A novel idea

BY 2010, I HAD DONE a great deal of research on the backgrounds of both my parents’ families. I had published a few papers in prestigious genealogical journals, such as the former “Stammbaum” published by the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. I felt that it was time to combine the results of my investigations into a great compendium. I started compiling this with a view to publishing it eventually. After writing a couple of chapters, I sent them to a wise friend to get her reactions to what I had done so far. She wrote back that she was impressed by the research I had done but found that the chapters of my great compendium made for dull reading. She suggested that I should abandon the enterprise and instead choose one of my ancestors and write a novel based on what I had discovered about his or her life. I liked the idea.

ALI BLOG

Adam Yamey at the grave of his ancestor Heinrich Bergmann. In Aliwal North, South Africa

I chose Heinrich Bergmann (1831-66), my mother’s grandmother’s cousin. He was the first person to whom I am related to have left Europe for South Africa. He sailed from London to Cape Town in 1849, hoping to meet someone who had migrated from his village in Bavaria to South Africa. That person had left Cape Town by the time Heinrich arrived. He soon became employed by the German Jewish traders, the Mosenthals, and within a year of landing in Africa, he was put in charge of opening and running a branch of the firm in the newly established town of Aliwal North. Within a short time, Heinrich became very wealthy and was regarded by a highly respected banking family in Frankfurt-am-Main as being a suitable bridegroom for their daughter. The happy couple returned to Aliwal North from Germany, after they married. However, Heinrich’s rapid increase in prosperity led to problems that could only be resolved by taking a drastic measure. 

I wrote a novel, “Aliwal”, based on what I knew about Heinrich and the times he lived in. As the cause(s) of his downfall are not clear, I invented a sequence of events to replace the gaps in my knowledge of his short life.  I embarked on my novel-writing not having read a novel for over twenty years. Some people who have read “Aliwal” say that can be seen in my writing and what I produced was more like a narrative than a modern novel. I cannot argue with that. Except for the last few chapters, the denouement, which I invented, what I have written is largely based on historical research. I tried to transport myself back to mid-19th century Germany and South Africa to explore the kind of experiences that my ancestor may have encountered. For example: how did he learn English so quickly? Did he need a passport to travel? How did he find his spouse? What was it like landing in Cape Town in 1849? What was it like travelling through the arid interior of the Cape Colony? How did a young Jewish man interact with the English, the Boers, and the Africans? What was it like doing business in rural communities? I hope that all of these and other matters have been adequately covered in my novel.

When I read through what I wrote 10 years ago, I wondered if it would be worth bringing out a revised edition with a new ending. Let me think about that. Now here is an excerpt from the original version. In it, Heinrich is travelling from Cape Town to Graaff-Reinet in the heart of the Cape Colony soon after landing from London and meeting Mr Caro, with whom he is about to work.

THE EXCERPT FROM “ALIWAL”

They travelled for well over a week, lumbering from one pothole to the next, leaving behind them clouds of dust that hung above the road along which they had come. Heinrich clung onto the bench on which he was perched in order not to be thrown to the ground. This journey was more uncomfortable that any he had made in Europe. He thought that even the worst tracks around Dittenheim were not as bad the one along which they were travelling, and this was the main road to Graaff Reinet! They crossed numerous dried up streams and riverbeds. Most of these were without a bridge. This made the crossings slow and dangerous. The wiry, muscular native helpers sweated profusely as they eased the wagons down one bank of a riverbed, and then steadied them as they were hauled up the other. They had to take care to avoid damaging the wheels and axles of the wagons. Whenever they reached a pool or any other water, Caro ordered the convoy to stop to allow the oxen to rest and drink. Heinrich used these breaks as an opportunity to stretch his legs and give his aching backside a rest.

The days slipped by. They met few other travellers apart from the infrequent wagon trains heading back to the coast, and post carriers who hurried past them on horseback. The few Europeans they encountered were mostly Dutch speakers, eking out a living on their isolated farms. After having drunk coffee with some of these farmers, Heinrich remarked:

“These Afrikaners are friendly, open, and welcoming.”

“Yes, Heinrich, they are, especially to us Jews, because they regard us highly.”

“That makes a change!”

“They welcome us because they read in the Old Testament, whose words they follow closely, that we are God’s ‘Chosen People’, and understand our flight from Egypt.”

“Why?”

“Not so long ago, many of the Dutch fled from the British, whom they regard as oppressors. They piled their possessions in to wagons like ours, and left the Cape, crossing the Orange River – their ‘Red Sea’ – in search of their ‘promised land’. They are trying to live the way they choose, without interference from outsiders. The main thing is, as far as we Jews are concerned, that the Afrikaners respect us as fair and honest people, and like doing business with us.”

“And how do the English regard us?”

Caro did not answer immediately. He looked ahead towards the flat horizon, and then said:

“The English are not easy people. They say one thing, but often mean something else. Mastering their language is one achievement but deciphering what they really mean is quite another. Their attitude towards us is more of tolerance than acceptance. It is odd that the British, who have spread themselves all over the globe, are wary of foreigners and what they consider to be foreign ways. They put up with us Jews because we are useful to them and we don’t make trouble, but they’re not at ease with us.”

He turned away from Heinrich, and, standing precariously on the wagon’s seat that tilted as the vehicle crossed a pothole, ordered the men to stop and set up camp for the night. Then, turning to Heinrich, he said:

“To succeed with the English, we need to try to be, or at least to seem to be, more British than they are. We must emulate their ways when dealing with them, so that they feel that they should treat us as equals rather than ‘inferior foreigners’.”

After the sun had set, Heinrich and Caro sat by the embers of the fire having just eaten tasty steaks from a small hartebeest that Caro had shot earlier that day. They were enjoying a post-prandial brandy when Caro announced:

            “We must do something about your name.”

 “My name, what’s wrong with it?”

 “Even when your accent fades away and your English improves, your name, ‘Heinrich’, will always label you as foreign.”

Heinrich remembered the shipping agent in London: Gladstone, formerly ‘Goldstein’.

Caro plucked a meerschaum pipe from his jacket pocket and lit the tobacco in its ivory bowl carved in the shape of a sheep’s head. His face, barely visible in the dim evening light, brightened for a moment. He sucked on his pipe, and then, after blowing a cloud of smoke towards Heinrich, he coughed, cleared his throat, and said: 

“From now on, you must call yourself ‘Henry’. It is a name which you will share with eight kings of England! Keep ‘Bergmann’, but change the way you pronounce it.”

Heinrich looked puzzled. Caro sucked noisily on his pipe, and then said:

“From now on you are ‘Berg-man’, not ‘Berch mun’ – try to express your name in your mouth, not in your throat!”

Caro looked at Heinrich sternly for a moment, and then asked him his name.

“My name is Henry Berg … mann.”

END OF EXCERPT

ALI cover

In case you feel intrigued and want to read more, my book is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/144618322X/ and also on Kindle.

 

Camping under the stars

THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.

 

adventure alps camp camping

]Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com]

At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.

In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent.  After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.

We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.

The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.

That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful  ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian.  I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.

With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:

“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”

“But, there is a problem,” I answered.

“And, what is that?”

“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”

The official looked at me curiously. I explained:

 “I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”

“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”

I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.

From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.

Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.

 

Of doctors and Denmark

ONE OF MY TWELVE FIRST cousins, having just read my recent piece about Finchley Road in north London, reminded me about a hospital close to that road,  where she and her parents had received medical care. This reminded me that I had also been treated at that hospital many years ago. So, here is what you have all been waiting for: undergoing surgery in St Johns Wood.

One night early in 1962, I decided to see what it would be like sleeping on the floor with only the carpet between me and the floorboards in my bedroom. I have no idea what made me want to try that. I woke up the next morning, feeling a mildly uncomfortable sensation in my abdomen. It was not a feeling that I had ever experienced before. At first, I imagined that it had something to do with spending a night on the floor, but something made me decide to tell my mother about it. She was concerned about it and made an appointment to see our GP, Dr Clough, who had his consulting room in the ground floor of his home on Finchley Road, close to Golders Green Underground Station.

Dr Clough was a kindly man, a family friend. His waiting room had a large fish tank as well as the usual collection of well-thumbed magazines. His home was directly beneath an outdoor section of the Northern Line. Trains rumbled overhead every few minutes.

The doctor examined me and rapidly concluded that I had a ‘grumbling’ appendix. He told us that it should be removed, but there was no hurry to have the surgery carried out. He recommended a surgeon, who operated at the private St John and Elizabeth Hospital (a Roman Catholic institution) in St Johns Wood, not far from its Underground Station.

BLOG A Hospital_of_St_John_and_St_Elizabeth_(geograph_3306120) wikipedia

This station, which had, and still has, scraggy palm trees growing near its entrance, was close to the ground floor surgery of our ageing Jewish dentist, Dr Samuels, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany. His waiting room did not have a fish tank, but its floor was covered with luxurious oriental carpets, and the magazines in it were issues of the glossy paged Country Life. Dr Samuels’ surgery was in a block of flats, Wellington Court on the corner of Wellington Road (part of Finchley Road) and Grove End Road, on which the St John and Elizabeth Hospital is located.

I was installed in a private room with, to my great delight, a television for my exclusive use. My delight stemmed from the fact that we did not have a television at home. There were also chairs for visitors. The seat of one of these, which was nicely upholstered, could be removed to reveal a commode.

On the day before my operation, I was taken to a bathroom and told that after I had bathed, I was to call for a nurse by tugging on a cord attached to a bell-pull. There were several cords dangling near the bath. I pulled one at random. Then, I peered out of the slightly open bathroom door and saw a frenzied scene. Nurses were running hither and thither, some of them carrying oxygen cylinders. My nurse returned to the bathroom and told me that by mistake I must have pulled a cord attached to the fire alarm.

The operation went without hitch. I do not recall feeling much pain after it. I was kept in my private room for almost a week. Everyday, I watched as much television as I could. As I had been instructed not to get out of bed unless nature called and the television was far too old to be equipped with a remote control, I had to ring for a nurse each time I wanted to watch a different TV channel. When I pressed the bell button, a nun with a white apron (many of the nurses were nuns) would arrive and switched the channel. (The first time I ever saw a television with a remote control was in December 1963 in a hotel in Baltimore (USA). The controller was attached to the television by a long cable).

Many people including my parents and close family, visited me in hospital. Although this was very kind of them, I always hoped they would not stay long because while they were in my room I had to have the television – the best thing about being in hospital – switched off. It always amused me when a visitor sat on the seat that concealed my commode. I wondered what he or she would think or do had they known what was beneath them.

During the Easter holiday, which occurred a few weeks after I had left the hospital and gone back to school, we set out on a driving holiday to Denmark. We drove to Harwich, where I watched our car being loaded into the hold of the ferry in a rope basket lifted by a crane on the quayside.  We drove through Germany, a country in which my parents preferred not to linger longer than needed. We spent one night in a German hotel. It was there that we experienced sleeping under quilts (duvets) for the first time in our lives. We all thought they were a marvellous alternative to sheets and blankets.

In Denmark, we spent several days on a farm near Toftlund, which is about 23 miles north of (formerly ‘West’) Germany. The farm was owned by one of our former au-pair girls and her husband. My sister and I spent several glorious days mingling with the animals on the farm, mostly cows and pigs. This experience made this holiday one that I remember with great fondness. My mother, who saw danger everywhere, was most concerned that I should not be injured by any of the cows’ horns. She was worried that should a horn impact me, it might cause my recently healed surgical scar to split open. She had no need to be anxious. The weather was so cold that we were wrapped in several layers of clothing including thick duffel coats held closed with wooden toggles.

Our hostess’s father was an interesting fellow. He showed me houses in Toftlund that bore two kinds of house numbers, one blue with white figures, and the other red with white numerals. Between 1864 and 1920, Toftlund had been in what was then German ruled territory. One kind of house number had been affixed by the German authorities, the other by the Danish.  This made a great impression on my young mind. Since then, I have always looked out for small details, souvenirs of historic eras, like these.

My mother was so impressed by the duvets (‘dune’ in Danish) under which we had slept both in Germany and Denmark that she bought four down filled duvets in Denmark along with covers for them. These were transported on the back seat of our Fiat 1100. My sister and I sat on them for the rest of our holiday, which took us to Odense and Copenhagen before we returned to London.

We spent the Easter weekend in Copenhagen. Almost everything was closed and the temperature outside was very low. We wandered around trying to keep warm. The only warm place that was open were the tropical houses in a botanical garden.

Our return trip was not without incident. We broke down in the German border town of Flensburg just after leaving Denmark. Some electrical component needed replacing. We had to wait about four hours for a replacement part from a company I had never heard of before: Bosch. Well, I was about to become ten years old. So, perhaps it was not surprising that I was unfamiliar with the names of German companies. Whenever I hear the name Bosch or the French word for the German invaders during WW2, Boches, I always remember our four hour wait, parked next to an inlet of the sea in an industrial landscape.

We returned to London. My scar had not burst open. Our four blue cloth covered duvets filled with duck down were intact. After our return to London,  we never again used blankets and the hitherto tiresome job of laying beds was replaced by the relatively simple task of spreading the duvets over the beds. I believe that we were amongst the first households in the UK to use duvets.

Of the four duvets we brought to London from Denmark, I kept and used one of them for about 48 years. Reluctantly,  we disposed of it because over the years it had lost most of its feathers. I have got so used to sleeping under duvets that when I stay somewhere which had tightly tucked sheets and blankets, I have to untuck them fully.

Since my youthful experiment of sleeping on the floor, I have only repeated it when camping. And, when in a tent, I like to separate myself from the ground with a fully inflated air mattress. On the one occasion when I had no air mattress, I barely slept and barely escaped contracting pneumonia, but that is another story.

An appendix usually follows a story or text but in this case, it is at the start of my story. I have lost a short and, apparently, useless evolutionary intestinal vestige, my appendix.  Thinking about its loss and the good time I had at the St John and Elizabeth Hospital, has triggered a chain of memories of an era long past. I hope that I will not be deprived of any more parts of my anatomy, especially whatever keeps alive my recollections of the past, many of which I enjoy sharing with anyone who is interested.

 

Picture of Hospital of St John and Elizabeth (from Wikipedia)

 

Onion on top

ONION DOME SMALL

This piece, which is about onion shaped domes on some churches, was inspired by a chance discovery of a photograph of a church (see illustration) that I took somewhere in Slovenia about twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1975, I accompanied my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, and his wife, Margaret, both now no longer living, on their annual drive from Buckinghamshire in the UK to Platamon on the Aegean coast of northern Greece. It took about nine days in their Land Rover, which was towing a caravan that was to become their home in Greece for up to two months. Robert, a well-regarded physiologist, was also a keen naturalist as well as being interested in many other things. This excerpt from an unfinished biography of the Harkness’s that I began writing over a decade ago illustrate one of the varied interests that kept Robert happy.

Soon after we left our camping site on the following morning, we crossed the River Rhine and entered West Germany, where we began driving along its Autobahns. After some hours, we spotted the first of the many onion-domed church towers typical of southern Germany.

Robert speculated that there must be a line of places north and west of which it is almost impossible to find onion domed church towers. This idea made him think that there must also be an olive line north of which no olive trees grew, and a ‘karpousi’ (καρπούζι: Greek for watermelon) line below which watermelons grew. Original as this might seem, Robert’s concept of boundaries based on the presence of this or that particular item was apparently proposed earlier by a French author – it might have been Stendhal – who was writing about those nations whose inhabitants favour eating Brussels sprouts.

An Indian hero

SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE (1897-1945) was, along with Gandhi, one of the most important fighters for the independence of India. Without doubt, the activities of Bose and their consequences were one of the main reasons that the British left India in 1947. A one time president of the Indian National Congress, he later parted ways with it.

Before 1940, Bose was placed under house arrest in Calcutta by the British. In 1940, he escaped and made his way to Nazi Germany, where he arrived in 1941. The German authorities were prepared to cooperate with him to bring about the downfall of the British Empire in India.

After the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese, Bose and his colleague Abid Hassan Saffrani (1911-84), who was studying engineeringin Germany and anti-British, were placed on a German submarine in early 1943. It took them to Madagascar, where they boarded a Japanese submarine that took them to Japanese occupied Sumatra. Then, they proceeded to Singapore, where Bose persuaded captured Indian troops to fight the British to gain independence for India. It was during this time that Abid Hassan Saffrani coined the salutation ‘Jai Hind’.

Bose led his Indian National Army on an ill fated military expedition to enter India via Burma. In 1945, Bose was killed in an air accident in Japanese held Taiwan. Abid Hassan Saffrani returned to India and after Independence served his country as a diplomat.

The photograph shows Bose with Abid during their journey on the German submarine in 1943. (Bose is on the left with spectacles)The print I saw is in the possession of a nephew of Abid, who lives in Hyderabad.

Some days before I met Abid’s nephew, we met a lady in Calcutta. After spending an evening with her, I expressed my interest in the anti-British activists, who lived in Calcutta. Hearing this, she revealed that she is related to one of them. We asked which one. She told us that her grandfather was Sarat Chandra Bose, the brother of Subhas Chandra Bose who helped Subhas to escape from Calcutta in 1940. We were amazed to hear this.

Hitler for children

hitler

 

In a previous blog (see: https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2019/01/15/hitler-on-the-shelf/ ), I have written about the prevalence of copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in bookshops all over India. Here is an article I wrote a few years ago about a book about Hitler aimed at Indian children.

I was browsing the shelves in Gangaram’s Bookshop in Bangalore (India) when I found a book about Hitler, which was published in 2007 (ISBN: 9788131002520). It is part of a series called “Biographies of Great Personalities”, aimed at younger Indian readers . The garishly covered book caught my eye in that large well-known bookshop in Bangalore. When I flicked through it, I noticed that it was illustrated with line drawings, many of which showed Adolf Hitler in Indian settings with palm trees. At 40 Rupees (less than half a Pound Sterling), I could not resist buying the 93 page book.

 The author, Igen B, is a prolific writer. He has published well over 70 short books including biographies of personalities as diverse as Jesus Christ, Bhagat Singh, Mother Teresa, Ashoka the Great, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Shakuntala, and Netaji Chandra Bose. As well as these he has written versions of great Indian classics such as the Vedas, the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, and the Mahabharata. That these books are probably aimed at children is evident from the format and appearance of the books and also the fact that one of his titles is “Illustrated Model Book of School Essay etc.” Therefore, his potential audience is the innocent and impressionable younger mind. This should be remembered whilst paging through his children’s biography of Adolf Hitler.

More than half of the text is dedicated to Hitler’s childhood about which not much is known in detail, his career as an artist, and his rise to power. The author of this book, Igen B, blames a disturbed childhood in a dysfunctional family for much of what Hitler was to become.  The future dictator’s disillusionment with the lack of German national pride and his disappointment with the country’s leadership during WW1 were, according to this book, also important formative factors. As, are also the Jews: unquestioningly, Igen B repeats the kind of dangerous nonsense about the Jews that Hitler and many Germans believed.

Having gained power, we learn of Hitler’s campaign to relieve the Jews of any role in public life, and his hatred of the communists. We also learn of his desire to tear up the Treaty of Versailles, and how he went about doing so. So far, the reader is presented with something that faintly resembles what is now common knowledge about the history of Germany just before and during the brief, but long enough, era of Nazi rule. The penultimate 4 pages of the book describe some aspects of WW2. The last page of text is dedicated the last days of Hitler and his new bride Eva Braun.

Nowhere in the book are the mass murders perpetrated by the Nazis even hinted at, let alone mentioned. This worries me greatly considering that the book is sold in bookshops in India, and most of these also sell Hitler’s pernicious ‘autobiography’ “Mein Kampf”.

Igen B’s book is aimed at an Indian audience. It is appropriate in a way that the illustrations are drawn with an Indian ‘flavour’, as many readers are unlikely to have visited Europe or are ever likely to do so. The spelling of many German words and names is peculiar. For example we read of ‘Hebzburg’ (Habsburg), ‘Strum Abtiling’ (Sturmabteilung), ‘fonn’ (von), ‘Versai’ (Versailles), and ‘Hoffbraha’ (Hofbrauhaus). Whilst these original spellings are used more than once and are thus unlikely to be typographic errors, they may also be purposeful. It is possible that the author, realising that most of his readers are likely to be unfamiliar with German pronunciation, has transliterated them so as to make them pronounceable by readers of English.

I picked up this book as a curio, and read it. The author appears to have done some research, but his or her interpretation and presentation of the facts is somewhat unusual. His lack of emphasis of Hitler’s evil influences and deeds in a book aimed at impressionable youngsters is worrying to say the least.  The impression I had after reading it was that Hitler was portrayed as an unfortunate child, who grew up with the aim of making Germany a great nation. I was not given the impression that he was even a fraction of the monster that he was in reality. I had rather the same impression after watching the end of the film Downfall made in 2004. Hitler’s final moments during that film were almost heart-rending; the power of film and literature cannot be underrated. This is why Igen B’s book on Hitler might well be considered malevolent, even if the author’s intention was otherwise, to be purely informative.

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

A German bride

 

As World War II (‘WWII’) drew to its conclusion in Europe Jim arrived near Aachen in Germany with the British forces. He was stationed near the home of Minny, a young German woman. They met, fell in love, and, after considerable delay, married in Liverpool (UK).

“The Bride’s Trunk” by Ingrid Dixon is about her parents Minny and Jim. It concentrates more on her mother’s history, her life in Germany before, during and after Hitler’s regime. Minny’s is the story of an ordinary German girl growing up in times of ever increasing difficulty and hardship. That alone would make the book interesting, but her encounter with a soldier belonging to the ‘enemy’s’ forces and the difficulties put in the way of intermarriage between Germans and British military personel add to this concisely told story.

Nazi figures who have written about their lives, such as Albert Speer and  Brunhilde Pomsel (one of Josef Goebbel’s secretaries), claim little or even no knowledge of the attrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people and many others during the Nazi regime. It was refreshing to read in Dixon’s book:

The excuse offered by so many after the war -‘Davon haben wir nichts gewusst’ – ‘we didn’t know about any of that’ – is no longer credible … evidence for the fate of Jewish citizens mounted daily as rumours circulated and eye-witness reports increased …”

Amidst a good summary of the history of the Germany in which Minny grew up, there are many intriguing details about the daily life of ordinary German folk living in the rural outskirts of a big city (Aachen).

On the whole, this is a good book, but I would love to have greater detail about Minny’s reception in post-war England. This is dealt with to some extent, but after reading what Dixon wrote, I would have liked to have discovered even more. The book is copiusly illustrated and includes some maps. Many of the illustrations are specific to the story of Minny and then later Minny and Jim, but there are a few of general historical interest, which I have seen in many other publications.

Would I reccomend the book. The answer is ‘Yes’. It is a quick and fascinating read, a useful contribution to the history of Germany.

 

“The Bride’s Trunk”

by Ingrid Dixon

ISBN: 9780993508028

It was not all bad in East Germany

 

For those of you who are too young to remember, Germany was divided into two separate countries, West Germany and East Germany (‘DDR’), between the end of World War 2 (‘WW2’) and 1990 (when the two countries were united into one). The DDR was a socialist republic overshadowed by the USSR.

Many years after the re-unification of Germany, our German-built Bosch dish-washing machine broke down. The engineer who came to mend it, fixed it in a couple of minutes, but remained talking to us for half an hour. He had been brought up in the DDR. He wanted to explain to us that contrary to all that we might have heard about the evils of the DDR and the difficulties its citizens faced, it was not all bad. He told us that, for example, education was good, there was little or no unemployment, and there had been a great sense of camaraderie. It was very important for our engineer that we should not think ill of the former DDR.

Recently, I finished reading an excellent book about the DDR, Red Love written by Maxim Leo and published in English in 2013. Leo was born in 1970, and like our Bosch engineer, does not damn the DDR, but takes care to point out that living in that former country was not at all easy or straightforward. For anyone curious about life in the DDR, this book is very illuminating. However, there is much more to this short book than describing the DDR.

What is most fascinating in Leo’s book is his stories about his two grandfathers, both of whom lived in the DDR. One of them remembered life being reasonable during the Nazi regime. Despite his grandson’s questioning, it is not clear what he did during those terrible times. The other grandfather led an exciting and dangerous life as a member of the French resistance during WW2. His story is gripping. 

Leo’s parents are also interestingly described. They were both in favour of, or atleast not completely against, the regime in the DDR. Each of them expressed their didfferent critical views of the political system, but neither of them did so strongly that they fell out of favour with it.

The book is a very readable translation of the original German translation. It provides a fascinating insight into life in the DDR and the period that preceded it. It was a book that I found difficult to put down, a real ‘page-turner’. Some of what I read in it chimes well with what our dish washing machine engineer told us.

The Wall

DDR

 

The Berlin Wall ceased to be a barrier between capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany in late 1989. It marked the ending of the ‘Cold War’ and the recent collapse of the former USSR. 

At that time, my father made an interesting observation, which I want to sahre with you. He is a retired academic at the world famous London School of Economics (‘LSE’). The LSE had a large number of academics with an expert interest in politics. He told me that the end of the Cold War had come as a complete surprise to his colleagues, who professed to be experts on the subject. Not one of them had predicted either the downfall of the USSR or the ending of the Cold War. I was staggered by this information, and my faith in ‘experts’ reduced a bit.

So, now when I listen to ‘expert’ after ‘expert’ giving opinions on the outcome of ‘Brexit’ and the future of politics in the UK (or elsewhere), I take what they say with the proverbial ‘pinch of salt’.

 

Picture: The emblem of the DDR, sourced from Wikipedia

Cheese is nice

 

Once, we spent a weekend with a German friend living in Germany. She was a great cook and spent much time preparing delicious meals for us in her kitchen. 

I was sitting in the living room, which was next to the kitchen when I heard our hostess angrily shouting what sounded to me like “cheese is nice”. Now, I would be the first to agree with that sentence. However, she kept repeating it angrily whilst crashing about in the kitchen. I could not see why anyone except possibly a vegan could possibly use that sentence so angrily.

After a while, it dawned on me that our friend was not talking to herself about cheese, but about Jesus, whose name she pronounced as ‘Cheesus’. What she was really saying angrily in her strong German accent in English was ‘Jesus Christ’.