Asked to blog for Jewish Book Week, I instantly chose to cover this session. The Jewish ghetto Theresienstadt had haunted me since reading WG Sebold’s Austerlitz, and then last month, on my trip to Prague, I visited the place, isolated among the flat fields, and was overcome, as was Sebold’s narrator, and as were my companions, by an oppressive desolation which seems to hang over the place.
The book, which I am half-way through reading, is a fascinating and contradictory expression of fear and hope, of critical reportage and German-patriotic pride in hard work and achievement, and of descriptions of harsh conditions alongside those of soaring artistic and intellectual pursuit – a remarkable expression, in fact, of the reality conundrum that Theresienstadt must have been.
I’m afraid I was a little late arriving at this session, and it had already begun as I entered. There was a deep hush over the room, and a quiet dignity about the three-person panel. Editor Ben Barkow, director of The Wiener Library, was providing an account of Philipp Manes’ life before he entered Theresienstadt: his childhood love of the theatrical, the travel and connection with the artistic community he enjoyed as an employee of the New Photographic Society, the later necessity of taking over his father’s furrier firm, the loss of freedom and property as the Nazis put pressure on the Jews, and the consolation he found in writing.
Editor Klaus Leist then read from the very moving account Manes wrote at this time, Last Days in Berlin, which forms the Prologue to this book and describes the preparations Manes and his wife were forced to make for departure, and their feelings of grief as they did so.
Victoria Glendinning opened up a discussion between the panel members, drawing attention to the peculiar conflict Manes had between being a German and a Jew. He was very much a German patriot and his attitudes, in fact, are often those of a conservative German Christian.
Victoria Glendinning drew attention to Manes’s attitude to the Czech Jews in the ghetto [he writes with sadness and possible bitterness of the greater privileges of the Czech Jews, but with almost sentimental admiration of their youth and beauty], and Klaus Leist talked about the snobbery of Germans towards eastern Jews and the anti-German feeling on the Czech side.
I found that perhaps for me the most moving part of this session came now, when Victoria Glendinning opened it up to two or three questions from the floor. A white-haired woman across the room said that she had been in Theresienstadt and that she didn’t recognize this description of people’s knowledge about Auschwitz. Some people certainly knew: if a postcard arrived from a relative in a concentration camp and they had marked it with a cross, it meant that there were gas chambers there. But then, she said, in a statement that for me summed up everything, such things operate according to denial mechanisms.
Elizabeth Baines is a novelist, short-story writer and playwright. Her most recent books are the novel ‘Too Many Magpies’ and the story collection ‘Balancing on the Edge of the World’, both published by Salt.
To read the whole of Elizabeth’s review, visit her blog FictionBitch.