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of the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival in London resisted attempts to have the launch of ‘Toxic Distortions’ withdrawn on the grounds that it propounded a ‘revisionist’ theory about the Holocaust.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
SANCTIFICATION OF THE
DURING THE HOLOCAUST
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.