Hope Springs Eternal

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness”

– Desmond Tutu

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Back in April this year I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful city of Krakow in Poland. If you’ve never been I highly recommend it. Dating back to the 7th century it is one of Poland’s oldest cities, rich in history and culture. It is also one of the few eastern European cities to escape bombing during World War II, which is why many of the streets and architecture remain exactly as they were before the war. In 1939, during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Third Reich began rounding up all Jewish residents and confining them to overcrowded ghettos before later deporting them to concentration camps. Which was another reason for my visit to Krakow—I wanted to visit the nearby infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and pay my respects to the many innocent men, women and children that had been imprisoned and, in most cases, murdered there.

First stop was the Auschwitz camp where we entered via the notorious iron gates and emblazoned words “Arbeit Macht Frei” ­­­­­­­(Work Sets You Free). My biggest fear at this point was that people would attempt to take selfies––thankfully no one did, with those taking photos (myself included) doing so quietly and discreetly. Walking through the gates I noticed the old lookout towers and surrounding, once electrified, barbed wire fencing, which made me shiver, despite the warm weather. Our guide then led us to various rooms in numbered buildings known as blocks, which had once housed prisoners, some of which now contain physical reminders of those murdered. It was heart breaking to witness the hills of human hair, shoes, hairbrushes, clothes, and toothbrushes displayed behind glass panels. Equally appalling were the standing chambers, suffocation chambers, starvation chambers and the firing wall of notorious Block 11—otherwise known as the punishment chamber.

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Our next stop (10 mins drive away) was Birkenau (which reportedly held over 90,000 prisoners in 1944) also known as Auschwitz II. Built to keep up with mass European arrests taking place it evolved into a network of camps where most prisoners were exterminated, often in gas chambers, or used as slave labour, while other prisoners were subjected to barbaric medical experiments led by Josef Mengele. Our guide took us inside what was once one of the women’s barracks. These were brick buildings often housing up to 700 people, sometimes more, containing three-tier wooden bunks (sleeping up to six or seven people to each bunk), shoddily built, lacking any real heating or sanitation facilities. Our guide then led us alongside the same train tracks that had transported prisoners from Poland and other parts of Europe via overcrowded cattle trucks into the camp. We then walked the same route to the “shower blocks” that on arrival, most of the elderly men and women, and women with young children believed they were going to, with the promise of a hot meal and a bed afterwards. History tells us otherwise though, and we now know they were in fact marched straight to their deaths via the gas chambers, their bodies then burned in the nearby crematorium.

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As our tour ended, I took stock for a moment and looked up, feeling the heat of the sun on my face. I wondered how the prisoners of the camp must have felt on the days the sun shined for them, if they found the energy to notice or enjoy it—even for a few seconds? I concluded that what I found most difficult to believe about Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the many other camps like it, was that its mass extermination of ordinary people took place very recently, less than eighty years ago to be exact. And it wasn’t just Jews that were targeted, many non-jewish artists, writers, journalists, teachers, politicians, Romas, communists, homosexuals, and mentally and physically disabled people met their death––anyone basically, deemed unfit for Nazi Germany. Sadly though (although perhaps not on the scale of the Holocaust), our history books are littered with accounts of genocide, both before and since World War II.

However, there have been many inspiring accounts of survival since those terrible events took place. Stories about people that never gave up hope, who went on to live full lives, many of whom married and had families of their own. Ten years ago I was privileged enough to meet Eva Clarke, one of the Holocaust’s youngest known survivors. After spending time in Auschwitz, her mother, Anka, gave birth to Eva on a wooden cart in the shadow of the prison gates of Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria in April 1945. Eva explained how her mother once told her that before her incarceration she would never have predicted being able to withstand such an experience, but when it happened, and for no real logical reason, she just assumed she would survive, attributing a bit of luck and the overwhelming love for her unborn child as one of her greatest motivators to keep going.

So, as long as there is good in the world, and love, there is always, I believe, hope.

 

Eva Jordan reviews… The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris Published by @ZaffreBooks

EJ Reviews The Tattooist of...

 

“Hope begins in the dark,

The stubborn hope that if you just

Show up and try to do the right thing,

The dawn will come.

You wait and watch and work:

You don’t give up”

–– Anne Lamott

 

Having recently visited the Auschwitz–Birkenau concentration camps in Poland I knew it was time to read a book that, due to the subject matter, I’d been putting off for a while. However, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, despite the horror and sadness surrounding it, is in fact a love story. One that shows, where possible, even during the most wretched of circumstances, you should never give up hope.

The author’s note at the beginning of the book reads, “This is a work of fiction, based on the first-hand testimony of one Auschwitz survivor”. She suggests reading some of the many detailed accounts available about the holocaust for those that would like further information on the subject. This story, however, in the main, concerns the experiences of survivor Lale Sokolov, a 24-year-old Jewish Slovakian who arrived at Auschwitz–Birkenau in April 1942. Lale becomes the camp tattooist, a position that affords him slightly better food rations and sleeping conditions than most. He hates what he does, “Tattooing the arms of men is one thing; defiling the bodies of young girls is horrifying”, but he does as he’s told because—well, what choice does he have? One day he spots a young woman waiting in line with her number written on a piece of paper. Shaking, she is obviously terrified but Lale takes her hand and begins tattooing her arm. Bravely, she doesn’t flinch, and when he’s finished she smiles at him. Lale discovers her name is Gita, and for him it is love at first sight. With a renewed sense of purpose Lale knows he has to survive Auschwitz, if only to ensure the survival of the woman he loves.

Written in close third person, this is an unsettling story. Having researched the holocaust whilst studying for my degree I am no stranger to the horrors that took place in the Nazi concentration camps. However, I’m also pleased to say, despite my initial trepidation about reading it, Heather Morris has written a tale about friendship and love, and above all else, a story of hope, which, unbelievably, even amongst the everyday occurrences of death, starvation and brutality, people still managed to hold on to. Well-written, honest and brave The Tattooist of Auschwitz doesn’t skirt the atrocities of the holocaust but neither is it too graphic. An engaging and powerful read including a beautifully written afterword by Gary Sokolov – Lale and Gita’s son – who growing up remembers a home filled with “love, smiles, affection, food and my father’s sharp dry wit”––testimony to, if it was needed, the shining strength of the human spirit.

 

Publisher: Zaffre

Paperback: 320 pages

 

The Essence of Dunkirk

 

 

Code-named Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation (also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk) was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940. As a keen enthusiast of history with a Great Uncle who numbered one of the 330,000 safely evacuated from Dunkirk during WWII, I was curious to see film director, Christopher Nolan’s take on the subject. Nolan is famous for films such as The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar but Dunkirk is his first historical movie and with an all star cast including, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberpatch, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, not to mention boy band, One Direction’s very own Harry Styles, I was expecting a lot. I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. And, on the whole, the film appears to have been well received and has clocked up some rave reviews.

However, as with music, art, and books, films are subjective. You can’t please everyone so naturally there have been a few negative reviews and some general criticisms, mostly aimed at some of the film’s general historical inaccuracies. For example, there are Messerschmitt Bf 109 planes featured in dogfights with British Spitfire planes. In the film, the German planes have yellow noses but in reality, the planes were not painted yellow until about a month after Dunkirk. The film also fails to include some of the Indian troops present at the time and there is also, which I must admit I am a bit miffed about, a general exclusion of women, save for the odd stereotypical role where they are providing tea for the homecoming menfolk. In real life, female Auxiliary Territorial Service telephonists (who received two-thirds of a male soldier’s pay) were some of the last military personnel to leave the beach. There also appears to be a distinct lack of the many so-called “little ships”. These were a wide variety of small vessels from all over the south of England including car ferries, pleasure craft, Thames vessels, and speedboats, pressed into service to aid in the Dunkirk evacuation. Nonetheless, I can forgive Nolan and here’s why.

Dunkirk is not a conventional war film; there is very little character development, limited dialogue and no love story. If you’re expecting context and historical accuracy, you will be disappointed. However, if you want a brief glimpse of how it must have ‘felt’ to be present on the beaches of Dunkirk in the north of France between 26 May – 4 June 1940, then this film is a must see. The nemesis of Dunkirk was time and through Nolan’s breath taking cinematography and the brilliant accompanying musical score by composer, Hans Zimmerman, cinemagoers experience the stomach churning anticipation of attack, the waiting, the cold, the fear, the bravery, the hunger, and the loss. Nolan, if you like, captures the essence of the moment of Dunkirk.