It has been 67 years since the end of World War II, but in the last couple of years it seems like WWII has started to loom in our imaginations on a much larger scale. Publishers have been playing a part in this trend, releasing quite a few new books that have become bestsellers (think; Unbroken, The Hare with Amber Eyes, A Winter Train, Band of Brothers, In the Garden of Beasts, and most recently HHhH). I have been pondering why this sudden popularity and I have come to the conclusion that there are two major reasons.
First, as the time passes, the last few eye witnesses of the horrors of WWII are passing and it is our last chance to record, collect and hear these stories. For many the events they lived through were unimaginable so much so that they either could not verbalize them or they needed the distance of time to be able to bring themselves to speak about the things they witnessed.
Secondly, it is quite clear that a lot of these recent accounts are of a different nature. For years we have been reading about heroism, patriotism and amazing tales of survival. Some of the not so glorious aspects of wars however have remained “under the carpet”. Even though history cannot be changed, it can still be approached in many different ways. Some of this new and rather disturbing analysis is coming to light as new events and new wars force us to examine the past and what we have learned from it….
This week we have the privilege to talk to two authors who have chosen to ask some difficult questions, concentrating on the lives of families and ordinary people rather than military heroes. They decided to look at the impact of war on ordinary people – bringing those who survived out of the shadows and examining not only the impact on their lives but also on generations thereafter.
Caroline Moorehead is the author of A Winter Train: A Story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival which recounts stories of “the convoy des 3100” – the cattle trucks that took 230 French woman resistance fighters to Auschwitz in 1943. The first part of the book tells us about these women prior to their arrest. They came from all walks of life: housewives, farmers, teachers, secretaries etc. But they are also lovers, wives and mothers, most of them ordinary human beings who were to become extraordinary in every meaning of this word. Their courage, dignity and sacrifice are set against the silence of the French majority and the unimaginable zeal and cruelty of the then French police that arrested, tortured and eventually handed them over to the Germans. While reading this book I could not stop myself from thinking of the words that ironically came from a German historian, Jörg Friedrich “Civilians do not show mercy to civilians. . . . Total war consumes the people totally, and their sense of humanity is the first thing to go.”
Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is a very rare combination of memoir, history and art all in one book. It is a search for family, a way of life that was all lost in World War II. Its account is both very personal, but also very public; and it brings a strong sense of History. This truly unforgettable story of the Ephrussi family is traced through a collection of netsuke (small Japanese carvings), the only objects that survived the turbulence of the war. I’ve read very few books that create a more profound sense of place and time, and that also made me look at my family heirlooms in a completely different light.