think, write, and act as if all women had the same privileges, or to assume that privilege confers some special vision. She has a responsibility to be as clear as possible about the compromises she makes, about her own fear and trembling as she sits down to write; to admit her limitations when she picks up work by women who write from a very different culture and sourcement [sic?], to admit to feelings of confusion and being out of her depth.’ (p.95) It makes perfect sense. My reservation would be that several things I have read recently suggest that it has been characteristic of women particularly, to hedge their words, temper them with qualifications and apologies, anything to soften their impact and avoid causing offence. I suppose the subject matter makes all the difference.
Coincidentally, having just read two books about antisemitism and the Holocaust, it turns out that Rich was also Jewish, and the book includes several essays where she examines her Jewish identity. It’s quite a sad story of her father, who was an assimilated Jew, and had nothing to tell her on the subject. When she went, by herself, to watch newsreels of the Allied liberation of the German concentration camps, her parents were not pleased, and she was unable to discuss it with them. When she herself married a man from an orthodox, eastern European Jewish family, her father saw it as a betrayal and refused to attend the wedding. She talks about how the women in her family were urged, particularly, to be quietly spoken – anything too flamboyant or aggressive would be seen as Jewish.
I think this is one of the things I really liked about the book – this mix of the personal with the political and academic.