The story of what happened to the victims of Nazi Germany is one that has been told many times before from both a historical perspective as well as through personal accounts. But rarely do those stories go much past 1945 following the story of one Jewish woman who was not just exposed to the extremes of fascism but also Zionism.
Eva Figes tell not just her own story, which is dominated not just by the war but by a failed relationship with her mother, as well as the story of the maid who returned to them in London after a gap of years following the wartime departure of Eva’s family from Berlin.
The story of Edith who is a quiet woman without too much selfishness and ambition is one that serves to highlight the cruelty that can be handed out even by those wearing the mask of friendship.
Having survived barely the years of Nazi rule by luck and the kindness of others Edith is then bullied into going to Israel to start a fresh life. Once there she discovers that the victims of the Nazis are disliked, victimised again and the dream of communal happiness is a bitter illusion.
Edith returns to London to try and find refuge with her old employers. Now proud to consider themselves part of British society a reminder of the past is not welcomed by Eva’s parents. Her mother in particular shows a cruelty to a former employee reduced to complete loneliness that is also shown to her daughter. The obsession with her position in society and her unwillingness to engage with her daughter or Edith leaves a bitter taste that Eva is still dealing with.
In some respects this is not only a historical record of what happened but a living document aimed at challenging those who are blind supporters of Israel. The idea that it was a perfect place is punctured pretty quickly but Eva, in her position as a Jew, is also prepared to take on the sense that the Israeli state has of being a victim.
She has inevitably suffered for her views the insult of those keen to label her anti-Semitic. But as the tale of Edith shows clearly cruelty doesn’t have to wear a black uniform with a swastika armband for it to hurt.
You know when someone is angry because they become repetitive but this book starts to get to its central theme when Eva recalls the conversations she had with the old housemaid Edith about Palestine.
The lonely woman was left in Berlin at the end of the war with nothing so proved to be an easy target for the Zionists who took her away to Palestine. But the country was full of different groups that hated each other.
Figes then goes onto talk about the history of the Jewish state and her dislike of it. This is brave writing because of course as a Jew she cannot be easily shot down in flames for being anti-Semitic so presumably other charges were levelled against her. But the idea that hate is at the bottom of most of Palestine is a difficult one to get to grips with.
At the end of the way no one seemed to know what to do with the millions of displaced people that had been created as a result of the war and the holocaust. Palestine became a dumping ground that allowed other countries to consider their obligations met. It perhaps never really answered or solved the problem and as a result continues to provide debate until the present day.
A review will follow soon…
As the relationship between Eva and the old housemaid Edith is reopened the story of what happened to those Jews that stayed in Berlin through the war is told in all its harrowing detail.
What emerges is a picture of ad hoc kindness with fellow Germans helping out. Some were motivated by kindness, others by bitterness towards the war and in the final days those looking for a good deed as a way of saving their own skin.
Eva exists in a post war world where her mother seems to have turned into a rather horrible person, Edith is a lonely figure and for Eva herself she is trying to make sense of it all.
Wolf Hall is calling me as it sits there almost shouting out ‘600 pages are not going to read themselves’. But before we get to that…
This is another book sent by a kind twitter friend and again it is not something I would normally rush out to buy. The reason is that as a reader of fiction or history the memoir tends to fall between those two categories. Having read some memoirs earlier this year a return to fiction was something more favourable.
But once you start reading this well crafted book you perhaps realise that the success of the memoir is in the telling. Eva Figes focuses on the story of a housemaid Edith and what happened to her as she lost touch with Eva’s family as they fled the Nazis.
Edith went to Palestine but then wrote asking for her old job back with the family who now lived in London. The return of Edith is a chance for Eva to tell of the years since her escape from Berlin in 1939 and the impact on her and her family.
A very honest but so lightly written account exposes her problematic relationship with her mother and the dangerous times they fled in Germany. The world of wealth and grandparents living round the corner was shattered forever. But what seems to have been true for Eva and her parents in particular is that the war never stopped.
You wait for Edith’s arrival and the rest of the story of what happened to those that escaped the holocaust to be shared.
More later this week…