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Rendering the past immediate: Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness

 

Fatelessnessbooksforkeeps.co.uk

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

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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The suffering of innocents: Romanian orphanages during Ceausescu’s regime

romanianorphanagesbluenred.com

One of the most distressing aspects of the Holocaust is the fact that millions of children starved, fell ill and died as a result of Hitler’s genocidal policies. Even before studying the history of the Holocaust in greater depth, I became sensitized to the issue of children’s suffering during communism in the infamous orphages of my native country, Romania.

From the beginning of his rule, Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, made rapid industrialization a cornerstone of his domestic policy. During the 1960’s, however, the country approximated zero population growth, which meant, in the long run, a reduced labor force. In response, Ceausescu abolished abortion in 1966, except for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or if the mother was over 45 years old and had given birth to at least four children. Later, he introduced more punitive pronatalist measures to offer Romanian citizens further incentives to have more children. The government increased taxes for men and women who remained childless after the age of 25. In 1967 Ceausescu practically abolished divorce. A miniscule quota of maximum 28 divorces was allowed in the whole country that year. The government also offered some positive incentives. Mothers received a monetary reward upon the birth of their third child and the income taxes of couples with three or more children were lowered by 30 percent.

The policy that proved to have disastrous consequences for the country was the abolition of birth control. Contraceptives, which were not manufactured in Romania, were banned, making effective birth control extremely difficult. Initially, the birth rate rose dramatically, but then quickly declined again as women began resorting to dangerous, illegal abortions, which could sometimes be obtained in exchange for a carton of Kent cigarettes. By the early 1980’s, the government took more intrusive measures to regulate women’s reproductive cycles. Doctors performed mandatory monthly gynecological exams on all women of reproductive age to detect and monitor pregnancies. The government also launched a propaganda campaign praising “patriotic” couples that had several children. These measures, however, failed to achieve the desired results. After decades of repressive policies, birthrates in Romania were only slightly higher than those of nations where abortion was legal. However, these draconian measures did manage to increase the number of unwanted children, many of whom were put up for adoption in Romania’s infamous orphanages, which began to receive international media attention during the 1980’s.

By the end of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, there were approximately 100,000 children in Romania’s orphanages. Given the regime’s pronatalist policies and the country’s low standard of living, many families were placed in the impossible position of choosing between food and their newborn babies. Thousands of children were placed in orphanages whose living conditions resembled those of concentration camps. SoRelle notes that even older children were not potty trained and were left to wallow in their own waste. Children slept huddled together on cots or on the floor, covered by the soiled blankets. Many lacked shoes or appropriate clothing for the cold winters. Many were also lice infested because of the unhygienic conditions and lack of proper cleaning supplies. Dunlap observes that orphanages didn’t have disinfectant, soap and hot water. Diseases were rampant and medical care insufficient. Instead of playing with toys, the orphans played with dirty needles. Babies lacked proper attention and children were left unattended and uneducated, remaining illiterate into their teens. Even the international attention such a blatant human rights violation received did nothing to change the dictator’s pronatalist policies or the appalling conditions of the Romanian orphanages.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Review of Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis by Nicholas Stargardt

ChildrenWWIItelegraph.co.uk

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Children were the most innocent casualties of WWII. Killed in concentration camps, orphaned by battles throughout Europe, languishing from starvation, destroyed by disease, targeted for their race, traumatized by violence, tens of millions of children throughout European countries suffered and died. Nicholas Stargardt’s informative and well-documented book, Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) draws upon children’s school assignments, journals and letters to recreate for contemporary readers an invaluable historical picture of children’s lives under the Nazi regimes.

For me, the most inspiring and heartbreaking true story in the book is his account of life for the Jewish orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and the heroic deeds of their caretaker, Doctor Janusz Korczak. Selfless and courageous, Korczak provided for the orphans even in the harshest conditions—resorting to begging for food for them—and stayed with them to the end to comfort them as they were boarded on death trains, refusing the chance to survive without them. Stargardt describes how on the morning of August 6, 1942, after finding out about the Nazi plan to liquidate the children of the orphanage, “Stefa Wilczynska and Janusz Korczak instinctively moved together to calm the children and get them to gather together their things as they had been shown. One of the teachers went out into the courtyard and obtained a quarter of an hour from the Jewish police to allow the children to pack up and come out in good order… As they lined up in fifty rows of four abreast Korczak set off with the younger children in the lead so that they would not be outstripped by the older ones… That day, all the children’s homes in the ghetto were cleared by the Germans…” (182).

Stargardt also depicts children’s unhappy lives in concentration camps and their powers of adaptation. Because of the wealth of documentation, he focuses in particular on the group from Theresienstadt, called “the Family Camp” at Auschwitz because it was the only camp in which young children were allowed to survive for awhile and continued to live with their families–until they too were killed en masse between July 10-12, 1944. (see my earlier review about Theresienstadt, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/real-story-terezin-theresienstadt-%E2%80%9Cmodel%E2%80%9D-jewish-ghetto-i-am-star-inge-auerbacher).

“Racial outsiders” were not the only victims of the Nazis, however. Even privileged categories of children—German children themselves—suffered during the Nazi regime, though not for the same reasons as Jewish, Polish or Gypsy victims. Towards the end of WWII, many German children were, like their parents, casualties of war. Stargardt describes, for instance, the bombing of Hamburg, which “marked a turning point in the war. Its scale was completely unprecedented, and it came at a time when both British and German governments that such attacks on German civilians might decide the fortunes of the war” (233). Child survivors recall feeling very frightened by the bombing and praying to stay alive. “The conjunction of sudden awakening out of deep sleep and the sound of the sirens was particularly potent,” the author explains. “In Bochum, Karl-Heinz Bodecker repeated each night as he got into bed, ‘May the Tommies leave us in peace tonight.’ Among Ute Rau’s first stumbling words were ‘Quick, quick, coats, cellar’” (234). Perhaps the deepest suffering of German children was a result of losing their fathers. According to Stargardt, 4,923,000 German soldiers died during the war, two thirds of them perishing during 1944 and 1945. (337) Consequently, millions of German children of that generation grew up not knowing what it’s like to have a father.

Furthermore, about 13 million abandoned and orphaned children were displaced during and shortly after WWII. (351) Many were victims of forced evacuations, slave labor, “Germanization”, concentration camps and the rare survivors of the liquidated Jewish ghettos. Although their numbers can be quantified, their suffering cannot. These children were the victims of a war that was largely outside their control and, for the youngest, also beyond their comprehension.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s new president-elect, viewed from abroad

IohannisTheEconomist

A victory for Iohannis, a step forward for democracy and minority rights in Romania: Klaus Iohannis viewed from abroad

by  Claudia Moscovici

I have not seen the Romanian public so enthusiastic and optimistic about a political event since the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. On November 16, 2014 the Romanian center-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, won the presidential election. His victory over Victor Ponta came as a welcome surprise for many Romanian voters. Ponta was ahead during most of the presidential campaign and had won the first round, on the November 2nd election. Many Romanians view Iohannis’ victory as a step forward for democracy. What are some of the factors that led to Iohannis’ unexpected victory and how is it perceived by the press abroad?

Reuters recently briefly covered the Romanian election with some ambivalence. In an article published on November 16, Matthias Williams claims, “Analysts had said that victory for Ponta might have helped make Romania a more stable nation, with the main levers of power held by one bloc. By contrast, Iohannis’ win could trigger renewed political tensions in one of Europe’s poorest states.” Despite these misgivings, in next sentence the author expresses the other side of the coin, which coincides with what I’ve been reading in the Romanian press: namely, that Romanians had grown increasingly critical of the Ponta regime and were ready for a change: “Thousands of people took to the streets of Bucharest to voice their anger at Ponta’s government on Sunday night and demand his resignation.” Williams brings up one of the main issues at stake, which is the country’s growing disenchantment with political corruption: “Growth rebounded to more than 3 percent in the third quarter of 2014, but corruption and tax evasion are rife, and progress to implement reforms and overhaul a bloated state sector is mixed.” (see http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/16/romania-election-idUSL6N0T608D20141116)

Young voters, the educated elite and Romanian citizens abroad (the diaspora) voted, overwhelmingly, in favor of Klaus Iohannis. Romanians would like to build a country with less political corruption, more transparency in the government, a thriving economy and a more democratic voting process in the country and especially for Romanians living abroad. In fact, the difficulties in voting for oversea Romanian citizens, which got international media coverage, drew widespread sympathy for Iohannis, both within and outside Romania. “Overseas voters, “ Williams notes, “played a key role in swinging the vote at the last presidential election in 2009. Romania’s large and growing diaspora is widely seen as anti-Ponta, and many voiced their anger when long queues and bureaucratic hurdles prevented them from voting in the first round. The uproar triggered the foreign minister’s resignation, sparked protests in cities across Romania and may have helped galvanize the anti-Ponta vote.” In Paris and Munich people lined up for hours on end, waiting for the opportunity to vote. In Munich, some people showed the cameras their toothbrushes, to indicate they’d be willing to spend the night there if that’s what it took.

For many Romanians, Klaus Iohannis represents a change for the better. Although much of his political platform remains to be seen, in the eyes of his supporters he stands for political accessibility, honesty and good character. A former physics teacher and current mayor (of Sibiu) of German origin, Iohannis also represents a victory for ethnic Romanians. Ethnic Germans living in Romania were brought into the international limelight a few years ago, when novelist Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. Despite the fact that ethnic Germans have been living in Romania for hundreds of years, they still face some prejudice and obstacles. In fact, As Alison Mutler points out in The Associated Press article of November 17, Victor Ponta tried to play the nationalist card by depicting Iohannis as a cultural outsider. This strategy backfired. Mutler notes, “His win was also the failure of the nationalist card played by Ponta, who mocked his rival’s minority German ethnicity and the fact that he is a Lutheran and not a member of the powerful Orthodox Church.” Iohannis supporters, The Economist reports on November 17th, 2014, “greeted the mayor of Sibiu with cries of ‘Danke Schön’. He will become the first member of an ethnic minority, and the first non-Orthodox Christian, to serve as president in Romania’s post-communist history.” (see http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/11/romanias-elections-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/Transylvaniansurprise)

This unprecedented win represents not only a victory for democracy in Romania, but also a step forward for ethnic minorities. Ethnic Germans, or Rumaniendeutsche, were numerous in the country before the end of WWII, numbering almost eight hundred thousand. Most of them immigrated to Germany (or were evicted from the country) shortly after WWII, when Romania became Communist. By 2011, their numbers fell to less than 40,000. A second wave, over 100,000 ethnic Germans, immigrated to Germany following the anti-Communist revolution of 1989. Although still perceived as “foreigners” by some native Romanians, ethnic Germans have lived in Romania—mostly in the region Transylvania—for centuries. The majority belong to the ‘Saxons’, who are descendants of Germans who settled in Transylvania during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Iohannis, who states that his family has lived in Romania for over 700 years, is most likely a descendent of this ethnic group. The second group, the Swabians, are descended from Southern Germans who settled in the Banat region during the eighteenth-century. The third group, the “Lander” Germans, came to Northern Transylvania during the eighteenth century. While ethnic minorities may still face some prejudice in Romania, the country has made great strides over the past ten years in representing ethnic minorities.

“Conditions for minorities in Romania today have been significantly improved through reforms pushed through in the run-up to the country’s accession to the EU. An accession treaty signed in early 2005 resulted in Romania’s full membership in 2007. … Minorities are currently represented in both chambers of parliament.” (for more information on Minorities in Romania, see Minority Rights, (http://www.minorityrights.org/3521/romania/romania-overview.html).

CurteaVecheKlausIohannis

Romanians have a lot of hope for the country under the new government. They hope for a healthier economy and more job opportunities. They would like to see the continuing integration of Romania into the European community, less political corruption, and a more democratic—and easier–process of voting, especially for the diaspora. Iohannis has expressed his commitment to fulfilling these hopes, so the country has reason for optimism. He has also shown his accessibility to the public—and graciousness–during a recent book signing of his autobiography, Pas cu Pas (Step by Step), published by Curtea Veche Publishing, where he spent hours with fans, signing over 3000 autographs. This presidency wouldn’t be the first time a member of a minority group has paved the way for the majority. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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TED and TEDx: The democratic dissemination of “ideas worth sharing”

TEDxReghin

In her 2011 TEDx talk at Silicon Valley entitled the TEDxStory, Lara Stein discussed one of the main goals of the TEDx series she helped launch throughout the world in 2009. The theme of her presentation was “How to create a global movement and how to keep it personal”. To address this topic, Stein first considered if TEDx is actually a movement, a trend or a tribe.

http://www.tedxsv.org/?page_id=1221

She began with the definition of a movement—“movements are large, sometimes informal, groupings of individuals or organizations which focus on specific political or social issues”—which, in her estimation, described TED and its mission in some respects but not in others. TED tends to include many political groups and affiliations and is, generally speaking, embracing of numerous ideologies yet at the same time politically nonpartisan. She also considered and ultimately rejected the concept of a trend. TED goes much deeper than a trend. Trends tend to be associated with passing fashions and even fads. Baggy pants are a trend. TED, on the other hand, has staying power.

Founded in 1984 by Richard Saul Wurman as a convergence of three fields—technology, entertainment and design—TED has grown into an international phenomenon that covers almost every field of knowledge and human endeavor. Moreover, the goals of this international nonprofit foundation are far from faddish. TED has a worthwhile and ambitious mission: the democratic sharing of information. On their website, the TED organizers state: “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. On TED.com, we’re building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers—and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other, both online and at TED and TEDx events around the world, all year long.” (See http://www.ted.com/about/our-organization)

Given its global reach, Lara Stein declared in her talk that the concept of a “tribe” best describes the TED lecture series. According to its dictionary definition, a tribe is “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect”. While TED is not a tribe in the literal or traditional sense, this concept does describe, by analogy, the manner in which its members are united—despite their countless ethnic, national, political and social differences—by a common commitment to sharing meaningful information. They believe not only in the motto of TED—namely, that ideas are “worth sharing”—but also in the assumption that communicating the right ideas can make a significant positive difference in the world. By “right” ideas I mean those that contribute to the communication of scientific knowledge in numerous fields, to the growth of businesses, to the flourishing of individuals and communities, as well as to the growth of art and culture in general—are encouraged.

Being a fan and a participant in the TEDx series, I’m sympathetic to TED’s mission and impressed with its accomplishments. On September 20, 2014, I participated via a Skype interview in a TEDxReghin event entitled “Brizant!” (a branding concept translated as “fire and water”) with the theme “the magic of life” organized by Sorin Suciu in my native country, Romania. The event took place in the town of Reghin, known as “the city of violins”. The participants who spoke about what they perceived as life’s magic and meaning came from different professions and walks of life: economics (Daniel Moga); communication and life coaching (Christina Varo); athletic coaching of children and young adults (Mihai Corui); electrical engineering (Sorina Lupu); business (Flaviu Roman); medicine (Nora Chifor) and writing/art criticism (me). Despite having different perspectives, the speakers shared an honesty in their answers and a commitment to communicating ideas with the public.

https://www.ted.com/tedx/events/11458

http://www.zi-de-zi.ro/farmecul-vietii-povestit-la-tedxreghin/

For me, this local TEDx event embodied the principles articulated by Lara Stein when she developed the TEDx series—or independently organized cultural events—in over 130 countries and 1,200 cities throughout the world. TEDx stands for disseminating knowledge to everyone, not just the elite. It stands for disseminating knowledge in numerous cities, big or small, capitals or provincial towns. It stands for disseminating knowledge in both developed and developing countries. It stands for disseminating knowledge by people from all walks of life and areas of expertise, not just academic pundits.

It takes a real balancing act to combine a wide, democratic scope with quality standards. For TEDx is committed to having standards—the talks are curated—without, however, being “elitist”. Anyone can participate in these talks as speakers, provided that their presentations meet the curatorial standards of the local organizers and are approved by the central administration in New York City. Since the organizers of local TEDx series have a lot of autonomy, the forum remains open and democratic in fact, not just in theory.

This combination of talks in major cities as well as presentations in smaller communities also ensures that the speakers have an audience interested in what they have to say. Statistically speaking, few participants will have a large, international audience. Like in any other public forum, the more visible the speakers were originally—I’m thinking of “public” intellectuals such as Alain de Botton, or well-established business professionals such as Steve Jobs—the more visible they’re likely to be on the TED speaker series as well. It’s therefore not surprising that Steve Jobs’ 2005 presentation, “How to live before you die”, was one of the most popular TED talks of all time.

http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_jobs_how_to_live_before_you_die?language=en

But the establishment of the locally organized, grassroots TEDx series ensures that nobody talks in a void. Whether they’re famous or relatively unknown, addressing a large international audience or a small community, no speaker is left to feel like an insignificant drop of water in an ocean of communication of ideas. They all reach an audience and have a chance at making a positive difference in their community. As Mother Teresa once said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Remembering the “forgotten Holocaust”: The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang

ViktoriaNachtpinterestTheRape ofNanking

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII describes one of the most brutal mass murders in world history: the massacre of over 300,000 Chinese men, women and children by Japanese soldiers in what she calls “an orgy of cruelty” in the (then) capital city of Nanking, during the winter of 1937. The blood bath took place in the span of about six weeks, from December 12, 1937 to February 10, 1938. As Chang states, “Indeed, even by the standards of history’s most destructive war, the Rape of Nanking represents one of the worst instances of mass extermination” (The Rape of Nanking, New York: Penguin books, 1997, 5). What is remarkable about the sheer cruelty of Japanese attack is not only the mass murder of countless innocent civilians, but the also the systematic rape, torture and maiming of women and children.
Chang describes in gruesome detail how Japanese soldiers would gang rape women, ranging from girls only nine or ten years old to elderly women in their 80’s and 90’s. Nobody was safe anywhere, at any time. The rapes occurred at all hours of the day and night, everywhere: in homes, in the streets, in apartments, in offices or stores. Often girls would die from these savage rapes. Not content with raping and humiliating women in a culture that prized female virtue and chastity, some of the Japanese soldiers went on to savagely beat their victims, maim them, cutting off their breasts or vaginas, disemboweling them, ripping babies out of the bellies of pregnant women, and even impaling them with bayonets. Their sadism knew no bounds.
Men were not immune from harm either. In fact, the Japanese first targeted soldiers—and prisoners of war–luring them in groups of about 200 men to designated parts of the city with promises of food, water, and humane treatment. Nothing could have been further from the truth than these false promises. After leaving them without food and water for days, thus weakening their health and spirit, the Japanese soldiers would round up the Chinese prisoners and murder them. Sometimes these mass murders would turn into game-like killing sprees, in which some of the Japanese soldiers would compete with one another in who could kill the most Chinese prisoners. After luring Chinese soldiers to their deaths, thus depriving the city of its defense, the Japanese soldiers turned their rage upon the civilian population of Nanking.
How can one explain this brutality? Chang traces historically the roots of Japan’s martial mentality, starting with the samurai warrior class. She also discusses the more recent, twentieth-century doctrine, of racial superiority to the Chinese. Then she outlines some of the economic factors—particularly the depression of the 1930’s—that, along with the doubling of the population of Japan to 65 million persons, made it “increasingly difficult for Japan to feed its people” (26). The country’s leaders came to view imperial expansion, particularly the conquest of China and its territories, as a solution to these economic and demographic problems.
Ultimately, however, part of the explanation has to do, as in Germany’s case with Hitler, with the malicious decisions of evil leaders. The Japanese leadership—perhaps Prince Asaka himself—issued a clear order to the rank-and-file soldiers: “KILL ALL CAPTIVES” (40). This command was motivated by a total disregard for human life (at least, for the lives of the Chinese captives), as well as by practical concerns. Killing their victims would mean having fewer mouths to feed, fewer people to shelter, and fewer worries about Chinese retaliation. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887-1981), the temporary commander of the Japanese forces in Nanking, was known for his ruthlessness in war. Kesago Nakajima (1881-1945), the Lieutenant General of the Imperial Japanese Army largely responsible for the atrocities committed in Nanking, was far worse. By all accounts, Nakajima was a reputed sadist. According to Chang, David Bergamini describes him in Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy as a “small Himmler of a man, a specialist in thought control, intimidation and torture”. Even his biographer, Kimura Kuninori, calls him “a beast” and “a violent man” (37).
The rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges and the many atrocities of WWII don’t prove that humanity, as a whole, is evil. However, these massive atrocities across cultures do prove that there is a percentage of human beings who are capable of unleashing boundless violence in the right conditions. As Chang herself states, “Looking back upon millennia of history, it appears clear that no race or culture has a monopoly on wartime cruelty. The veneer of civilization seems to be exceedingly thin—one that can be easily stripped away, especially by the stresses of war” (55). The Rape of Nanking is a well-documented, remarkable history that goes a long way in making sure that “the forgotten Holocaust” will be remembered by generations to come.Iris

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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An Impossible Conflict in the Gaza Strip: Rock the Casbah directed by Yariv Horowitz

scene from Rock the Casbah, image from Timesofisrael.com

scene from Rock the Casbah, image from Timesofisrael.com

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The Holocaust underscored for the Jewish people—and for a large part of the world as well–the necessity of having your own nation. Deprived of full citizenship rights in many European countries and entirely stripped of human rights once the Nazis came to power, the Jews became ostracized and persecuted throughout Europe. They were branded as outsiders and eventually stomped out by the Nazis like “vermin” even in countries they had inhabited for centuries. One of the greatest ironies of history is that to claim a land and establish a country of their own in 1948—the state of Israel–the Jewish people had to displace another people, the Palestinians, leading to one of the most fierce and insoluble conflicts in modern history.

Nowhere was this conflict more heated than on the West Bank and the Gaza strip, a thin strip of land bordering Egypt and Israel. When Israel won the Six Day War against Egypt in 1967, the Israelis took over control of Gaza, an area already populated by over one million Palestinian Sunni Muslims. Although, after signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian Authority governed the Gaza Strip, Israel maintained control of its airspace, borders (with the exception of the border with Egypt) and waters, monitoring what went in and out of the area. Thus, for all practical purposes, Israel acquired enormous control over the entire economy. Much of the local Palestinian population viewed this control as an occupation by an enemy nation. Encouraged by Hamas and other militant organizations, Palestinian youth launched their own form of protest, or “Intifada” (uprising), throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails and engaging in suicide bombing expeditions against the Israeli forces and, sometimes, against civilians. The Israelis, in turn, launched counterattacks and enacted punitive measures. This conflict led to the death of countless innocent civilians on both sides.

Director Yariv Horowitz, Rock the Casbah

Director Yariv Horowitz, Rock the Casbah

Was my brief summary biased? Although I tried to sound impartial, many would say that I wasn’t. It’s nearly impossible to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict objectively, without seeming to favor one side or another. Impartiality itself tends to be viewed as a bias, given that members of both communities feel that the other side behaves in an immoral and indefensible manner. Given how difficult it is to be fair to both sides, it’s all the more remarkable that the recent independent film directed by Yariv Horowitz, Rock the Casbah (2013), does justice to this thorny subject. The movie manages to capture the complexity of the conflict in Gaza during the First Intifada, in 1989. Although the film is narrated from the perspective of four young Israeli soldiers sent to the Gaza strip to suppress the uprising, it doesn’t dehumanize the Palestinians. It also doesn’t convey the Israeli soldiers as righteous heroes. In fact, the movie’s strength—acknowledged by several film critics, including Jordan Hoffman in film.com and Alissa Simon in Variety—lies in its realism and strong characterizations.

Not surprisingly, not all these soldiers go into this mission with enthusiasm. In Israel, all citizens over the age of 18 are required to serve in the military (with some exemptions, such as for Druze Arabs who are citizens of Israel). Men generally serve three years, women two. Many go willingly and gladly, others can’t wait to get the experience over with and escape alive. In his depiction of the Israeli soldiers, Horowitz captures an entire spectrum of attitudes towards the Israeli-Arab conflict: from the ideologically patriotic stance of the Israeli commander (played by Angel Bonnani); to the ambivalent reaction of the main character Tomer (Yon Tumarkin) who, for the most part, is traumatized by violence; to the hot-headed hatred of Aki (Roy Nik); to the easy-going attitude of their likable leader, Ariel (Yotam Ishay), who tries to calm down his fellow soldiers when they seek vengeance. In fact, Ariel can’t wait to complete the few weeks he has left of military service and go to Amsterdam.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ih9knjg5JgQ]

The plot centers on an initial act of violence, which sparks a greater conflict: a young Israeli soldier is killed by a Palestinian youth who throws a washing machine on him from a rooftop. During the rest of the movie, four of his fellow soldiers are stationed on that roof, trying to prevent further violence and to hunt down the man who killed their friend. This isn’t an easy feat, since the perpetrator’s family and friends try to protect him. In the process of seeking the killer, the Israelis gather up, in a more or less haphazard fashion, all the young Arab males they suspect of being involved in acts of aggression, blindfold them, shove them into a van and send them to a Secret Service prison, guilty or innocent. I found this to be one of the most brutal scenes of the film.

The movie also captures the understandable resentment of the Palestinian family on whose roof the Israeli soldiers are stationed. Although they themselves—a mother, a father and their children—are not directly involved in violence, they refuse to turn in their nephew, the young man who killed the Israeli soldier. Their young son, not understanding what’s happening, wants to play “soldier” games with the Israelis. Caught in the middle—ostracized by their community as “collaborators” and suspected by the Israelis of protecting the enemy—this Palestinian family is stuck in a lose-lose situation that reduces the parents to despair.

Rock the Casbah sustains suspense not only through its strong characterizations, but also through the sparing use of violence. Unlike most American war films I’ve seen, which showcase countless scenes of blood and gore through spectacular special effects, this movie included only two main acts of physical violence: the scene of the killing of the Israeli soldier at the beginning and one at the end. These deaths were so well staged that I felt like I had watched a film of incredible violence.

Above all, to its credit, Rock the Casbah achieves a rare and difficult feat: it describes the polarizing and complex political tension in the Middle East in as realistic and unbiased a manner as possible, neither idealizing nor demonizing either side of this impossible conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

 

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Romanian Film Shorts at TIFF 2014: Start Anew World/O Lume Noua; A Walk; To die of wounded love

 

Start Anew World/O Lume Noua

Start Anew World/O Lume Noua

TIFF 2014: Romanian Film Shorts II: Start Anew World/O Lume Noua; A Walk; To die of wounded love
translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici
That state of euphoria, when you see that Romanians can do what foreigners can and that, at last, we enter the ranks of the much-praised West, is in fact the state of being you experience multiple times when you watch Romanian film shorts. And, still, from too much national humility, we forget that maybe we can do things much better than foreigners, that we beat them a long time ago (in specific instances, not as a whole), and that we have good reasons to feel proud of ourselves. The films below, even if they’re not big-budget and even if they’re not the epitome of the art of cinema are, nonetheless, important films. I’d call them “checkpoints” because they mark important, indisputable landmarks of quality in Romanian cinema. It’s as if once they made these movies, there’s no turning back. What follows is a continual upgrade. As I wrote in an earlier article about Romanian film shorts, I’m very curious to see how, when and where we’ll hear about these titles. Unfortunately, we’ve become used to seeing them presented by film festivals. We need them. It’s as if we wanted to consume more, but we can only do it with film stamps, like back in the day. Rationed films, as it were…
Start Anew World/O Lume Nouă (Directed by Luiza Pârvu, România – Hungary – SUA, 2014). The year 1908, the epoch of the first emigration of Romanians across the ocean. A Transylvanian arrives in Pennsylvania in the house of a friend, her husband’s cousin. Their forbidden love prevents them from speaking to each other naturally. Luiza Parvu’s film fits into precisely this “space” of stunted and inexpressible things that, from the start, creates a climactic tension. What is not said is therefore more powerful than what is formally articulated. The two actors construct such a dense and credible story that this film short seems to be taken from an excellent feature film. Maybe some will not appreciate the affected tone of the story, similar to a soap-opera. However, for what it wants to express, Luiza Parvu’s film short is real cinema. And it’s a great example of good use of film equipment, which exploits colorfully the details of movement, scenography and gestures, somewhat in the style of Caranfil.
to read the rest of the article on LiterNet.ro, please follow the links:
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Book Thief: Holocaust Literature as Best Seller

Thebookthiefcover

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The Book Thief (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 2007), a novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak, accomplished a rare feat for Holocaust literature: the novel won numerous literary awards and became a long-standing international best seller, including being on the New York Times best seller list for a record of 230 weeks. What’s even more surprising about the novel’s success is not only its somber theme, but also the fact it’s a work of literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction), a style of writing that rarely becomes a mainstream hit. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry—for instance, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Historian, fits both genres–I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique narrative style.  Death characterized the Holocaust, and Death is the real narrator of the novel, which begins with the heroine’s end: Liesel Meminger’s death, many years after WWII, after she’s lived a full life and had children and grandchildren of her own. As Death carries the elderly woman’s soul to the other side, it also takes and narrates her childhood diary.

In the late 1930’s and early 40’s, Liesel is a young adopted girl living in Germany. She has her first encounter with Death when her brother, Werner Meminger, who is also given up for adoption along with her, dies on the train to Molching. He’s buried by the railway station. That day, Liesel’s obsession with books—and death–begins. She picks up The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a book dropped by the funeral director at her brother’s funeral. Shortly thereafter, the distraught girl joins what might be seen as a typical German family, with whom she bonds quickly. Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans Hubermann, is a loyal German, who served during WWI, but is not sympathetic to the Nazi regime. Despite his reservations, Hans is enlisted in the German army during WWII. Artistic and sensitive—a painter and accordion player–Hans probably characterizes the attitude of a vast majority of Germans who were not anti-Semitic yet were forced to participate in the Nazi regime. His wife, Rosa, is a no-nonsense woman with a sharp tongue and a loving heart. She washes people’s clothes to supplement their income but gradually, one by one, her customers fire her.

Liesel also meets Max Vandenburg, a Jew hidden by the Hubermann family from the Nazis, whose father fought during WWI alongside Hans Hubermann. Liesel befriends him. When Hans becomes ill, she reads to him. He eventually recovers, in part, the novel suggests, because of the power of friendship transmitted through the act of reading. Liesel and her family have a close call with the Gestapo, as soldiers search their house to see if they can use their basement as a shelter. Fortunately, they deem it too shallow and they leave.
In all respects, Liesel blends in with her adoptive family. Their hardships and struggles become hers as well. She becomes especially close friends with Rudy Steiner, a blond “Aryan” boy a few months older than her, who develops a crush on her. Although the girl refuses to kiss him, together they embark on many adventures, which bond them to one another. Together, they become book thieves when the Mayor and his wife also fire Rosa. Their love of books and of the forbidden, representing a kind of protest against the Nazi regime and against injustice in life in general, binds the two children even more. e murders perpetrated by the Nazis, but it is not sympathetic to them. Rather, Zusak depicts Death as a kind of Humanist, philosophical character: humane and disapproving of senseless violence, hatred and destruction. In parts, Death touches upon the comic and the absurd, needing “a vacation” from its job during the war.
I think the strength of this novel lies in its complex characterizations: the German characters in particular are nuanced and multifaceted, not stereotyped in any way. They too struggle with the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime and try to help victims, as much as they can. In the end, however, they too become victims of Hitler’s war, as Rosa, Hans and Rudy all die when the Hubermann house is bombed. Rudy doesn’t even get to experience Liesel’s first kiss, dying seconds before she finally declares her love for him and kisses him. Only Liesel survives and gets the chance to have a full life.
If I were to identify any weakness in the novel it would be in the narrative style. Since style functions as a kind of author’s unique fingerprint in literary fiction, it’s largely dependent upon each reader’s subjective taste. The choppy, short sentences and disjointed, subjective structure of the novel weren’t to my personal taste, particularly since I usually look for a dense, sweeping and well-informed description of lived history in Holocaust literature. This novel, however, is impressionistic in both style and structure. But these stylistic features also made The Book Thief popular with readers of all ages, particularly with young readers, who could identify with the characters and appreciate its accessible form. Due to its literary success, The Book Thief was recently made into a movie directed by Brian Percival, released in November 2013. The movie, however, unlike the book, received mixed reviews.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Killing Fields: Genocide in Cambodia

 

thekillingfieldsthebestpictureproject

 

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The Killing Fields (1984) is a terrific movie based upon a horrific, real genocide. The Khmer Rouge, a Communist regime in Cambodia that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, was responsible for the death of over 2 million people, out of a total population of 8 million. The term “the killing fields,” coined by the Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (whose life story also informs the movie), refers to the sites of mass murder in the country: particularly the city Choeung Ek, the setting of the movie. The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot (a leader who acquired the reputation of being “the Hitler of Cambodia”), used Marxist theory as a pretext to eradicate the professional and intellectual classes from society. They targeted in particular teachers, doctors, ethnic minorities (especially those of Vietnamese or Chinese descent), sending them to “reeducation programs” that only the lucky few could survive. The regime’s stated goal was to “wipe the slate clean” and start communism “from ground zero” after completely eradicating capitalist institutions and their supporters. Under this policy, almost everyone was in danger. Wearing glasses alone could be interpreted as a sign of being “an intellectual” and make one vulnerable to being sent to concentration camp. Once there, prisoners were starved and forced to work in the field in conditions that practically guaranteed death. Young soldiers, usually men and women from peasant families, forced prisoners to dig their own graves before executing them.

It is easy to see the death of millions as tragic statics that don’t touch us on a personal level. The movie The Killing Fields (1984), directed by Roland Joffé, does a wonderful job of conveying this mass suffering in very personal terms. Based on Dith Pran’s true account of being captured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and his subsequent escape, this historical drama succeeds in conveying the horrors perpetrated by the communist regime as well as the heroism and hope of its main character. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, an actor who lived through the same horrors in Cambodia and plays the role of the journalist Dith Pran, does such a wonderful job in his role of Pran that he won in 1985 the Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor”. Sam Waterson plays spectacularly well the role of the American journalist Sydney Schanberg, sent to Cambodia in 1973 to cover the civil war. Ironically, the film begins with a scene in which Schanberg objects to the execution of two Khmer Rouge officers.

Two years later, however, it’s the Khmer Rouge that distinguishes itself in its violence and oppression. The communist regime captures Schanberg and Pran, who have taken refuge in the French embassy. Realizing that Pran, as a Vietnamese intellectual, will be sent to a concentration camp by the new regime, his American friends try to give him a counterfeit passport. In a suspenseful and unforgettable scene, we watch as their hope melts as the picture fades before our eyes. The soldiers take Pran to the Killing Fields, a cesspool of mud and decaying corpses. As Pran struggles with all his might to stay alive, his friend, Sydney Schanberg, safely back in the United States, gets the Pulitzer Prize for his reports about the Cambodian civil war. Although in his acknowledgement speech Schanberg gives half of the credit to Pran, he remains ridden with doubts and guilt for leaving his friend behind and perhaps not doing enough to save him.

Eventually, Pran manages to save himself. He gains the trust of Phat, a man assigned to guard him by convincingly maintaining the ruse of being an uneducated peasant. For instance, when his guard speaks French to him to check his understanding, Pran pretends not to speak the language. Phat eventually trusts him with the safety of his young son in case he’s killed. This communist soldier’s character, it turns out, is more complex than it originally seemed. He tries to save several of his colleagues from being killed by other Khmer Rouge, but ends up shot. Pran escapes with Phat’s son and several other prisoners. In one of the most touching and horrific scenes of the movie, we watch as Pran’s companion, holding the boy on his back, activates a hidden mine. Pran is unable to save them from the explosion. A few days later, he reaches the border with Thailand, where he seeks refuge in a Red Cross camp. There he eventually reunites with his friend Sydney, who begs for his forgiveness for having left him behind in Cambodia. “There’s nothing to forgive Sydney,” Pran reassures and embraces his friend.

This movie succeeds on many levels: as a historical film; as a tension-filled drama; and as a moving, tragic tale of a man who suffered, along with millions of other innocent victims, at the hands of a genocidal communist regime. The tragedy doesn’t end with the relatively happy ending of the movie, however. As they say, sometimes life can be stranger than fiction. Ironically, in real life, three members of the “Oriental Lazy Boyz” gang killed the actor who played Pran’s role, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, on February 25, 1996 in downtown Los Angeles. The man who miraculously survived one of the worst genocides in human history ended up the victim of a random, senseless shooting in the streets of L.A.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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