Memorial to victims of Münchmühle concentration camp

The memorial site at Münchmühle in 2008

The memorial site at Münchmühle in 2008

This week the Documentation and Information Centre (DIZ), at Stadtallendorf in Germany, opened an exhibition commemorating 25 years of the memorial site to Münchmühle.

This was the camp to which Clare Galambos Winter was sent from Auschwitz in August 1944, one of 1000 women, mostly Hungarian Jews, to provide slave labour in the munitions factories.


In The Violinist I have described their arrival:

Continuing their journey into Hesse, they arrived on 19 August at their destination, a village called Allendorf. To their surprise, they saw no grey rubble or any sign of war, but rather, neat houses and flower gardens. The trees were red and gold which was unusual in August, but they thought little of that as they walked a few kilometres through a ‘gorgeous’ pine forest to a small camp. Here too, flowers had been planted. It seemed like a dream.

Named Münchmühle after the nearby mill, their new camp had been converted from a forced labour camp to a concentration camp by surrounding it with a three-metre barbed-wire fence. Its new inmates noticed that it wasn’t electrified. The wooden huts had dry wooden floors and bunks. ‘On each bunk was a thin grey blanket … One light bulb hung in the middle of the ceiling. We felt as if we had landed in the Ritz.’

It was infinitely better than Auschwitz, but, as they soon realised, it was to be no holiday camp.

I visited Stadtallendorf in 2008 as part of my research for The Violinist. The help I received there from Fritz Brinkmann-Frisch and Lydia Hartleben at the Documentation and Information Centre (DIZ) was invaluable to my research for this important chapter.

SG_2008-06-04_062 SG_2008-06-04_067

Wellington Writers Walk

Wellington’s Waterfront just got a whole lot better with four new word ‘sculptures’ for Wellington Writers Walk. Designed by architect Fiona Christeller, the concept is simple and subtle, and a little bit quirky. (Look for the pole!) The newly celebrated writers are Jack Lasenby, Joy Cowley, Sir James McNeish and Elizabeth Knox. Their words were unveiled in a happy occasion yesterday
by Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae. Congratulations to all concerned.





Interview with award-winning author Joan Druett

Joan Druett

Congratulations to Joan Druett whose biography Tupaia: the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator has won the general non-fiction section of the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Published by Random House New Zealand, this is a beautiful book about an extraordinary genius who had, until now, been overlooked in accounts of Cook’s voyages.

Joan, if we consider that biography is like a marriage, it follows that you and Tupaia were destined for one another. It seems he was waiting for you, his story was waiting to be told, no one could tell it as well as you –  and the timing was right. From your point of view, why have you and Tupaia been such a good match?

That such an astonishingly gifted and powerful man was “waiting” for me to write his biography is quite a daunting thought, and yet I feel as if you are right.  That I have been writing novels and stories about my fictional Polynesian sleuth, Wiki Coffin, was probably ideal preparation for writing Tupaia’s story. Wiki, half-Maori, but raised as a Maori until the age of twelve, is abruptly carried off to Massachusetts by his American father, and is forced to make rapid adaptations to foreign thoughts and ways, much of it on European vessels.  Accordingly, I had a very good idea of the challenges Tupaia faced when he embarked on the Endeavour — not just the alien food and the strange daily routine, but the very peculiar social restrictions, focused on status and rank, that prevailed in what was a very small and crowded environment.

I recall talking to you years ago about writing non-fiction. You said ‘Think like a novelist’ – I’ve always thought that good advice, and relevant not only to writing but to research as well. How did an imaginative approach help you in your research of Tupaia?

The important thing to remember when dealing with character in both fiction and nonfiction, is that no one does anything without a good reason.  Once you understand motives, the character becomes credible, and it is possible for the reader to empathise with him (or her).  It was this approach that made writing the biography of a man who left no written record at all possible. I was forced to rely on what other people wrote about him, so my approach was to think, why did this person choose to record that, and why did Tupaia say or do that particular thing?  Each time, not only did the deductions I made reveal something about the writer, but it opened a window into yet another aspect of Tupaia’s nature.

How would you describe your creative process of writing Tupaia? Where do you allow yourself the freedom to invent, and where do you draw the line?

To write like a novelist, you have to have a clear picture of a character’s appearance, which posed a problem. While Parkinson (Banks’s draftsman) sketched Tahitians, apart from the boy, Taiata, they were not named, so I had to make deductions in order to describe what Tupaia and Purea looked like. Purea, the so-called “queen of Tahiti,” and Tupaia’s lover when Wallis arrived, posed a problem, as she was obviously flamboyant as well as tall and goodlooking, and needed a detailed description.  In 1785 the artist de Loutherbourg designed costumes for a pantomime called “Omai, or a Trip Around the World,” and I decided to use his very colourful sketch of “Obereyan Enchantress.” Finding out that John Webber, who had been with Cook’s third expedition, was a stage painter for the pantomime helped justify this decision.

Describing Tupaia was even harder. I deduced from a Parkinson sketch that priests were cleanshaven, which meant that he wasn’t bearded. Robertson, Wallis’s sailing master, wrote that Purea’s “attendance were drest in white,” so it seemed logical that Tupaia wore pure white robes. Missionary accounts stressed that members of the arioi society, like Tupaia, were goodlooking, tall, and athletic. Then studying photographs of more modern Polynesian navigators gave me the details of a crease between the brows, and the far-seeing eyes. When I had finished, the description seemed apt and right, and yet it depended on imaginative deduction.  

Describing his nature went through much the same process. I became convinced that he understood and spoke English very well indeed, which gave me clues to his sense of humour and his use of irony.  Finding a vocabulary of words provided by Tupaia and written down by Solander opened a window into his state of mind as he became increasingly disappointed and disillusioned by his experiences on the Endeavour. Recently, new evidence has come to light that confirms that the deductions I made from the vocabulary are absolutely right. The assistant surgeon, William Perry, wrote that Tupaia was told that it would take just ten months to get to Britain. (It took exactly two years to voyage from Tahiti to London.) With bitter irony, Tupaia finally remarked that Britain must be a “mere story” — that the ship must have risen from the bottom of the sea. When Perry laughed in disbelief, pointing out that great Tahitian canoes did not come out of the sea, Tupaia rejoindered, well, if it had not, “you have lost your way, and can never find Britain again.”

That Random House New Zealand used the pictorial material so lavishly and well had the effect of substantiating as well as illustrating the story I told and the deductions I had made, which was very satisfying. Unfortunately, for some technical reason, these images are not reproduced in the electronic book, and I do wonder if the text is as convincing without them.

Thank you, Joan, and congratulations again for your well-deserved success.

Thank you, Sarah, for the chance to be interviewed on your blog, and particular for your most thought-provoking and revealing questions.


‘Survivors of the Shoah’ oral history interviews

Before I started my own interviews with Clare, I watched the video interview she did in December 1997 with Jason Walker for the project ‘Survivors of the Shoah’ by the Visual History Foundation, the organisation Steven Spielberg set up in 1994, now called the USC Shoah Foundation. I watched the interview again from time to time in the process of writing The Violinistand finally I watched it the night before the book went to print. It still moved me. You can hear Clare online at,-oil-business-in-1920s

J. M. Sherrard Award

Wellington author, Roberta McIntyre, author of The Canoes of Kupe:  A History of Martinborough District (Victoria University Press, 2002) and Whose High Country: A history of the South Island high country of New Zealand (Penguin 2008), learnt last week that her earlier book had won the J. M. Sherrard Award in New Zealand and Local History. Her first thought was that she was the subject of a joke:  whoever got an award ten years after publication? The Canterbury Historical Association letterhead looked genuine, but she made further checks. Sure enough it was real and three days later a certificate arrived. Anticipating her cheque in the mail, Roberta went shopping!

The J.M. Sherrard Award, the only national award for local and regional history in New Zealand, has been almost a decade in abeyance. Valued at $1,000 (divided among recipients when they are more than one), Roberta shared her happy surprise windfall with Colin Amodeo, who with Ron Chapman wrote Forgotten Forty-Niners: Being an account of the men and women who paved the way in 1849 for the Canterbury Pilgrims in 1850 (Christchurch, Caxton Press, 2003) and Deborah Dunsford for Doing it themselves: The Story of Kumeu, Huapai and Taupaki (Auckland, Kumeu District History Project, 2002). Congratulations to all.


International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2012

‘Justice and Accountability after the Holocaust’ was the New Zealand theme of this year’s United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked every year on 27 January. For me personally, looking back on the occasion in Wellington last year that launched The Violinist and thinking about my present research into the life of civil rights activist Shirley Smith, the focus on justice and accountability was especially relevant.

In keeping with the international theme, ‘Keeping the Memory Alive’ with its focus on children in the Holocaust, was a moving display of posters by 16 young designers, winners of an international competition to express personal responses to the holocaust. Vera Egermayer, who was herslef a child survivor of the holocaust, brought this work from Yad Vashem to Wellington. To see these posters and their artists’ statements, go to the Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies.

It was the keynote address by Peter McKenzie QC that most powerfully teased out the theme of justice and accountability. Identifying the beginning of the holocaust as being ‘when the majority within a society acquiesced in acts of discrimination against minorities that were unpopular and vulnerable’, he outlined the holocaust’s legacy and New Zealand’s part in the international arena regarding that legacy. Here below is his full text:



In the final stages of the second world war the allied armies sweeping through eastern Germany and Europe came across sites of such horror and carnage  that they found it hard to believe that even the Nazi regime in its worst excesses could have been responsible.   Near the town of  Gotha they found a death camp where thousands of Jewish prisoners were starved to death and this was reported to General Eisenhower the Allied Supreme Commander.  The bodies of naked emaciated men were piled in the rooms and the stench was overpowering. General Patton  would not enter fearing he would be physically sick.  Eisenhower, however strode in and forced himself to inspect every nook and cranny. He called for photographers  and ordered that Germans from the neighbouring villages be  brought in and required to bury the dead.  In this way they would have to confront the reality of what the Nazi regime had been doing.  He stated:

I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations as merely “propaganda”.

Eisenhower grasped that it is important that our world should not be allowed to forget that however advanced we believe our civilisation to be there is in the heart of each one of us a capacity for evil that if it be left unchecked can lead to Auschwitz.  As one jurist has stated “ we remember things too terrible to be believed but not too terrible to have happened”.

That is why we remember that this month is the 70th anniversary of   the meeting at which Hitler, Heydrich, Eichmann  and others conceived the final solution and carried their hatred of the Jewish people, and others they decreed unfit to live, to the point of  determining their extermination. As the generation of those that survived that experience moves on, it becomes even more important to keep their memory alive.

It was in the same spirit that as victory against the Nazis was assured the allied powers began the task of developing institutions and a legal structure that would hold responsible those who had committed the atrocities that the war had revealed.  One of the first actions taken after the war was the setting up at Nuremberg of  a Tribunal to deal with war crimes.  The reason for taking this step was aptly put by Justice Robert Jackson, the Chief American prosecutor  at the Nuremberg trials who stated:

Civilisation would not survive if the vicious crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators went unpunished.  We must make all men accountable by law.

Leading members of Hitler’s regime were indicted, several were sentenced to death eg Goring and Ribbentrop, some like Rudolph Hess to life imprisonment, or lesser terms such as Albert Speer. Some were acquitted.  The trials were not just a sham process.  There was a real attempt to get at the facts and hold people accountable.

Sobering to me as a lawyer is the fact that 16 senior legal figures in the regime were tried on charges directed to their having  committed war crimes through the abuse of the judicial and penal process, resulting in mass murder, torture, and plunder of private property. Ten were convicted.

In the final stages of the war the United Nations was established. Its Charter was born out of the events that the world had just experienced.  Under the charter every member state is required to affirm

“faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…”

Every member state even countries with little respect for human rights, such as Sudan or Yemen, must subscribe to this statement in the charter.  Those who had gone through the second world war and its horrors wanted to make sure that the family of states collectively acknowledged the existence of  basic human rights.

At the same time as the United Nations was formed states established the International Court of Justice as a permanent tribunal for determining disputes between states. This court, however, deals only with disputes between states and does not deal with individuals.  One distinguished New Zealander sits as a judge on this court, Sir Kenneth Keith.

Another outcome of the justice concerns arising from the Holocaust was that an international conference of jurists and others was convened to work on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this was adopted in 1948 to serve as a statement of  the minimum internationally accepted  standards in relation to human rights.  The Universal Declaration springs from the Judaeo-Christian affirmation that every human being bears the image of God, no matter of what race, creed, age or physical or mental capacity.  Although the human rights movement pre-dates the second world war, it was the holocaust that gave impetus to the Universal Declaration. It was born out of the deep sense of shock which the holocaust gave to the international community.  The Declaration has influenced all statements of human rights since that time, including the New Zealand Bill of Rights.

It is a sad commentary on human affairs that it took 50 years before the lessons that should have been learned  at Nuremberg were finally given permanent effect in the establishment of an International Criminal Court. It was not until the world was shaken by the appalling events in Rwanda in 1994 that the international conscience was belatedly stirred to take steps to establish a court to carry on the work that had begun at Nuremberg.  The International Criminal Court  was set up in 1998 to prosecute  and adjudicate on genocide and international crimes against humanity The Court began sitting in 2002.  New Zealand took an active part in the creation of the court and enacted legislation, the International Crimes and Criminal Court Act 2000 in order that New Zealand  recognize international crimes against humanity and empower our Attorney General to authorize the bringing of cases before the court.

While 119 countries have accepted the jurisdiction of this court 75 countries have not including a number of significant states.  There is still work to be done.

The ICC can only deal with cases that concern events after 2002.  It has therefore been necessary for the Security Council to establish special International Criminal Tribunals to prosecute crimes arising from the Rwanda genocide and from the events in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and also the killing in 2005 of the then Prime Minister of Lebanon  and 22 others.  Sir David Baragwanath, a distinguished New Zealand Judge is a member of the latter tribunal.   Special Tribunals have also been set up by the Cambodian and Sierra Leone governments under international auspices to try those involved in the atrocities in those countries.  Dame Sylvia  Cartwright, a former Governor- General of New Zealand  is a member of the Cambodian Tribunal.  New Zealand has again enacted legislation, the International War Crimes Tribunal Act 1995  to  provide support to these tribunals.

New Zealand has, therefore, fully played its part in the international arena in following through on this legacy from the Holocaust.   But the lessons the Holocaust teaches us amount to more than being a good international citizen. The Holocaust tells us that the events that took place in Germany, one of Europe’s most advanced and sophisticated countries, put every society on guard.   As we remember the holocaust there are some powerful pointers for our own society from that awful experience.

  1. a) The holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers. It began when the majority within a society acquiesced in acts of discrimination against minorities that were unpopular and vulnerable.
  1. b) The poison so released continued when that discrimination was institutionalized, and the state began to sanction hate against that minority and suppressed opposing views.
  1. c) The poison spread when those with responsibility in society closed their eyes to what was happening. This is particularly the case with professionals to whom society looks for truth and integrity. As Nuremberg shows us judges, lawyers, doctors and scientists became to a greater or lesser degree accomplices in a regime that treated minority groups as objects and was prepared to use brutality and torture and, in the end, extermination to achieve its aims.

However, as the experience in Germany and, more recently South Africa, shows us, there is healing for a society that has failed, where it acknowledges the truth and frankly faces the past with all its horror, and seeks to come to terms with it. This involves holding accountable those who were responsible. In that way the poison of the past is drawn from the system and the society can move forward.

An example in the news today was the frank confession by Ireland’s Justice Minister that Ireland’s Government at the time of the second world war had lost its moral compass in the way it treated the Jewish people and supported Hitler.  It is significant that it was in remembering the Holocaust that this confession was made.

That is why the holocaust  must not be allowed to fade from

our collective memory. It serves as a moral compass to every generation so that never again may any state or people be sucked into a quicksand of evil.

Peter McKenzie QC

Frankfurt Book Fair

Great to hear such excitement from publisher Fergus Barrowman, reporting from the Frankfurt Book Fair. He’s there because New Zealand has been named the fair’s guest of honour for 2012 and, from the sound of his voice, he’s been talking a lot. ‘This is the time to strike,this is our opportunity,’ he says. While he’s making deals for Victoria University Press, he’s also learning about German publishing and responding to the interest now in New Zealand literature generally. And he has good news about digital publishing too. Hear more on ‘Nights’ on Radio New Zealand:

Radio New Zealand : National : Programmes : Nights : Frankfurt …






Going West

Congratulations to the organisers of the Going West Books and Writers Festival 2011 at Titirangi for an enjoyable stimulating weekend. I was honoured to be among the wide range of speakers, all of whom were New Zealand writers. Talking about The Violinist, I was fortunate to be paired with Helen Schamroth.

Helen, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, noted that Holocaust memoirs are often written by survivors or relatives of survivors. In the course of writing The Violinist, people assumed Clare was my mother. It surprises people that not only are we not related, but I am not even Jewish. How then did I come to write such a book? As I am often asked this question I will answer it here.

The initiative came originally from Penguin. I was asked if I was interested and I said yes, but the the commission was not secured. Giving the reason that Clare’s story ‘wasn’t big enough’, Penguin withdrew.

Why then did I continue? I thought the story was too big to drop. It wasn’t just about Clare, or about Jews and the Holocaust. It was about humanity. It was about people, like ourselves, in extreme situations and in everyday life. It was about music, love and laughter. I hoped it would touch others as it touched me. Already deeply engaged in my research, I found the questions it threw up challenging. I wanted to meet that challenge.

At this point, Clare asked me, ‘How do books get written?’ I had her trust, her memories, records and commitment to continue the journey ahead, but there was never any question of her commissioning the project. ‘Step by step’, I told her. The first step was to continue recording Clare’s life, which I did over the next six months. This was harrowing, but also a joyful process. Look at the photos of Clare — she is always laughing. Working with her was engrossing, and I found the whole task challenging in the best way.

I cannot equate the work with the cost – to some extent it was a labour of love – but I write for a living and to continue to the next stage I needed funding. After many unsuccessful applications, I received private seeding funding, then the Todd Writers’ Bursary followed by a Claude McCarthy Fellowship. For two years I had the use of an office at the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University, and The Stout Trust and Clare herself made contributions towards my research overseas.

One step led to another … further research and many drafts. To write a book about the Holocaust in the twenty-first century is a risky enterprise as I had discovered at the beginning. With so much published on the Holocaust, the benchmark is high. The advantage is that I had access to the work of great Holocaust scholars, and increasingly contemporary primary material became available to me, much of it online.

The last step, the publishing process saw Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press and my editor Ginny Sullivan add their quality as they spurred me to the end.