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Books Reviews

Truly Amazing Adventures

I just finished a book. It’s called The True Adventures of Gidon Lev by Julie Gray, and I want to sing its praises from the rooftops.

The True Adventures is an amazing book, unlike any other that I’ve read. It started out as an account of the full and unusual life of Gidon Lev, but very soon the author slotted into the story, as the two became, as Gray calls their relationship, “Loving Life Buddies.”

Gidon Lev proudly holds the brand new book

The subtitle for the book is: “Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist.” It tells you immediately that this read will be poignant and humorous. It might make you wonder: How can you have humour in a book about a Holocaust survivor? My answer, in the typical Jewish habit of answering a question with another question, is: How can you not have humour when the survivor is a person who always has a smile ready to burst out? In every photo I’ve seen of him, every video, that cheeky smile is what I notice first. This is a man who never wanted his Holocaust experiences to define him, and they don’t. He is so much more than that.

I love the way the book is arranged, with Gray’s voice interspersed with quotes from various people and in particular from Gidon himself. In the middle of Gidon’s and Julie’s 2019 tour of Prague, for example, Gidon tells of Prague in 1938. When Gidon disagrees with something Julie wrote, his version pops up, too.

The writing itself includes some gems, like this description of Gidon: “merry, a bit kooky, with great intentions, always headed toward adventure and sometimes tilting toward windmills.” Also: “Memory is a famously mysterious phenomenon; the more we tell our stories, the more details we add, edit, or exclude.” And: “Anybody could relate to stories about relationships or jobs with bad bosses or a fun vacation. But when you experience something very specific, such as war or the suicide of a loved one or cancer, you occupy a different space. A lonelier one.”

Julie and Gidon in Karlovy Vary, 2019

Gidon was adamant from the beginning: the book was to be about his whole life and not just the Holocaust. I agree with him and yet… The Holocaust parts are so important, so poignant, so inescapably, unavoidably present, that they were what made the book for me, and it was right that the topic of the Holocaust kept returning in the narrative. It had to. You can’t go through an experience like that and just move on. It has to influence everything that comes after.

The Israel parts felt closer, perhaps too close, because naturally there were sections I didn’t agree with. I found myself thinking: I’ve lived here for forty-four years; how dare this newcomer say such things! But I took myself to task, because of course she’s had time to create her own views, and living here gives her the right to express them. Still, when I read that the Snake Path leading to the top of Masada is dangerous, I shouted back, “It isn’t! I’ve climbed it and it isn’t!”

The personal parts of the book were interesting as other people’s lives often are. I couldn’t imagine being in some of the knots Gidon found himself in. I marvelled at his ability to disentangle himself, even if not always in the best way.

I learned plenty from the snippets of information dotted around. “The word holocaust,” Gray writes, “was first used to describe the Hamidian (or, in modern terms, Armenian) Massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks from 1894 to 1896.”

I hardly need to add that I heartily recommend this book to everyone.

***

I received this book in exchange for an honest review. In no way did that affect my opinions, voiced above.

More information is available on the website. The photos are taken from there, with permission.

 

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Books Letters from Elsewhere

Letters from Elsewhere: Tana Standish

Letters from Elsewhere

It seems special abilities are as much a handicap as good fortune. Just as well I don’t have any! I’m fascinated by the history of today’s visitor, especially as it relates to the novel I’m currently working on.

Tana Standish operated as a British secret agent for Interprises, a secret adjunct of MI6, through the 1960s to the 1980s. She had a photographic memory and possessed psychic abilities, not all of them capable of being called upon at will. After four missions (Singapore, Naples, Izmir and Odessa), and prior to her next mission to Pilsen (1968), she was evaluated by the new psychologist, Dr James Fisk. In an effort at catharsis, he asked her to write a number of letters to him about her early memories. This is one of those letters:

Dear James

 I ‘celebrated’ my fifth birthday [in 1942] stumbling through the sewers of Warsaw, my hand in twelve-year-old brother Ishmael’s. We’d survived hunger and disease and managed to avoid the deportation of the children to Treblinka in July but everyone knew they would not live through the oncoming German onslaught.

Our elder brother Mordechai had told us we must escape, promising, “Jews will live to settle scores. Jews have lived and will endure for all eternity.” He would continue the Jewish resistance. As we slunk through the subterranean tunnels, I looked back, and Mordechai was singing a popular song of the starved ghetto: “When we had nothing to eat, they gave us a turnip, or a beet, here, take food, take fleas, have some typhus, die of disease!”

Ishmael, with hollow cheeks, pallid skin and all the signs of starvation, constantly deprived himself of our meagre contraband food in order to keep my strength up. Ishmael limped; he’d fractured his heel escaping a German raider whilst stealing outside the wall in the Aryan section of the city.

For two days, we munched sparingly on the scraps of coarse bread and stale cheese and stolen sugar.

On the third day when the food ran out, we surfaced from the rank sewers in the Christian part of the city. The outskirts of Warsaw were a great deal more repellent than below. We’d long-since grown accustomed to the dark and the vermin; even the smell had lost its pungency. But here, above ground, we were easy prey to demented thieves and homicidal Nazis.

Our most treasured possessions, however, were forged papers, created by a small commune of talented men and women: a travel-pass each, testifying that we were young Poles of pure race.

Constantly hiding, we followed the river Wkra north for most of the way, towards the Baltic, and our forged papers helped. When we could, we prayed. Ishmael told me about our eternal souls and how good people went to Olam Haba. “People who have done good but need to be purified, they go to Gehenom.”

“What about the Nazis?” I asked.

“Oh, they are too evil for Gehenom. They will be punished for all eternity.”

“Good,” I said.

We subsisted on vegetable refuse in farms and on the occasional rabbit.

The nights were still very cold and there were few haystacks to insulate us. The sky was filled with stars and my young mind wondered if there was any truth in the fable that when people died a star came into existence. A lot of people had died, I thought, gazing aloft, trying not to think of Mordechai.

Fortunately, I remembered a map from school in Karmelicka Street; it showed the area up to the Baltic; it hadn’t been up-to-date, but it proved invaluable. With an effort, I projected a mental image of it before my eyes and picked out salient landmarks as we travelled. All my family members took my memory gift for granted, hoping I would make use of it at university – but that was before the war, when hopes for a sane future flickered briefly.

Mere scarecrows, we often robbed farms. With my feet blistered and rib cage visible through translucent skin, I weakly, stubbornly clung to Ishmael’s bony hand.

Our journey took almost three months, and on numerous occasions, it was my sixth sense that saved us from capture. I seemed able to see through other people’s eyes sometimes – usually at moments of heightened tension. Ishmael didn’t even pretend to understand what powers I possessed, but was grateful for them.

As we approached the port of Gdynia, Ishmael explained in a faint whisper what we must do. “We’ll stow away on a ship. Wherever it docks, we can hide. It may even go across to Norway. Just think, Tana – Norway!”

Sneaking through the seaport wasn’t easy. The field-grey-clad sentries, gasmask canisters clinking, were there in force and on the alert for saboteurs. But our small size helped us melt into the shadows of warehouses and railway wagons. Miraculously, we avoided detection.

The dockside was swarming with threat and shadows. I was fearful of unfamiliar shapes and seemed to be trembling all the time. Framed in a narrow alleyway, the crosstree and derrick of a freighter’s mainmast were outlined against the night skyline. Then the black hull loomed and Ishmael whispered, “This one. We’ll get aboard this one.” He’d chosen well; whoever docked the ship hadn’t bothered to fit rat-guards on the cables.

Weak as we were, we managed to shin painstakingly slowly up the hawser. My hands were almost raw with the roughness of the cable. Tense minutes later, we squeezed through the gap and quietly lowered ourselves onto the dew-damp forecastle.

I cautiously followed Ishmael and scaled down a ladder onto the well deck. He partially lifted the cargo hatch tarpaulin cover and we both slid into the for’ard hold, where it was pitch-black at first. But after a while, our eyes became accustomed to the darkness; it was not unlike the sewers, I supposed, though smelled less rank.

The hold was stacked with crates but no food. Rats scurried to the forepeak, in deep shadow, but neither of us was particularly alarmed. Even the prospect of eating these vermin as a last resort held no horrors.

My stomach rumbled emptily at the memory of the last food scraps to pass my lips two days ago.

Ishmael chuckled and I imagined that he was smiling; he told me I was to make myself comfortable, while he went ‘up top’ to steal some food.

Fearful for his safety, I pleaded with him not to go. He kissed my forehead. “We’ll starve here if I don’t find something, little Tana. I promised Mordechai I’d look after you. I keep my promises.”

He was gone for ages. I had no way of knowing how long. It could have been an hour, perhaps much longer. The waiting seemed endless.

Deep in the creaking, dank-smelling hold, I was a little afraid. I would much rather have stayed in the sewers of Warsaw. Known terrors seemed preferable to those unknown. Besides, I had too much imagination.

Then my heart lightened, as I recognised Ishmael’s limping stride across the deck above. He sounded in a hurry. Intuitively, I knew something was wrong.

Anxiously, I scrambled up, knees grazing on the metal ladder. I peeked over the coaming.

Silhouetted in the searchlight beam that lanced down from the ship’s bridge, Ishmael attempted to run for cover, heading towards me, dodging around winches and the cowls of ventilators. Under his arm was a brown paper parcel that was spewing apples and he left a trail of broken eggs behind him.

A German voice shrieked: “Halt!”

Ishmael faltered. He turned to face the bridge.

Running out of the wheelhouse, a black-clad sailor leaned over the Navigation Bridge. In his arms was a sub-machine gun. I recognised the weapon and my heart froze.

Ishmael’s face was unnaturally pale in the pinioning light. He seemed resigned. His youthful cracked mouth twisted in a breathless agonised grimace. Suddenly, he jack-knifed backwards, six inches in the air to the staccato sound of the Schmeisser MP40 weapon. His out-flung arms violently discarded the stolen food; most of it splashed overboard as he crumpled almost on top of me, inches away from my face. A solitary apple rolled past his staring eyes and unthinkingly I snatched the fruit.

Ishmael’s head was on one side, his right cheek squashed against the metal deck and his eyes stared at me. His lips trembled but he was unable to speak. Yet I caught his words, faintly echoing in my mind. “I hope Mordechai won’t be too annoyed with me when I see him…” What little light there was went out of him and a thin gasp of air passed his lips and I felt it, like a kiss, on my cheek.

In shock, I slid back into the shadows under the tarpaulin. I knelt in the dark. My mind was completely numb, but I gripped onto the apple – my brother’s last gift to me.

It seemed an age. The agony of waiting, fearing discovery, was almost too much. At one low point, I even wanted to declare myself – anything to be rid of the heart-stopping suspense.

Then I heard voices talking overhead. And laughter.

My hearing was finely tuned now. But my mind was still numb – unable to snatch any thoughts from the nearby sailors or soldiers. Then they dragged the body of my brother away, laughing as they did so.

I heard a heavy splash and more hilarity.

But no tears came.

Alone now, I hunched tighter into the hold, amidst the bulky crates, and held the apple till it was bruised.

Even at that early age, my hatred was under an iron control. I had learned quickly enough through listening to other Jews who’d escaped from Treblinka that I must be circumspect when dealing with the enemy. I had cause to grow up quickly..

Finally, the sirens sounded. The freighter cast its moorings; the propellers pulsed and the ship throbbed into life.

Bow-waves caressed the hull. The lapping of water and the heaving motion signified we were finally at sea.

If only I could stay hidden until the ship pulled into some port.

Hunger drove me reluctantly to bite into the apple. It was moist and sent my pulse racing. So delicious! Thinking of Ishmael, tears at last flowed. I ate every scrap, the dry-textured bruised bits, core and all.

Like my young friends, I’d had to scavenge in Warsaw, sneaking into the Aryan quarter. The German policy had been simple and brutally logical – better to starve the inhabitants of the ghetto and save the bullets for the Front.

So, many hours after eating the apple, as the hunger-pangs returned with redoubled force, twisting my stomach into knots, I decided I’d have to forage onboard. At worst, if no food could be found, I’d have to risk serious infection and kill and eat a rat. It presented the least physical risk, obviously – the less food-hunting trips I made, less chance of discovery. But as far as I was concerned it would have to be the last resort.

The freighter was edging out of the choppy Gulf of Danzig and steaming into the Baltic when I emerged into the starlit night. The well deck beneath my feet vibrated to the beat of the massive engines. My nostrils snatched the heady, salty cold air that made me want to retch.

A yellow halo surrounded the moon.

I reached the foremast.

“Halt!”

But this time no searchlight stabbed out. Allied submarines prowled out here, after all.

Praying for invisibility, I stood immobile, ears attuned, detecting feet on a ladder’s metal rungs. Any moment I expected the bullets to punch into me, to rip me open as they had so many of our neighbours; as they had poor Ishmael.

But in an instant I’d regained control and dived behind some winch machinery, hurting knees and shins. Here, the smell of grease and oil mingled with the salt-spray. My senses were at fever pitch. I seemed to hear my pursuer’s every step.

More shouting.

I heard the heavy thud of sea-boots getting closer.

The seaman was a couple of metres away. I glimpsed his black angular shape slinking between the lifeboat davits.

Frustration seethed inside me. It didn’t seem fair, to get so far only to fail!

A sudden deafening explosion rocked the vessel from stem to stern and the night instantly transformed into stark red-yellow daylight. I felt the force of it through the deck, vibrating through my body.

Amidst a raucous hissing and dozens of men’s screams, the ship canted sharply.

The drunken angle of the vessel worsened and I lost my footing on the slippery brine-covered deck.

I hit the metal guardrails and tried grabbing at anything I could get my hands on.

A falling lifeboat barely missed caving-in my skull; it splashed, floated.

Gasping with the shock of the cold sea, I snatched and held onto a rope that dangled from the lifeboat.

The strength in my arms was ebbing fast when I saw a shimmering dark dreamlike shape directly ahead, blocking out the myriad stars. I blinked frantically, distressed at not being able to see the Ishmael and Mordechai stars.

 

James, I’m sorry, but that will have to be enough for now. The curse of a photographic memory means that I don’t forget.  

Thanks, Tana.

Tana books1 and 2Nik Morton explains

Tana’s eleventh mission (but the first to be published) is The Prague Papers, which takes place in Czechoslovakia in 1975; it explains how she obtained the surname Standish. The details were given to me as a dog-eared manuscript in a Southsea hotel with the proviso that I should write it as fiction. Agent Swann was emphatic on that point. A follow-up mission, also based on information provided by certain contacts, has been published, The Tehran Text, relating events in Iran in 1978-1979. Both are e-books published by Crooked Cat.

Bio

NikMorton.

Nik Morton has been writing for over 50 years. He has sold over 120 short stories, even more articles, and had 21 books published in several genres. His latest books are the second and third novels in the ‘Avenging Cat’ series, Catacomb and Cataclysm from Crooked Cat. The third Tana Standish mission, The Khyber Chronicle should be released later this year.

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Letters from Elsewhere

Letters from Elsewhere: Clara Lehrs

Letters from Elsewhere

My guest today is Clara Lehrs, brought to you by Gill James. Clara lehrs appears in the YA/adult novel, The House on Schellberg Street, published by Crooked Cat Publishing.

Rexingen, 15 February 1942

Dear Ernst, Käthe, Rudi and Renate,

I’ve no idea if, when or how you will ever get this letter but I hope that one day one of you will read it, and pass it on to the others. I hope you are all still in touch.

I would like to assure you that I am well and content here in Rexingen. The people are very kind, even though we are poor and I have had to become Jewish again. There is a lot of warmth and everyone shares what little they have. There is a lot of love and spirits for the most part remain undaunted. It is so clear to me that in fact we believe in the same God, whatever he – or she – actually is. We’re not clever enough yet to understand these things fully.

I’ve taken on the role again of being Mutti Lehrs. I’ve befriended one young woman particularly who lost her husband just after she became pregnant with her second child. Her little daughter, Kyla, is delightful and comes to me when her Mutti needs a rest. And somehow that set everything in motion and suddenly all of the younger children in the village began to regard me as their second grandmother. So Renate, if you ever come here, you will have a lot of new cousins to get to know. It seems I have found a purpose again.

We all gather in the evenings to share a meal and sit round the log fire. We’re often hungry but at least here we are better off than those who live in ghettos in the towns. We grow a few vegetables and make use of what grows naturally. Occasionally we hunt.

You may wonder why I hesitated and hesitated about leaving and didn’t in the end join you all in England. Well, I just could not leave the Hilfsklasse to survive on its own. You may argue that I’ve had to anyway. This is true. But even here there is something of a miracle: by the time I was ordered to leave everything there was in good hands. Karl Shubert was comfortable in my house and Helga Gödde and Hani were really helping. Renate, you should be so proud of your friend. She will make an excellent teacher one day. Hopefully all of this nonsense will soon come to an end and people will be able to resume their normal lives.

Today is a pretty day. The countryside is covered in snow. I’m sure the sun will shine later. That’s the thing. All of this human silliness and nature takes not one bit of notice. The seasons come and go. The sun still feeds this planet. Oh boys and Käthe, what you and Professor Einstein could tell me all about that! And Hans too.

Ernst, I want to thank you for taking such good care of our family. I’m sorry your old stubborn mother would not comply, but Herr Hitler, of course, didn’t know what he was taking on when he challenged CLARA Lehrs. No doubt you are doing a deal of good furthering the work of the Waldorf schools in England.

Rudi, did you ever get to Canada? I hope you are still enjoying playing with your numbers and I hope you are taking good care of that chest of yours. Have either of you two met a nice young lady yet? I’d like a few more grandchildren, thank you, even though I have Renate and all the fine youngsters here.

Käthe I’m so sorry that you and Hans have to live apart. Given the nature of his work it’s understandable. But at least you are with your child in England. Some families I know have to be split up. To think that Hans is involved in designing some of the very weapons that are being used on you in England. Gruesome. I don’t condemn him for it. It is just the way things have worked out. Be courageous my dear.

Renate, I hope it’s not too confusing for you. Perhaps you now wonder whether you are German or English, Jewish or Christian but actually you are all of those things but more than anything else you are Renate, who is now stronger because of everything that has happened to her. Remember, home is where you are and what you make of it.

Well, now I’m feeling my age and I’m actually very sleepy. I hope that I can get this letter to you soon and that soon after that we can all meet again,

Your loving Mutti and Oma,
Clara Lehrs.

About The House on Schellberg Street

GillJamesTheHouseOnSchellbergStreetRenate Edler loves to visit her grandmother in the house on Schellberg Street. She often meets up with her friend Hani Gödde who lives nearby. This year, though, it is not to be. Renate finds out a terrible secret about her family. She has to leave behind her home and her friends and become somebody she never thought she could be. The house on Schellberg Street needs to stay strong.

Will it and those who work in it be strong enough? Will Renate ever feel at home again? And what of those left behind?

About Gill James

GillJamesGill James writes for children and young adults. She is also a prolific writer of short fiction and flash fiction. As well as being published by several companies, she is a publisher / editor working with Bridge House, Chapeltown and The Red Telephone. She works at the University of Salford as lecturer in English and Creative Writing.

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Books

Book Review: Austerlitz

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell

It takes decades for the man called Austerlitz to decide to uncover what he has been avoiding all this time: at the age of four, he was sent away from his home in Prague on the Kindertransport and given a new identity in “the little country town of Bala in Wales.”

Clearly, this is a very special book. It made me think and will make me continue to think. The introduction by James Wood (which I read at the end; otherwise it would have spoilt the novel for me) clarified some of its features for me. I can see reasons for the intentional randomness, the continuous prose, the perpetual distance of the main character, the anonymity of the narrator. I can discern parallels I didn’t notice at first. It’s quite possible this book deserves to be read a second time.

So it ticks a lot of boxes, but I found the format made it difficult to read and I’m not sure that it’s justified. The lack of chapters and for the most part even paragraphs meant that I didn’t know where to stop. I ended up making a rule for myself: I stopped at the first full stop after turning a page. This gave me too many possible stopping places. It also confused me, as I didn’t remember what came just before my starting place.

I’ve never read a book in one sitting, but I think that’s what this one needs.