In pursuit of my third New Year Resolution, IÂ have been ploughing through books at a rate of knots since January 1st. Although I’ve been picking them at random from the foothills of Mount TBR, the last three have all turned out to be about anti-Semitism, in fact and fiction, in both ancient and relatively recent history.
Two, The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears andÂ The Spanish Doctor by Â Matt Cohen, are fiction. The third, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction by Martin Gilbertis fact.
The Pears novel takes place at three different stages in history: the 5th, 14th and 20th centuries. They are connected by a place, Avignon, and a manuscript, The Dream of Scipio. Written in the dying days of the Roman Empire, by a philosopher bishop, the manuscript is unearthed in the years of the Black Death by a poet, and rediscovered in the 20th century by an academic working in Vichy France. The thread weaving through these three epochs is the place of Jews in each society – despised, scapegoated, slaughtered at will by overlords, conniving clerics and frustrated peasants.
Driving through Germany in 2006, I noticed several plaques referring to Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It took place on 10th November 1938, when Nazi stormtroopers and Hitler Youth rampaged through Jewish neighbourhoods across Germany, destroying synagogues and plundering Jewish homes and businesses. Wanting to learn more about the events leading up to the destruction, I picked up Martin Gilbert’s book, but it was buried in the pile of books until this week.
It’s a horrific read; chapter after chapter of unspeakable evil, occasionally leavened by the courage and decency of ordinary Germans who tried to help their friends and neighbours, only to be severely punished. The behaviour of most so-called civilised countries, haggling and parsing the number of Jewish refugees they would allow across their borders was disgusting. I cringed with shame when I read about the flat refusal of the Irish Free State to grant refuge to any German Jews, including children. It is worth noting that, after the War ended, hundreds of German refugee children were taken in by Irish families, including mine. My foster-brother, Hans lived with us for four years, before returning to his mother in Germany in 1949.
I’m just a few chapters into Matt Cohen’s book, which opens in 15th century Spain, at the beginning of the great era of Jewish persecution. Ironically, given current events, the pogroms follow an era of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in Moorish Spain. As the Moors are driven out, the Inquisition moves in, and unscrupulous aristocrats and merchant-princes deflect the anger of the peasantry onto their Jewish neighbours.
While the two novels are beautifully written, teeming with colour and drama, Kristallnacht is fairly plodding – a bare recitation of names, dates and facts. But they serve to underline the horrors of life for Jews under Nazi rule, making it by far the most affecting read of the three books. In one particularly disturbing passage, a young Jewish man, during his time in a sub-camp of Dachau, overhears a conversation between a German mother and her six- or seven-year old daughter, as they walked past the camp, a few feet from the perimeter.
The child asked: ‘Mutti, was fur Menschen sind die?’ ‘Mother, what kind of people are they?’ to which the mother replied: ‘Das sind keine Menschen, das sind Juden.’ ‘These are not people, they are Jews.’
Years of unrelenting propaganda by Joseph Goebbels and his like, always referring to Jews as ‘scum,’ ‘parasites’ and ‘rodents’ had served to dehumanise an entire race.
Today, I opened my newspaper and read about a Toronto man who has been posting on an Arizona-based website, filthyjewishterrorists.com. In his posts, he calls for “a genocide [to] be perpetrated against the Jewish populations of North America and Europe” and refers to Jews as “diseased and filthy,” and as “scum.”
* The more things change, the more they stay the same.