LAUNCH OF ‘TOXIC DISTORTIONS’ AT THE HAMPSTEAD & HIGHGATE LITERARY FESTIVAL

In 2013 the organisers of the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival in London resisted attempts to have the launch of  ‘Toxic Distortions’ withdrawn on the grounds that it propounded a ‘revisionist’ theory about the Holocaust.  The launch took place despite this attempt.  This is an edited version of what was said:

Gerald Jacobs. Literary Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, interviews the author Teddy Goldstein.

GJ: Let me start by introducing you to Teddy Goldstein, author of TOXIC DISTORTIONS which won the USA Best Book Award for Historical Fiction and a Bronze medal in the Global E-Book Awards for Modern Historical Fiction,  Teddy, can you first tell us the part played in the genesis of your book by a man called Marcel Ladenheim.

TG:  I first met Marcel at a French class.  We were all asked to give a lecture in French on a subject of our choice.  Marcel, the man sitting next to me, someone who I had known as a rather laconic, laid back individual, stood up and told us a remarkable story – how found himself completely alone in Paris in 1942 at the age of four. At that time the Nazis were rounding up Jews and deporting them to Auschwitz.  His parents had been taken and he was left behind in the flat where he and his mother had lived.   He knew only one other person in that building, his neighbour, a young gentile woman.  He recalled how he walked up two flights of stairs to her flat and rang the bell.   The woman took him in and hid him in full view of the authorities.  She secured identity papers for him and took him to school – he even remembers the woman laughing and joking with the German soldiers at a guard-post next to the school gates.  Marcel’s story gave me the hook I needed for a novel I had been intending to write for some time.   One of my objectives was to make people aware of certain elements of the Holocaust which they would not have known before.  This information was not available in the existing canon of literature and film.  Particularly the experiments by SS doctors in the camps, the morality of using these experiments to save American lives after 1944 and the fact that greed had driven the actions of the Nazis far more than simple ideology.

JG: Give us a short description of the book in the way you would like to convey it?

TG:  My main character is a Dr Michael Turner.  He’s  a troubled young medical student, who knows only that his family had perished in the Holocaust.  He receives a letter telling him that his aunt survived and then learns of the sacrifice she made to save him. Through her he locates the woman who had taken him in .

The first part of the novel consists of a series of painful encounters, mainly with his aunt Mathilde,a woman who was reduced to a physical shell as a result of the experiments performed on her by SS doctors, and Delphine, the still glamorous French woman who brought him up. A diary kept by Michael’s mother until she is taken to the gas chamber provides the catalyst for Michael’s determination to avenge his aunt.  Through Delphine, Michael finds the SS doctors who had injected his aunt with toxins.  That’s where the dramatic tension deepens. Michael has signed the Hippocratic Oath (‘Above all do no harm’).   How can he wreak vengeance without compromising his oath.   That’s something you’ll only find out if you read the book!

There is a complete change of style in part 2 of the book.  From this point, you are no longer inside Michael’s mind and caught up in the stifling atmosphere and circular arguments from which he was unable to break free. A disorientating and exciting journey begins as the book keeps us guessing about the diary his mother kept and how Michael is actually achieving his objectives.   We witness his transition from the introspective and ineffectual boy he was in Part 1 to the ‘man of action’ his need for revenge has made him.  Part 2 also introduces the controversial issue about the notion that greed was the main motivation of the Nazis, especially in 1944 when many of them were keen to provide for their post-war lifestyle.

My book raises a number of other thorny questions.  These include Michael’s sense of his Jewishness as opposed to the Judaism from which he feels utterly disconnected, the nature of evil and whether vengeance is ever justified.

GJ: Just a few words about your style.  This is a very easy book to read – short, staccato sentences.  It’s the style which is normally used in detective fiction.  Was this your intention?  Is this your normal writing style?

TG: Well, yes it is my normal writing style, and yes it was definitely my intention.  I wanted to write a page-turner to compensate for the seriousness of the subject matter.  But, as a rule, I don’t take prisoners.  I don’t want my readers to have a slow, relaxing read and get into the story slowly.  I dump them into the middle of the story and then subtly feed them information about the characters as the plot unfolds.  They have to go at my pace.  The manager of Hatchard’s of Piccadilly (an eminent London book-shop) is quoted as saying that my book combines the time-frame of a Tarantino novel with the pace and detail of an early Frederick Forsyth thriller.  I don’t actually work on my writing style except perhaps in the descriptive passages which I have tried model on Dickens’ work.  But there are other aspects of my book that are worth mentioning.   It is written in the present tense; nowhere in the book will you read the words “he said or she said”, and there are areas at the start of the work where there is a complete absence of verbs.  These three things add to the pace and urgency of the writing.

GJ: For some people, the very idea of writing fiction about the Holocaust is a problem.  Some would say that is a desecration to fictionalise something from the Holocaust.  What’s your response to that?

TG: Simon Wiesenthal (the most famous of all the Nazi hunters) tells how he was in a camp with a group of Jews being guarded by a unit called the SS Protection squad.  These Germans were taunting Wiesenthal and his fellow prisoners saying that, even if they did survive, no-one would believe what had happened to them.  So the story has to be told and re-told.  Clearly documentary evidence is vital and there will always be people who want to use the primary sources, but when you look at the huge canon of Holocaust literature you will see that far more people get to know what happened through TV, film and literature.

GJ:  Are you suggesting that, when the facts are presented, people don’t take them in?

TG:  When the facts are presented a very small number of, let’s call them, ‘Holocaust Affionados’ they will read about facts they were probably aware of.   But if these facts are put into some form of fictional context, a far wider audience will be exposed to the information.

GJ:  Your book raises a number of issues, for example the ‘Where was God in the Holocaust?’ question raises the notion that the Shoah invalidates traditional Judaism.  Presumably you felt that this was a vitally important issue for your protagonist to articulate?

TG:  I would like to answer that question by quoting an excerpt from the novel.  This takes place in a cemetery where the young doctor is walking with a rabbi and he comes across a Holocaust Memorial stone.

“They stop before a memorial stone.  Michael’s blood freezes as he reads the words.

 

IN EVERLASTING MEMORY

OF THE MARTYRDOM OF THE HOLY COMMUNITIES

AND OF THE

SIX MILLION JEWS

CRUELLY SLAUGHTERED

FOR THE

SANCTIFICATION OF THE

NAME

DURING THE HOLOCAUST

1939-1945

 

The rabbi is watching Michael carefully.  He knows.  He has seen this reaction before, dealt with it before.

“Yes Michael, the terror, the starvation, the torture, the slaughter of innocents, the gas, the death of your sister, your mother, your father, your grandparents, Mathilde.  All this was done for the sanctification of God’s name.  Even those who did not know they were Jews, even those who cursed the Almighty as they went into the gas chamber, even those who did not fight back because they believed that their death was part of a divine purpose.  All of it.  All of it.”

Michael feels as if he has been struck in the face.

“How can that be, rabbi?  How?”

“Perhaps after all there is another way of looking at the Holocaust.  Even the Talmud allows a Jew to hide his identity if the alternative is death.  Let me presume to understand what is in your mind.  That perhaps the destruction of all those innocents did not sanctify God’s name.  Perhaps they changed the way we need to look at God.  Showed the world the real face of God.  At the very least, they made us realise that God was…is, unable to prevent evil.  That there are limits to his power.”

At last, someone who understands what Michael has been saying for so long.

“Rabbi, you are the first person to have read my mind.  That is exactly my view.  That is the only way to keep Judaism alive.”

The Rabbi’s voice is softer, sweeter.

“That is the only way to make sure, completely sure, that Judaism dies, Michael.  That Judaism is consigned to oblivion.  That is the way to self-destruction.  That is tantamount to the acts you revile, to the passive acceptance of our fate.  Can you not see that, although God is omnipotent, He has imposed limits on His own power.  He has given man free-will.  It is not the Almighty you should blame for what happened.  This was man’s doing.  The evil was within man…man…man.”

The asthma takes over now.  The heaving chest.  The tightness.  The need for air.  Michael fights his body.  Forces adrenalin to take over.

“No.  No. It cannot be. It cannot be, rabbi.  We must re-invent our God.  That is the answer to the greatest problem we have ever had to solve.”

“And who among us is going to play at being the Almighty, Michael?  Who will to have the hubris to reformulate our notion of God?  A view that we have sustained, that has sustained us, for five thousand years.  A view that we have clung to through countless massacres and expulsions and pogroms and persecutions.  In all other persecutions the Jews could choose to convert.  In this they had no choice.  The demonic nature of the Shoah was precisely that it sought to rob death of this one dignity.  Just as the Nazis robbed the victims of their wealth and life, they also robbed them of their humanity.”

He takes Michael’s arm, and walks him gently towards the exit, the ritual hand washing.  The cleansing of the spirit and the body.

“That view of a dichotomy of Deities is exactly what Hitler wanted the world to believe, Michael.  That view destroys us as a people for ever.  To accept that is to accept that Judaism died in the Holocaust with those who perished.  Do you want to give Hitler and his monsters that final victory?  Surely you can see the logic of my argument?  You must see that.”

JG:  Was this a deliberate presentation of both sides of the argument?

 

TG:  Yes, exactly. And in the same way I later looked at both sides of the argument concerning the use by the American Air force of the  SS experiments performed on prisoners in Dachau to  save their own airmen in the Pacific War.   And these were experiments in which hundreds of Jews and Poles died in excruciating pain.

JG: In your view is there  no such thing as a Jewish race?

 

TG: There is no Jewish race.  I should say that this is a work of fiction and the opinions of the characters are not necessarily my personal opinions.  However, Jewish identity is a strong theme and the protagonist’s opinion does change in the book.

JG:   This is such a risky subject, did you deal with it in a neutral speculative way or are you putting over a particular view of what Jewish identity means to you?

 

TG:  That’s not a question that I have been asked or thought of before.  But I think I am putting forward my view of the complexity and multi-faceted aspect of Jewish identity and what it has meant to different people in different generations as a result as a result of what they have undergone as Jews.  I personally had a powerful reaction when I discovered what had happened to Jews in the Holocaust by watching the newsreel pictures of Belsen when I was about twelve.   A social anthropologist has used a particular phrase which resonated with me. He said, ‘We are all susceptible to consciousness- forming events when we are at our most porous.’  It is quite clear to me that I was at my most porous when I first learned about the Holocaust.   I can’t remember anything about it other than the fact that I asked my mother to throw my striped pyjamas away and refused to wear anything with vertical stripes for a very long time.

JG: So your answer to ‘who is a Jew’ is that this is an identity which has been shaped by other peoples’ hatred, by persecution?

 

TG:  Partly.  I wouldn’t say that this was the only thing.  Although there is a phrase later on in the book where a Nazi is talking to the protagonist and saying that Jews are the master race.  I will read Michael’s reply.  He is speaking to Walter, the Nazi.

“We are not a race, Walter.  We are a people.  A people without a common ancestry. There is no genetic link between Jews.  We are human beings.  Human beings like you.  Jewish wives betray Jewish husbands.  Jewish children wet their beds.  There are stupid Jews, lazy Jews, innocent Jews, guilty Jews, Jewish bigots, Jewish racists, Jewish sadists.  Many Jews have lost their belief in their ‘Yahweh’.  No, Walter, the only thing that binds us is the hatred the world has always shown us.  We have been fashioned by you.  Your loathing has created us.  It will never destroy us.”

 

JG:  One of my favourite definitions of Jewish identity was from Freud when he wrote a preface to one of his pamphlets which was being published in Israel.  He said, ‘considering that I do not believe in any form of religion whatsoever, including Judaism and that I despise all forms of nationalism including Zionism, what then is left of me that is at all Jewish.  To which I would reply, ‘A very great deal and probably its very essence’.

TG:  That is very close to my position.  I was an intermittent synagogue-goer who didn’t understand the prayers.  When I did try to look at the translations, I found them meaningless and repetitive.  After I had completed my research for this book, I stopped believing in God completely and, paradoxically, my awareness and identification with my Jewishness, as opposed to the Jewish religion felt more comfortable.

JG: Nazi greed as contrasted with Nazi ideology is another theme of the book.  Could you just outline the distinction and suggest how the former has come to supersede the latter?

TG:  Let’s start my answer with an excerpt from the book.  It’s quite late in the book and it’s a speech by an SS doctor who has escaped capture by the Allies but is now expecting to be executed by his Nazi peers for betraying their cause:

Before this travesty of a court pronounces sentence on me.  I wish to make a statement.  Those of you who served in the SS knew only too well what happened in those final years.  You can no longer lie to yourselves.  What you did was worse, far worse than the worst excesses of the most rapacious Jews in history.  No Jew in history has killed millions out of greed.  No Jew in history murdered and tortured purely in order that he and his family could live in luxury for generations.  Whatever your ideology in those early days, whatever illusions you may have had then about making the world Judenrein, none of this made any sense after El Alamein, Stalingrad, Kursk.  By January 44 you all knew the war was lost.  You all knew that the Jews of Russia, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Albania, England, Ireland, Palestine, America, Canada, Australia were beyond your reach.  You murdered millions simply in order to steal, simply in order to eliminate the witnesses to your crimes.

“While I was aborting foetuses from rape victims on the Eastern front, you Walter, were carrying out Selektions in Dachau, you Bruno were sending thousands of Salonikan Jews to their death.  Your father, Brinkeren was blackmailing Hungarian Jews in return for the lives of a few thousand of their people.

“Greed.  Greed is why you killed.  Greed is why you tortured.  You are the Jews!  You are the Jews!”

Many of the people in the audience will know that there was an attempt to get this book launch cancelled because I had made no secret of the fact that I felt the Nazis were motivated by greed rather than anti-Semitic ideology and that this was going to feature in my book.  This was considered to be ‘revisionist’ by an eminent Holocaust historian.   In 2008 I met Sir Martin Gilbert, (an even more eminent  Holocaust historian than the one who tried to get this event banned) at one of his book launches.  I wrote to him shortly after that meeting and explained that I was writing a novel which included my idea that greed was a primary force in the motivation of the Nazis.  At the time he replied,  ‘ This is all very interesting to me and important.’  Then he became very ill.  What I have been able to discover is that my view has got some strong backing.  Notably from Vrba, one of only two Jews who escaped from Auschwitz.   Vrba believed that economics were highly entwined with racial policy and he is quoted as saying, ’If it were only racial policy why was looting and thievery allowed encouraged and entrenched?’

JG: Can you tell us how you investigated the nature of the hideous experiments you described?

TG: There’s a book called, Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Trials by Paul Weindling.  In my view he has written the definitive text and there’s a huge amount of information about the experiments and in particular about Dachau.

JG: Let’s have a final reading now, one which shows something of your skills as a writer of dialogue.

TG: OK, this excerpt is set in the special nursing home where Michael introduces Delphine, the woman who saved him, to his aunt Mathilde.  Delphine speaks first:

Ma chere Mathilde.  I am so sorry.  I can see that we have come on a bad day.”

Ma chere Delphine, every day is a ‘bad day’.  Have you any idea what it means to be in excruciating agony day and night.  To be woken by pain and nightmares?  No, I thought not.”

She turns to Michael and addresses him directly.

“Why have you come back?  I told you not to.  You are only making things worse, much worse, reminding me of what might have been.”

Michael starts to rise.  Delphine puts her arm on his shoulder.  He subsides into the chair.

“Mathilde, please.  I know you are suffering and you are right, I have no idea what that must be like, but it is hardly Michel’s fault.  Can you not see how fragile he has become?”

“Why should he be fragile?  What has he been through?  Nothing. Nothing.  I thought I had saved him so that he could be someone.  Do something with his life.  He is nothing.  He should be strong, proud, not a blushing pleurnicheur, a cry-baby.”

He is not a pleurnicheur Mathilde, just a rather intense young man.”

“He is a baby, a miserable worm.  A man without courage.  I see it on him.”

Delphine reacts at once.

“That is so unfair and untrue.  I think you should apologise.”

Mathilde’s face is puce.

“How dare you tell me what I can say to my own flesh and blood!”

Delphine ignores matron’s frantic signals.

“He may be your flesh and blood, but I changed his nappies, wiped his nose, nurtured him as my own for over four years.  Does that mean nothing to you?”

Mathilde has lost control.  The hands are waving again, the voice is hoarse, strident.

“ ‘Nurtured him as your own’.  At least you enjoyed him.  At least you saw him grow and learn to skip, to ride a bike, to read, to write his name.  I lost him before he could even tell me that he loved me.  I lost my sister’s love because of him, my own sister.  Any minute now you will tell me that you risked your life for him.”

“Look Mathilde, believe me, I am very, very sorry that you are suffering, but what you just said is unworthy of you.”

“Unworthy?  Why?  It is the truth.”

“None of this would have happened without you, Mathilde.  You gave your body to that grubby lout to save him.  So much more than me.  So much more than me!”

She has taken Mathilde’s hands in hers.  She is kissing them.  Within seconds the two women are weeping in one another’s arms, stroking one another’s hair, consoling one another wordlessly.

Michael turns this way and that in his attempt to shake off the huge wave of feeling which engulfs him.  His body begins to rock backwards and forwards.  He feels his distress as pain.  Intense pain.  Pain he cannot resolve.  His being is weeping but his eyes are dry.  He cannot let go.  He must not let go.  Delphine draws him into her arms, into Mathilde’s arms.  He is crying now, sobbing like a child, like the three year old snatched from his mother’s arms, like the eight year old taken again from light into darkness.  When did he ever cry like that before?  They are holding one another, crying and laughing, crying and laughing.  They cry for an eternity.  Then Mathilde leans back and smiles serenely, a smile he has never seen.  She is her old self again, seventeen again.  The women start chattering like school-girls. 

JG:  Teddy thank you very much.   

END

                                           

 

 

 

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Short Story – Absences

    

Koln.   Bomb blackened cathedral, oppressive, intimidating.  An unseasonably warm November.   Trains and trams and pedestrians and cyclists and speeding cars all vying for lebensraum in confusing streets.

Not a city I would have chosen for my boys so soon after the funeral, but they were keen to escape their painful memories, and, as my supervisor pointedly remarked, ‘How can you write a PhD on attitudes to the Holocaust among today’s young Germans without conducting direct interviews?’

The twins and I arrive at our ground floor apartment to find that it backs onto the main railway line with its asthmatic shunting and roaring expresses. The flat is vast with vapid 1930s furnishings and an incongruous smell of disinfectant, its huge living room dominated by a massive tiled fireplace.  The large front garden is sprinkled with dwarf evergreens overwhelmed by an ancient, clawing oak.  The boys run into the garden to be instantly greeted by Annetta, the twelve year old from the flat above.  Fragile, thin faced, boyish in her cropped black hair… and fearless.   For Ben and Tony it is love at first sight.  Annetta knows every inch of the old oak, every nook, every priest hole.  On that first afternoon, she shows them how to climb to the seventh branch, how to slide down and grab the swing.   The swing, huge enough for the three of them, ancient carved wooden seat, frayed ropes. The boys tempt gravity, risking their lives in their efforts to impress their new pack leader. This is the first time they have smiled for weeks, the first time they have been able to forget their loss.

#####

My work begins. The young people I interview are very tall… and guilt free.  With effortless grins they tell me readily of the sister who will not leave a feckless druggy Frenchman,  of the aged SS great-grandfather who would do it all again, of the aunt whose fertility clock is ticking down to zero.  But nothing of themselves.  Nothing of their feelings towards the murder of so many.  One of them, a scrawny teenage boy with aggressive acne, sums up their reactions, “We have learned about this since we were twelve.  It was very sad, but my parents were children when it happened, why should I feel any different from an English or French teenager?”

A solitary diversion while the boys were at their new school. The famous Wallrauf Rikarts Art museum.  Flat, functional, funereal.  Orderlies quietly bland in their efficiency.   I join the queue.  The man in front of me has just finished buying his tickets.  He steps back abruptly shrugging off his heavy leather jacket.   His right elbow crunches into my nose. Blood.  Pain.  Nausea.  Sirens. Young female doctor.  Pretty with accurate English and embarrassed grin.   Professional with white coat and important stethoscope.

“You have been very fortunate, Mr Goldstein.  The nose is not broken, but you must at once see a surgeon so that the septum can be straightened.  Now it is very deviated.  This will cause you many problems if it is not quickly remedied.  Your sense of smell will be seriously impaired until you have the rectifying operation.”

#####

Friday night.   Fish and chips.  I grew up on fish and chips, toddling in and out of dad’s fish-shop in the East End.  The smell of fish and chips, a solitary anchor to my past.  Lucy used to fry fish and chips every Friday.  And now that she was no more, my need is even greater.   I go into the kitchen to fry the fish. The oil gets hot. The fish slide into the pan.   Something is wrong.   A lacuna.  An absence of visceral awareness.  A vague, mysterious feeling that something else has been lost.

The doorbell rings.  It is Frau Meier, Annetta’s mother.  Attractive, soft-skinned, sweet eyed, self-possessed to the point of mild intimidation.  She is holding a dish covered with a pretty embroidered cloth.  She thrusts it towards me and smiles,

“Good evening Herr Goldstein.  A present for you and your boys to welcome you to Koln.  I have made you a traditional dish, Schinken Torte, Ham Quiche.  I do hope you enjoy it.”

Do I tell her?  Do I accept the food and throw it straight in the bin?  I decide on honesty.

“I am sorry Frau Meier, we are Jewish. We don’t eat ham or pork.”

She pales, then blushes, then stammers, “ Jewish?   But you look so…so…Of course, Goldstein,  a Jewish name.  Stupid of me.  I should have known. So stupid…,”  She grabs the dish and backs quickly down the hall.

The next morning I wake to a shriek of pain and go to the window. The rope holding the swing has broken.  Annetta is writhing on the ground.  I run out into the garden in my pyjamas and pick her up.  Frau Meier arrives, assaults me with a torrent of incomprehensible German, snatches the child from me and rushes into her flat.  Does she think that I was trying to…?  No, the thought is too ridiculous.

#####

The weather turns arctic. Our boiler coughs its last gasp at 3am on a Sunday morning.  The flat congeals into frozen pain.   I stack wood in the huge fireplace, light the fire, making sure that the heavy carpet is far enough from the hearth, drag the boys’ beds into the living room, tuck them up, and go back to bed wearing my heaviest overcoat.  Eventually I find a fitful sleep full of shunting cattle trucks and muffled, anguished screaming.

I struggle into consciousness.  The screams were not a nightmare.  I can still hear them. Someone is calling my name.  The shunting has become a loud banging noise.  I open my eyes.  Fog has invaded the room.  The banging becomes louder, more insistent.  Frau Meier is shouting at me. Has she called the police? Am I to be arrested for child abuse?

I struggle through the fog to the front door and open it.  Frau Meier rushes past me and drags the spluttering twins out of the living room.  I hear the crackle of burning wood.

END   (1001 words including #### and page numbering)

MAJOR PRESS ARTICLE ABOUT MY BOOK – TOXIC DISTORTIONS

Adapted from Book Feature in ETC section of Ham & High Nov 14 2013

SURVIVOR’S REAL LIFE STORY INSPIRES AUTHOR TO FACE HOLOCAUST HORRORS

It was during a French class at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Golders Green that writer Teddy Goldstein heard the remarkable story of Holocaust survivor Marcel Ladenheim. Ladenheim’s account of his experiences proved to be the catalyst that Goldstein needed to complete his prize-winning novel Toxic Distortions.  http://goo.gl/pbKkg        

Goldstein, who was not himself a Holocaust survivor, had sat next to Ladenheim for years, recalls, “We were all asked to give a speech in French.  Marcel told us an extraordinary story about how, when he was four, he found himself alone in Paris. Huge numbers of Jews had been rounded up and sent to the Vel’ d’Hiver, the huge cycle track where they took Jews, before sending them off by train to various concentration camps in France and then on to Auschwitz.”   Ladenheim walked up one floor to the home of the only person he knew,  a woman he had met when shopping with his mother a few days earlier.   She took him in, managed to obtain French identity papers and hid him ‘in plain view’ for the rest of the war.

Born in 1937, Goldstein self-published the novel two years ago at the age of 74.  After retiring he took courses in Birkbeck College and a Creative Writing Degree at Middlesex University.   He says that writing became a therapeutic tool – a way to deal with what he calls the “random injustice” of the Holocaust.

While the plot was largely taken from Ladenheim’s story, the novel also attempts to address the difficult issues surrounding the Holocaust.  Set in the early ‘60s, it tells the story of Michael Turner, a doctor living in Muswell Hill, who receives a letter from a Swiss lawyer informing him that his aunt is now living in a home for Holocaust survivors in Hampstead.  He finds that this aunt, Mathilde had suffered terribly at the hands of SS doctors who had injected her with toxins. Turner vows to avenge the appalling pain she is still suffering. The question is, can he do this without  breaking his Hippocratic Oath?

Toxic Distortions, the title of the book, was chosen to reflect the physical and psychological afflictions experienced as a result of the Holocaust. “I was reading a lot about the experiments in the Camps.  One of the things the SS doctors did was to inject the inmates with toxins.  The ‘distortions’ are basically a whole series of ideas and opinions which are in the head of the protagonist when he starts his quest.”  Goldstein explains how Turner is troubled by his beliefs. “He believed that the Jews were a race rather than a people.  He believed very few Jews fought back whereas there are many examples of the Jews who fought back in the Warsaw Ghetto, as partisans, in the Camps and elsewhere.”

Constantly reverberating in Toxic Distortions is the question of morality.  Turner rages against the SS in the Camps, “Doctors, men trained to heal, to alleviate suffering. Above all do no wrong.’”

Goldstein, who owns a recording studio in West Hampstead, hones in on issues of Nazi greed, Jewish identity and the Holocaust’s legacy of sacrifice and pain.

(adapted from an original article by Segi Adewusi)

 

Redemptive Holocaust Fiction – when is it allowed?

   

 

 

AM I ALONE IN WANTING TO FIND SOME RESPITE?

 

A few months ago I went to an event at the LJCC where Rex Bloomstein showed excerpts from all his Holocaust documentaries.   As I watched, I realised that I had seen all his films plus several others on the subject made by people like Laurence Rees. 

Then a different realisation hit me:  Every time I had witnessed a devastating scene in one of these documentaries or news reports, an internal reaction occurred.  They still live with me, these images of  naked women running to their death, of men lining up in front of ditches to be shot, of piles of skeletal bodies being shunted into pits by bulldozers, of children in the ghettos, their little bodies so emaciated they could hardly raise their hands to beg for food.  And they will always live inside me.  A ‘bolus’ of pain, rage, hate, revenge and  impotence solidified inside me over the years and has lain there seeping poison into my soul all my life.    World War 2 films and (more recently) Holocaust films have served to draw some of the toxins, but there is still a huge amount of negative feeling. 

Do I have a right to feel like that?  After all, I was born in London in 1937 and, although my father was in the army and I was evacuated during the war, I cannot say that I really suffered.  My suffering came later, in the form of my hatred for everything German.  I would not consider buying anything German, I would not even wear striped pyjamas.

Am I alone in feeling like this?  What should I do about it?   There is a kind of snobbery about what’s called ‘redemptive’ Holocaust fiction.  Why?  What is wrong with those of us who could do nothing about what happened fantasising about the notion of revenge, especially for the Nazis who were not punished?     

 

 

 

 

 

 

NAZI GREED – FROM GOERING TO GURLITT

Earlier this year, the Holocaust historian, Professor David Cesarani, vilified the view I expressed in Toxic Distortions, my award-winning novel, namely that most Nazis were motivated by greed as opposed to ideology.  He called it “a radical  distortion of history.”  Does he now regard Gurlitt’s actions as the product of anti-Semitism?  Has Gurlitt been hoarding these priceless pieces of art because he hates Jews?  Clearly not, but there is an important point to be made here.   Let’s look more closely at the evidence for my assertion that most Nazis were motivated by pure venality..

The evidence of the documentaries and books and news articles on the subject is uncompromising.   We have learned so much to endorse the view that Nazis were motivated by venality: The gold extracted from the teeth of Jews, smelted into ingots, and sent to the ReichsBank embossed with the name of Auschwitz and other Concentration Camps.  The SS who, strictly against orders, smuggled valuables out of Auschwitz to accomplices, knowing that, if they were caught, it would mean instant transfer to the Russian front and almost certain death.  The fact that no-one was forced to work in Auschwitz.  The guards who tore the watches off Jewish wrists even before the victims had boarded the cattle trucks to the Camps, or sold a half a cup of water to starving deportees in cattle trucks for diamonds. The Jews dragged into Swiss banks and forced to hand over everything they owned to the SS.  The millions taken from abandoned Jewish homes by neighbours who had betrayed them.  The Swiss Banks who helped Nazis to transfer funds to Argentina. The huge estancias in Argentina and Paraguay which remain today as a testament to the fact that the Nazis stole in order to fund their post-war lifestyle.

The amount that the Nazis stole from the Jews was staggering – The Independent  ran an article in 2010 saying that the sum was over £415 billion in today’s terms.

Then there are the wider aspects of Nazi greed: The use of Zyklon B simply because it was the most cost-effective , irrespective of the fact that the victims took up to 15 minutes to die in excruciating agony.  Vernichtung durch Arbeit,  – Literally death through work, the SS idea that they had to extract every ounce of value from Jews in factories like IG Farben even while they were murdering them. The use of Jewish subjects in abhorrent medical experiments so that pharmaceutical companies could profit from these results.

What of the Jews who had very little?  Here we turn to the accounts of Rudolf Vrba.   Vrba is said to have reported that no matter how poor Jews were, they had a pot, candlesticks, clothing.  And this was given or spuriously sold to the local population, an act which established and maintained their loyalty to the Germans. Vrba’s view was that the ‘economics’ of the Shoah were far more important to the Nazis than any ideology.

Then there is the evidence from individual Nazis.  Hitler was one of many who held accounts in Switzerland.  Goering, one of the most venal of all the Nazis, resisted the Gestapo when they wanted to arrest his right-hand-man Erhard Milch despite his Jewish parentage famously saying, “I decide who is a Jew.”  Eichmann himself, (the man who rushed into Hungary and started transporting thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz as soon as Horta surrendered to the Allies), eventually refused Allied guns and trucks to help the Third Reich extend the war in favour of cash for his own use in Argentina.

There is no doubting the obsessiveness of groups like Eichmann’s SonderKommando who were committed to killing as many Jews as they could and had no interest in enriching themselves. There were other groups who killed without remorse while making sure that they benefited in some way from their killing.   Not every SS man was so committed, even Himmler expressed concern at the effect the mass killings were having on the young men of the EinsatzGruppen forced to line women and babies up in front ditches and execute them.  .

How do these facts fit into our overall view of the Shoah?    It appears to me that two narratives have hitherto existed side by side.  No-one denies that Hitler used endemic anti-Semitism to galvanise the German people and make them see Jews as the “Other”, a diabolical race no longer subject to the rules of a civilised society.  No-one challenges the way this idea evolved into the racially motivated atrocities; the Ghettos, the Camps, the Final Solution.   But, running in parallel with these events, there is another theme. Look under the veneer of European anti-Semitism throughout the ages and you will find envy.  In my view  Nazi racial propaganda channelled this feeling of envy into simple venality by legitimising and encouraging theft and murder.

I am a novelist, not a historian, but I personally believe that Hitler’s ideology, although it was based on racial purity,  became associated in the minds of many Nazis with the very same sin that has lain at the heart of the timeless accusations against us.  It was the Nazis and not the Jews who put money before morality.  Therein lies the great irony of the Shoah.

END

What novels can we write after Auschwitz?

Many people who criticize books about the Holocaust suggest that there is a simple dichotomy between redemptive fiction which is automatically considered “popular and easy”, as opposed to accounts of survivors or historians which attempt to recount the facts without embellishment, and therefore may be considered by some as “unpopular and difficult”.

There is another way of looking at all published work whether it be fiction, non-fiction, feature film or documentary, on this subject.

Last year I attended a retrospective of all Rex Bloomstein’s Holocaust Documentaries, (I think there were seven or eight in all), and I realised that I had seen them all, as well as literally hundreds of others by people like Laurence Rees.  I had just written a novel called Toxic Distortions, a Holocaust revenge thriller, which,among other things, reveals little-known facts about the results of the SS medical experiments in Dachau and how they were used by the US Airforce in the Pacific War, and emphasizes Nazi greed as a prime mover in the way the Nazis behaved.  I was also struggling to understand why a man of 74 would want to spend years researching and writing such a book.   To make matters worse I was finding it difficult to answer people who asked me why I had chosen a subject which had not directly impacted on my family and  was so far in the past as to have little relevance to the myriad problems of today.

Then I began to understand why the ‘History Channel’ was called the ‘Hitler Channel’ for so long, and why it is impossible to look through a list of books or TV documentaries or made-for-TV shows or plays today without coming across the Holocaust or World War 2.

Those of us who were born before 1940 may well have learned the unthinkable facts or seen the appalling images of skeletons being unceremoniously dumped into mass graves when we were between the ages of eleven and fourteen, a stage when we were far too young to deal with the enormity of the events or put them into any form of perspective.   For us Jews, faced as we were by post-war anti-Semitism in the UK, the impact was amplified.

A recent column by Jonathan Freedland referred to the notion that there is a time in everyone’s life when they are at their most ‘porous’, and suggested that exposure to specific events at that stage in their emotional development  will stay somewhere near the front of their minds throughout their existence.   That may be why Stephen Poliakoff seems to come back to the 1930s again and again, and why Anthony Horowitz is so embroiled in Foyle’s War. It is certainly why I wrote my novel.

There are hundreds of deeply-felt, well-written Holocaust novels and feature films which attempt to bring home new facts, express some of the suffering, and describe the unbelievable courage in accessible terms, while also allowing a form of catharsis to those readers (and writers) who were exposed to the Shoah at far too young an age to cope with it.  I am not pretending for a moment that the distress of those who were born outside Nazi occupied Europe from 1935 to 40 can in any way be compared to the agony of the actual victims or their families. However, our pain does need to be recognised, and if a well-written novel can provide some respite for us, why should we be left without any form of resolution or stigmatised as sentimentalising such a dreadful phenomenon?

There are so many novels and films which enhance our knowledge of the subject.  Books like Song of Names, The Pawnbroker, The Prince of West End Avenue, Mendelsohn is on the Roof, HhHh and the slightly less well-known book by Stephen Fry, Making History.  Films like The Night Porter, The Sorrow and the Pity, Monsieur Klein, The Clown and the Fuhrer, The Matchmaker and Sarah’s Key add to our understanding so much more effectively than the mainstream Black Book or Marathon Runner. 

But we must also be aware of the pitfalls.  Schindler’s List was brilliant and brought the subject into the home and hearts of millions, but like The Pianist, at its core it is the story of a ‘good’ German who manages to save some Jews, when the reality is that an infinitesimally small number of Germans did anything to help, and a vast number of ‘ordinary’ Germans queued round the block to buy Jewish property shipped into Hamburg from throughout occupied Europe, at knock-down prices knowing that the owners of these goods had died unspeakable deaths.

Some films have found it acceptable to trivialise the horror, films like Life is Beautiful or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.    Yes, it is true that the reality was unbearable.  But why create a lie?   Why let people. especially young people, believe that it was ‘not that bad’ when it was worse than obscene?

 What then are the criteria for any work about the Holocaust?  In my view, the key phrase is ‘moral integrity’.  I was working with a German educational publisher in 1978 when the somewhat anodyne US TV mini-series,  Holocaust was released in Germany.  It created a huge debate and many Lander (Counties/ States) banned its television appearance.  My German colleague had only one reaction at the time; “If we could turn it into educational materials we will make a lot of money.”  That would be reprehensible from anyone – but from a German?    The other criteria are far more subjective.  Do you need to be Jewish?  Do you need to have suffered personally?  Do you need to be over a certain age?  None of these criteria matter to me as much as historical accuracy and sensitivity to the needs of the rapidly dwindling number of Survivors.

In future years there will be hundreds more books and films and mini-series and plays about the Holocaust.  Perhaps we should consider setting up a special website which evaluates them according to strict moral criteria?

Teddy Goldstein

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