This Friday, 27 January, is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. We now observe it as Holocaust Memorial Day.
I've read scores of books about the Nazi era. It's inevitable when it's part of my own story, for my mother and her parents were Holocaust survivors. (I've preached and blogged about this frequently - those links are just two among many). But there is one book that means as much to me as all the rest put together. It's a slim volume by Fred Uhlman called Reunion. I'm writing about it now in case what I say interests you enough to get hold of it in time to read it this week.
"He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. More than a quarter of a century has passed since then...(but) I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair." It's an arresting opening. The boy in question is the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfels. He arrives as a new boy in Hans's class at high school (Gymnasium) and at once attracts attention for his fine looks and noble bearing. They become firm friends. Here is the companion Hans has yearned all his life to meet, for whom he might lay down his life.
Who doesn't remember the high ideals, the pain both sharp and sweet, the heartfelt longings of adolescent friendship? Uhlman captures them to perfection in the span of a few lines (for this book is little more than a short story, a novella that's nowhere near full novel length). So much is implied rather than said: the author is a master of understatement. He depicts how this friendship crosses the boundaries of class, for Hans comes from the home of ordinary Stuttgart townspeople who can only dream about what goes on behind the elaborate wrought-iron gates of Konradin's grand house.
There is another difference that their friendship transcends. Hans is a Jew, Konradin a pure-born Aryan. As Hitler's iron fist tightens on Germany, trouble brews for the boys. It becomes clear that Konradin's mother has no time for Jews. "She's jealous of you" he explains "because you, a Jew, have made a friend of her son. She thinks that my being seen with you is a blot on the Hohenfels escutcheon. She believes you are in the service of world Jewry, which is only another word for Bolshevism: 'My poor boy, don't you see that you are already in their hands?'" After that, says Hans, "we both knew that things would never be the same again and that it was the beginning of the end of our friendship and of our childhood".
I don's want to write too much about the rest of the book: if ever a story must not be ruined by spoilers, this is it. Suffice it to say that the tone darkens as Hans begins to feel the awful effects of anti-Semitic persecution at school. Meanwhile the friend he so much needs at this bleak time has gone. Hans' parents decided to send him to America until the storms have passed. Just before he leaves he receives an important letter from Konradin. It is the last contact they have. But it is not the end of the story. And I freely confess that although I've read this book countless times, whenever I get to the final page, I find it unbearably moving. If there were an anthology called Stories That Make Grown Men Cry this would be my choice.
Books can be mirrors that are held up to our own souls and stories. My mother was herself at school in Germany at the time the novella is set, not in Stuttgart but in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf. At her funeral last summer, every tribute spoke of her childhood and adolescence as a Jewish girl in the Third Reich and the circumstances in which she left Germany. The most painful story was of the celebration of the her eleventh birthday in September 1933. She had invited all her school friends to her party at home. Not one of them turned up for they were all Aryans. I can scarcely imagine what she must have lived through that afternoon.
It would be another four long years before she came to Britain and was welcomed in this country as a refugee. She was one of the very fortunate. And although in later life she would often say that the past is the past and there is no point in dwelling on it, I think she would also understand Hans saying towards the end as he looks back as an adult, "my wounds have not healed, and to be reminded of Germany is to have salt rubbed into them". But it was rather wonderful that the head teacher of her primary school in Düsseldorf came across her name while researching past pupils including Jews who had fled Germany during the Nazi era. They struck up a regular correspondence and sent each other photographs. This meant a lot to her. They became friends. It was a kind of reunion. When she died, the children signed a lovely condolence card they had made. This kind act deeply touched my sister and me.
Holocaust Memorial Day is, I believe, all the more needed today than ever. While the Nazi Holocaust was, in Arthur Koestler's words, "the ugliest tragedy in man's history", we know that cruelty, persecution and ethnic cleansing continue to be visited on innocent human beings in many places in our own time. The Third Reich is an awful warning of what can happen when a people begin to see themselves as a Volk who are stronger or better or more worthy than everyone else, and whose myths and fantasies fuel the evil notion of supremacy. The ascendancy of the far right and its specious but persuasive nationalist rhetoric is a sinister omen for those who lived through the decade before the last war. It re-awakens spectres they thought they had long left behind.
When my mother was in hospital during her last illness, the EU referendum campaign was in full spate. "We're not going to walk away from it, are we?" she asked. "We created the Union so that Europe would never again have to go through what we went through all those years ago." I replied that I didn't know, but I thought that the British were too sensible to vote Leave and pull up the drawbridge. How wrong I was. And now, the threatened "hard Brexit" and the cry "America first" are feeding this isolationist environment in which the beautiful idea that you can be a "citizen of the world" as well as loving your own country is being poisoned. In such an environment, divisions can be more readily sown and hatreds can be fostered.
Of course I am not saying that we are on the verge of a new holocaust. God forbid. I'm simply pleading with people of good will to be vigilant in ways we have not been before. This is what Holocaust Memorial Day is for. The beauty of Uhlman's novella is that with an exquisite lightness of touch, you are made to feel the sheer terror of the Nazi Holocaust and how it destroyed millions of lives because so many people sleep-walked unknowingly into catastrophe. This marvellous book helps us never to forget. If we are people who pray, it will drive us to our knees.
I hope you will read it.
Biographical note: Fred Uhlman (1901-1985) acknowledges that Hans is of course himself, though he had left school before the Third Reich, and he did not have a friend like Konradin. He became an anti-Nazi lawyer who fled Germany in 1933, and after time spent in France and Spain ended up in Britain in 1936. He lived in Hampstead so it's possible that he and I passed in the street when I was at school there. He wrote Reunion in 1960. It was published in 1971 which is when I think I first read it, but it was only when it was reissued in 1977 that it got the critical acclaim it deserved. He became a painter whose work is still displayed in some galleries.