Category Archives: contemporary fiction

A precedent for the Holocaust: The Armenian genocide and The Promise

by Claudia Moscovici

As Peter Balakian points out in the Preface of his book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian genocide and America’s response (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), the Holocaust had a significant historical precedent: one which, unfortunately, is all too often ignored. The Armenian genocide, he states, “has often been referred to as ‘the forgotten genocide,’ ‘the unremembered genocide,’ ‘the hidden holocaust,’ or ‘the secret genocide’” (xvii). He adds that many historians—including Yehuda Bauer, Robert Melson, Howard M. Sachar and Samantha Power–rightfully consider the Armenian genocide as “the template for most of the genocide that followed in the twentieth century” (xviii). Over a century later, Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the systematic and premeditated mass killings of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Turks, even though this genocide, officially recognized as such by 29 countries, is very well documented: “In the past two decades, scholars have unearthed and translated a large quantity of official state records documenting the Committee of Union and Progress’s (Ottoman Turkey’s governing political party) finely organized and Implemented plan to exterminate the Armenians” (xxi). Balakian himself studied “hundreds of U.S. State Department documents (there are some four thousand documents totaling about thirty-seven thousand pages in the National Archives) written by American diplomats that report in depth the process and devastation of the Armenian Genocide. The extermination of the Armenians is also illuminated in British Foreign Office records, and in official records from the state archives of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey’s World War I allies. The foremost scholar of the Armenian Genocide, Professor Vahakn Dadrian, has made available in translation body of Turkish sources both primary and secondary” (xxi).

The genocide involved the systematic mass murder and ethnic cleansing of approximately 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during WWI. The extermination started on April 24, 1915, with the deportation and execution of a few hundred Armenian intellectuals from Constantinople. It progressed to the forced conscription, imprisonment in labor camps and murder of able-bodied males. Soon thereafter, it led to the mass murder of women, the elderly and children, who were herded by Turkish military escorts for hundreds of miles across the Syrian desert, without sufficient food, water, medical care or sanitary facilities. The Turks periodically butchered entire villages and communities mercilessly driven on these death marches. Women and young girls were often subjected to rape and torture before being killed. Sometimes the victims were loaded on cattle trains for days, without any provisions, in a manner similar to the Nazi transportation of Jews to concentration camps almost three decades later.

Similarly to the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian Holocaust didn’t happen out of the blue. Like the Jews in many European countries, the Armenians were considered second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire. Even during relatively Enlightened times, when the Ottoman rulers granted the Christian and Jewish minorities relative autonomy and minority rights, non-Muslims were still considered to be “gavours”: meaning “infidels” or “unbelievers”. In the Eastern provinces, Armenian villages found themselves subject to higher taxation and often invaded by their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. Moreover, like the Jews in the Pale of Settlement region, the Armenians fell victim to periodic pogroms.

However, discrimination and subjugation don’t necessarily lead to wide-scale genocide. Consequently, just as the Jews couldn’t have anticipated the extermination of their people by the Nazis, nothing prepared the Armenian communities living under Ottoman rule for their ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Turks. In both cases, world wars were used as an excuse—and incitement–for genocide. The Ottoman Empire entered WWI on August 2, 1914, when it signed a secret treaty with Germany to fight on the side of the Axis powers. The Turkish leadership wanted the local Armenian population to act on their behalf. It called for their insurrection against the Russian Army. The Minister of War, Enver Pasha, launched an attack on the Russians. He attempted to encircle and destroy the Russian army at Sarikamish in order to reclaim Turkish territories occupied by the Russians since 1877. However, his plan failed and his troops were defeated. The Turks blamed their defeat on the local Armenian population, claiming that they were traitors who helped the Russians. Subsequently, able-bodied Armenian men living in the Ottoman Empire were discharged from active military service, disarmed, and sent to forced labor battalions, where many were executed by the Turks.

In a move that would prefigure the Jewish genocide in the Eastern Territories during WWII, on May 29, 2015, the Turkish Central Committee passed a law of deportation (the “Tehcir Law”) that gave the Ottoman Empire the right to deport anyone they considered a threat to “national security,” which, in their minds, included women and children. The mass deportation—in grueling death marches–of the elderly, women and children soon followed. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died from starvation, disease, and being butchered in mass shootings. To carry out genocide, the Turks formed a paramilitary organization that has been compared to the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. The Turkish Committee of Union and Progress founded a “Special Organization”, comprised mostly of Turkish criminals released from prisons, who were put in charge of the deportations and massacres of the Armenians. They killed countless helpless civilians, decimating their numbers through forced marches, shootings, mass burning, drowning and even poisoning. Like the Nazis, the Turks experimented with toxic gases and biological warfare (inoculating healthy Armenians with the blood of typhoid patients). After the Allies defeated the Axis powers, on November 3, 1918 Sultan Mehmet VI was ordered by the Allied administration to hold war trials for the Turkish leaders of the Armenian genocide, which included Mehmed Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha and about 130 high officials of the Ottoman Empire.

The contemporary movie The Promise (2016), directed by Terry George, captures the trauma of the Armenian genocide in an epic drama reminiscent of War and Peace. The movie traces the love triangle between Mikael, an Armenian medical student who falls in love with Ana, an Armenian tutor educated in France, who is engaged to Chris, an American journalist covering the war for the Associated Press. A small town boy from a poor family, before meeting Ana, Mikael himself becomes engaged to a wealthier neighbor, whose family gives him a dowry (400 gold coins) to cover his expenses for medical school in Constantinople. At a party held by his wealthy uncle, Mikael is introduced to Ana, his nieces’ tutor, as well as Emre, the son of a Turkish official, whom he befriends. He’s smitten with Ana as soon as he meets her. The young woman captivates him with her beauty, culture and sophistication. But the beginning of WWI nips their romance in the bud. Mikael is sent to a labor camp, from which he manages to escape. In one of the most harrowing scenes of the film, Mikael rides on top of a cattle train, hoping to elude the Turkish army and make it back to his native village to help his family. Suddenly it starts to pour. He hears strange sounds emanating from the train: terrible moaning and cries. Hands emerge between the grates of the train, trying in vain to cup the drops of water. To his shock, Mikael discovers that hundreds of Armenian civilians are trapped inside, dying of thirst and hunger. Before jumping off the train, the young man manages to pry open the lock to one of the doors and save the trapped prisoners. He finally makes it to his parents’ house, where the family has an emotional reunion. However, realizing that it would be too dangerous to stay with his parents, Mikael and his fiancée get married in great haste and move to a remote area, where they live together in a rustic cabin. A few months later, his wife becomes pregnant and experiences health complications.

Meanwhile, his friends, Ana and Chris, visit Mikael’s parents trying to locate him. They are helping a group of orphans escape from the murderous Turkish troops. As Mikael joins them on the back roads to lead the orphans to a safer area, he watches helplessly as a group of Turkish soldiers carry off his own family and other inhabitants of his little village, Sirun. He runs to their aid but arrives too late: most of his family and neighbors lie murdered in a ditch. Only his young niece and his mother have (barely) survived, left for dead by the Turks. The rest of the beleaguered Armenian community decides that it’s better to fight to the death rather than be butchered like sheep by the Turks. Armed with rudimentary tools and a lot of courage, the refugees fight valiantly and manage to hold off the Turkish onslaught until a French ship, le Guichen, comes to their rescue. As Mikael takes a lifeboat of orphans to safety, Ana drowns when her boat is capsized by Turkish artillery. Despite their rivalry for her love, both Mikael and Chris mourn her death. This tragedy resolves the tension of the love triangle that had divided them.

The Promise, I believe, follows in the footsteps of War and Peace in depicting war on an epic scale through the optic of a personalized family drama and love story. It alludes to the Armenian genocide, and captures episodes of it, without becoming too didactic. While viewers seem to rate the film highly, the critical reception has been mixed. Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website, reports that, so far, The Promise received an average rating of 5.7/10. Benjamin Lee, the film critic for The Guardian found the film “soapy” but well intentioned. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times concurred, calling it “corny” and “a derivative of better war romances”. The Nation’s film critic, Pietro A. Shakarian, rated it more highly, claiming “The Promise captures the magnitude of this history [of the Armenian genocide] that no prior film on the genocide has done before.” I agree in part with both perspectives. Like Shakarian, I find The Promise to be a moving epic drama that tackles an important and often overlooked subject. At the same time, I feel that the film sometimes privileges the love triangle at the expense of offering viewers more necessary background about the Armenian genocide. For instance, when depicting the friendship between Mikael and Emre (the son of the Turkish official, who is eventually killed because he didn’t turn against his Armenian friend), the movie may give viewers the false impression that Turks and Armenians peacefully coexisted before the beginning of the war. But, as my previous discussion has described, the status of the Armenians living under Ottoman rule was similar to that of the Jews in many European countries: they were considered (at best) second-class citizens and (at worst) enemies to be killed in pogroms. In both cases, the sociopolitical conditions were ripe for mass extermination. World wars were the catalyst, not the cause, of genocide.

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Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

 

Survivors Club: A Family’s Legendary Tale

Michael Bornstein’s Holocaust survival story is the stuff that legends are made of. A few years ago, Bornstein ran across a photo of footage taken by Soviet troops of the recently liberated child survivors at Auschwitz. The documentary wasn’t actually from the day of liberation of the concentration camp. It was filmed as a reenactment a few days later. The children were asked to put on for the last time the striped, threadbare dingy clothes they wore in the concentration camp: only this time they wore them on top of the regular clothes they found in the “Canada” warehouse at Auschwitz, where the Nazis deposited the belongings of prisoners upon arrival. To his own surprise, Michael Bornstein, by now a grandfather, recognized himself in that photograph. He is the gaunt four-year-old boy with wispy, short hair standing in the front. It was miraculous that he had survived. The odds were heavily stacked against him.

Out of the millions of inmates at Auschwitz, fewer than 3000 were liberated by the Soviets and only 52 of them were children under the age of eight. Seeing this picture stirred something in him: not so much full-fledged memories, since Michael had been too young to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, as the desire to record his family’s incredible survival story. With the help of archival research, his father’s documents and interviews with neighbors and surviving relatives, Michael Bornstein and his daughter, NBC and MSNBC News producer Debbie Bornstein Holinstat, co-wrote his Holocaust memoir, aptly calling it Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Although the title alludes primarily to the handful of children who survived Auschwitz, it also refers to Michael’s family. Out of the 3,200 Jews living in Zarki at the time of the Nazi invasion in September 1939, about 30 survived. Most of the survivors were members of the Bornstein family.

Historically, Michael Bornstein’s family and their neighbors experienced first-hand almost every stage of Nazi atrocities in Poland. Upon invading their little town, Zarki, the Wehrmacht burned it to the ground. They rounded up hundreds of Jews and shot them in nearby forests, in the streets and even in their own homes. Soon thereafter, the Nazis set up a Jewish Ghetto. Unlike larger ghettos throughout Poland, however, for most of its existence, the one in Zarki remained open, allowing some life-sustaining trade and interaction with the local Polish population. Michael’s father, Israel Bornstein, was elected Jewish Council President, a heavy responsibility that he reluctantly accepted. He and his resilient and courageous wife, Sophie, did their best to protect not only their own nuclear family—their older son Samuel and Michael, who was still a baby—but also the entire Jewish community of their town.

As in the case of the other Jewish ghettos in Poland, life for Jews in Zarki was a constant struggle to ward off hunger, forced labor, and the relentless waves of deportations to death camps. For awhile, Israel Bornstein managed to round up the resources to bribe the local Gestapo chief, Officer Schmitt, into giving their community more food and occasionally decreasing their burdens. Schmitt, though a callous man and a true Nazi believer was, fortunately, also venal. But small-scale bribery proved to be no match for the immense Nazi killing machine. By the end of September 1942, most of the Jewish inhabitants of Zarki were sent to die at Treblinka. Perhaps wishing to demonstrate his “humanity,” Schmitt made one exception. He spared Israel Bornstein and his nuclear family from death. They, along with Israel’s mother (Dora), were sent to a more lenient labor camp until they, too, were eventually dispatched to Auschwitz. As Michael was to find out later, his father and older brother both perished there.

Michael, by now a toddler, was placed in a children’s section of the concentration camp. Had his mother not managed to sneak him into the women’s camp after a few weeks, he most likely wouldn’t have made it. The older children, themselves starving, were constantly stealing most of his meager portions of daily gruel. Under the wing of his mother and grandmother, Michael managed to live in hiding from day to day. When his mother was reassigned to another labor camp, the little boy was left under the sole protection of his paternal grandmother. Ironically, it was illness that ultimately saved his life. Suffering from high fever, he was placed in the infirmary around the time the Nazis began to force the Auschwitz prisoners on the fatal death marches. From the infirmary window, Michael watched the beleaguered, freezing prisoners file away from the camp under the blows of the Nazi guards. The story of his liberation by the Allies a few days later is captured by the Soviet footage. But the inspiring tale of his survival—Survivors Club–has only now been told.

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Advance Praise for Holocaust Memories: An Anthology of Holocaust Memoirs, Novels and Films

 

 

This book fills a present and mounting need for all readers interested in the Holocaust, including scholars and teachers.  With the literature about that unprecedented crime becoming steadily more extensive, Claudia Moscovici’s work offers a valuable and well-written guide to key works on various aspects of the Holocaust or on its entire history.

Guy Stern, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Wayne State University Director, International Institute of the Righteous Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Center, Farmington Hills, MI

Holocaust Memories is a morally urgent book, an encyclopedia of mourning, remembrance, and compassion, an invitation and a behest to keep memory alive and to resist unwaveringly any form of authoritarian temptation. It is particularly recommended to high school and college students, but also to a general audience. I learned a lot from it and I am convinced that many others will share my superlative endorsement.

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Professor of Politics, University of Maryland (College Park), author of The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

A well written series  of book reviews that can be used as a solid tool for those who  want to study the Holocaust.

Radu Ioanid, Author of The Holocaust in Romania and The Ransom of the Jews

 

Intended for a wide public and a new generation of readers, this bold and ambitious book forms an overview of the Holocaust from a myriad of sources – historical, philosophical, or literary works and films. More than sixty lucid and concise essays (usually two or three pages long) introduce various circumstances of human cruelty in Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Soviet Russia, but also in Cambodia and Rwanda. These focused readings comprise an invaluable source-book for anyone seeking to understand the horrors of totalitarian regimes, constantly reminding us that moral courage must prevail over politics.

Edward K. Kaplan, Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, Brandeis University, author a two-volume biography of  Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

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Focusing on the positive: Michigan, let’s vote for Governor John Kasich

Governor_John_Kasich

We’re experiencing an election season like no other. The two major political parties in the U.S. find themselves in the unique predicament of elections dominated by party outsiders. Fox News aptly calls it a “voter revolt”: for both the Democratic and the Republican parties, fringe candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders (a Social Democrat) and real estate mogul Donald Trump, have gained momentum and have a real chance of becoming the party nominees in the upcoming general election (Trump more so than Sanders). Although the political establishment in both parties would have preferred that Trump and Sanders not run for president, each party strategically welcomed them into their fold as mainstream candidates rather than encouraging them to run as independents, which would have diverted a non-negligible percentage of voters away from their party in the general election. Thus, both the Democratic and the Republican Parties took a calculated risk that the fringe candidates would ultimately lose in the primaries and not draw votes from their endorsed candidates when it came time for voting for America’s president. It’s not clear that this calculated risk will pay off. Because, currently, it’s the American people—more specifically, voter discontent with the Washington establishment–that are leading the atypical direction of the primaries.

A significant proportion of both Republican and Democratic voters are registering their disappointment with their respective parties by voting in unexpectedly large numbers for Trump and Sanders. Trump is particularly seductive for the angry mob congregating around him, more as an act of vengeance against the establishment than of political support. This is the best explanation I have read for Donald Trump’s dangerous populist appeal, given by one of his supporters, John Moore:

“I think of Donald Trump not as a candidate but as a weapon. A weapon which I intend to use recklessly and carelessly in pursuit of a political Gotterdammerung. I am totally uninterested in criticisms and in the supposed qualities of other candidates. The disgust and anger I feel permits no other choice. With any luck, he might be a good President. The most important thing right now, though, is to wreak vengeance on the establishment.” (John Moore, Facebook)

To complicate the situation on the Republican side further, the second most popular candidate, Ted Cruz, although part of the establishment (a Senator from Texas), has alienated fellow party members. So part of the Republican establishment is now conducting a high-stakes strategy game on how to get its two unendorsed yet most popular candidates—Trump and Cruz—beaten by an endorsed Republican candidate who can also win the general election. Many seemed to have settled on Marco Rubio, a young senator from Florida. Although Rubio did poorly in the New Hampshire debate and primary, several important members of the Republican party have backed him and are pressuring moderate Republican John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio, to follow Jeb Bush’s lead and opt out of the election in order to consolidate Republican votes in the primaries around Rubio. They stipulate that the longer the Republican establishment remains divided among multiple candidates the greater the odds that Trump or Cruz, the two frontrunners, will win the Republican nomination.

Fortunately for American voters, Governor Kasich has decided to continue his campaign for President, focusing on the primaries in the Midwest, particularly Michigan and Ohio. I believe that John Kasich is the most qualified Republican candidate and urge fellow Michigan voters to take note of his positive campaign and vote for him in the upcoming open primaries on March 8. So far the Republican primaries have been dominated by negative considerations: public fears and anxieties (particularly pertaining to the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.); mudslinging and bullying of candidates, and false allegations (made mostly by members of the Cruz campaign staff). When we vote for President of the United States, however, we vote for the issues we care about and for the person we believe can help bring them to fruition, not against someone or something.

I’m glad to see that throughout this negative campaigning, fear mongering, and process of elimination strategizing, Governor John Kasich has stood firm and remains focused on all the positives he has to offer America: namely, his vast political experience; success in economic policies as Governor of Ohio, and a moderate position on many of the social issues that divide our nation. To offer just a few examples: John Kasich, elected as Governor of Ohio in 2010 and reelected in 2014, has eliminated an 8 billion dollar budget deficit (or, if you accept the Cleveland Plain Dealer figures, a 6 billion dollar deficit) and created a 2 billion dollar surplus for Ohio. That is quite an accomplishment.

Kasich has also served in the United States House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001. He has participated for 18 years in the House Armed Services Committee and six years as Chairman of the House Budget Committee. Starting with the 1990’s, he was a main proponent of balancing the federal budget, which remains one of his top priorities.

On most social issues, Kasich is a Republican with a progressive streak. On the issue of abortion, however, he holds a conservative position. Kasich is staunchly pro-life and has passed several measures to de-fund Planned Parenthood. The issue of abortion remains hotly debated and divisive in our country because it’s a deeply personal moral issue. Many of us have friends and relatives on both sides of the debate and we respect them, without necessarily sharing, their views. What I would like to emphasize, however, both as a woman and as a feminist writer, is that being pro-life doesn’t mean that Kasich is anti-women or against women’s rights, as some have charged recently. The Governor has appointed several women while in office, including his campaign manager (Beth Hansen), his Lieutenant Governor (Mary Taylor) and his appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court (Judith French). We should also keep in mind that, on the issue of abortion, Kasich’s personal ethical stance coincides with the majority of his Republican constituency, to whom he’s answerable. I believe that if and when Republican voters’ views will shift in Ohio and throughout the country, probably so will the public policies of Republican Party leaders. As a case in point, on the issue of gay marriage, Kasich maintains a moderate stance. Although the Governor personally believes in traditional marriage, he declared that he will respect the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell V. Hodges which argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. Kasich’s political views reflect a change in public opinion. Over the past six or seven years, there has been a significant shift for Republican voters and therefore also for the Republican party leaders on the issue of gay marriage. It is no longer the controversial, hot-button topic that it was in 1994.

On economic issues touching mainstream America, Kasich is what can fairly be called a compassionate conservative, which is part of why his candidacy has great appeal across party boundaries. He has supported Medicaid-expansion funding provided by Obamacare in Ohio, something not favored by many mainstream Republicans. At the same time, he is against Obamacare, which he claims has vastly increased the cost of healthcare in Ohio. Governor Kasich plans to replace it with a more affordable and less costly healthcare plan that will foster greater competition among insurance companies.

For me, as a first-generation legal immigrant coming to the United States during the 1980s from Communist Romania, the problem of immigration is especially relevant. On the issue of illegal immigration, which the Trump campaign has brought to the foreground, Kasich’s stance is both humane and pragmatic. Although the Governor supports tightening the borders to impede further illegal immigration, unlike Trump and Cruz, he is against establishing a Gestapo-style “deportation force” that would round up illegal immigrants, yank them from their homes, and toss them out of the country. As someone currently working on a history book about the Holocaust, I would also caution that if actually implemented, Trump’s policy would set a dangerous precedent reminiscent in some respects of the Fascist era.

By way of contrast, Governor Kasich proposes a viable solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Although he does not suggest a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants, he supports a path to granting them legal status, so that if they pay taxes and meet the requirements, they can eventually work, drive and raise their children in this country. His view is that most illegal immigrants are not rapists and murderers, as Trump’s incendiary rhetoric might suggest, but rather people who, like generations of previous immigrant American families, are looking for better opportunities for themselves and their children. They pursued those opportunities through illegal means, however, which is why they can’t automatically be granted citizenship status.

Governor John Kasich offers a unique combination of ample political experience and common sense policies that can help our country flourish. Although definitely a mainstream Republican, he negotiates well with the Democrats. We need someone capable of bilateral collaboration if we want to overcome the current stalemate and accomplish anything in this country. Unlike some of the other candidates, who feed voter anxieties and even hatred by focusing on identifying internal and external enemies, Kasich offers “a positive vision for America”. In the upcoming general election, the Governor’s nuanced and reasonable positions can attract a wide range of voters. At the same time, he is the mainstream Republican candidate his party currently needs: the one that, if given the Republican nomination, has the best chance of becoming America’s next President.

My own state, Michigan, will hold open primaries on March 8th. Regardless of your voting history and party affiliation, I urge fellow Michiganders to take a serious look at Governor John Kasich’s sound policies and vast political experience and to vote for him in the primary.

Claudia Moscovici, author of Velvet Totalitarianism: Post-Stalinist Romania

 

 

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Rendering the past immediate: Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

 

Fatelessnessbooksforkeeps.co.uk

When Luisa Zielinski interviewed the Hungarian writer, Nobel Prize winner (2002) and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz in the Paris Review during the summer of 2013, the author was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease. (See Imre Kertesz. “The Art of Fiction”, Paris Review No. 220, interviewed by Luisa Zielinksi) Despite being seriously ill, Kertesz spoke with characteristic lucidity about his fiction as well as about the Holocaust. Born in 1929 in Budapest, Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 for a short period of time, and then transferred to Buchenwald. His works deal with the Holocaust, yet they are not strictly speaking autobiographical. Fatelessness (Vintage International, 2004) in particular seems to parallel Kertesz’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps, but the author focuses on the subject’s historic-philosophical dimensions. Kertesz views his description of the Holocaust in Fatelessness as a rupture of civilization that the entire world should examine and take seriously rather than an anecdote of his own trying experiences during adolescence. “I was interned in Auschwitz for one year,” he recalls. “I didn’t bring back anything, except for a few jokes, and that filled me with shame. Then again, I didn’t know what to do with this fresh experience. For this experience was no literary awakening, no occasion for professional or artistic introspection.” Writing as a mode of reflection and communication with others rather than in order to come to terms with his painful personal experiences assumed, at some point, primary importance for him.

Yet, as Kertesz recounts during the Paris Review interview, he didn’t feel destined to be a writer. Rather, he became a writer by painstakingly editing his own texts. The process of writing wasn’t easy, both because of the difficult subject matter he chose and because he had to hide his endeavors from the Communist regime. In fact, the experience of totalitarian repression forms a common thread between his experience of Nazism and of the repressive regime that followed it. “I was suspended in a world that was forever foreign to me, one I had to reenter each day with no hope of relief. That was true of Stalinist Hungary, but even more so under National Socialism,” he declares.

Despite the broad socio-political sweep of his themes, Kertesz’s fiction, particularly the novel Fatelessness, reads like an intimate psychological account of a young man’s disconcerting and painful experience of being uprooted from his family, schoolmates and friends to be thrust into the alien and brutal world of the Nazi concentration camps. Gyorgy Koves, the 15-year old protagonist, first loses his father, who is deported to and dies in labor camp. His stepmother and a Hungarian employee continue taking care of the family business, a store, and are fortunate enough to survive the war and eventually marry each other. But Gyorgy (George) lacks such luck. Along with a throng of teenage boys, he’s rounded up by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and sent to forced labor, then deported to Auschwitz. Fatelessness depicts his experiences there.

There are countless books on the Holocaust. The subject has been written about so much that some readers risk being jaded to it. This novel is especially effective in rendering this familiar topic new and touching. One of the most unique aspects of the novel is its present temporality: the adolescent narrator describes his experiences in the present, as if writing in a diary, noting every character’s expression and interspersing realistic dialogues without offering much judgment or analysis. Kertesz considers this observational technique as appropriate for a child narrator. As he explains, “a child has no agency in his own life and is forced to endure it all”. While few Jewish victims had much agency during the Holocaust, adults at least had the emotional maturity to realize what was happening to them and understand some of the socio-political reasons why. Child victims, on the other hand, were swept by the Nazi extermination machine without being able to comprehend the events that destroyed their lives or do anything about it. Given the almost existentialist nature of Kertesz’s writing, how much of Fatelessness is based on the author’s life and how much of it is historical fiction becomes far less relevant than the narrative’s powerful and immediate connection to generations of readers.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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North Korea’s State of Terror: Review of Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

northkoreascmp

 

For those informed about the dire situation of the vast majority of people living in North Korea, it’s tough to laugh along with The Interview (2014), a newly released and controversial American comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. This mediocre film, in which two journalists travel to Pyongyang and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un, has perhaps only one virtue: the publicity it generated brought some much-needed international attention to the plight of the North Korean people.

In reality, however, the situation in North Korea is far from amusing. Most of the country’s 25 million inhabitants live the kinds of lives imagined by George Orwell in his worst fictionalized nightmare, 1984. Divided by castes determined by their “patriotic” ranking; forced into jobs chosen by the government then burdened by indoctrination sessions after work for hours each day; fearing being turned in by friends, colleagues and family members for the slightest negative political remark and being sent to prison or labor camps, North Koreans live in a state of terror reminiscent of Orwell’s communist dystopia.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2009), journalist Barbara Demick offers a penetrating look into this nearly impermeable country. Even from hundreds of miles away, she begins her account, North Korea resembles a black hole: “If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you’ll see a splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan, and now China fairly gleam with prosperity” (3). Demick follows the lives of six defectors from North Korea over the course of 15 years, offering an overview of the country’s history and a glimpse of its all-pervasive political repression through the optic of beautifully narrated personal interest stories.

Generations of North Koreans have never truly known freedom. In 1910, the Japanese Empire annexed Korea. During WWII, Koreans were subjected to unspeakable cruelty at the hands of their Japanese oppressors. Korean women and girls were forced into sexual slavery in the infamous Japanese “comfort houses,” where they were repeatedly gang raped. Countless Koreans were incarcerated in prison camps, tortured and murdered. When the war ended, Korea was divided into two parts: the North became Communist, falling under the influence of China and the Soviet Union, while the South was controlled by the United States. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25 1950, it launched the superpowers into the Korean War, a “proxy” military struggle for influence on Korean territory. When the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953, the country reverted to boundaries very close to the original division between North and South Korea. The 2.5 mile buffer area between the two sides, called the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is, despite its name, the most militarized zone in the world.

Under the totalitarian leader Kim Il Sung, while still accepting Soviet aid, North Korea distanced itself politically from China and the Soviet Union by pursuing “Juche”, an ideology of self-reliance. Most of the country’s resources become channeled into its military, as North Korea observes a “Songun” or militaristic policy. The military absorbs over a third of the population, including nearly 10 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s sealed North Korea’s economic fate. Deprived of Soviet aid, the country sank into poverty, unemployment and widespread famine. As Demick documents, once Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Un, took over control of the country after his father’s death in 1994, North Korea’s isolation became absolute and the political repression intensified. Nowadays starvation is a commonplace phenomenon. The North Koreans even have a name for the tens of thousands of starving children who resort to begging in the street to survive: “little swallows”.

While the vast majority of the population of North Korea lives in darkness and squalor, their leader enjoys extreme luxury and wealth. In a recent article in The New York Times, “Pyongyang’s Hunger Games”, Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee state that Kim Jung-Un is said to have squandered $645,800,000 on luxury goods in 2012, “including cosmetics, handbags, leather products, watches, electronics, cars and top-shelf alcohol. In that same year Mr. Kim also spent 1.3 billion dollars on his ballistic missile program” (March 7, 2014).

Demick’s account personalizes the politics of North Korea by showing how it affects ordinary citizens. She tells the story of Mi-Ran, a young woman who was a teacher by profession. Mi-Ran fell in love like anyone living in a free country. Well, not like exactly like anyone else since, as Demick explains,
“the country doesn’t have a dating culture. Many marriages are still arranged, either by families or by party secretaries or bosses” (80). Mi-Ran may have felt the same emotions for the young man she cared about as do people living in free societies, but she couldn’t be with him because her political dossier was tainted by the fact that her father was a South Korean POW. The young woman may have experienced empathy like most human beings do in normal circumstances, but her situation was far from ordinary. In a country ravaged by hunger, she watched as her students wasted away from starvation, eventually disappearing without a trace from the classroom, one by one. Barely having enough food to survive herself, Mi-Ran couldn’t help them. Her empathy eventually gave way to indifference, a common survival tactic: “What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring” (130). Mi-Ran regained her humanity and put the political situation of her country in proper perspective only once she immigrated to South Korea.

Even Mrs. Song, a model patriotic citizen, eventually overcome the fear and the brainwashing instilled by her government. Each of the defectors interviewed by Demick eventually saw North Korea for what it is: a totalitarian country ruled by a voracious despot, whose personality cult may be so over-the-top as to become an object of satire for those living in freedom, but who transforms the lives of the people of North Korea into a tragic nightmare.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Fury (2014) and America’s involvement in WWII

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Initially, the U.S. didn’t declare war on Germany. In December 1941 America officially entered WWII by declaring war against Japan after the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Subsequently, Germany declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, thus obliging America to officially enter WWII. As far as Germany was concerned, for several years the U.S. had maintained relative neutrality, even though it aided the Allies with supplies. Although President Roosevelt had wanted to get involved in the war earlier on the side of the Allies, he met some initial resistance. While public opinion in the U.S. was, generally speaking, antagonistic to Hilter and the Nazi regime, many Americans nevertheless supported isolationist policies.

By the end of WWII, however, the U.S. was not only fully engaged in the war, but also played a leading role in the Allied victory. While American losses were not as great (proportionately) as those of Russia and European countries involved in the war, about 16 million Americans served in the Armed Forces and nearly 300,000 of them were killed in combat. Even Stalin–no friend of the West or of democracy–admitted, at a dinner at the Tehran Conference in 1943, “Without American production the United Nations could never have won the war.”

The movie Fury (2014), directed by David Ayer and staring Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman, follows the final push of the American forces into the heart of Nazi Germany. It focuses on the activities of the 2nd Armored Division of the 66th Armored Regiment, manning a tank named “Fury”, under the command of Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). By the end of the film, this five man crew fights heroically against an entire SS battalion of three hundred Waffen SS soldiers, inflicting serious damage upon the Germans and fighting against them to the last man.

This plot may seem like a typical military heroism movie. However, the film’s real strength lies in depicting the psychological dynamics among the five men and in offering a more historically realistic portrayal of soldiers’ behavior. The drama hinges upon the transformation of the youngest member of the group—the Army typist Norman “Machine” Ellison—who knows nothing about combat and hesitates to kill fellow human beings (particularly the young German fighters of the Hitler Youth). His battle-hardened, older companions make fun of his scruples and pressure him to kill. Wardaddy goes so far as to thrust a gun into his hand and force the young man to kill a German prisoner who’s begging for his life. Repeatedly, Wardaddy drives home the lesson that war is about killing your enemy or being killed by them.

Although Norman never fully accepts this simple “us” versus “them” mentality, he shows heroism with a heart. In one of the most telling scenes of the movie, Wardaddy pressures him to have sex with a young and beautiful German girl, Emma, whose house they invaded in order to eat. The movie doesn’t glamorize the rape, even though Emma “chooses” to sleep with the relatively sensitive and innocent Norman over his rougher companions. The film clearly illustrates that the young woman had no real choice, since choosing who will rape you isn’t a true choice.

While Norman may abandon some of his moral principles in order to become fully engaged in the war, he develops from a naïve young man into a hero that his tank companions—and the viewers—can admire. One of the fellow soldiers calls him “a good man,” acknowledging that their behavior has been corrupted in the war. Fury showcases a moral complexity that I’ve rarely seen in American war movies. It shows that in war—even a war as necessary as WWII was—heroism can become inseparable from heartlessness, just as saving countries from oppression can become tainted by claiming the “spoils” of victory (looting and rape).

 

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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Filed under American involvement in WWII, Brad Pitt, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, David Ayer, film, Fury, Logan Lerman, Review of Fury (2014), WWII