Blog

Category Archives: History

Troubled Waters

Learning that Patrick Modiano was the 15th Frenchman to win the Nobel Prize for literature since the first was awarded in 1901, beating such American favourites regularly passed over as Philip Roth, surely makes anyone interested in culture at least pause for breath…What is it about French literature that the rest of the world holds in such esteem? And it’s not those plain covers, classy admittedly, but full of snobbery too as if a picture on the jacket might lower the tone. These are not books for children after all.

The Swedish academy, in awarding the 2014 prize, described Modiano as ‘a Proust for our times’ since his work has to do with memory and he is troubled by loss, above all lost time. Born in 1945 to an Italian-Jewish father and Belgian actress mother, he has said: ‘Like everyone who has neither ground nor roots, I am obsessed by my prehistory. And my prehistory is the troubled and shameful period of the Occupation.’  And there is lots to be troubled about there. However, since it seems that only one of his 22 novels has been translated into English, The Search Warrant, it is hard for non-French speakers to judge. This novel touches on France’s recent history, in particular the round ups of Jews by fellow Frenchmen during World War Two,  when Paris was occupied by Germans but the orders were given from Vichy, the so-called free zone. Those seized, including hundreds of children, were sent first to Drancy and then Auschwitz. French police using French buses were responsible for the roundups. French president Jacques Chirac apologised for French complicity in the tragedy only in 1995 and many French are still reluctant to address openly the issues of how their families behaved during those appalling five years.

It seems to me that any thinking person of a certain age who wants to write is – eventually -magnetically drawn to writing about the barbarity of the 20th century. For one who grew up in France it must be impossible to avoid those extremely long shadows. I was born several years after the end of World War 2 and in England but have spent much of the last year thinking about les années noires in France for a book I am working on.  And last week, appropriately on the same day that the prize was announced, I saw the much acclaimed French film Violette, based on the life story of French writer Violette Leduc and her painful struggle to become a writer detailed in her bestselling memoir, La Batarde.   

Apart from wondering why French films are always so long, so intense, so full of walks and bicycle rides through woods and so determined to leave nothing to the imagination, Violette is historically fascinating. Not only does the film feature a rather too young and beautiful Simone de Beauvoir winning the Prix Goncourt  for her ground breaking The Second Sex, there is also much about the wartime black market as well as an abortion (illegal of course). It is visually stunning, full of fabulous 40’s fashions and plenty of those plain covered books with nothing but the title. So chic they reminded me of a Chanel jacket. Or was it the plentiful black market food that reminded me? But then apparently Modiano’s father survived the war by making black market deals with occupying Germans. One things for sure, it seems to me that just as important as remembering is not judging.

 

 

A Dying Breed

It’s been a dreadful week for deaths. It always is, I know. But recently, I daren’t open the obits page for fear I’ll meet someone I know or someone I was hoping to interview but left it too late.  There are always far too many obituaries of men and women who die long before their time such as the beautiful and talented Candida Lycett Green, who has just died at 71 from pancreatic cancer. We mourn them all.  But often it is reading the obituaries of women when I let out the deepest sigh…oh why didn’t I know about them when they were alive? Why did they keep all these amazing life experiences so quiet?

The three women whose obituaries have filled my thoughts this week were not exactly young nor unknown. Helen Bamber, aged 89, Aline Berlin, 99, and Philippine de Rothschild, a mere 80, had all lived full and rich lives. Of course for the loved ones and close family there is always a hole left whatever the age of the dead person as well as the hope that the person might just have lived for this birth or that announcement. But, overall, these three women should be celebrated not merely for having lived life to the full but for brushing as closely against evil as it is possible yet triumphing over it.  They embraced life and refused to succumb to bitterness.

I had the privilege of meeting Helen Bamber, a woman who never knew any other life apart from helping others in the direst circumstances. From the age of 20 she dedicated her life to those who suffered torture, trafficking, slavery and other forms of extreme human cruelty. She volunteered to go out to Germany in 1945 immediately after the war and work with the Jewish relief unit under the auspices of the United Nations Relief Agency in the just liberated concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. She spent two horrific years there and promised the dying that she would bear witness to their torment. They could not have imagined how hard she would work to do that over the next seventy years. As she travelled around the world to document torture and its aftermath in many countries those who met her said she seemed determined to help everybody. In 1985 Helen founded the Medical Foundation for the care of Victims of Torture, a pioneering organisation as nobody until then had time to listen. It’s an appalling reflection of the 20th century that the need for her work increased.  She married and had two children of her own but amazingly was never overcome by the harrowing stories and continued helping others almost until the end. There is more here:

http://www.helenbamber.org/

Aline Berlin grew up in an immensely wealthy Russian Jewish family in Paris but privilege did not shield her personal tragedy when her first husband, Andre Strauss, died of cancer five years after they were married leaving her a widow with a young son just as war with Germany loomed. She was ‘lucky’ in that she and her family could pay for exit visas from the American consulate in Nice and she escaped from France just in time spending the rest of the War in North America. She married a second time, to Hans Halban, a French nuclear physicist who had also managed to escape France and although the couple had two sons this was not an entirely happy marriage. In 1956 Aline married Isaiah Berlin, the academic and philosopher who had been in love with her for some years. The Berlins were married for more than 40 years and together enjoyed a life devoted to music, books and travel.

While in New York Aline had befriended Ceçile de Rothschild, another French emigrée, and the women played golf together – something at which Aline excelled. But another Rothschild, a cousin by marriage, was not so lucky. Philippine de Rothschild was ten years old when she saw her mother, the beautiful Elisabeth Pelettier de Chambure, a Catholic living apart from her husband Philip de Rothschild, arrested by the Nazis in her home and taken to Ravensbrück where she was killed. Elisabeth is the only member of the Rothschild family killed in the Holocaust. After the War, Philippine became first an actress working at the Comédie Française and then took over and expanded the family wine business, Chateau Mouton Rothschild becoming a world renowned expert in the business.  She commissioned well known artists to design labels – the Prince of Wales obliged for a 2004 vintage – paying them for the privilege of having their work attached to a bottle with ten cases of selected Rothschild wines.

Next week’s obituaries may reveal another crop of extraordinary women – and no doubt some men too – who hid their lights. Of course none of us wants another war in order to prove ourselves but I can’t help wondering if my own generation will yield obituaries half as interesting as this generation now leaving us.

 

Rhodes – a lost culture

Greek Island - RhodesI have just spent a few days on the idyllic Greek island of Rhodes. We ate well, enjoyed the tourist shops and explored some fascinating ancient and medieval sites. But the heart of the visit was the short time we spent inside the oldest Synagogue in Greece, now the only one remaining on Rhodes. The day we are there, July 22nd, it is – unusually – bursting with vibrant international life.

Seventy years ago, it was a different story.

In 1943 Rhodes, formerly ruled by the Italians, was taken over by the Germans. On July 23rd of the following year, even as the tide of World War 2 was turning against the Nazis, 1,673 members of the Jewish community were rounded up and shipped off on a long and arduous journey to Auschwitz, where most of them were killed on arrival. Forty two Jews who were able to claim Turkish nationality were saved from deportation, thanks to the actions of the Turkish Consul General, Selattin Ulkumen, and one hundred and fifty one survived Auschwitz. Today there are just a handful of Jews living on the island but, for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the deportation, descendants of those who once contributed so much to the island culture and history have reassembled from Canada, South America, the USA, Africa and Europe and we, with no connections to Rhodes beyond friends whose family was once a pillar of the community, find ourselves among them in the boiling sunshine as they search for homes where their grandparents or great grandparents once lived and flourished.

Greek Island - RhodesFor the Jewish community of Rhodes has a rich history dating back to the second century and, at its height in the 1930’s, had a population of almost 4,000 people and six synagogues. Many were Sephardic Jews who fled Spain at the time of the Inquisition in the late 15th century and spoke to Ladino, a particular variant on Spanish and a language now in danger of dying out. Although there were periods when they were not welcome, generally Jews on the island lived in harmony with their rulers. It is good to be reminded not only of this rich heritage but the important contribution Jews made to the island culture.

Museums and Women!

Blog on Museums and WomenAs book titles go, Museums and Women is about as boring as it gets. But in John Updike’s hands, of course it is emotional and sensuous, intellectual and erotic. It is the title of a short story (and subsequent volume) about a small boy first visiting a museum with his mother which morphs into a tale of adultery with a woman working in a museum. It is beautifully written.  It was left on a table for me to read at the club in New York where I am staying this week. I had plenty of other reading material with me but, waking early from jet lag, this fifty- year old volume spoke to me.

One of my favourite cities for visiting Museums is New York and today was no different. I was aware of the newly opened Memorial to 9/11 Museum on the site of the tragedy which announces that it “will display artifacts associated with the events of 9/11, while presenting stories of loss and recovery.”  There is an associated gift shop selling T Shirts and other memorabilia. Not surprisingly,  it is deeply controversial and it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to go instead to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. There I looked at all the children thronging the Egyptian galleries of the Met and wondered what their memories of childhood visits to admire ancient statuary would be. What could they possibly make of the faces with no noses, the bodies with no arms and magnificent jewellery?

I was there to see the amazing ball gowns designed by legendary 20th century Anglo-American couturier, Charles James. One of his 1950’s creations would cost around $12,000 in today’s money so they were a true “investment piece” as the phrase goes. James was born in England in 1906 to a British army father who never understood his creative son and treated him cruelly and a Chicago socialite mother, almost wealthy enough to be called a dollar princess and whose contacts among American high society were to prove invaluable when her son set out in Paris, first as a milliner.

He returned to England during the war but Post-war established himself in New York.

What’s not to like about a designer who says: “My dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had.”

Or this “All my work was inspired by women who were not merely lovely or rich but personalities and who seemed to share some of my own feeling about life in general.”

But it’s not just that I warmed to the man. The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute Charles James: Beyond Fashion is spectacular technically and visually. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/charles-james-beyond-fashion/images

By using robotic electronic cameras, most of the ball gowns on display are individually deconstructed on an adjacent screen which explains and explores James’s design process, focusing on his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct his revolutionary and magnificent ball gowns.

The exhibition is not just entertainment for women. James himself saw himself as a creative artist on a par with many famous writers and musicians of the day. He is also an inventor. He needed women for his art but, as the Met curators rightly recognise, this story is not just about fashion, it goes way beyond fashion.

Charles James : Beyond fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until August 8th 2014

Tales from the front line … Finding the right words for Pain and Courage

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

“Je suis fini,” I told the librarian in the subterranean Bibliotheque Nationale, to guffaws of laughter. “Vous avez fini,” he reprimanded me as he brought his laughter under control. Yes, I agreed with him I had finished but in English we might also say ‘I am finished for the day or with these books.’  Clearly, I had said something totally inappropriate, probably best left to my imagination but I am pleased I at least provided him with some amusement for the day. As usual, I’d been up since 5 am in order to catch the 7 am Eurostar and had made my way across Paris to the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, (BNF),  a building that feels as if you are working in a prison or nuclear bunker, for a day of research. At first I was refused entry because my (very small) rucksack on wheels was deemed too large, but with my inadequate French I finally persuaded them to allow me in. And once I started work the atmosphere was serene, the chairs fabulously comfortable and the café delicious. I must keep going with the French lessons!

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

Plaque outside the Memorial de la Shoah

When not at the BNF I go to Nanterre, repository of many resistance archives, to immerse myself in yet more harrowing accounts of women in concentration camps or in factories working as slave labourers, or to the Holocaust Museum, where the librarian explains why she often does not have what I am looking for “because we deal with death not life, and with the nobodys in life who have no one to come and deposit papers with us.” And as I am finding my way around the city to a number of other resistance museums or repositories of World War Two papers, I can see why so many Parisians complain about passenger safety on the underground.  The short amount of time the metro doors remain open at stations is a source of regular complaint and this week I was one of those ‘snapped.’ The automatic doors close violently and stop for nobody. I was trailing my very small suitcase trying to get through the crowds when bang – they shut on me, poised halfway out, causing instant rib pain. But at least I got out and sat down to recover my breath. I’ve done nothing more than bruise a rib but it’s very painful. Very painful? How do I dare even to write that as I research lives that were truly, achingly, desperately painful, often with little or no food or heat and full of fear, threat and torture. Yet few complained.

Best of all are my interviews with old people who have lived through the experiences. I’m keeping the best details of these for the book itself but one memory that will stay with me is meeting two friends, one almost 90 the other a little older, comparing memories. One says to the other: “But you – you were in the resistance, no?  I never knew. All these years. Why didn’t you talk about it?”

“What was there to talk about?” she replies. “It was just what one did.” Again and again, I ask myself, what I would have done? Courage, like pain, are just two words I need to understand better in French as well as English.