Posts tagged ‘Holocaust’

Cider, Crepes and Street Dancing – “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, Published in 2014

In the Summer of 2003, my husband and I took a trip to France.  Somehow, we ended up in the beautiful, walled city of St. Malo.  It was touristy – there were a lot of fat, shirtless Frenchimages-1 men, sticky children, street vendors and sunburns.  We also got to see some very bad, but terribly amusing, street ballet.  I am really using the term “ballet” loosely here.  But the streets, the city walls, the beach, all of it is beautiful.  And I had the best mushroom crepe and bottle of cider of my life in that city – something I have tried multiple times to replicate but have failed miserably.  So this book, which opens with a scene in St. Malo, made me so happy to remember that crepe and bottle of cider that I was instantly in love with it – I guess I am just that simple really.

At the outset of WWII, Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History.  At the age of six, Marie-Laure becomes blind and finds herself having to experience her world through her hands, her feet, her sense of distance – everything is a tactile experience.  At the same time in Germany, young Werner is growing up in an orphanage with an amazing propensity to understand the interworkings of radios.  He quickly finds himself swept up by the Hilter youth and the propaganda, yet always with that feeling that something is just not quite right.   As the Germans begin to invade France, Marie-Laure and her father must flee Paris and they find themselves on the doorstep of Marie-Laure’s eccentric great-uncle in St. Malo.  Werner eventually finds himself in St. Malo as well and the two stories intertwine.

This story didn’t grab me when I read what this book was about on the back cover of the jacket.  And when I read what I wrote above it still doesn’t. But don’t let that fool you, this book is a piece of art.  Doerr is able to take the reader into the world of blindness and somehow make everything seem brighter.  He can describe Marie-Laure’s world of touch, and all her senses, in such a way that it makes the reader feel like they are missing out on too much beauty by relying on their eyes.

To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.

On the other side of the story, Doerr has taken a very complicated situation like Nazism and the baffling question of how it swept nations in its cruelty and evil and with Werner  has shown how maybe, just maybe, when all of the circumstances are just so, it is scarily easy to get wrapped up in something.  Doerr also astutely writes about the consequences of Germany and being German, both during and after the war, in a way that I found enlightening and thoughtful but without making excuses or defending the indefensible.  It is done with gentle story-telling and simple detail, something that, in my humble opinion, makes a writer truly great.

It is inspiring that Doerr has taken one of the darkest times in modern history, and uses the characters of a blind girl and a powerless orphan soldier, perhaps the seemingly least important people, to show how bright and intricate and important our world and our lives are.  Even without a crepe and a bottle of cider or even really awful street performing, I am so happy to be reminded of that.

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.

Unknown

 

March 7, 2015 at 6:43 pm 2 comments

Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever – “The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons

“The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons, Published in 2011

There are a lot of novels about WWII and the holocaust.  It is revisited over and over, making it at times seem like everything about this period in our collective history has been rehashed, fictionalized and over-analyzed.  Twice this year I have been happily surprised by novels that really added to my understanding of this period of history. The first was “The Lost Wife” and the second was this novel.

The House at TynefordElise is the high society daughter of a well-respected Austrian author and an Austrian opera singer.  She and her sister, Margot, come of age in Vienna during the 1930s just as Hitler is coming into power. Elise’s parents quickly realize that it is no longer safe to be Jewish in Austria.  They are able to obtain a visa for Margot to go to America with her husband and a work visa for Elise to become a domestic servant in England. Her parents promise that they will obtain visas to America for themselves and then send for Elise. She reluctantly goes to England but remains hopeful that soon she will be in reunited with her family in New York City.  When she arrives in London, Elise is carrying a viola which is stuffed with the pages of her father’s last unpublished novel, a beautiful gown last worn by her mother, and clothes with jewels and pearls sewn into the seams. These are the keepsakes from her family, their memories.

Elise finds herself working for Mr. Rivers at the old English Manor at Tyneford. She is merely a house maid but while learning how to clean silver and build fires in the multiple fireplace she finds that she really doesn’t fit anywhere. She had to leave her country where she was not wanted to come to a cloudy, rainy country where she is looked down upon.  When Mr. Rivers’ son, Kit, returns home from university Elise finally feels like she may have met a kindred spirit. She becomes friends with him and is able to be, not Jewish or a maid or even a foreign, just a young woman wanting to be happy.

As the situation in Austria continues to deteriorate, Elise begins to worry and she has not heard from her parents. She continues to receive letters from her sister but not as often as she wishes and the letters don’t help with Elise’s tremendous sense of loneliness.  Eventually, Elise and Kit fall in love but even he leaves her to fight in the war.  Elise begins to redefine her vision of the future and her life, coming to terms with what she knows she has lost and accepting what she still has. And she is continually surprised at her ability to survive even the greatest losses –

“I imagined that if my parent died or Margot, I would die of grief; I’d cleave in two like an elm tree in a lightning strike. But I didn’t die. I was hollowed out, scraped clean inside.”

But even in the midst of surviving Elise never gets over her stunning homesickness – she always dreams of Vienna, the cafes, the pastries, the perfect architecture and the music that had always  been a part of her life.

Solomons pulls some unfortunate writing stunts. Throughout, she writes several paragraphs with happy moments for Elise only to then write “but that was not how it happened.”  In a novel where the main character experiences loss after loss the reader wants her to have some happiness so Solomons’ writing technique in those parts seems like a cruel joke.  She also steals the opening of her novel straight out of “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier  and though maybe meant to be an homage of sorts it just seems like lazy writing.

All of that said these are small parts of the book and the rest more than makes up for the writing missteps.  Overall, Solomons is a surprisingly good writer. I say surprisingly because I came across this book by happenstance and so the writing was a pleasant surprise. She is able to capture a stark loneliness that is profound.  At times the amount of loss that Elise experiences had such a stunning effect on me that I had to catch my breath.  There is a triumph here as well, the strength to survive. And  Elise reminds us that even at our loneliest moments our memories can keep us company and make us feel at home.

Other Reviews to Check out:

From Trees and Ink

From Luxury Reading 

From Peerless Bookstore 

From Covered in Flour 

November 19, 2012 at 9:49 pm 3 comments

Sometimes art and love is all we have left – “The Lost Wife” by Alyson Richman

“The Lost Wife” by Alyson Richman, Published in 2011

I thought this book was beautiful and tragic and amazing. I apologize in advance for the length of this review.

At its heart this is a love story between Lenka and Joseph. Joseph is a medical student and Lenka is an art student. Both live in Prague, meet and fall madly in love right before WWII begins. They marry but as Jews, while their nation and Prague surrenders without a fight to the Nazis, they find themselves facing  their most difficult decision.  Joseph can only secure visas to England for himself and his family, including his new wife Lenka.  Lenka refuses to leave without first securing safe passage for her parents and sister.  And so the newlyweds split, for what they believe to be a temporary period. Joseph is to travel to England and try to get visas for Lenka’s family. Lenka decides to stay with her family and wait.  While waiting, news reaches Lenka that Joseph and his family drowned while on a boat headed for America.

Meanwhile, the Nazis invaded Prague and began rounding up the Jews taking them to the Terezin ghetto, including Lenka and her family.  In Terezin everyone is assigned a job. Lenkin is initially relegated to the art department, required to make postcards and greeting cards for the SS to send to friends and loved ones.  She is eventually reassigned to the Technical Drafting department when she finds out that a part from being forced to design new railway and transportation systems for the SS, Lenka’s fellow artists are also documenting the horrors of Terezin.  They are drawing the hunger and the death, the children in rags and the ravaged faces of the elderly.  And then they are slipping these drawings to the outside world.

The inmates of Terezin also use art to stay hopeful and alive. Lenka’s mother teaches art to the children of the ghetto, they paint and perform plays.  The adult artists find a drive to create art that seems to be fueled merely by their commitment to survive.I have to say this is where Richman does her best work.  She does an astonishing job of weaving these true stories of Terezin with her fictional charaters.

Perhaps most heart wrenching to me was the story of the great Prague composer who gathered singers to perform a Requiem. It was a bold move but they performed, in spite of their fear, for their fellow Jews who had died.  The Nazis “enjoyed” the performance but then the next day sent all of the singers on the death transport to a concentration camp. The composer was left in Terezin.  He assembled a second troupe of singers. Again, it was attended by their guards.  The next day all the singers were sent to a concentration camp. And yet, the composer assembled more singers and, even though they knew it would mean imminent death, they still sang.

While Lenka tries to survive in Terezin, Joseph has actually made it safely to America though the rest of his family did perish on the ship.  He is heartsick when all of his letters from Lenka are returned to him.  Lenka and her family are eventually transported to Auschwitz and by the time the war has ended Lenka is the only one from her family who has survived.   Joseph tries to find her for six years after the war, eventually finding out that she was in Aushwitz, where very few lived.  I will leave the rest for you to read.

This is a love story.  But I oversimplified it when I said it was a love story between Joseph and Lenka. It is really a love story about the love of country, the love of family, the love of  art, and the strength of people in the face of extreme evil to make beauty.  I think that is truly what art and love can be – the expression of the strength of our spirit even at our darkest moments.

The Nazis transported approximately 140,000 people to Terezin.  Only 22,000 of those originally deported to Terezin survived.  6,000 drawings from the Terezin prisoners survived and many are now on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

English: Stone marking the ashes of 15,000 vic...

Image via Wikipedia

Please check out these other reviews:

Review: The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman – Diary of an Eccentric

Review of “The Lost Wife” by Alyson Richman – Rhapsody in Books

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman – Maurice on Books

January 29, 2012 at 3:21 pm 6 comments


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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