Bookmarks: Atrocity and how we choose to acknowledge it
A fortnightly look at books and writers
Sunday was Holocaust Memorial Day, an event that passed just as surveys to mark the occasion reveal an extraordinary ignorance about the Final Solution and the Nazis’ plans to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
According to several media reports, a recent UK poll found that one in 20 British adults do not believe the Holocaust happened, and 8% claim the scale of the genocide has been exaggerated. Almost half of those surveyed did not know how many Jews were murdered, and one in five grossly underestimated the number, saying that fewer than two million were killed.
The poll was commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which is funded by the UK government to promote the international day of remembrance. Its findings echoed that of a CNN poll carried out in several European countries last year.
That poll found that one in three people knew little or nothing about the Holocaust, while about 5% of respondents said they had never heard of it. In France, 20% of those aged 18-34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust; in Austria, the figure was 12%. According to the CNN poll, antisemitic stereotypes are thriving in Europe. More than a quarter of those polled believe Jews have too much influence in business and finance. Nearly one in four said Jews have too much influence in conflict and wars across the world. One in five said they have too much influence in the media and the same number believe they have too much influence in politics.
Elsewhere, a 2018 US survey found that 9% of millennials said they had not heard, or did not think they had heard, of the Holocaust.
While the scale of the ignorance has been described as shocking, Olivia Marks-Woldman, of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, told the Observer: “I must stress that I don’t think [poll respondents] are active Holocaust deniers – people who deliberately propagate and disseminate vile distortions. But their ignorance means they are susceptible to myths and distortions.”
These findings come just as several new books – fact and fiction – that touch on the subject and its legacy have been published. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these is Deborah Lipstadt’s Antisemitism: Here and Now (Scribe). Lipstadt is current Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Georgia. She and her then publisher, Penguin, were famously sued for libel by the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving following the publication of her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. Irving lost the case, and the celebrated trial was turned into a Hollywood movie, Denial, starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt.
Her latest book takes the form of a series of letters between herself and two imaginary people: one is “Abigail”, one of her Jewish students, and the other is the non-Jewish “Joe”, an academic colleague. It is a structure that, according to one critic, “does give a fascinating insight into the difficulties facing Jewish American students who regard themselves as on the liberal left, but are now deeply discomfited by the vituperative anti-Zionism among fellow students who in other respects they might see as political allies”.
Lipstadt’s concerns, however, range further than the febrile politics of US campuses. The British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, comes in for some criticism for his embrace of organisations with antisemitic prejudices. While she concludes that Corbyn is himself not an antisemite, he is an enabler of those who are. Worryingly, she suggests that Corbyn, like so many of his comrades, is so convinced of his own “anti-racist” moral rectitude that he believes he is immune to any form of prejudice.
It’s an issue that was perhaps more deftly handled by the University of London’s Dave Rich in his recently updated work, The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (Biteback). According to Rich, the origins of contemporary left-wing antisemitic anti-Israel rhetoric in the Labour Party hark back to the early 1970s when Peter Hain and others in the party “re-conceptualised” the national liberation movement of the Jewish people as an “imperialist project”, one which imposed a form of “apartheid” on an indigenous people.
As you can imagine, this notion, that a Marxist “new left” had inverted reality – and the Holocaust – to suggest that Jews, victims of a most murderous racism, were in fact the real racists, did not go down too well with Corbyn’s inner circle.
The big question, though, is can it happen again? Much of the literature about World War 2 suggests that the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany during the 1930s was unstoppable.
This is a notion that is challenged in French author Eric Vuillard’s 2017 Prix Goncourt-winning novel, The Order of the Day (Picador), which suggests there was nothing inevitable about it at all, and instead presents fascism’s ascendency as a farcical series of coincidences, accidents and blunders. The strength of this slim novel, which has just been issued in English, lies in its contemporary impact. It is a story of the present as much as the past. As the historian and critic Andrew Hussey noted: “Vuillard has written a magnificently entertaining account that manages to capture the wild and uneven emotional climate of the 1930s and speaks to our own era of liars, demagogues and politics as farce, which as Vuillard deftly shows, can slide all too quickly into tragedy.”
Elsewhere, a new novel by David Gilham, Annelies (Fig Tree), revisits one of the most poignant and renowned documents of Nazi persecution, the diary kept by Anne Frank, and imagines a different ending. Rather than perish in Bergen-Belsen a few months before the end of the war, as Anne did, the 16-year-old survives the ordeal which claimed the lives of her mother and beloved sister, Margot.
Reunited with her father in liberated Amsterdam, she now faces challenges of a different sort. Adrift, and haunted by Margot’s ghost and the atrocities they experienced, Anne grapples with overwhelming grief, heartbreak and ultimately forgiveness. HAMBA KAHLE, BANDIET
Farewell, then, Hugh Lewin, who has died at the age of 79 and whose extraordinary Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison, a classic of the “prison memoir” genre, remains, sadly, one of our most undervalued literary masterpieces. Lewin was a member of the SA Liberal Party, which, following the banning in 1960 of the ANC and the PAC, found itself the only legal nonracial political organisation in the country. He joined the underground African Resistance Movement, which had embarked on a campaign of sabotage, targeting government installations.
The ARM was basically crushed after a police raid on the home of its national organiser, Adrian Leftwich, uncovered the organisation’s entire cell structure. Leftwich, who was the best man at Lewin’s wedding, turned state witness to convict him as did another close friend and co-conspirator, John Lloyd, and in 1964 Lewin was sent down for seven years for sabotage.
Lewin would later describe his sentence as “a parking ticket” compared to the life sentences handed down to Mandela and others at the Rivonia trial. But, like other white political prisoners, he was tortured and beaten and subjected to extreme cruelty – all of which he detailed in a secret diary, writing between the lines of his Bible in minute, near invisible pencil.
He left SA shortly after his release in 1971 and settled in the UK, where Bandiet was originally published in 1974. It was banned in SA. When this was later overturned, David Philip published, to little fanfare, the first local edition in 1989. In March 2013, Umuzi issued a reworked version of the book, Bandiet Out of Jail, which contained the full text of the original along with Lewin’s subsequent observations and experiences with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as a series of illustrations by Harold Strachan, who was a fellow “bandiet” with Lewin in Pretoria.
This edition went on to win the Olive Schreiner Prize.
Earlier, in 2011, Umuzi published Lewin’s acclaimed, Alan Paton Award-winning Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the Time of the South African Struggle, which details his attempt at rapprochement with Adrian Leftwich, the friend who had betrayed him back in 1964.
Of all his work, Bandiet, in particular, deserves to be reissued and possibly even taught at our schools.
A new sponsor of the Booker Prize is to be announced within a fortnight, according to the Times of London. This follows the withdrawal of Man, the hedge fund management group which had sponsored the literary competition for 17 years. Man was widely regarded as being the force behind the organisers’ decision to allow US authors to be considered for the competition alongside British, Irish and Commonwealth writers. Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks, in particular, has labelled Man “the enemy” of literature.
Booker publicist Dotti Irving, however, has defended Man’s involvement, saying it had been “a super sponsor” for the competition.
THE FOURTH ESTATE
Much food for thought for journalists in Jill Abramson’s forthcoming Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution (Bodley Head). In 2011, Abramson was the first woman to be appointed New York Times executive editor, a position she lost in 2014 when she was fired by the newspaper’s then publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jnr, a man who once gave her a performance review she has since summarised as: “People think you’re a bitch.”
Abramson’s book grapples with the enormous changes that have affected the news industry over the past decade, and focuses on four major operations: two of them digital upstarts, BuzzFeed and Vice, and two representatives of the old media, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The latter, in particular, emerges rather well, thanks to the hands-off approach of its new owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the newspaper in 2013. As Abramson told the Observer recently:
“He doesn’t interfere. I think the Graham family [the Post’s previous owners] did a fantastic job of making sure that anyone interested in buying it – and remember that Bezos owns it personally, not through Amazon – would never use it as a weapon for a political or business purpose. “My respect for him increased after the arrest of [the Post’s] Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian, which he took very seriously [Rezaian was put on trial and imprisoned by Iran in 2014 and released in 2016]; you see it, too, with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi [the Saudi dissident and Post columnist]. He stands up for principled journalism and, by ploughing more resources into it, he has brought the Post back to its glory. That is a gift to democracy.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“In a sense Donald Trump has done journalism a favour. In his cavalier disregard for truth he has reminded people why societies need to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. At their best, journalists do that job well. They can now harness almost infinite resources to help them. But, at the same time, we have created the most prodigious capability for spreading lies the world has ever seen. And the economic system for supporting journalism looks dangerously unstable. The stakes for truth have never been higher.” – Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by Alan Rusbridger (Canongate).