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Back to Reading Books Part 2

I wrote a few weeks back that I am reading books again.

Since then, all my reading (with the exception of a few chapters of The Spirit to Serve by JW Marriott Jr) has been about the Holocaust. What started as curiosity after reading The Diary of Anne Frank has now become an intense quest.

I first read The Footsteps of Anne Frank by Ernst Schnabel – a gift from Amrita. The book is about what happens to Anne after she and her family are discovered by the Nazis. But Schnabel also talks about the times – the circumstances surrounding Jews during WWII and the reactions after the war (the book was written in the late fifties). He interviews people that knew Anne, including those that kept her family in hiding. His tone is melancholy and his narrative direct. At one point, after quoting a stomach-wrenching fact, he states haplessly, “These things were done in our times, in our midst.”

Next was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl – a Jewish Auschwitz survivor. Frankl does not talk much about the horrors of the concentration camp (even though whatever he does state cannot be described through known adjectives!). As a psychiatrist, he focusses on finding meaning in extreme adversity. His contention is that we can’t avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it and move forward. His own story is a tremendous example of that.

Then was Night by Elie Wiesel. Also a survivor of Auschwitz and the aptly named Death Marches at the very end of the war, Wiesel describes it the way he experienced it as a teenager. His is an insight into the darkest, most horrific side of human nature. There are pages in the book which I read twice, thrice just to make sure I had understood what was written correctly! His description of his relationship with God during this period is also heart-wrenching:

“For God’s sake, where is God?”

And from within me I heard a voice answer:

“Where He is? This is where – hanging from this gallows.”

This was followed by Hitler’s Willing Executioners – Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Written by Daniel Goldhagen this is a deep, academic work which states that the Holocaust engaged the energy and enthusiasm of thousands of ordinary Germans – not just Nazi party members / SS men. Goldhagen states that ordinary Germans killed Jews not because they were forced to but because they wanted to. And he devotes over 600 pages to prove his point. The book was path-breaking at the time of its release because it was the first serious work to propose this line of thinking. Since then many works have tried to demonstrate that virulent anti-semitism was widespread throughout Europe in those days and was by no means limited to Nazi officials. Goldhagen makes his book persuasive by offering lots of primary and secondary research. The 630-page book has 132 pages of notes!

And then followed The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn. An absolutely unbelievable story of a Jewish girl who, after ‘serving’ in two factories/farms for the Germans, assumes a Christian identity during the war! A Nazi party member falls in love with her, doesn’t turn her in on discovering that she’s a Jew (!!), and marries her. The book is about Edith completely changing as a person, living in constant fear of being found out, and then eventually finding herself again.

Having read these books I realize that the Jews that survived the Holocaust needed an unending supply of conviction and a series of good fortune. Having just one of those two was not enough.

Reading these books has informed me about a chapter of history (is it really history – it wasn’t so long back that it happened!) that I knew little about. I am not sure but, thanks to these books, I think I know just a little bit more about the world we live in. 

(Originally written in December 2010 as a Facebook ‘Note’)


Back to Reading Books

I have read very little in the last 16 years. Since leaving school (1994), it was just the odd PG Wodehouse, a random O Henry short story and sometimes business literature (of which I could only ever finish Good to Great).

2010 has been different in that I have started reading books again. And I am so excited that I want to share my experience with everyone!

In this note, I want to talk about three books that have a common thread. I have read two and I am about to finish reading the third. Its difficult to articulate what the common thread is – perhaps you shall be able to describe it after reading my impressions of the three books.

The first book is ‘Comedy in a minor key’ by Hans Keilson. The novella was first published in German in 1947 but was translated into English only this year. The book was reviewed by The New York Time/IHT in the summer and that’s how I (and, if the American Book Center in Amsterdam is to be believed, hundreds others) became interested in it. In short, its a part-comic, part-poignant take on lives of ordinary people during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. I simply LOVED the book. The big take-away for me was that while we can all empathize with people in a difficult situation, we only truly understand their difficulty when we have to experience that situation ourselves. I would highly recommend this easy-to-read gem.

Having lived in Amsterdam for four years, I was a bit embarrassed of never having read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. ‘Comedy in a minor key’ was the final push I needed to read it. What can I say? The book is powerful and depressing at the same time. For me, the diary is a lot about human relationships and human frailties, and there are not as many references to the war or the plight of Jews under the Nazis as I had expected. That, and the book’s abrupt end, made me sad because Anne had no idea of the horrors that awaited her in Westerbork, Auschwitz and Belsen. This book made me think and be grateful for the life I lead.

The third is a book that Amrita lent me after I shared with her my impressions about the other two books. Its called ‘The Jewish Problem’ by Louis Golding (himself a Jew). Strange title, I first thought. I realized once I started reading the book that the title referred to the problem that the Jews have faced down the ages rather than to the suggestion that the Jews were a problem! In fact, at one point, the author does suggest an alternate title for the book – The Gentile Problem. The book is a concise history of how and why the Jews have been ostracized and persecuted throughout time. The author tries to explain every Jewish stereotype and rationally addresses all myths associated with the Jews. Good going so far. But why am I talking about the book if I haven’t finished reading it? Here’s why. As I glanced through the chapter on ‘The Nazi Horror’ I realized that while there’s a long list of various atrocities, there’s absolutely no mention of the Holocaust. I thought that was very strange! I then checked the publication date. November 1938! I am still in shock. What would this book read like if it was written six years later!?! I’ll start reading the book again after I have recovered!

(Originally written in October 2010 as a Facebook ‘Note’)