Blog

Category Archives: Book Extracts

Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago which I am reposting to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds the hand of his granddaughter during the annual ‘March of the Living’ at Auschwitz in May 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR holds the hand of his granddaughter during the annual ‘March of the Living’ at Auschwitz in May 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

What makes two people with identical backgrounds turn in completely opposite directions?  I have just finished a fascinating book called The Horror of Love by Lisa Hilton about the relationship between Nancy Mitford and her French lover, Gaston Palewski. I thought I knew all I ever needed to know about the Mitford sisters (and perhaps I did) but reading it made me struggle with this question once again? Of course with the Mitfords – Unity and Diana, the Hitler worshippers and Jessica, the communist – the problem is writ larger than in most families. Nancy vehemently opposed both extremes and devoted herself to writing (Love in a Cold Climate) not politics (Palewski was one of General de Gaulle’s closest advisers).

Next month( August 4, 2012) is the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and saviour of more than 100,000 Jews in Nazi occupied Hungary.  Wallenberg, who trained as an architect, never knew his father who died three months before his birth, but was brought up by a loving stepfather and mother who devoted their post war lives to searching for the truth about Wallenberg’s final years. The circumstances of his death are still uncertain as he was arrested in January, 1945 by Russian troops and never heard of again.  In 1979 his parents both committed suicide in despair at their failure to find their son.

These days, with ever fewer eye witnesses to the real horrors of the twentieth century, this is an important and powerful moment to look back. What makes a hero, or an ordinary man behave in heroic ways? Professor Frank Vajda, a neurologist,  vividly remembers  being rescued by Wallenberg  when, as a nine year old boy in Budapest,  little Frank was denounced by the Nazi authorities for the simple yet symbolic act of removing the yellow star the Nazis forced him to wear.  He had been hiding in a protected house with his mother following the murder of his father. He was marched to a military barracks and lined up in front of a machine gun. At that critical moment, Wallenberg arrived, negotiated with the authorities and led him away to safety.  Frank became a Professor of Clinical Neuropharmacology at Monash University in Melbourne,  Australia and, now 78,  has devoted much of his adult life to making sure that the world knows of Wallenberg’s tireless and unselfish efforts to save Jews through a variety of actions including issuing passports, establishing protective housing, organising soup kitchens and personally rescuing Jews from sealed deportation trains among other heroic deeds.  When he learned of Adolph Eichmann’s ‘final solution’, the young Wallenberg  had a note delivered to General Schmidthuber, the Commander of the German Army in Hungary, explaining that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war was over, thereby saving the lives of  70,000 Jews.  How to explain this extraordinary heroism?

The Swedish government is using the centennial to honour Wallenberg’s memory by organising a number of international commemorative events throughout the year. “His actions show that one person’s courage and ability can make a difference. His actions are a model for us, not least at a time when more people need to stand up against persecution, xenophobia and anti-Semitism,” according to an official statement. At a recent Wallenberg conference in Athens, Wallenberg’s actions were described by the Swedish ambassador to Greece as “a constant reminder of staying human even when faced with inhumanity.” The deputy mayor of Athens then announced that a public space or street in the city was to be named after Raoul Wallenberg.

***

War unquestionably brings out the best and the worst in people. This summer is also the 70th anniversary of the Vel D’hiv mass arrest of almost 13,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children many of whom were subsequently killed.  How many ordinary Frenchmen, even if not actively collaborating, compromised themselves in those years of German occupation?  Others, farmers or shopkeepers, provided food and shelter at great risk to themselves.

My father, born a few days apart from Wallenberg, would also be celebrating his hundredth birthday this year and he, along with several of his friends, joined up before conscription was introduced believing it was the right thing to do even though it played havoc with studies and careers. These were, after all, young men.  He became Major Eric Rubinstein MBE , was part of the 79th Armoured Division in the Royal Tank Brigade that crossed the channel to France on D plus one and spent the remainder of the war fighting its way through Europe, from Caen to Nijmegen and Copenhagen. Among many battles and terrifying moments, he was, in the closing stages of the war, deputed to speak on behalf of William Douglas-Home, the playwright brother of the (later) Prime Minister, who had been court-martialled for refusing to obey an order which Douglas- Home believed to be immoral. Later still, waiting to be demobbed, he was befriended by a handsome and charming downed South African Pilot, a former Cambridge Rugby Blue trying to get back to England. Or so the man told my father.  They shared a few drinks while exchanging their life stories and, after a few days together searching for Brussels lace underwear for my mother’s trousseau, said goodbye. Several months later the police came knocking at my father’s door, having tracked him down from the visiting card he had given to his new friend, the stranded South African airman. The man was Neville Heath, a borstal boy and compulsive liar who had once served in the South African Air Force but was a man with many aliases eventually hanged in 1946 for the gruesome and sadistic murder of at least two women. 

Heath’s waxwork image can be seen today at Madame Tussaud’s.  Raoul Wallenberg has no grave but many monuments around the world and lives on in the gratitude of many of those whose lives he saved and their descendants.

Women’s Voices Reporting D Day

If like me you’ve been enjoying hearing the deep and clipped tones of the 1940’s reporters telling us about the progress of D Day (I know it’s radio but you can definitely see that they are wearing suits and ties or possibly even dinner jackets) have you also wondered where are the women’s voices? Answer is, of course, there weren’t any. Not only were there no women announcers or presenters but British women were not allowed to be accredited war reporters. The only way around this disbarment was for reporters like Clare Hollingworth to join an American news organisation if they wanted to report the biggest story of the day.

Image result for picture of martha gellhorn

Even Martha Gellhorn, the veteran American journalist who had been reporting the War for Collier’s Magazine since 1937, suffered from this attitude as the US Army’s public relations officers objected to a woman being a correspondent with combat troops. But she was determined not to be relegated to reporting behind the lines or what was demeaningly called ‘the women’s angle’ and came up with a brilliant ruse.

By the time she heard about the D Day invasion it was already underway and her estranged husband, Ernest Hemingway, had been officially accredited to Collier’s – her magazine – as the correspondent who was to write the cover story. Furious and goaded by rivalry, Martha managed to do better. She got herself to the embarkation port shortly after midnight on the night of June 6/7 and locked herself into the lavatory of a large white hospital ship due to cross at dawn. Only then did the stowaway emerge and, still unrecognised, worked as a stretcher bearer collecting wounded men from the Normandy beaches. Carrying them from the crowded, dangerous shore to the water ambulances, raising them over the side of the boat and then transporting them down the winding stairs of the converted pleasure ship to the ward, was desperately hard work. Each case was more tragic than the next. But in spite of the constant pain all Martha wrote ‘all of us knew that our own wounded were good men and that with their amazing help, their selflessness and self-control, we would get through all right.’ Her moving story was published inside the magazine.  Ernest made the cover but his story was not nearly so vivid, so personal.

When she docked, her papers were scarcely in order and she was arrested by the PR office of the US Army. As punishment, Martha Gellhorn was sent to an American nurses training camp in the English countryside and denied permission to cross again into France. However, she escaped yet again and  climbed over a fence until she reached a military airfield and spun a yarn about wanting to see her fiancé in Italy. She persuaded a pilot to fly her there and wrote vivid reports from Italy about the fighting there.

Next time you wonder about the missing women’s voices remember Martha and many other courageous women who managed, against the odds, to write about fighting and war recorded in my book, Battling for News The Rise of the Woman Reporter.

Ten things I learned while writing Les Parisiennes

One cover, two books1. There is always a choice in life. Choice is inside our heads. How do we think even if choice appears to have been taken away, how do we act? Women in Paris faced an extreme: would I have walked out of a cafe if a German soldier entered thereby risking my life? Would I have delivered political leaflets, what exactly would I have done to help a friend in prison standing up for what he/she believed in?
2. Women can handle weapons and are extremely brave under torture sometimes more than men because they have to prove themselves.
3. Right and wrong are not always clearly defined. There is a great big muddy grey area in between. The photographer who took the image on my book cover, Roger Schall, survived four years of enemy occupation by publishing photographs of monuments and buildings in Paris, and landscapes in France with captions in German for the German market. In return he was allowed to take photographs in and could capture the atmosphere of enemy occupied Paris which otherwise might never have been understood.
4. Learning a foreign language may be a life saver … as several camp prisoners said that understanding what their captors were saying helped keep them sane and retain some power over their situation.
5. Never procrastinate or put off to tomorrow…the story of Miriam Sandzer (and many others) clearly indicates that had she gone to England with her fiancé when she had the chance and he first asked her, she would have been spared much of her subsequent torment but she could not abandon her elderly parents and dithered, however understandably.
5. The world has double standards … Look at the way women were punished after the Occupation, often shaven and humiliated, without trial, for degrees of fraternisation with the enemy while the men, many of whom practised economic or industrial collaboration, often got away without punishment after the war because their businesses were necessary in the rebuilding of the country. One reason for punishing the women was revenge, or ancient settling of scores or to cover their own shame at a humiliating military defeat.
6. French women really ARE different especially the way they think about Fashion. Looking your best at all times was considered a way to show the German occupier that they were not beaten, that they retained pride in their own identity. Even arriving at the prison camp in Ravensbrück other nationalities noticed how French women looked elegant.
7. How much of Paris life carried on as normal during the occupation for some people such as those with access to theatres and cinema life flourished. Cinemas were warm places for couples to go even to make love but keeping the opera houses, theatres and cultural institutions open was playing in to German hands as it pleased the enemy to enjoy the entertainment Paris had to offer.
8. How easy it is to close your eyes to things happening on your own doorstep and do nothing. There were warehouses in central Paris, camps for those who could prove they had an Aryan spouse, which were used as sorting centres for looted goods to be sent to Germany.
9. How privileged I and my generation are to have grown up in peace and security as a child of the post-war period of plenty. I have never experienced real fear.
10. Being a mother puts choice into a different category. Some mothers slept with Germans simply to get hold of food for a starving child, others bravely handed their children over to a passeur, a social worker or nuns, rather than risk their certain death, yet had no idea where they were being taken nor if they would arrive there safely .

And number 11 (because I believe in adding one more for luck! )
War can also be a time of fulfilment and an opportunity to meet people from other milieus and can give an erotic charge to an otherwise dull life…Comtesse Pastré, newly divorced, discovered she could be a force for good by opening her Chateau to refugee Jewish Musicians from Paris and Odette Fabius, from the haute bourgeoisie, disillusioned with her husband’s philandering, became a resistante and fell passionately in love with a Corsican communist trade union leader in Marseilles.