Striped Pyjamas

Ksenia, artist, New Zealand
The stain of the Holocaust is almost like a physical wound, as if one is perpetually having to place one’s hand in the Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem. Books and films about it are abundant. Stellar examples are, of course,  ‘Schindler’s Ark’ now ‘List’ and ‘The Pianist’ both having a place in the hall of fame, as has the movie I finally got around to watching yesterday, from John Boyne’s prizewinning children’s novel ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, filmed in 2008. It has a deceptively simple plotline centring around Bruno, an eight year old boy whose father is the commandant of an extermination camp who illicitly befriends a ragged Jewish child of the same age on the other side of the electrified fence. The film begins with a quote from Betjeman: ‘Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights before the dark hour of reason grows’. The wide-eyed innocence of the little German boy is maintained right to the end, as he is sheltered from the horrors on the other side of the fence. We are left in no doubt about the brutality of events, the fictional proximity of the commandant’s house to the camp itself serves as a magnifying lens, but we’re meant to suspend disbelief and see the world through eight year old eyes, catching glimpses of the horror only through adult reactions to them.
Apparently, at the opening screening, after a devastating climax, quiet pervaded the auditorium right until the fade of the final credits.
One hundred and forty four people are known to have escaped from Auschwitz. One was a Pole who volunteered to go into Auschwitz and report to the world what he had seen, and, a Slovakian Jew who escaped when he was nineteen by hiding for three days in a pile of wood outside the electrified fences.  The story of their escape and subsequent early warnings to Hungarian Jewry saved countless lives.
Joel Rosenberg’s well-researched but fictional ‘The Auschwitz Escape’ tells the story of a German Jew and a French pastor determined to find freedom together. Luc, the unconventional pastor from the little village of Le Chambon in France, has been imprisoned for helping Jews. Many of the guards, who beat, kill, and torture six days a week  faithfully attend church every Sunday, but Luc is determined to show that work is love made visible. Jacob, the leading Jewish protagonist, does not become a Christian, but he is deeply moved by Luc’s passion. Luc admits Martin Luther was the source of Hitler’s propaganda, and apologizes to Jacob for every wrong thing Christians have done to Jews throughout the years. I know a little of how that feels, as if the skin is peeled back, exposing an open wound. The pastor never tries to convert anyone but refuses to remain willfully ignorant, as the majority of Christians in Europe did.
Today, there are dangerous new threats from ISIS, Iran, North Korea, and a rising czar in Russia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have each warned that as we confront current challenges we must be careful to learn the lessons of history regarding how the world failed to understand the threat posed by Hitler and the Nazis and deal with it decisively, before events spin out of control. Deep and abiding evil is still to be found in abundance. Today, the president of Kenya declared “we will not flinch” as al-Shabab terrorists perpetrated a massacre near the Somali border. They methodically separated the non-Muslims to be killed, sparing the Muslims.  36 people were marched to a gravel pit, where most were shot in the head, lying facedown on a stony hillside, with some beheaded.
Yes. The link between Nazism and militant Islam is entirely intentional.

Coming Out

This is a strange time. Having followed its politics and listened to its heartbeat with the long stethoscope of distance, it is a different and otherworldly experience to be back. I have a job again, which means I rise regularly to a soothingly melodic alarm, the poetry of the city in my ears like a half-remembered song, resonating gently at the back of my mind.

The city is full. Full of contrast, opinion and the suppressed violence of abundant dialectic, the pulse of which is almost palpable, like an adrenalin-fuelled artery, close to the surface. The haredim move uneasily, weak-eyed with study, hurrying past the goyim, the less religious, the reformed and the seculars, as if to touch would be to contaminate, their slight variations in clothing proclaiming their rabbinical allegiances. Young, bright-eyed, confident people laugh and sometimes dance in the streets to the music of whomever is playing there, drink arak and grapefruit juice in the bars, curly black-haired girls shriek at the tram stops. The Old City, eternally patient, throws open her ancient doors to the world, her marbled streets once rough now worn smooth, polished and slippery with pilgrims’ sandals, as they follow crosses down the Via Dolorosa. Queues still form at dusk to enter the tiny sanctuary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, guarded by unsmiling, black-cowled Orthodox monks. Tiny, ragged bookshops, exchange and new, are full of welcome and freedom to browse. I buy rather fewer hard copy books these days – the encroachment of technology allows me to buy whatever I need online and read it on an iPad, slim and luminous. Yet, the smell of old books – everything from leather bound volumes on Jewish thought in Hebrew to dog-eared copies of ten-year-old Stephen King novels reminds me of school libraries and the fustiness of long-abandoned rooms. A book caught my eye. It is not often that one chances upon a masterpiece, peeping shyly out between the poetry and travel sections. Not since Brigid Brophy’s “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept” have I been so moved.
This is no Tolstoy, great with pages. Thin with hungry prose, “Yosl Rakover Talks To God” begins with this, found inscribed on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, where some Jews remained hidden for the whole of the war.

I believe in the sun, even when it doesn’t shine
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Truly, this is a city of cursed believers, of poets, artists, thinkers and dreamers, pregnant with optimism, rage and fragile hope.

There is no place like it in the world.