Extracts from the Oct 2015 Journal

Germans, Greeks, Jews

The apparently never-ending crisis that has enveloped Greece since the economic crash of 2008 has brought the relations between that country and Germany sharply into the limelight of public debate. Germany’s position as the most powerful country in the Eurozone and as one of debt-ridden Greece’s principal creditors has propelled Berlin into the role of prime arbiter in the Greek imbroglio; Germany’s hard-line stance on Greek debt and economic restructuring has led to its being viewed in some quarters as the arch-villain of the piece.
But relations between the two countries go back far beyond the current crisis and beyond the German occupation of Greece between 1941 and 1944, which still casts a terrible shadow over present-day events. In the late 18th century, many decades before Germany emerged as a unified nation in 1871, the culture of classical Greece powerfully influenced German culture. The Classical movement, associated with Goethe and Schiller, the greatest names in German literature, drew its inspiration in no small measure from Greek antiquity. The painstaking researches of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), the archaeologist and art historian and an important influence on Goethe, revealed what Roman culture – hitherto considered the crowning glory of antiquity – in reality owed to the Greeks. Though German writers in search of the sun-kissed clarity and harmony of Classical art travelled to Italy, as Goethe did in 1786, rather than to distant Greece, still under Turkish rule and unwelcoming to visiting literati, it was Greece as much as Rome that constituted the cultural ideal of German Classicism.
Works such as Goethe’s drama Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris) and Schiller’s epic poems Die Bürgschaft (The Hostage) and Die Kraniche des Ibykus (The Cranes of Ibycus) – learnt by heart by generations of German and Austrian schoolchildren in bygone times – testify to the hold of ancient Greece over the creative imagination of German writers of the Classical period. Less well known is Schiller’s resonant poem Nänie, whose title derives from the Greek word for a funeral elegy. Written in the spare, severe Classical form of the elegiac couplet, which alternates hexameters (metrical lines of six feet) with pentameters (lines of five feet), Nänie is a profoundly moving lament for the inevitable mortality of all things human. It begins with the arresting formulation ‘Auch das Schöne muss sterben’ (Even that which is beautiful must die), and goes on to illustrate this with examples, taken from Greek mythology, of the qualities that constitute the glory of humankind: love, beauty, heroism.
The poem culminates in a universal lament for human mortality: ‘Siehe! Da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnen alle, /Dass das Schöne vergeht, dass das Vollkommene stirbt’ (See! The gods weep, the goddesses, they all weep,/ That what is beautiful must pass away, that what is perfect must die). But it concludes on a note of reconciliation with the fate of everything mortal, for in mourning the death of the best of humankind, the gods (and we) commemorate them and perpetuate their memory, in this case, through the poem/funeral elegy itself. What is deserving of commemoration is that which is truly noble in human life: ‘Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Munde der Geliebten ist herrlich;/ Denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab’ (Just to be a song of lament on the lips of the beloved ones is glorious;/ For what is base goes down to Hades unsung).
Arguably the most memorable fusion of Greek and German culture in this period occurs in the work of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). The eponymous hero of Hölderlin’s epistolary novel Hyperion, published in two volumes in 1797 and 1799, is a young idealist who participates in the Greek uprising of 1770 against Ottoman rule, the precursor of the Greek War of Independence (1821-32). In his poetry, Hölderlin draws inspiration from ancient Greece, which he saw as a society where human beings lived in harmony with nature and the creative spirit of the divine, a harmony that had been lost in modern society and that Hölderlin hoped would be recreated in Germany.
In an unorthodox synthesis of Christian and Greek deities, Hölderlin celebrated Christ as the last in a line of gods who had made themselves visible to human beings; after Christ, the age of light, that of divine presence, was replaced by the age of darkness, that of divine absence. The dawning of that age of light and of a human community infused with divine values is celebrated in Der Archipelagus (The Archipelago, meaning Greece), in the visionary re-creation of the city of Athens in its golden period following the defeat of the invading Persians at the naval battle of Salamis (480 BCE). In his great elegy Brot und Wein (Bread and Wine), Hölderlin also fuses the figure of Christ – bread and wine are the consecrated elements used in the Eucharist (Holy Communion) to symbolise the body and blood of Christ – with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine whose birth is associated with thunder and lightning, the forces that fertilise the earth and bring forth grain for bread.
But Brot und Wein lapses into deep pessimism as the poet, contemplating the darkness around him, poses the plaintive question ‘wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit’ (what use is a poet in an impoverished age?). He consoles himself with the belief that the gods had left signs of their past presence in the bread and wine, tokens of their future reappearance in a renewed age of light. One of the most famous of Hölderlin’s hymns, Patmos, takes its title from the name of the Greek island where St John the Divine is thought to have written the Book of Revelation. Hölderlin believed this St John to be identical with St John the Apostle, author of the Gospel of John and the last living person to have known Christ on earth. The poem thematises the last human contact with the age of divine presence; thereafter, darkness and alienation ruled, until the spirit of ancient Greece might reawaken elsewhere.
After achieving independence in 1832, Greece was ruled by a royal house from Germany; the first king of Greece was the Bavarian prince Otto of Wittelsbach, who ruled for 30 years until he was deposed in 1862. His successor was William of Glücksburg, who ruled from 1863 as George I. Though the house of Glücksburg was the ruling house of Denmark, its full name, Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, reveals that it too was heavily Germanised: only Sonderburg and the northern part of Schleswig are not in Germany. George was assassinated in 1913 and was succeeded by his son, Constantine I, whose pro-German inclinations during the First World War brought him into conflict with Prime Minister Venizelos; Constantine opted for a policy of neutrality, while Venizelos wished Greece to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Constantine’s reign was stormy: he was twice forced to abdicate, the second time in 1922, when he was succeeded by his eldest son, George II. The German heritage of the Greek royal house continued to manifest itself: Princess Alice of Battenberg, mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, was married to Prince Andrew of Greece, one of George I’s sons.
After the Second World War, Greece received reparations from Germany for the appalling losses and suffering inflicted on its people during the German occupation. These were fixed in 1960 at DM 115 million. When Greeks now complain of the inadequacy of these payments, they should remember the failings in Greece’s own treatment of its Jewish citizens, whose sufferings in the Holocaust have received scant recognition from their Greek compatriots. In the matter of restitution, Jews had very great difficulty after 1945 in recovering Jewish property that had been confiscated by the Germans and had then fallen into the hands of non-Jewish Greeks.
The ethnic exclusiveness that characterises Greek nationalism has led to an intolerance of minorities that are not ethnically Greek. That intolerance manifests itself in the effective disappearance of the Jews of Greece from public memory. In Salonika, where Jews formed the majority of the city’s inhabitants in 1912, when the city passed from Turkish to Greek rule, they are now a fraction of 1 per cent of the population, thanks to the Holocaust and to emigration to Israel. In her study The Jewish Community of Salonika: History, Memory, Identity, Bea Lewkowicz states that as late as the 1990s Jewish history was ‘absent from the consciousness of the majority of the city’s population’. She was shocked when her taxi driver refused to acknowledge the very existence of the square that had been named ‘Jewish Martyrs’ Square’ and, when he eventually drove her there, to find that the square’s name had been spray-painted over, leaving only the word ‘square’ legible. Jewish tombstones were also visible as part of the city’s paths, walls and courtyards, including in the university. Lewkowicz is at pains to state that this situation has since changed for the better; but the increase in the popularity of the openly anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn is hardly a reassuring portent. [link]

The following letter appeared in the London-based Jewish News on 4 September 2015:

Dear Mr Cameron, [more...]

Recollections of Sir Nicholas

The obituary of Sir Nicholas Winton in the August issue of the AJR Journal reminded me of a meeting my colleague Felicity Griffiths and I had with him at his home in Maidenhead on 28 February 2005. In the meeting, which took place on behalf of the Elmbridge and Runnymede Talking News for the blind, he modestly elaborated on that initial visit of his to Prague following the notorious Munich annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland by Nazi Germany.
Speaking of Martin Blake, Sir Nicholas explained how he and Martin were deeply involved in left-wing politics of the time and he knew that Martin was in touch with the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), whose agent in Prague was Doreen Warriner.
It was a complete surprise, however, that directly he arrived in Prague, Martin said to him: ‘The first thing you are going to do is to be introduced to Eleanor Rathbone MP and I want you to take her to the camps.’ ‘These camps,’ he explained, ‘were for people who fled into Czechoslovakia from the Sudetenland and had no relatives or friends with whom they could stay. The camps were pretty bleak and pretty horrible. So I went round and took Eleanor Rathbone in and around the camps. I think my chief reason for escorting her was that … when she sat down, or did anything, she always left something behind, so my real reason for escorting her was to collect all her belongings she left along her path as she went. She wasn’t forgetful in that way - she was absent-minded. She was a remarkable lady and, of course, very well known.’
When he met up with Doreen Warriner, who had the job of bringing out elderly people who were endangered - who were on Hitler’s black list - Sir Nicholas said to her: ‘What about all these kids?’ She replied that the BCRC had neither the money nor the energy or facilities to do anything and that, in any case, they wouldn’t be allowed into England on their own.
While in Prague Sir Nicholas also met Trevor Chadwick, who had been a master at a school in Swanage, and said to him: ‘We’ve got to list these children who need to get out. I’ll go back to England to see what can be done. If I’m successful, will you run the office in Prague? I left all the organising to Trevor. All I said to him and the children was: “Look, don’t be so excited. I want to do this – everybody says it’s impossible. Until I get back to England and find out whether it can be done, all this is completely academic … Well, my motto is like Sherlock Holmes’s “If something is not blatantly impossible, there must be a way of doing it.”’
Back in England at the Home Office, Sir Nicholas was told that all he had to do was to find a home that would look after every child until the crisis was over and that every child would need a guarantor to provide £50. To do this, he explained, he had to call himself something! So he had a letterhead printed as ‘The Children’s Section of the BCRC’. It was official in the sense that everybody who read it thought it was official. The only people who knew it wasn’t were the BCRC and they couldn’t say anything! That was the beginning - the rest is history.
There is one other part of the story related to us by Sir Nicholas which well illustrates his character. With the outbreak of war, as a pacifist he joined the Red Cross and went over to France. Having been evacuated from Dunkirk, he returned to the City, where he had ‘quite an important job’, to meet his boss, ‘who was very right-wing.’ His boss turned round to him and said: ‘It’s no use going on fighting this chap - we might just as well make the best peace terms we can now!’ That, Sir Nicholas said, was one of the main things that changed his life. He never went back to the City again even though he was a member of the Stock Exchange.
In conclusion, it must be said that finding families in England for the children was the most difficult part of the job for Sir Nicholas. He managed to persuade Picture Post magazine to help by running weekly articles for him. [more...]

Refugees and normality

Germany is not a normal country. There is no need to be surprised by this. [more...]

Delightful account of a Kindertransportee’s life THE CHILDREN OF WILLESDEN LANE: BEYOND THE KINDERTRANSPORT: A MEMOIR OF MUSIC, LOVE AND SURVIVAL by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen New York and Boston: Grand Central Publishing, 272 pp., ISBN 9780446690270

This is a delightful account of yet another Kindertransportee’s life. Most of us who came to this country on the Kindertransport had one thing in common: we left behind loving, supportive middle-class parents and found ourselves in a strange new environment without knowing a word of the language. Thereafter our adventures and experiences differed and are always interesting to read.
Lisa Jura came to England from Vienna aged 15. She arrived at Dovercourt Camp, where she was chosen for domestic service in a large mansion near Brighton. Here she was promoted to the position of lady’s maid. But she had other ambitions and made her way to London, eventually finding accommodation in the hostel at 243 Willesden Lane run by the matron, Mrs Cohen. All the children had to earn their keep and Lisa and her best friend travelled to the East End, where they worked in a garment factory machining uniforms. Lisa got the job because she knew how to work a sewing machine, her father having been a tailor in Vienna.
The children were not evacuated and their lives and experiences of the Blitz are graphically described. A camaraderie developed among the children, who shared the same anxieties regarding the loved ones they had left behind and living without any news from them. They became very supportive of one another. Lisa seems to have been a most attractive person with a lovely personality, whom everyone grew to love. Some of the readers of this journal may actually have lived at the hostel in Willesden Lane and may remember Lisa and the people mentioned in the book.
Lisa was an exceptionally talented pianist. Mrs Cohen placed a piano for her below the stairs so she could practise safely during the air raids. After a hard day’s work at the factory, she put in hours of practice every evening, at the same time giving a lot of joy to those who heard her.
I will not give too much away as to Lisa’s eventual life. I cannot recommend this book too highly. It is beautifully written by her daughter, Mona Golabek, a concert pianist, and co-writer Lee Cohen. Mona hopes to come to London to perform and speak about the book and her mother. I cannot wait to meet her.
Bronia Snow [link]

The courage of their convictions

The recently published joint autobiography of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld is entitled simply Mémoires. Their stories, individually and jointly, are truly remarkable.
Beate, who was six years old when the war ended, was born in Berlin. She and her mother survived the war unscathed and Beate went to Paris after finishing high school to work as an au pair.
Serge’s youth was a very different affair. His parents met and married in Paris before the outbreak of war and, like many Jews, sought refuge in the French Free Zone. Serge’s father arranged a hiding place for his wife and two children but was caught and deported to Auschwitz. Serge writes movingly about the father he hardly knew, having in later years researched his trajectory and death. Throughout his childhood, and in later life, Serge was haunted by thoughts of, and longing for, his father and, when he visited Auschwitz as an adult, he determined to do something to bring to justice those perpetrators of the Shoah who had not yet paid for their crimes.
Beate was the first of the couple to embark on a career that involved battling against injustice. In 1967, still a young mother, she initiated almost single-handedly a campaign against West German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, exposing his Nazi past and calling for his resignation. She travelled throughout Europe, campaigning to expose the truth, and even slapping Kiesinger publicly. Her account goes into considerable detail about how she set about raising support for her cause and it may well be partly due to her that Kiesinger’s party was defeated in the subsequent general election and Willi Brandt, whom Beate supported, became chancellor.
Beate also waged a campaign against another former Nazi in a high position, Ernst Achenbach, and it was thanks to her exposure of his past that he was not appointed to a senior position on the newly formed European Commission. In all these activities Serge was her prop and support but the initiatives and actions seem to have been largely hers. Thus, in the 1970s, at considerable personal risk, she ventured alone into Poland and Czechoslovakia to distribute pamphlets and attract attention to her battle against officially inspired anti-Semitism in the USSR and Eastern Europe.
Serge fought alongside Beate to bring to justice Kurt Lischka and Herbert Hagen, former senior Nazi officials in occupied France, after the French authorities had failed to do so. Lischka and Hagen had signed orders consigning thousands of French Jews to the death camps but after the war were able to live in comfortable security in Germany. Beate and Serge gathered extensive documentation regarding their activities in France, even confronting them in person in order to bring the case to public attention. While undertaking this campaign, the Klarsfelds suffered poverty and even imprisonment but persevered, convinced of the importance of their cause. Eventually the two men were brought before a court of law in Cologne and sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
As well as unmasking many former Nazi criminals, between 1971 and 1987 the Klarsfelds endeavoured relentlessly to bring Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, to justice, using both the French and German judicial processes and seeking to galvanise public opinion. Barbie was living in comfort in Bolivia under the alias Altman. The Klarsfelds found him and unmasked him, even though their campaign encountered numerous setbacks, being hindered not least by the authorities in various South American countries. Eventually Barbie/Altman was extradited from Bolivia and tried by a French court. Other former Nazi officials whom the Klarsfelds sought to bring to justice included Mengele (Brazil) and Alois Brunner (Syria), although not all their efforts were crowned with success.
In addition to their Nazi-hunting activities, the Klarsfelds sought to convince the governments of Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and of a number of north African countries to cease persecuting the Jewish population and accord Israel ‘the right to live in peace’. Several Israeli governments awarded the Klarsfelds honours in recognition of their activities on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people. Beate was even proposed as a candidate for the German presidency in 2012: although she lost to Joachim Gauck she was honoured by the German establishment and felt that all her efforts had been vindicated.
The courage, determination and dedication of these two individuals stand as a shining light and example to us all.
Beate and Serge Klarsfeld: Mémoires, Fayard/Flammarion, 2015, 687 pp.

Letters to the Editor

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