Holocaust Posts

“The Cut Out Girl” by Bart van Es

…her memories are not as clear as I have made them. She remembers scraps — the landings, the sirens, the crouching down in the cellar, the girls in their dresss of parachute cloth, the dead bodies of soldiers in the streets of Ede–but some of the rest I must patch together from other sources, such as history books and diaries, and the witness accounts that I will get from other people whom I have yet to meet.

Memory is selective and not always reliable. So many facts are irretrievably lost. 

Award-winning biography The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es is about Hesseline de Jong, Lien for short. Lien is a Jew. One of the few Jewish children taken into safekeeping by non-Jewish families and kept hidden from the Nazis and the Dutch police force that were hunting Jews to pack them off to the concentration camps. Bart van Es is a professor of literature at Oxford University and his earlier publications were about Shakespeare and Spenser. Yet, he chose to write about his father’s foster sister, a Jew, looked after by his grandparents during the second world war.

Bart van Es could not understand why Lien had not been invited to his grandmother’s funeral. His grandmother died when Bart was twenty three years old. He was old enough to recall Lien being a part of the family but inexplicably all ties had been severed with her a few years before his grandmother’s death. Bart van Es’s family is based in the UK. They moved to Oxford when Bart was three years old. He became a professor of English Literature at Oxford University but he knew how to speak Dutch. Curious about this severance of ties he chose to begin an investigation on what happened to his father’s foster sister. It was then he realised that his mother had remained in touch with Lien and was able to help him.

The story that is told is astounding. It is probably like many other such stories. Yet the manner in which it is shared with the readers. The mix of oral history testimonies, plenty of archival research and detective work of visiting cities and towns that Lien recalled being taken to as a child and hidden away. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was swift and brutal. Astoundingly the extermination of the Jews that was carried out in a methodical manner at the behest of the Nazis was implemented by the Dutch police force and a semi-commercial agency that had been set up specifically to hunt Jews. Horrifically approximately 80% of the Jews living in the country at the time were caught and killed, many sent off to concentration camps. The “success rate” was attributed to the reward given to every person who brought in a Jew. It was approximately seven guilders for every Jew turned in to the authorities. Lien’s own parents were caught two months after they had sent their daughter away to safety. Within a month of their arrest, Lien’s mother and maternal grandmother were killed at Auschwitz while her father died a few months later. Lien, fortunately, became one of the 4,000 Jewish children who had been whisked away to safety. Whatever the immediate circumstance may have been a large band of common people were willing to risk their lives and safeguard these young lives. Some of the extraordinary lengths that the Dutch went to hide Jews are spelled out in the book, including the tunnels dug out under houses that seemingly looked like air passages built ostensibly to ventilate. This was a cover for any unexpected police raids that may occur and they did with great regularity. But if investigated closely the tunnel would lead deeper into the soil where an entire room had been carved out for a family to hide. There were many other kinds of intricate networks created between the Dutch to protect the Jews.

Lien was merely eight years old when her parents handed her over for safekeeping. At first Lien was traumatised and wept bitterly. Her ninth birthday was spent with her foster parents. But within eight months when she had to escape the police raids and was moved from home to home, city to city, it began to become a blur. She was vulnerable. In one of the foster homes she was repeatedly raped by foster father’s brother. Lien was twelve. Possibly the only reason why Bart van Es is able to put together a compellingly told elegant narrative is precisely because Lien maintained a scrap book and retained a few other mementos from the past. Also interviewing her over many days and checking up facts at various museums and archives, speaking to people in the neighbourhoods she recalled staying, the author is able to put together a very elegant but a very disturbing witnessing.

At the best of times, writing about war and its impact on people is a painful exercise. But it is aggravated many times over if it is a story such as this also affects the author and his family. It is impossible to gauge whether it is a biography of Lien or is it a memoir of Bart van Es curious about his grandparents who were saviours to a little girl and would like to know more about the past. The Cut Out Girl comes across as an act of creation of two individuals who began writing the book as complete strangers and a little careful of each other but by the closing pages are thickest of friends. So much so that as Bart is leaving Lien’s apartment to catch his flight home, she chooses to introduce him to her Buddhist circle as her “nephew”.

The Cut Out Girl may come across as an astounding biography that will be talked about for years to come at the incredible luck of a little girl surviving against so many odds. It also marks the arrival of a new style of writing biographies befitting the information age — not the classic style of a literary biography mapping every moment in the protagonist’s life but focussing on significant events in their life. Telling it more in the form of a documentary with plenty of detail but in prose. (It would be short work converting this book into a documentary. The script more or less exists in these pages.) But what truly stands out in this narrative is that during the second world war there were a bunch of individuals who worked relentlessly to save lives, risking their own in the process, but were determined to do so. With The Cut Out Girl what stands out starkly is that even in the most horrifically depressing times of xenophobic violence, intolerance and bigotry, there is hope. It is not absolute bleakness though it may feel so.

The Cut Out Girl won the Costa Book of the Year award in January 2019. Both Bart van Es and Lien were on stage to receive the award. According to the Guardian: ‘Without family you don’t have a story. Now I have a story,’ said Lien de Jong, the 85-year-old woman whose harrowing story is at the heart of Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl.  ‘Bart has reopened the channels of family,’ she said during the Costa Book of the Year award ceremony. Van Es and Lien de Jong embraced on stage in front of a packed room after he was announced as winner at the awards.

Read The Cut Out Girl.

5 Feb 2019 

“Reconciliation: Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity through a Wounded India”

On 4 September 2017, a group of volunteers led by Harsh Mander travelled across eight states of India on a journey of shared suffering, atonement and love in the Karwan e Mohabbat, or Caravan of Love. It was a call to conscience, an attempt to seek out and support families whose loved ones had become victims of hate attacks in various parts of the country. Along the way they met families of victims who had been lynched as well as some of those who had managed to survive the lynching. The bus travelled through the states, meeting with people and listening to their testimonies. It is a searingly painful account of the terror inflicted in civil society that has seen a horrific escalation in recent months. 

The book is clearly divided into sections consisting of an account of the journey based upon the daily updates Harsh Mander wrote every night. It is followed by a collection of essays by people who travelled in the bus. There is also a selection of testimonies recorded by journalist Natasha Badhwar of her fellow passengers. Many of whom joined only for a few days but were shattered by what they saw and heard. 

Reconciliation is powerful and it is certainly not easy to read knowing full well that this is the violence we live with every day. The seemingly normalcy of activity we may witness in our daily lives is just a mirage for the visceral hatred and hostility that exists for “others”. It is a witnessing of the breakdown of the secular fabric of India and a polarisation along communal lines that is ( for want of a better word) depressing. Given below are a few lines from the introduction written by human rights activist Harsh Mander followed by an extract by Prabhir Vishnu Poruthiyil. Prabhir who was on the bus is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management Tiruchirapalli (IIMT), India. The extract is being used with the permission of the publishers. 

Everywhere, the Karwan found minorities living in endemic and lingering fear, and with hate and state violence, resigned to these as normalised elements of everyday living.

…..

Our consistent finding was that families hit by hate violence were bereft of protection and justice from the state. In the case of almost all the fifty-odd families we met during our travel through eight states, the police had registered criminal charges gainst the victims, treating teh accused with kid gloves, leaving their bail applications unopposed, or erasing their crimes altogether. 

. . . 

More worrying by far was our finding that the police had increasingly taken on the work of lynch mobs. There were tens of instances of the police executing Muslim men, alleging that they were cattle smugglers or dangerous criminals, often claiming that they had fired at the police. Unlike mob lynching, murderous extrajudicial action has barely registered on the national conscience. It is as though marjoritarian public opinion first outsourced its hate violence to lynch mobs, and lynch mobs in BJP-ruled states like UP, Haryana and Rajasthan are now outsourcing it onwards to the police.  ( Introduction, p.x-xi)

Prabhir Vishnu Poruthiyil is an assistant professor at theIndian Institute of Management Tiruchirapalli (IIMT), India. He teachesbusiness ethics and his research is focused on the influence of business oninequalities and the rise of religious fundamentalism.

Like many others, I grew up with the usual doseof religiosity and nationalism. But I was also enrolled in a Hindu school (Chinmaya Vidyalaya) that injected an additional dose of Hindu supremacy. Therewas a short phase in my life (jobless, in my mid-twenties) when I went aboutexploring and trying to understand and justify Hinduism. I am the kind of person who tends to immerse himself fully to understand and make sense of theworld. My exploration brought me in close contact with gurus in various ashrams and bhajan groups. I learned Vedic chanting, studied Hindu theology, and even dallied with the idea of becoming a monk. I interacted with groups and individuals committed to Hindutva and attempted to see the world from their perspective (many remain my friends). I could not put my finger on it then, butI was deeply uncomfortable with what I later realised was unadulterated hatred and a stifling resistance to questioning and reason.

Around this time, in 2004, I was admitted into a masters and then a PhD programme in the Netherlands. Lectures by my teachers and exposure to the lives of classmates and refugees with personal experiences of life in theocratic regimes accelerated my disgust with religious nationalism of all kinds. Exposure to liberal political philosophy and to Dutch society made me appreciate the benefits of living in a place run on democratic and rational principles. As my education both in and outside the classroom progressed, my fascination with extreme perspectives rapidly diminished andturned into concern and disgust. It was, however, a visit to Auschwitz in 2012 that made me realise how easy it was for a society to be sufficiently intoxicated by supremacist world views to justify the annihilation of those deemed inferior. That a human tragedy on this scale had happened in the same society that had made incredible contributions to art, philosophy and music was unthinkable.

Over time, I have lost what remains of my beliefin the supernatural and purged myself of superstitions. I would now call myself a rationalist or secular humanist. Ibelieve that the irrationality promoted by religion is a barrier to progress and that religion is unnecessary for morality, and not a guarantee of it.

When I returned to India in 2013 to join the IIM, I did not expect religious nationalism to influence my research in, andteaching of, business ethics. My focus was on inequality. With the BJP’s victory in 2014 and the support of the corporate sector for the party, it became impossible to disentangle business ethics from religious nationalism. Istarted research on a paper on how religious nationalism emerges and whatbusiness schools could do to resist its advance.

When the lynchings began, more than thepsychology of the vigilantes and their victims, my sociological interest waspiqued by the nonchalance and even the endorsement of cow-vigilantism by many people I cared for, particularly among my family, friends, colleagues andstudents. Their unwillingness to recognise bigotry for what it was and rejectpolitical leaders who create an atmosphere of hate resembled the attitudes prevalent in Germany during the Nazi era. It disturbed me deeply to see sectarianism slowly taking hold of persons I loved. I started to worry that the possibility of concentration camps being built in India was no longer a gross exaggeration.

In the meantime, I had initiated a conversation with Harsh Mander. I wished to invite him to give a lecture at the IIM inTrichy. When the Karwan e Mohabbat was announced, I felt it was important to take part. I wanted to see for myself and talk about it to my friends and family and to students in my classes. The experience of looking into the eyesof persons who had lost loved ones was emotionally tough. After each meeting, my mind was constantly wondering how human beings could allow such tragedies to happen. A quote by Gandhi kept ricocheting in my brain: ‘It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.’

Looking back now, the memories and emotions of my visits to Auschwitz and of the victims of Hindutva are difficult to distinguish. The same helplessness, resentment and fear captured in the countless pictures of Jews subjected to the Holocaust seem to be reflected inthe eyes of the victims of cow-vigilantism. In contemporary India, I worry it may be unnecessary to build a standalone Auschwitz to implement a sectarian agenda. Terror has been decentralised and imposed through a variety of spaces. The entire country now risks being transformed into one large concentration camp.

How do we push back? Being a committed rationalist, my first instinct is to train citizens to use their reasoning and the language of liberalism and human rights to push back against bigotry andreligious nationalism. But the inroads made by Hindu nationalism into thepsyche can make it difficult for liberal vocabularies to reverse. The languageof ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of speech’ can be branded as alien and hence ridiculed and dismissed. Furthermore, there are studies that show how groups tend to cling more firmly to their beliefs when threatened by outsiders.

Observant Hindus can be convinced more easily that sectarian hate and bigotry goes against the grain of Hinduism. The definition of Hinduism could be expanded to encompass empathy and compassion.This strategy would require formulating something like the liberation theologythat emerged in Latin America to challenge the interlocking interests of thebusiness elite and the top echelons of the Church that perpetuated inequality.

Excerpted with permission from RECONCILIATION:Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity through a Wounded India, Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar and John Dayal, Context, Westland 2018. 

The pictures in the gallery are from Karwan e Mohabbat‘s Facebook page. 

19 December 2018 

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

hitler_looks_whos_back_ti-472027

Timur Vermes debut novel Look Who’s Back is about Adolf  Hitler returning to Berlin, 2011. It is written in first person. Adolf Hitler is who he says he is, but others mistake him for an actor who is method acting. Through a series of twists and turns, Adolf Hitler becomes a part of a satirical television show. The ratings of the show rise tremendously and Hitler wins the Adolf Grimme Prize–the top prize for television comedy. Everyone involved with the programme is ecstatic with joy. Fraulein Kromeier is deputed to work for Hitler, as a secretary. They get along well. In fact she is proud to be working with a real star, till her grandmother ticks her off:

‘What that man does is not funny. It’s nothing to laugh about. We can’t have people like that around.’ And I’m like, ‘But Nan, it’s satire? He’s doing it so it doesn’t happen again?’ But she’s like, ‘That’s not satire. He’s just the same as Hitler always was. And people laughed then, too.’ 

Fraulein Kromeier discovers that her Nan’s family had been gassed during the war.

Hitler is offended by the criticism of his “life’s work”. He decides to defend himself by taking the “path of eternal, unadulterated truth”.

“Fraulein Kromeier,” I began. “I don’t imagine that you’ll thank me for saying this, but you are mistaken in many things. The mistake is not yours, but it is a mistake all the same. These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists, unfaltering to the very end. And they’re not entirely wrong; an attempt did in fact take place. In Munich, 1924. But if failed, with bloody sacrifices. The consequence of this was that another path was taken. In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected who had laid bare his plans with irrefutable clarity. The Germans elected him. Yes, including Jews. And maybe even your grandmother’s parents. In 1933 the party could boast four million members, after which time we accepted no more. By 1934 the figure might otherwise have been eight million, twelve million. I do not believe that any of today’s parties enjoy anything approaching this support.”

“What are you trying to say?” 

“Wither there was a whole Volk full of bastards. Or what happened was not the act of bastards, but the will of the Volk.”

Fraulein Kromeier looked at me in disbelief. “You …can’t say that! It wasn’t the will of the people that my nan’s family should die! Come off it, it was the idea of those who were found guilty. In, what’s it called, in …Nuremberg.”

“Fraulein Kromeier, I beg you! This Nuremberg spectacle was nothing more than a deception, a way to hoodwink the Volk. If you are seeking to find those responsible you ultimately have two options. Either you follow the line of the N.S.D.A.P., and that means the man responsible is precisely the one who bears responsibility in the Fuhrer state — i.e. the Fuhrer and no one else. Or you must condemn those who elected this Fuhrer, but failed to remove him. They were very normal people who decided to elect an extraordinary man and entrust him with the destiny of their country. Would you outlaw elections, Fraulein Kromeier?” 

( p. 292-4)

Look Who’s Back is a chilling and at the same time hilarious novel. As Die Ziet says, “shockingly plausible” too. According to Wikipedia, Timur Vermes was a professional ghostwriter and Er ist wieder da is his first novel. It has been a bestseller in Germany, selling over 1.3 million copies. The film rights have been sold. Translation rights have been sold to 35 countries.

It is interesting to have a novel revolve around the Adolf Hitler in modern Germany, given that his manifesto Mein Kampf is not easily accessed in the country. To read it, you require special permission and is only available in libraries. But in 2015 the state of Bavaria will allow the publication of the book  in Germany for the first time since the Second World War. According to a report in the Independent, “The state owns the copyright for the book and had blocked all attempts to publish a new German language edition because of fears that it would encourage a resurgence of the far right. However, the copyright, which transferred to the state of Bavaria after the Nazi party’s publishing house Eher Verlag was liquidated in 1945, expires next year.

Plans to republish the book with an academic commentary early in 2016 were approved in 2012, but last December the idea was blocked following complaints from Holocaust survivors. Bavaria then declared that the book was “seditious” and should never appear in print in German.

However, the state has now revised its ruling. “We have changed our minds,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian Minister of Culture, …. He said Bavaria would not oppose the project because it was in the interests of “freedom of science”.” ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/mein-kampf-legalised-bavaria-drops-veto-on-german-edition-of-adolf-hitlers-manifesto-9081339.htm . 23 Jan 2014)

With his experience as a ghostwriter, Timur Vermes, has created a story with a fine balance between fact and fiction. This is a novel that must be read, especially at a time when we are surrounded by conflicts world over.

Timur Vermes Look Who’s Back ( Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 380 Rs 499

31 July 2014