It’s rare that I finish a novel that I really haven’t enjoyed and find myself obsessed with it. That’s what’s happened, though, with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. This is a novel I was strongly recommended to read, and I can see why. I can recognise its beauty and brilliance. I can recognise the things it has in common with works that I love and revere – Butor’s L’Emploi du temps, for example, and W G Sebald’s Vertigo, or The Rings of Saturn.
But the experience of reading it – I so nearly gave up. It was as if I was trapped in one of my own anxiety dreams. Knowing I need to be somewhere, that I’m responsible for something, and finding that time and space are conspiring against me. From the start, the protagonist appears to know, vaguely, that he is here (wherever that is) in order to do something important, but not precisely what, when, or why. As in dreams, the relationship of the people he meets to him and to each other shifts and some who appear at the start to be strangers to him become in the course of the novel his father in law, wife and son. Other people from his past appear, incongruously, whilst his parents, expected throughout the course of the narrative, are never encountered at all. Even the common feature of such dreams that one is inappropriately (or not at all) dressed occurs as Ryder is swept off to undertake high-profile public engagements in his dressing gown (the inappropriateness appears to go unnoticed by everyone else). I read on with such reluctance, fearing that Ryder’s experiences would find their way into and would amplify my own nightly unsettledness – and they did.
It also tied in spookily well with my ongoing fascination with labyrinths and mazes. The city in which Ryder arrives, ahead of his concert, is one in which you could walk in circles indefinitely, as Ryder himself notes. He encounters dead ends – a street blocked off by a brick wall, with no way around it and no opening, but which lies between him and his destination. He is constantly getting lost, his journeys taking him seemingly very far from his destination, only for him to realise he has come back to his starting point. The novel traces ‘an odd, sepulchral, maze-like journey’, through a ‘deterring labyrinth’. But it’s not just a static labyrinth or maze, as baffling and disorienting as they can be, because space is constantly distorting itself, like Butor’s Bleston, which ‘grows and alters even while I explore it’ (Passing Time, pp. 182-3).
But it was only after I had, finally, finished the book that I remembered that I had, some months previously, lent it to someone else, someone who suffers from serious problems with short-term memory, and increasingly with anxiety associated with that condition, needing frequent reassurance as what happened even ten minutes ago is lost in fog. I had wondered idly at other times what impact this would have on her reading – and she does read, making good use of her local library – surely after a few pages she would have forgotten what she had just read, and have to go back again and again, so that she would never actually finish the book? But this book … as she read it, did she recognise her own anxieties in its pages?
It seems to me that living with that kind of memory loss must be like a waking anxiety dream. To have, throughout the day, that sense that you are missing something, that you should be doing something, that you should be somewhere, and to be unable to retrieve the information with any sense of certainty… If you write things down, how do you know for sure whether the writing is telling you that something will happen, or that something has happened? As events from the past float into your memory you have no way of anchoring them in chronology, they could have happened yesterday, or months ago. The gaps are troubling so you may fill them with explanations that start off as speculation but become fixed as you hang on to them for reassurance that you know what happened really. And whilst sometimes you are anxious and you know that the cause of the fear is that your memory is so poor, at other times you don’t remember that you can’t remember, and deny that you need help and can’t see why people keep reminding you of things.
I can’t see that I will want to re-read The Unconsoled any time soon. It simply troubles me too much, taps too accurately into my own anxieties and insecurities, and into the fog of memory loss that I witness second hand. But it’s brilliant, and it’s still in my head, weeks after I reached the final page.
As all this weekend’s football matches kick off seven minutes late, to commemorate the time that the semi-final between Forest and Liverpool at Hillsborough was called off, on 15 April 1989, and as the inquests into the deaths of 96 men, women and children proceed in Warrington, we seem to be within reach of truth and justice at last.
For so long, any time anyone tried to tell the real story of what happened – the failures in planning and organisation, the lies, the callous treatment of the bereaved – they were immediately countered with the narrative that was propagated so assiduously in the days after the tragedy, most notoriously by the Sun. It had become an accepted fact that the cause of the disaster was the behaviour of drunken, ticketless fans, arriving late and forcing their way into the ground, even when the Taylor report scotched so many of these cynical fabrications. Finally, with the report of the Independent Panel, and the overwhelming weight of evidence to vindicate the families’ and survivors’ accounts, that has irrevocably changed.
Too late for too many, and just too bloody late – how could it have taken so long for the truth that was known at the time, even as the events unfolded, to be brought back into the light?
I do not know how the families and survivors have sustained their fight for so long, and at what terrible cost. But I know that a sense of justice has driven them on. Of course they have been fighting for the people they loved who never came back from that football match, of course. But it isn’t just personal – it comes from a deeper sense of what is right, what is fair, and a refusal to let lies stand in place of truth. I was privileged to meet, very briefly, the father of one of the victims a couple of years ago, and what struck me most powerfully was his belief that the values that he held dear, and that he had passed on to his son, were being betrayed, in the vilification of the victims and the deliberate falsification of evidence, in the lack of respect for those who attended the match on that day, and those who loved them.
I am indebted to Gerry, from the wonderful That’s How the Light Get’s In blog, for finding this very apt quotation from Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop:
the world would do well to reflect, that injustice is in itself, to every generous and properly constituted mind, an injury, of all others the most insufferable, the most torturing, and the most hard to bear; and that many clear consciences have gone to their account elsewhere, and many sound hearts have broken, because of this very reason; the knowledge of their own deserts only aggravating their sufferings, and rendering them the less endurable.
They have, nonetheless, endured. And the seven minute delay and the 96 empty seats remind us again of what was lost, as the inquest testimonies remind us that each of the 96 had names, stories, hopes and aspirations, and people who loved them.
They’re not alone, they haven’t walked alone, they never will.
RIP the 96
It’s twenty years since we all blinked and failed to notice that hundreds of thousands of people were being hacked to death in a small country in Africa. Twenty years since we decided that the appropriate response to machete-wielding mobs on the streets, targeting anyone whose ID card gave the wrong ethnic origin, was to withdraw almost all the peace-keeping forces stationed there, and tell the rest they could not intervene. Twenty years since we waffled and fudged about ‘acts of genocide’ and muddled up Hutus and Tutsis, and showered emergency aid on killers, and muttered about tribalism, and ‘six of one…’.
There are all sorts of excuses. The failed intervention in Somalia, the joyous distraction of the South African elections (for once, a good news story from Africa), and the general reluctance to commit troops and risk ‘our’ people’s lives in such a messy, chaotic and volatile situation. But it is inescapable that part of the reason that we didn’t stop it happening was because of where it was happening. Because, as Francois Mitterand actually said, more or less, in Africa massacres aren’t such a big deal.
In many ways, genocides resemble one another more than they differ from each other. If we discount scale, as we must, since it is the intention to wipe out a race/group/community rather than the numbers involved, or the degree of success in that endeavour that defines genocide, there is a common trajectory that we can trace. The group marked for destruction must be isolated, vilified, made objects of fear as well as hatred. They may be identified as less than human – vermin, lice, cockroaches – since no one baulks at the death of such creatures. They must be classified, marked, labelled, listed, so that they can be tracked down. And once the killing starts, for the group marked for destruction there is the desperate search for safety, for shelter and protection, the knowledge that each person you encounter may denounce or protect you. Not only that, but the threat to those who did try to help that they too, and their families, would die if they were exposed. In fact, merely refraining from murder may be an act of resistance likely to be punished with death.
There are things about Rwanda however, that are different. Firstly, the sheer speed of the events that engulfed that small country in Africa is staggering. There had been decades of sporadic massacres, which is why a Tutsi rebel army, composed mainly of refugees and children of refugees, was in the process of invading the country. And preparations had certainly been laid well in advance, lists drawn up and machetes stockpiled. But still, from the trigger of the shooting down of the President’s plane to the RPF victory only four months elapsed. Four months, and 800,000 people dead. Many more maimed, raped, traumatised, orphaned. So much destruction in such a short time. A tsunami of brutality, when everything was irrevocably changed in moments.
There was no great machinery of bureaucracy to process the destruction of the Tutsi, who were killed, for the most part, by their own neighbours, or by the militia on the roadblocks who simply needed to ask for their ID to know whether they should die. There were no camps set up to process those captured and marked for death, just places where people sought refuge and instead found that their hoped-for sanctuary was in fact a trap where the killers waited until they were gathered together, before sweeping in to destroy. There was not even the pretence of any fate for the Tutsi other than death.
And because of the speed, and because the victims, like their murderers, were in many cases rural people, not highly educated and literate, and if they hid it was in the bush, there is no Anne Frank, no Helene Berr from Rwanda, both murdered, but who left records of what it was like to have to hide, to live in fear, to be marked for death. The narratives of Rwanda are those of the survivors. Whole clans were wiped out, so that now it is as if, as a survivor put it, a page in the album of humanity has been torn out, and of many of those families and individuals there may be virtually no trace remaining. After all, that’s what genocide aims to do. It’s never enough to kill all the people, you have to kill their history, their culture.
But that’s one of the odd things about the Rwandan genocide. The Hutu and Tutsi peoples were not distinguishable from each other by a language – even an accent – or a religion. They were – supposedly – different in physique, but in reality decades of intermarriage meant that one could not actually identify anyone reliably in this way. The mythology of their enmity was fostered by successive colonial governments, who favoured first one group and then the other, exploiting the tensions that this created. The different names existed, certainly, but the identities were not fixed. Because Hutu and Tutsi were associated with different modes of life, if your circumstances or occupation changed, your ‘ethnic’ identity could change too. It was the colonial governments who put in place the system of identity cards that stated which group one belonged to, and made that identity fixed and inescapable.
Many, many ordinary people did extraordinary things to protect friends, neighbours or total strangers. And many of those who were there in an official capacity broke ranks to do what they could. Major Stefan Stec, with the UN Peacekeepers, faced down militia at the Hotel Mille Collines, attempting to evacuate some of the many Tutsi and moderate Hutu who had taken refuge there. He was so tormented by the events he witnessed, by his own sense of failure, and by the harsh judgement of many who weren’t there and had no choices to make, on the inadequacy of the UNAMIR response, that he died eleven years later, as a result of PTSD. Romeo Dallaire, who commanded those forces, suffers similarly, and attempted suicide six years after the genocide. And Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese UN military observer, ferried people through roadblocks to the Mille Collines, bluffing and bribing his way past the militia until he was killed in a mortar attack in May 1994.
Yolande Mukagasana’s world changed on 6 April 1994. Within days she had seen her husband killed. She had lost contact with her children. She had come close to death, and had seen people who she, as a nurse, had healed, ready to kill her or hand her over to be killed. She also encountered people who owed her nothing and yet who kept her safe, just because it was the right thing to do. She was tormented first by not knowing her children’s fate, and then by knowing it. Once safe, she threw herself into her old role of healer, but her own healing took a long time – to the simple guilt of having survived when so many didn’t, she added the guilt of having survived when her own children didn’t, and of knowing that others had died for refusing to hand her over, or because they were mistaken for her. She drew orphaned and lost children to her, and started an organisation called Nyamirambo Point d’appui, named after the area of Kigali where she lived with her family, and where she saw her neighbours become murderers. She started to rebuild, there, where she’d lost everything.
Yolande writes ‘contre l’oubli’, so that the dead aren’t entirely lost, so that the truth isn’t buried with them. And that includes uncomfortable truths about the role of international bodies, and most particularly of the French government, both actively and passively enabling the genocide.
But this duty of memory is not just for the past, but for the future. Surely if we remember what happened twenty years ago in that small African country, as we remember what happened over seventy years ago in Nazi occupied Europe, what happened almost forty years ago in Cambodia, we will see the signs next time before it’s too late? We will make the right choice about whether and when to intervene?
Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)
Rwanda pour memoire, Samba Felix N’Diaye (L’Afrique se filme, DVD, 2001-2003)
- Dallaire, Roméo (2005). Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. London: Arrow Books. ISBN 978-0-09-947893-5.
- Des Forges, Alison (1999). Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (Report). New York, NY: Human Rights Watch. ISBN 1-56432-171-1.
- Gourevitch, Philip (2000). We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (Reprint ed.). London; New York, N.Y.: Picador. ISBN 978-0-330-37120-9.
- Melvern, Linda (2000). A people betrayed: the role of the West in Rwanda’s genocide (8, illustrated, reprint ed.). London; New York, N.Y.: Zed Books. ISBN 978-1-85649-831-9.
- Melvern, Linda (2004). Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide. London and New York, NY: Verso. ISBN 978-1-85984-588-2.
- Prunier, Gérard (1998). The Rwanda Crisis, 1959–1994: History of a Genocide (2nd ed.). London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 978-1-85065-372-1.
- Prunier, Gérard (1999). The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (2nd ed.). Kampala: Fountain Publishers Limited. ISBN 978-9970-02-089-8.
The long history of Belle Vue Gardens in Manchester is being celebrated this month, and it seems timely to note its appearance, under the name of Pleasance Gardens, in Michel Butor’s Manchester-inspired 1956 novel L’Emploi du temps (Passing Time).
Butor’s view of Manchester (Bleston in the novel) was, it must be admitted, largely negative. He loathed the climate, and the food, and seems to have been deeply unhappy in the city, where he arrived to take up the post of lecteur in the French department at the University in 1952.
He seems to have taken to Belle Vue, however. Pleasance Gardens, along with the various peripatetic fairs which rotated around the periphery of the city, on the areas of waste land, represent a mobile and open element in a closed, even carceral city, and a window on different kinds of community than those indigenous to Bleston. The narrator sees the friends he knows in a different light in these places, which may be in Bleston but are not fully part of it and don’t share its malaise.
Pleasance Gardens appears on the frontispiece map, in the bottom left-hand corner, its shape not dissimilar to that of the real Belle Vue. Butor took from the real city of Manchester the geography and architecture that interested him and that fitted with his narrative preoccupations, and ignored or altered the rest. The descriptions include a great deal of precision and detail – however, the historians of Belle Vue will have to judge where the fictional version departs from its model.
He describes the entrance to the Gardens:
The monumental entrance-gates whose two square towers, adorned with grimy stucco, are crowned … with two enormous yellow half-moons fixed to lightning conductors, and are joined by two iron rods bearing an inscription in red-painted letters beaded with electric bulbs then gleaming softly pink: ‘Pleasance Gardens’.
The big folding door which is armoured as if to protect a safe, and only opens on great occasions and for important processions, whereas we, the daily crowd, have to make our way in by one of the six wicket-gates on the right (those on the left are for the way out) with their turnstiles and ticket collectors’
The earthenware topped table which displayed, on a larger scale and in greater detail, with fresh colours and crude lettering, that green quarter circle with its apex pointing towards the town centre…
The tickets themselves are described in detail:
the slip of grey cardboard covered with printed lettering: On one side in tall capitals PLEASANCE GARDENS, and then in smaller letters: Valid for one visitor, Sunday, December 2nd. And on the other side: REMEMBER that this garden is intended for recreation, not for disorderly behaviour; please keep your dignity in all circumstances’
On this winter visit:
There was scarcely anybody in the big, cheap restaurants or in the billiard-rooms; avenues, all round, bore black and white arrows directing one to the bear-pit, the stadium, the switch-back, the aviaries, the exit and the monkey-house.
We walked in silence past roundabouts with metal aeroplanes and wooden horses, … and past the station for the miniature railway where three children sat shivering in an open truck waiting to start; and past the lake, which was empty because its concrete bottom was being cleaned’.
Posters everywhere echoed: ‘Come back for the New Year, come and see the fireworks’.
A later visit, in summer, followed one of the fires that feature so frequently in the novel. Belle Vue was devastated by fire in 1958, and whether this account was inspired by a real event I do not know – it may well be that whilst Manchester was plagued by an unusually large number of arson attacks over the period that Butor was there, he extrapolated from that to a fire at Pleasance Gardens, purely for narrative purposes.
In the open air cafe that is set up there in summer in the middle of the zoological section, among the wolves’ and foxes’ cages and the ragged-winged cranes’ enclosure, the duck-ponds and the seals’ basins with their white-painted concrete islands. I could see, above the stationary booths of this mammoth fairground, eerily outlined in the faint luminous haze, the tops of the calcined posts of the Scenic Railway, with a few beams still fixed to them like gibbets or like the branch-stumps that project from the peeled trunks of trees struck by lightning; and I listened to the noise of the demolition-workers’ axes’
If Butor generally warmed to the Gardens, his portrayal of the animals in the Zoo is less enthusiastic – he speaks of the cries of the animals and birds mingling with the noise of demolition, of melancholy zebras and wretched wild beasts, and of their howls during the firework display. Perhaps their imprisonment chimed uncomfortably with his own sense of being trapped in the city.
I’m supporting this campaign by Rethink, to encourage people to talk about mental health. Because it’s hard to speak about it publicly, because there is a stigma attached to mental illness which does not apply to most physical illnesses, because it feels like a weakness, because you think you’re the only one, because you’re afraid (of what you’re experiencing, and of how other people will react).
I wish I could say that ‘coming out’ in this context is always met with outpourings of support and love and help. There’s a lot of that.
But there’s also – telling your boss you’re having treatment (medication and counselling) for depression, and her (a) telling other colleagues to keep an eye on you, (b) telling the management board that you have mental health problems and (c) generally treating you from there on in as a problem, not a colleague who’s having a problem. That was about ten years back – would it be different now? It depends on the workplace, on the boss. It’s risky, and if now I would (and do) say things publicly it’s because in the time since that dark episode I’ve gained in strength and confidence and because what happened to me then made me angry and determined to challenge those attitudes.
Of course there’s also the whole ‘pull yourself together’ thing that will surface, explicitly or implicitly. Especially if your life circumstances don’t ‘justify’ your depression. If bad things have happened to you, and your illness seems to be a result of that, the sympathy will probably be more straightforward. If your life is outwardly fine, then some people – including kind, loving people – will feel that you should be able to sort yourself out.
But a lot of the stuff that deters one from talking openly is internal, not external. No one told me I didn’t have a right to feel depressed because I was physically healthy, employed, solvent and had people who loved me. I told myself that. No one told me I was a failure and a mess, because, since I left the house every day washed, appropriately dressed and apparently functioning, only I knew (for the most part) that I was a failure and a mess. No one told me I couldn’t be really depressed because I kept leaving the house every day washed appropriately dressed and apparently functioning – that was me, telling myself that – as I read account after account of depression, hoping to see myself in there – I obviously didn’t have a serious problem and should be able to sort myself out.
How do you measure the seriousness of depression? I was never hospitalised, I had very little time off work, I was never unable to get up and go through the motions of life. But for a long time I had that nasty little mantra in my mind throughout my conscious day and every time I woke during the night, and for a long time I only smiled when people could see me. For a long time I saw my life as trudging on, up hill all the way, fog and gloom all around me so that I couldn’t see where I was heading, or even see that I wasn’t alone on the path. I wrote a poem along those lines, a very bad poem, long since deleted, but at the time it helped to write it down. People who didn’t know me really well didn’t know – but they sensed something, or perhaps the lack of something, a spark . I had a few job interviews during this period and the feedback suggested a lack of enthusiasm or interest in the post, a lack of dynamism and energy.
Partly, you realise how bad it’s been when it starts to get better. When the mantra stopped. When my smile stayed on my face after I’d shut the door, when no one but me was there. When the fog cleared and I could see that however far I still had to trudge on uphill there was a beautiful view from where I was, and there were people alongside me.
I’m talking about this now – more publicly than I ever have before – because I’m prompted by the Rethink campaign to share my story. And because I know that some people who know me will be surprised, and may think I’m ‘not the type’, but may therefore rethink their assumptions. As you look around you, in a lecture or a meeting, at a party or a gig, there will be people there, talking and laughing and making decisions and relating to those around them, who are or have been in the grip of depression or anxiety, who are struggling with or have struggled with obsessive compulsive behaviour or eating disorders, who are experiencing or have known the intense highs and lows of bipolar disorder. You’ll never know, unless they dare to share it with you.
It’s a part of me, I think, that propensity to slip into the pit. I stay out of it mainly by being busy enough, with lots of things I care about and that bring me joy, but not so busy that I succumb to anxiety and sleepless nights and feelings of panic. I know the signs now, and can usually take preventative steps before I start to slip. Once you’re in there, it’s hard to get out, as Alyssa Day’s blog vividly and powerfully describes.
It shouldn’t be so hard to talk about this stuff. It is, still, and I will press Publish on this post with more trepidation than for anything else I’ve sent out into the blogosphere.
But it really is time to talk.
The journey that we most associate with the Holocaust is the one that ends at those gates.
Our imagination cannot go beyond that point, no matter how many accounts we read from those who survived. Our imagination baulks at the journey to the gates, not just at its ending – the cattle trucks from all corners of occupied Europe filled with people who not so long before had lives, loves, professions and occupations, and had all of those things gradually stripped from them till all that was left was a name on a list.
But for many of those individuals, the Holocaust journey began long before the cattle truck to Auschwitz. The Plus qu’un nom dans une liste project has put together many stories of individuals and families deported from France, and I’ve selected just a couple, to show what happened to them once their homes were no longer safe for them.
The Taussig family left Vienna in June 1939, having obtained a ‘Reisepass’, and left Reich territory the same month via the frontier post of Arnoldstein in Carinthia, where nowadays the three borders of Austria, Italy and Slovenia meet. Rudolf and his wife Leonie, both 56, and their son Hans, 29, crossed into Italy through the Friuli province.
Italy had stopped allowing foreign Jews into its territory by this time, and the authorities probably escorted the family to the Italian Riviera. On 9 July the Taussigs arrived at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Cote d’Azur. The gendarmes had been alerted by phone that a group of refugees were waiting on the beach for the people to whom they’d paid money for safe passage, and arrested them and took them to Menton.
Those arrested that night were:
- Léonie Taussig, born 29/3/1885 in Vienna; daughter of Joseph Bondy and Bertha Donath
- Rudolf Taussig, born 26/5/1883 in Chrudim, Czechoslovakia, son of Adolf Taussig and Louisette Teveles
- Hans Taussig, born 28/6/1910 in Vienna, son of Rudolf and Léonie
- James Landau, born 21/08/1895 in Breslau, son of Wilhem and Henriette Kehlmann
- Bruno Kulka, born 30/12/1894 in Prerou (Moravia), son of Jean and Emma Herzka.
On 11 July Rudolf and family were transferred to Lyon, where he and Hans were interned. Rudolf was freed in January 1940, and Hans on 21 February. On 23 April 1940 Rudolf obtained a refugee worker permit for work as a metallurgist which was extended till 15 July 1941. However, the tribunal in Nice judged them in their absence for having entered France illegally, and condemned them to a month in prison and a fine of 100 francs. Rudolf and Hans served their sentence at the prison St Paul de Lyon and were freed in September 1941. They requested emigration to the USA, where their daughter Alice had already settled – she and her husband had managed to leave France for Portugal, where they got a visa in Lisbon in March 1940.
The Taussig family were arrested during the round-ups in the southern zone in the summer of 1942, interned at Drancy and all three deported to Auschwitz in September 1942 on convoy 27.
The Taussigs’ journey – Vienna to Arnoldstein to Friuli to Roquebrune Cap Martin to Menton to Lyon to Drancy to Auschwitz
Gisela Spira fled Berlin early in 1939 with her mother and elder sister Toni. The three women arrived in Brussels on 31 January, where father Herzel and brother Siegmund were already waiting for them. The youngest brother, Felix, had already been placed by the Comité d’Assistance at the house of the curate of Wezembeek, east of Brussels.
After May 1940, round-ups of German and Austrians in Belgium as enemy aliens prompted the Spira family to go into exile again, and they crossed clandestinely into France. They were interned there almost immediately, at Bram, in the Aude. They were freed on 30 June, and found somewhere to live in Salleles d’Aude, where Gisela met Bertold Linder, ten years older than her, who she married in January 1942.
On 26 August 1942, the Spira family was arrested, apart from Siegmund and Gisela who had moved to Lamalou les Bains, and then to St Martin Vésubie, near the Italian border. Herzel, Rosa, Toni and Felix were deported on Convoy 31 to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
On 25 December 1942, Gisela gave birth to a son, Roland.
Hundreds of Jewish refugees had been forced to settle in St Martin by the Italian administration. Many tried to cross the mountains, hoping to meet up with the Allied army. In August/September 1943, a new danger appeared, as the Wehrmacht occupied the old Italian zone, and on the 10th, the Gestapo arrived in Nice.
At St Martin, the local refugee organisations told families to pack their suitcases as quickly as possible, and to follow the retreating Italian army. Siegmund, Frieda and Roland, and around 1,200 men, women and children then tried to escape across the Alps, a biblical exodus which took place between 9 and 13 September. 328 people were intercepted and escorted to the Borgo San Dalmazzo camp in Italy, under the guard of Italian soldiers until the SS arrived. Two months later, on 21 November, the camp was evacuated, and its inhabitants transported to Nice, where they were interrogated by the Gestapo.
Gisela, her son, brother and husband were deported from Nice to Drancy. On 7 December 1943, they left Drancy on Convoy 64. On 12 December, 13 days after Roland’s first birthday, on disembarking from the cattle trucks, Gisela and her son were gassed at Auschwitz.
Siegmund alone survived. His journey continued from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated. He settled in the USA.
Gisela’s journey – Berlin to Brussels to Bram to Salleles d’Aude to Lamalou les Bains to Saint Martin Vesubie to Borgo San Dalmazzo to Nice to Drancy to Auschwitz
What’s striking is not just how those journeys ended – it’s that process of seeking safety, finding it illusory, moving on in the hopes that the next place will be different. Taking their old lives with them as they went from one apparent haven to the next. In any of the convoys from Drancy there would be those who had sought refuge in France from persecution over the previous half-century from all over Europe, and those whose families had lived in France for generations. There would be workers and bosses, Communists and conservatives, believers and non-believers. Some of their journeys were long and convoluted, like those outlined above, with many apparent reprieves along the way until that final denial of their right to live. Others had been rounded up on French streets where they had spent all their lives, and like Helene Berr, made only a short journey from Paris to Drancy before the terrible journey from Drancy to annihilation.
Those who destroyed them saw them as one thing only. That’s the nature of genocide, nothing matters except that one defining characteristic – you are a Jew, a Tutsi, and therefore you have to die. That’s why we have to make them, wherever we can, more than a name on a list. Gisela Spira, Rudolf Taussig, Helene Berr, deserve their own stories, so that we glimpse the people they were, the people they might have been.
And if we can enter imaginatively into their journeys, can we not also think of them when we hear of those in our own time who are driven from their homes by war and persecution, seeking safety where they can and often finding further perils instead?
W G Sebald describes, in his extraordinary novel Austerlitz, a recording of a film made at the Terezin concentration camp, as part of the effort to present it as a humane and civilised place to visitors from the Red Cross (overcrowding in the camp was reduced before the visit by wholesale deportations to Auschwitz, and once the visitors had left, remaining inmates were summarily despatched too).
In Austerlitz’s search for a glimpse of his mother, who had been interned there before her death, he slows the film down to give him a greater chance of spotting her fleeting image. This creates many strange effects, the inmates now move wearily, not quite touching the ground, blurring and dissolving. But:
‘Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of sounds in this slow motion version. In a brief sequence at the very beginning, … the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the soundtrack … had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisienne and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended’. (Austerlitz, pp. 348-9)
The deception that the film sought to achieve is exposed.
The association between Terezin and music has another dimension, however. A remarkable number of inmates were Czech composers, musicians and conductors, and this, combined with the Nazi attempt to make the camp appear to be a model community with a rich cultural life, gave opportunities for music to be created and performed here. There is no easy comfort in this fact, when one knows that most of those who played, composed and conducted died here, or at Auschwitz, and that the moments of escape into this other world were few, and may in some ways have made the contrast with the brutality and barbarism of the regime even harder to bear.
The music of Terezin, however, now reaches new audiences through performance and recordings. Each time we hear the voices of those the Nazis sought to silence, that is a small victory.
Czech conductor Rafael Schachter – transported to Terezin in 1941, organised a performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and finally of Verdi’s Requiem, performed for the last time just a few weeks before his transfer to Auschwitz in October 1944
Jazz musician and arranger Fritz Weiss – arrived in Terezin in 1941, set up a dixieland band called the Ghetto Swingers. Fritz was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, with his father, and was killed there on his 25th birthday.
Viktor Ullmann – Silesian/Austrian composer, pupil of Schoenberg, was transported to Terezin in 1942. He composed many works there, all but thirteen of which have been lost, before being transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.
Gideon Klein – Czech pianist and composer, who like Ullmann composed many works in the camp as well as performing regularly in recitals. Just after completing his final string trio, he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Furstengrube, where he died during the liquidation of the camp.
Pavel Haas – Czech composer, exponent of Janacek’s school of composition, who used elements of folk and jazz in his work. He was transferred to Auschwitz after the propaganda film was completed, and was murdered there.
Hans Krasa wrote the children’s opera Brundibar in 1938, and it was first performed in the Jewish orphanage in Prague. After Krasa and many of his cast were sent to Terezin, he reconstructed the score from memory, and the opera was performed there regularly, culminating in a performance for the propaganda film. Krasa and his performers were sent to Auschwitz as soon as the filming was finished, and were gassed there.
Not all of the musicians of Terezin were killed. Alice Herz-Sommer survived, along with her son. Now 110, Alice sees life as miraculous and beautiful, she has chosen hope over hate.
“The world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music … It is a miracle.”