Posted by: jbwuk | August 4, 2011

The dangers of reading too much Holocaust literature

I’ve just got back from holiday, a week on a sail boat in Greece. I spent my time soaking in the sun, swimming, sleeping, eating, chatting to lovely people, all Italians, four engineers, one math professor, a volley ball champion and a PE teacher. For a week, there was no mention of Israel, Palestine, Jews, the Holocaust and I did not open a single book. A real holiday and it’s only now that I realise how much I needed it.

I read a lot of books. Not as many as I should, mainly because I find it impossible not to read a book to the end, but still an awful lot. Now when you run a Jewish book festival, a vast number of those books deal with the Holocaust. Someone asked me once how much longer I thought publishers would publish books about the Holocaust. The understatement was quite obvious but that person did not have the courage to spell it out and say he thought there had already been far too many. Sadly a massacre on such a scale will long remain a source of stories, long after all the witnesses have died and I do hope it stays that way.

My latest read, on my way to Greece, was Fabrice Humbert‘s L’Origine de la Violence, a superb book soon to be published in English by Serpent’s Tail. Humbert tells the story of a young man who teaches in a Franco-German lycee and who on a visit with his students to Buchenwald is struck by a photo portraying a prisoner who looks uncannily like his father. This discovery will take him on a very disturbing investigation of his family’s past. It is an extremely powerful book which looks into the hidden source of violence.

My previous read had also been a French book, Le Troisieme Jour by Chochana Boukhobza, set in Jerusalem today. As well as exploring the complexity of Israeli society and the feelings of a young woman who has left the Promised Land, it is also the story of the final moments of a Nazi hunt and the revenge against a man who has ruined so many lives. The book will be published in English by MacLehose Press and like Humbert, I hope Boukhobza will be at JBW 2012.

My trip to Greece involved taking the Eurostar to Brussels, then a Ryan Air flight from Charleroi airport to Volos, then a bus into town. Fairly simple stuff. But too much Holocaust literature means that I couldn’t help -when standing in a queue with couples, old people, families with young children, all a bit stressed as you are when travelling with low cost airlines who seem to wield a huge deal of arbitrary power on you- automatically transposing my fellow travellers to other fatal journeys. I started looking at people around me and wondered who would have been selected for life, who would have behaved how. I was fascinated by the innocence of the people around me who were fortunate enough not to think of any of this. I was shocked by my own thoughts and feeling something was seriously wrong with me.

When I finally arrived in Volos, one of the first sights to greet me on my way to the harbour, was the monument to the Jews who died in the Holocaust. 95% of the Jewish community was murdered during the war and there are only about 100 Jews in Volos today. The monument, erected in 1995, is in a bit of no man’s land, between the port and the supermarket. My friends did not even notice it. Then we were off. I had a copy of Umberto Eco’s Il Cimitero di Praga with me but I decided not to open it until the end of the trip. I’ve started reading it now and look forward to hearing Eco talk about it at JBW 2012. His main character hates everybody, particularly the Jews, so not always easy reading but Eco is definitely not an antisemite, quite the contrary. More in the next post.

And to end on a lighter note, in case you did not already know it, click here to watch the hilarious low cost airline song on YouTube.



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