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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.

Why Books Matter in Prison

On Thursday my day started with a parcel, both unexpected and unordered, delivered by my cheery postman. ‘Young Titan,  the Making of Winston Churchill’  by Michael Shelden had been sent to me by a fellow Churchill obsessive, a man who knew that, tantalisingly, I had never been able to prove the existence of a serpent tattoo on the arm of Winston’s mother, the dashing Jennie Jerome, when I wrote my biography of her some years ago. This book, he believed, contained that elusive proof.  Well, it almost did. Perhaps proof in the form of an image will never see the light of day but I’m now convinced about the inky serpent on her wrist.

How lucky I am to have spent a few hours imagining this other world of racy Edwardian England visiting a high class tattoo parlour in Jermyn Street. Later the same day I voluntarily took myself off to prison for a night. Okay, I was fed and watered, took in my own sleeping bag and change of clothes and had congenial company in the other cells from 5 other publishers and agents. But even so, when the lights went out they went out. And in those moments before sleep it was just possible to imagine ‘what if’… What if that happened day after day, night after night, if the door was well and truly locked and there I was, left in a stifling airless cell with no hope of waking up to … well, anything really to offer hope of a better life? Is it surprising that the Howard League for Penal Reform is worried by the high number of suicides in UK prisons: 70 last year. This year, with record overcrowding in UK prisons, looks set to overtake even that tragic figure.

We ‘lucky’ six were all there as part of a ‘get- books-to-prisoners’ campaign organised by independent publishers, Pavilion Books. Their offices incorporate six powerfully atmospheric police cells with graffiti on the doors and no windows. One famous occupant in the sixties was former Rolling Stone Brian Jones charged with drug offences. We were using them to raise awareness of the cruel government ruling which forbids prisoners from receiving packages. All packages. Women cannot be sent underwear, for example. They have to save up and buy it. But saving up enough prison pay to buy a book is an almost unachievable target.  Books offer escape into another world, they offer insight into other people’s life stories. They are one of the few means prisoners have to glimpse or prepare for a different life when they emerge. They are not a luxury but an essential. We should be deluging prisoners with books not depriving them in some form of bizarre double punishment.

Please support this campaign by writing to your MP, tweet using the hashtag  #booksforprisoners or donating to the work of the Howard League, the oldest penal reform charity in the world.

 

I’ve got prison on my mind right now!

I’ve got prison on my mind right now!

This weekend I spoke in the beautiful old Town Hall in Devizes and right next to the entrance way was the old lock up cell for the town, ‘more of a dungeon than a prison,’ I was told. ‘You wouldn’t want to spend a night in there.’ I don’t suppose anyone who got thrown in to it especially wanted to either. But rough and ready justice was often doled out a hundred or so years ago.

And my current reading material is a book I picked up at San Francisco airport called ‘Orange is the new Black’ and was completely hooked throughout a long flight before I knew anything about the current phenomenon of the TV series based on the book.

For those who aren’t watching, the story concerns a pretty young middle class woman, Piper Kerman, who foolishly delivered a suitcase of drug money as a young jobless graduate from the prestigious Smith University keen to earn money. Ten years later, engaged to be married, her past caught up with her and she is convicted and sentenced to 15 months inside.

What saves her are books. Books by every post. Books from her adored family and books from people she doesn’t know. Books that she lends out in prison. Books that enable her to stay sane and enter another world.

Yet, bizarrely, the British government recently ordered that prisoners are no longer allowed to receive any small packages, which effectively means that books are banned in UK prisons. Yes there are libraries, but these are often not open at the brief time when a prisoner might visit and the book selection is often old and torn. Books are one of the few means prisoners have to improve their life inside and prepare for a life beyond. Often the books needed are legal books to help them prepare their cases for appeal. Or just books to read to pass the interminable time of day. Many leading writers, actors and poets have campaigned against the government’s bizarre ruling. Next week six leading figures from the publishing world are hoping to spend a night in a cell themselves to highlight the need to overturn this ban. I hope to be one of the ‘lucky’ ones who can spend a night on a cold stone floor in this important cause. If you want to support me please do NOW go to www.justgiving.com/AnneSebba1 where you can read more about the campaign, press the button for Anne and donate. Thank you!

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.