Wednesday 16 October 2013

Boy 30529, by Felix Weinberg: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

I had a birthday recently, and was lucky enough to be given some excellent books. One, however, I already had, so I exchanged it for a memoir: Boy 30529, by Felix Weinberg.

This is, by its very nature, an unusual book, because it’s written by a Holocaust survivor, and as Weinberg says: ‘The typical camp history of the millions ended in death, and could therefore never be told in the first person.’ Weinberg was just fifteen in 1942 when he was sent to Theresienstadt, not far from Prague, along with his mother and younger brother. His father had gone to England to try and arrange to get his family out of Czechoslovakia, but there were too many obstacles and he didn’t manage it.

Theresienstadt was a holding camp. Originally been built as an army garrison for 7,000 soldiers, it now held ten times that number of Jews. In such conditions disease was rife and spread quickly; thousands died. But you could keep your own clothes, there was an element of self-government, the prisoners organised education for the children and shows and concerts, and if you could manage to find ‘protected’ employment, you could, for a while at least, stave off transportation to the east. Although the prisoners feared the prospect, no-one knew exactly what awaited them in the east; Weinberg heard grown-ups say, ‘It couldn’t possibly be much worse than here!’ As he comments, ‘How ludicrous that sounds in retrospect.’

After a few months, Felix and his family could no longer avoid the journey east. His subsequent travels are a roll-call of names that signify utter horror: Auschwitz, Blechhammer, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald. Partly through luck, partly because of his age – old enough to avoid the fate of the children, like his little brother, who were not useful as workers, but young enough to be strong – and partly, perhaps, due to his upbringing and innate resilience, he survived. His brother and mother did not. His brother was sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz: ‘It does not do to dwell on these thoughts if one wants to live the semblance of a normal life,’ Weinberg writes with telling restraint, ‘but I invite anyone who wishes to share my nightmares to picture that group of children, including my terrified little brother, being herded into the gas chambers.’ He never managed to find out how, where or when his dearly loved mother died.  After the end of the war, he arrived in Britain and was reunited with his father. Despite an almost complete lack of formal education as a child, he eventually became a professor of physics at Imperial College.

Like so many people of that generation, he seldom spoke of his experiences. As far as possible he wanted to forget them – he had no wish to be defined ‘merely’ as a survivor. But in the late 1990s, Suzanne Bardgett at the Imperial War Museum was putting together a Holocaust Exhibition. Weinberg sent in a shabby, odd looking leather jacket. He had ‘liberated’ it from a Buchenwald guard, after the latter’s death, and had worn it since to keep him warm while flying round London on his motorbike. (Had you been writing his story in a novel, would you have predicted that? I don’t think I would. I’d probably have had him ceremonially setting fire to it, or cutting it up and using the pieces to clean shoes.)

A few years after that, he got in touch with Suzanne again. He had decided to write a memoir of his early life, for his grandchildren, he said; would she be interested in reading it? Of course she would.

There are so many interesting things in this book. How, indeed, could an account by somebody who experienced the horror first-hand fail to be anything but gripping? I read it in an afternoon. One thing that strikes me is that the narrative of the camps takes up less than half of the book. It is easy to see that though he remembers life in the camps with a terrible clarity, he has no wish to dwell on it. The first part, and I’m sure the part he most enjoyed writing, is about his childhood; the mother and father he loved and who gave him a wonderful childhood, providing him with a raft of memories which he dreamed about in the camps. As he says, it was terrible indeed to wake from the dream to the reality; but still, such memories must have provided a wellspring on which he could draw to remind him that there had once been a different kind of life. 

At the beginning of the section about the camps, Weinberg includes a chapter entitled Holocaust Literature and Reality. He says: ‘I have always tended to avoid Holocaust literature, and find some of the recent fictional accounts masquerading as true stories profoundly disturbing… To us (Holocaust survivors) it is tantamount to desecrating war graves.’ When I first read this, I took it to mean novels; on reading it though again, I see that he qualifies it by saying: ‘…so long as the result is presented as fiction there is no harm.’ (And a little research reveals that, astonishingly, there have indeed been falsified accounts which masqueraded as truthful ones.) So are novelists who write about the Holocaust off the hook? I’m not sure. I suspect that many of us can immediately think of certain very successful novels about the Holocaust which could be said to sentimentalise it, if such a thing could ever be possible. And yet… and yet: even those books keep the memory alive, and introduce new generations to the appalling truth that such a thing can actually have happened, and not so very long ago. 

We often write on this blog, about the efforts we make to ensure factual accuracy in depicting our chosen historical period. But perhaps we need to consider, with the utmost humility, whether it is not even more important to strive for emotional truth: and to accept that we can never be sure that we are right when we believe that, in a particular situation, these characters will behave in such and such a way for those reasons. Weinberg’s memoir shows over and over again that it is very difficult to predict how people will feel and behave in extreme conditions. Of course that’s what we do, what all novelists do, but - forgive me if this sounds portentous and obvious - we must do it with tremendous care.

My father was a prisoner of war for five years. I’m sure he would agree that he did not experience a fraction of the horror of life and death in a concentration camp. But still it was tough. He rarely talked about it, and then only told us the funny stories. But I do remember how dark his face was once, when he stared into his whisky glass – and into the past –  and said, “Nobody knows what they’re capable of. Not till they’re really up against it.”

I’ve written about his experiences – fictionalised them – but, particularly after reading Weinberg’s memoir, I’m not sure I should have. I can imagine what it would have felt like to be in some of those situations he was thinking of, but did I get it right? How can I possibly know? But maybe attempting to walk in his shoes is a reasonable endeavour. I’d like to think so, but I’m really not too sure.


Naum Franpos said...
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Petrea Burchard said...

This sounds like a very special book.

I think your attempt to walk in your father's shoes is more than a reasonable endeavour. More people should try it.

Anne Booth said...

That's a really good post. It is a real problem. I have just written a book for 8-12 year olds which deals with the attitudes that led to the holocaust, and I found that when I got to the bit where the survivor of the holocaust speaks to the present generation, I could only write a list of people who died, and leave gaps in the narrative. I stuck to describing it at third hand in 'Girl with With a White Dog', but I think that a good respectful writer can manage to try to help people understand it at a closer distance and even writing in the first person. I am sure, from reading your post, that your writing about your father's experience will be full of respect and love, and not without pain for you.

Joan Lennon said...

Your father's story was in the safest possible hands - looking forward to reading it.

Clare Mulley said...

Great piece, your book sounds as though it will be more than valid, it will be valuable. Writing biographies set in WWII, I am also terrified that I might 'exploit' historical incidents, yet it might also be an omission of duty not to cover things. Hard to navigate, but important to think about.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, everyone. And Clare - I really enjoyed your book, The Spy Who Loved. What a remarkable - true - story!

Celia Rees said...

I'm a bit late coming to this but thank you, Sue, for such an interesting post. I agree with Clare, your book is not just valid but important. If you don't tell it, your father's story would not reach a wider audience. By doing this, you are honouring his memory and his experience and the experience of many others who suffered on both sides during the Second World War.

Sue Purkiss said...
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Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, Celia!