Family Matters at the Auckland Writers Festival

One reason I think family history is so important is how strongly it can connect us with recent events. It’s quite a human way of making history personal; somehow it’s easier (and perhaps a little narcissistically so) to feel a connection to something, a war, a diaspora, if that’s part of the story of where you came from.

Family Matters was a sold out session at the Auckland Writers Festival that welcomed the audience into a troubled past, made so real, and so close, by two incredible authors and the stories of their families’ survival.

Cover of 'Give us this day'Helena Wiśniewska Brow is the daughter of one of the Polish evacuees who came to New Zealand in 1944, and her book Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile tells her father’s story alongside her own as she tries to find meaning from this exile.

Daniel Mendelsohn has won international awards for his book with this chilling title of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which tells Daniel’s story of uncovering the true story of the six family members that were lost during the Holocaust. While he was growing up, his older family members did not talk much about their lost relatives, and over the years his curiosity grew stronger and stronger about this ‘submerged continent’ of his own family mystery.

Cover of 'The Lost: a search for six of six million'The two books run parallel to each other, though the stories of their families during the Second World War are very different.

Daniel spoke of the danger that true events get buried under statistics and clichés as time passes. The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to comprehend, but to try and understand them by looking only at the numbers is wrong. To understand, Daniel wanted to find the true, specific stories of both the victims and the survivors.

“We have an ethical duty to restore to these people their own specificity.”

Daniel feels allergic to symbols, because “no one is symbolisable.” So many people died in so many different ways; the stories of one concentration camp cannot represent them all. He felt it was vitally important not to let these stories slip away, and as he interviewed the twelve surviving members of the town his family came from, he felt the pieces of his family’s puzzle begin to fall into place, and the lost members seemed to reanimate.

“Stories. There isn’t enough paper in the world to tell our stories.”

Food was such a vital part of many of these stories. Food is culture, culture is food. Helena told of her father’s escape from Poland, through forced labour in Siberia to refugee camps in Iran and finally to Wellington. Starvation was always present. By the time they reached Iran they had some food, and in New Zealand they were getting three meals a day, but starvation had rewired their brains, and the kids still hoarded bread under their beds, and raided food from nearby farms.

One survivor made Daniel wait an hour and a half in the middle of her interview while she cooked him a traditional dish:

“No one will ever cook this kind of food after I’m dead.”

At the end of the session there was some time for questions. One audience member asked the authors to describe the places and the cultures their families had come from before the war. “We were the first multiculturals,” Daniel said, telling us that his grandfather spoke seven languages, but this wasn’t unusual as there was such a vibrant, diverse cultural richness before the war.

After a long moment of thought, Helena summed it up in one simple, devastating sentence:

“For my father it was paradise, and now it’s gone.”

2015 – what to expect in anniversaries

While 2015 is going to be dominated by the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, there are a number of major non-First World War military-related anniversaries coming up this year. (This is not an exhaustive list)

Although the campaign was a failure, the evacuation of the allies from the Gallipoli Peninsula was remarkably successful, as was the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and much of the French Army from Dunkirk in northern France 25 years later. In late spring 1940 Hitler‘s forces seemed unstoppable and withdrawal from continental Europe left Britain and her empire isolated and facing invasion. In order to invade the Nazis first needed air superiority, but during the tense weeks of the Battle of Britain that summer the RAF defeated the Luftwaffe and the invasion was called off.

A number of New Zealanders served with the RAF during the Battle of Britain, most notably Keith Park, from Thames, who commanded No. 11 Group defending London and the South-East of England.

This year will also see the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, both in Europe where VE (Victory in Europe) Day was held on 8 May (9 May in New Zealand) and VJ (Victory over Japan) Day on 15th August – although the official Japanese surrender wasn’t signed until 2nd September. As the Allies liberated Nazi-held territory in Europe the painful truth about their treatment of Jews was revealed. It was on 27th January that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.

The Battle of Waterloo was a major event in European history and took place in Belgium on 18th June 1815. The battle saw a coalition of British, Dutch, German and Belgian armies, led by the Duke of Wellington defeat the French and finally end Napoleon’s imperial aspirations in Europe. The Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolutionary Wars which had begun in 1792. If Napoleon had won, what would Wellington (and Picton) have been called?

The Hundred Years War lasted longer than 100 years, but one of the most significant battles of the war was fought 600 years ago this year. The Battle of Agincourt, which took place in northern France on 25th October, was a major victory for the English, immortalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

There certainly is much to think about and remember this year.

A story of courage

cover of from Matron to martyrThe stories of ordinary people who find courage to act bravely in the most difficult of circumstances continue to resonate with us. Author Lynley Smith has uncovered one such story and she will be giving a  talk at Central Library Peterborough tomorrow Wednesday 27 November at 1pm about her book From Matron to Martyr.

The story is about a distant relative of Lynley’s, Jane Haining, who was a Scottish missionary to Budapest before and during World War II. She worked as a matron of a girls’ home attached to the Scottish Mission and school in Budapest. Briefly, she remained in Budapest after the German invasion, was arrested and died in Auschwitz, a martyr for the sake of the children she looked after. She was named by Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, in 1997.

The story is extremely powerful, so much so, that the second largest publisher in Hungary, Libri, has agreed to translate it into Hungarian and publish it there. It is also going to be used by a group working towards reconciliation between the Jewish community and Hungarian people in Hungary and surrounding countries next year.

Lynley will focus on how she came to write the book and the adventures she had as she travelled to research it. She also touches on the current state of anti-Semitism in Central Europe which brings a present day relevance to the story and explains why it is to be used next year to further the reconciliation process.

There is a connection to Christchurch in the story. Interestingly, Jane Haining’s best friend in Budapest, a lady name Frances Warburton Lee, who actually shared a prison cell with Jane at one stage, moved to Christchurch after the war. Lynley has not been able to trace her family. She, herself, would have passed on now. It could be that someone, perhaps a family member of Ms Lee’s, hearing about the talk and the book, could fill Lynley in on that information!

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

One of my last decisions  before leaving my previous job as an English Head of Department was to buy a class set of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for our less able readers. We had heard it was a gripping read. It was instantly popular; but I never got to teach it myself or read the ending.

I was particularly glad of that last night when I went to see the movie. It is gobsmackingly horrible and wonderful and the impact of the final scenes would move the hardest of hearts. In fact, a man in the back row was crying as I left. I hope John Boyne is pleased with the film version of his book. Everyone should read this book – whatever your age, get it out from your local library today.