Extracts from the May 2015 Journal
It is a pleasure to report that one of the earliest novels in the German language to take the Holocaust as its subject has appeared recently in an English translation. This is Ernst Sommer’s Die Revolte der Heiligen, originally written in spring 1943 in London and first published in German in 1944 by the exile press El Libro Libre in Mexico City. An English translation, long forgotten, appeared in 1946. The present translation, Revolt of the Saints, is an adapted version of that translation, with a new translation of the novel’s original ending; it also has an introduction by Dr Jennifer Taylor of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London, who has long championed the works of neglected German-speaking writers from the Sudetenland area of former Czechoslovakia.
Ernst Sommer was born in 1888 in Iglau in Moravia (now Jihlava, Czech Republic) into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family. He qualified as a lawyer and, after wartime service in the Austro-Hungarian army, practised as a lawyer in Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary). But while still a student at the University of Vienna, Sommer had been bitten by the literary bug. He was also a convinced and active Social Democrat, writing for publications friendly to the party. As National Socialism took a growing hold on the German-speaking population of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, Sommer’s position, both as a Jew and a political opponent of Konrad Henlein’s Nazi-friendly Sudeten German Party, became increasingly exposed. For all their attachment to German culture and the German language, the Jews of the Sudetenland were now a despised minority within the German-speaking community, itself a minority amidst the Czech-speaking majority.
In 1938, following the Munich Agreement that handed the Sudetenland over to Germany, Sommer fled first to Prague, then to London, where he settled with his wife Leontine and their young daughter Claudia Beate. Life in exile proved difficult for Sommer, who had to take menial jobs to keep his family, while at the same time continuing to write. During the 1930s, he had turned increasingly towards historical novels, of which the best known was Botschaft aus Granada (Message from Granada, 1937), which dealt with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, with its obvious parallels to developments in contemporary Europe. He also wrote studies of famous free-thinkers from history, literary assertions of humanist values against the menace of Nazi totalitarianism. After the war, Sommer did not return to live in Czechoslovakia, but instead took British nationality. He died in London in 1955.
Sommer is now principally remembered for Die Revolte der Heiligen. Set in the town of L. in Nazi-occupied Poland in early 1943, the novel traces the fate of the Jewish slave labourers who are forced to work in a local factory as they struggle to survive, until the inescapable certainty of deportation and death leads them to rise up against their oppressors in a heroic but suicidal gesture of resistance. The novel begins with the arrival of Sebastian Wolf, one of the two principal advocates of active resistance to the Nazi machine, in the ghetto where the Jewish labourers are confined. Wolf, an active and energetic former engineer from a factory in northern Bohemia, is at once contrasted with the figure of Jonas, the Nazi-appointed Judenrat who, while appearing to exercise authority over his fellow Jews, is in reality a mere tool of the Germans. His small, owl-like face, framed by a thin white beard, endows Jonas with a frailty of stature that matches his inability to do other than implement the orders of the Nazi authorities: he plays his part in the process by which those Jews judged superfluous to the production process in the workshop are selected for deportation to the east.
At the centre of the novel is the agonised debate among the work Jews as they struggle to decide whether to seek to avoid deportation by meeting the relentlessly increasing production quotas imposed by the Nazi authorities, or whether, as the futility of that course of action becomes ever more unavoidably clear, to stand up to their oppressors, even though that means death. Finally, when nearly half of the remaining workforce is threatened with immediate deportation, the Jews rise up in revolt, fighting and dying heroically to the last man and woman. This ending evokes echoes of Jewish heroes of old: Judas Maccabeus, Simon Bar Kochba and the defenders of Masada, who in the year 73 held out on their cliff-top fortress against the encircling Romans, opting at the end to fight and die by their own hand rather than surrender. Die Revolte der Heiligen is sometimes thought to have been inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that began on 19 April 1943, though it is known that Sommer began writing it before that date and only dedicated his novel to ‘the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto’ after the event.
The fate of Sommer’s work Jews is largely dictated by a key conflict of priorities, that between the German military machine’s urgent need to extract the maximum productive benefit from their Jewish slave labourers and the ideologically driven demand for the extermination of those Jews. Even in spring 1943, when the hard-pressed German forces had been defeated at Stalingrad and were facing an unequal struggle against a vastly superior Allied coalition, the military imperative of preserving a skilled workforce was overridden by racial anti-Semitism, by the radical ideologues of the SS, for whom the ultimate objective was the elimination of all Jews from German-occupied Europe.
This conflict is closely mirrored in Sommer’s novel. The first Betriebsleiter (works manager), Ludwig Schilling, though a convinced Nazi and brutal anti-Semite, still perceives the economic sense in keeping the Jews alive and working. He is capable of thinking in terms of economic rationality, of the returns to be secured from the efficient utilisation of industrial plant. But Schilling’s replacement, Ehrenfried Brigola, incompetent and motivated by his burning desire to revenge himself on the Jews for his own commercial failures and loss of status, allows his sadism and anti-Semitic prejudices to override considerations of economic advantage, finally driving the Jews to revolt. Parallel to the accession of this extreme anti-Semite to power in the workshop, the triumph of ideological anti-Semitism over economic and industrial logic is repeated at the highest level in the area of German-occupied Poland known as the ‘Generalgouvernement’. In a scene set at the seat of government in the Wawel in Cracow, the advocates of radical anti-Semitism win the day: the Nazi authorities decide to press ahead with the full implementation of the ‘Final Solution’, despite its cost to the German war machine in terms of skilled labour and industrial production.
Within the Jewish workforce, the advocates of active resistance to the Nazis, Sebastian Wolf and his ally Jan, conduct a bitter debate with those who believe that by complying with the demands of their oppressors they will be able to save the lives of at least a portion of the Jews – though at the cost of consigning the others to deportation and death. This is the strategy of the first Judenrat, Jonas, whose narrowly religious education and limited experience are wholly inadequate to the situation in which he finds himself; he exemplifies the way in which the Jews’ capacity for resistance is sapped by their long tradition of submission to persecution, bequeathed to them by a particular religious culture.
The most articulate spokesman of this point of view is the fanatically devout Luria, who believes that Orthodox Judaism gives its adherents the strength to endure suffering, placing his trust in the holy law, not in armed resistance. He succeeds only in postponing the Jews’ decision to resist by force until it is too late to have any chance of saving their lives. Sommer’s condemnation of the strategy of compliance emerges most clearly through the figure of Michael, Jonas’s successor as Judenrat, a corrupt man bent only on his own survival irrespective of the cost and willing to enter into any compromise with Brigola to that end. The revolt takes place quite literally over his dead body: he is trampled underfoot as the Jews take to arms.
Sommer’s novel is set on the margins of the Holocaust. The workshop in L. is the last place for the Jews before they are deported to the extermination camps, sites that Sommer, in company with many subsequent chroniclers of the Holocaust in fiction, considered to be so far beyond the normal world of human habitation as to defy representation, other than by those who had experienced and survived them. His short story Die Gaskammer (The Gas Chamber), published in December 1942 in Einheit, the newspaper for the German-speaking exiles from Czechoslovakia in London, is very likely the work that first introduced the apparatus of the Nazi genocide by name into world literature. [more...]
May 2015 marks 70 years since the end of the Second World War. There is one particular group of veterans who deserve recognition by way of a national war memorial for their extraordinary part in the defeat of Hitler and the liberation of Europe. They are the refugees from Nazism - men and women who enlisted in the British forces and fought against the Nazi regime. They include over 10,000 Germans and Austrians as well as Czechs and Poles - all forced to flee the countries of their birth.
Their contribution was not insignificant: one in seven of the refugees who came to this country served in the British forces. Of them, 90 per cent were Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution or survivors of concentration camps. All volunteered and could not be conscripted because they were not yet British citizens. They swore allegiance to George VI and became affectionately known as ‘the King’s most loyal enemy aliens’. Most of them began life in the Pioneer Corps, the unskilled labour unit, but went on to serve in frontline forces in all theatres of war, including top-secret intelligence work and dangerous missions behind enemy lines. Some died in action, including on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fighting for the country that had saved them from the Holocaust.
Another as yet unacknowledged dimension of the refugees’ contribution to the war effort is their return to Germany at the end of the war in British army uniform to begin the reconstruction of post-war Germany and Austria. Their fluency in German made their work indispensable to the Allies. This included vital work in the restoration of democracy, the hunt for Nazi war criminals, war crimes trials, military government and denazification.
Now, as these eyewitnesses pass into history, there is a real danger that their legacy will be forgotten. Who will remember them if a war memorial is not created? These veterans deserve their own special memorial, one that must be national – showing that our nation as a whole acknowledges their special contribution and sacrifice. Erecting a national war memorial would provide a permanent and lasting monument to their unique part in the Second World War.
In my sculpture class, before we were let loose on the model, we were given the task of copying the mouth, eyes and nose of the Michelangelo David. Of course the David has a Greek god-like perfection, tough to emulate. But in Michelangelo’s day most Greek statues had been plundered for their marble or bronze, valued only as scrap. It was left to the Romans to replicate what was lost.
Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art at the British Museum (until 5 July 2015) presents the focus on youthful beauty that characterised 2,000 years of Greek art. Athletic bodies represented military prowess at a time of protracted war between Athens and Sparta. The philosopher Protagoras said ‘Man is the measure of all things’ and in the 1st-5th centuries BCE it seemed to be a pun on this mathematical physical precision.
The three great Greek sculptors were a competitive trio: Myron, Polykleitos and Phidias all studied in the workshop of a single master. Nothing embodies this more than the famous image of the marble discus-thrower Discobolus, which is a Roman replica of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. Then you see the naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath in what resembles a Yoga pose: it conveys the sense of a woman trying to cover herself from a voyeur. This sculpture is said to be the only female Olympian deity to be shown naked. The Greeks were alone among contemporary nations in portraying nudity, although in some of the exquisite bronze miniatures women are also shown covering themselves in beautifully moulded robe miniatures.
What is rarely commented on is that Greek beauty is androgynous: there is no difference between the face of the male and the female - the same classical nose flows from the forehead, the same straight brow and well-defined chin, an idea culminating in the image of Hermaphrodite, a sleeping beauty with both male and female organs.
We are used to seeing Greek art in white marble but it’s a misnomer: the Greeks painted their sculptures and you can see fading colour, some of intricate designs, particularly in the sarcophagus of the soldier Aristion. Some works are prehistoric abstracts; others betray Egyptian influences in the erect stance, the expressionless face and the long, straight hair flowing from a forehead band. If the Greeks were obsessed with beauty, they also had their mythic dragons - like the centaur half-man, half-horse - and one disturbing sphynx has a man’s head, an eagle’s wings and a lion’s body.
With Alexander the Great came a new realism and the busts of Homer, Herodotus and Sophocles have commonplace features, shot through with intelligence.
There are in the exhibition over 120 objects, including several Greek originals. A recent find is an original bronze nude athlete scaping his body with a metal tool after exercise and before bathing. It was raised off the seabed near Croatia. There are also plenty of painted Greek vases, jugs and urns, some with images of cavorting children.
Each year, as spring comes round and daylight gets stronger and longer, the women of the Jewish faith get the urge. To clean, that is. They seem to have infected their non-Jewish fellow females, too, as Spring Cleaning has become a universal phenomenon.
Thus it is that dusters and polishing rags come out, corners left unattended throughout the year are swept and cleaned, cabinets are turned out, and many more women find themselves in hospital as a result of injuries incurred in the cleaning process.
One friend fell off a ladder and broke her leg - so no more cleaning for her this year. Another put her back out last year trying to reach into the furthest reaches of a cupboard - and that put a sock in the cleaning efforts of that particular Hausfrau. The amount of injuries caused by boiling liquid, caustic soda and the various fluids and preparations used in the cleaning process are limitless - no one has even attempted to assess their number.
The question is what came first: the cleaning bug or the commandment imposed by the Jewish religion to rid one’s household of every scrap of leavened bread? In typically Jewish fashion, however, the matter has been taken to ridiculous lengths. It’s not enough for the dutiful Jewish housewife to clear out all the bread, biscuits and cake with which she has been sinning in the course of the year. No, she has to scrub and scour and wipe and wash every possible surface that comes into her ken. And then, as if that isn’t enough, she has to change all her pots and pans, dishes and cutlery for her home to be considered ritually fit to entitle her to embark on cooking the enormous meal of the traditional Seder (twice over for those unfortunate enough to live in the diaspora). Did anyone say ‘obsessive-compulsive’?
But that is what the sages and rabbis of yore have led us to believe is what the good Lord has ordained. Does the Bible contain an injunction against seething a kid in its mother’s milk? Fine. Let’s just embellish it a tiny bit. It shall henceforth be extended to encompass any kid anywhere and all milk of any kind. No more Spaghetti Bolognese with Parmesan cheese melting gently on top. No more creamy mashed potatoes together with your juicy steak. And, of course, you must wait three or six hours after eating meat before you can eat anything with milk in it lest, heaven forfend, the contents of your stomach offend the Lord. At least Dutch Jewry was let off lightly and allowed to wait only one hour!
Would it be such a terrible thing if we didn’t do our spring cleaning one year? I’m very much afraid that our consciences would rise up and torment us for the rest of the year. I must admit that although I do not regard it as a religious duty, I use the opportunity to go over my kitchen and other cupboards and am always amazed to find remnants of grime and dirt in what I thought were perfectly clean interiors. It’s also an opportunity to meet forgotten objects which arouse happy memories - that beautiful hand-made lace handkerchief embellished with the initials of long-lost relatives that has been stuck at the back of a cupboard because I couldn’t bear to part with it but didn’t know what to do with it, or those ancient, tattered theatre programmes from my dim and distant youth, reminding me of those heady days when attentive boyfriends took me to every new musical or Shakespeare play on the London stage.
Although I really should get rid of some of those old things, I know I’ll leave them where they are for another year, albeit in more pristine surroundings ….
Dorothea- Shefer-Vanson [link]