Here you will find occasional posts and updates about my work as a writer and oral historian, and related subjects. Still fresh and ongoing are the many public and private responses to Shirley Smith: An Examined Life. Over the past months since the book’s publication I’ve enjoyed talking to groups and hearing from many readers. My thanks to those who have written. It’s gratifying to know the book is reaching a wide diverse readership and I value your personal stories and insights.
One of the buttons collected for the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial project was given by Clare Galambos Winter for her brother, Mihály, whom she called Mishu. Aged fourteen, Mihály was murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 7 July 1944. Clare’s death this week at the age of 90 leads to reflection about this other life unlived, extinguished in its flush of youth.
How did Clare, the survivor, live with this knowledge? Initially with total disbelief. In fact she never completely accepted Mihály’s death, and it didn’t help her to wonder if he might still be alive somewhere, perhaps in the Soviet Union. So there was no closure. She asked me when I returned from my research trip to Europe in 2008, had I found any records of him and her mother? No, by July 1944 the German’s meticulous record-keeping system had broken down, so great were the numbers arriving daily at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those selected for potential slave labour were sent in one direction, the rest in another that led to the gas chamber that day. They included children under sixteen. Mihály at fourteen was too young to live.
When she thought of Mihály, Clare would simply say ‘How could they?’ to which there was no answer. Having suppressed her memories for so long, she couldn’t remember her brother clearly, which added to her loss. What did they do together? What did they talk about? She tried to recall him in their last weeks together in the ghetto, where they lived in such close confinement, or on the terrible train journey to Auschwitz, but these memories had been buried too deep to surface at will. She recalled a bright athletic boy with an enquiring mind, a fascination for the unknown and a sense of humour. He played the accordion, which she said suited his personality. She kept his photo by her bed until she died.
15 February 2014
Written for the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial website, honouring a promise Vera Egermayer made to Clare shortly before Clare died.
The last time I saw Clare, ten days before she died, I wished for her the quick and gentle release she wanted, for living was becoming too hard. If the end came more quickly than I expected, it was as she wished.
Over the last weeks she had enjoyed public and private tributes. In a special ceremony, Victoria University of Wellington gave her the honour of making her a Hunter Fellow in December, the Jewish community had held a special occasion for her, and she shared with friends a heart-warming celebration of her life on her 90th birthday, held in style at her home.
As no Jewish venue was big enough to hold the numbers expected to attend her funeral yesterday, it was held at Old St Paul’s. People from her many walks of life, including former colleagues from the NZSO, came to farewell her in a service led by Rabbi Adi Cohen of the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation. I was honoured to be asked to speak. Here below is my tribute.
Tribute to Clare at her funeral at Old St Paul’s, Thursday 13 February 2014
Clare had the gift of making people feel special to her – many of you will know this – and I certainly felt that my relationship with Clare was very special, not only as her biographer but as a friend.
I am going to talk about Clare’s experiences of the Holocaust, and as a Holocaust survivor.
Klári Galambos and her family were victims of antisemitism before the German occupation of Hungary, but their lives were relatively safe. Aged 20, in her final year of her violin studies in Budapest, Klári had all the normal hopes and dreams of a young woman, and also she had ambitions for her future career as a violinist. Everything changed from 19 March 1944, when the German tanks entered Budapest.
Over the following months she would lose her family, her home, possessions, most painfully, her violin; also any sense of dignity, self-worth, individuality, all basic freedoms and human rights. She said, ‘We lost the value of everything and became non-persons. We were alimentary tracks. The only thing we could think of was what we were going to eat and how to eliminate it.’ Then followed a slow recovery to feeling human again, and it’s a measure of her strength of character that Clare eventually embraced life, experienced love and joy, and gratitude for the new life she found in New Zealand.
My work with Clare started with recovering memories of her family, and herself as a girl and a young woman. It could have been painful, I’m sure it was, but it was also a release to talking about her childhood, especially her mother. She hadn’t allowed herself to think about her mother for so long. After one of our sessions she dreamt of her mother for the first time, and awoke feeling comforted.
I was concerned about recovering memories that were better left dormant. It’s a further measure of Clare’s character and courage that that she told me I could ask her anything.
Her initiation to what she referred to as ‘the horrors’ came soon after the German occupation when she was thrown into a jail in Budapest for three days. That she and others should be herded and locked up, simply because they were Jews, treated like animals with standing room only and no sanitation, expecting to be shot, was all the more shocking to her because at that stage she still had all her sensitivities.
She was released and managed to get home to her family in Szombathely On 14 May the Jews of Szombathely were thrown out of their homes and locked in the ghetto. Clare’s recollection of this was foggy, except for a flash of memory of the family being evicted from their home. In a passing glimpse into her parents’ bedroom, she saw the rough hand of a thug rummaging among her mother’s linen in her wardrobe. He pulled out Klári’s precious toy, a donkey with its stuffing coming out. She had loved that donkey, and until that moment she hadn’t known her mother had kept it. This poignant memory, which says so much, foreshadows the brutality that was to come.
The Jews had to hand in all valuable possessions, but Klári had permission to keep her violin. Then, after nearly two months in the ghetto, when they were boarding the cattle trucks to Auschwitz, willingly because they thought they were leaving a hellhole for a better place in Germany, one of the guards took her violin from her, saying ‘You won’t need this where you’re going.’ It was like losing her right arm, and it hurt her more than anything, even more than saying goodbye to her father, Andor Galambos, when he was sent to a labour camp, because she didn’t know she’d never see him again. He died in Bergen-Belsen.
The next parting was at the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Klári and her aunt Rózsi were separated from her brother Mihály and her mother Zsuzsanna. By this time, after the horrifying journey, Klári thought only of her hunger and thirst. When she later asked about where her mother and brother were, she was told they were burned in the gas chamber. Of course she didn’t believe this. Mihály was aged 14, Zsuzsanna 45.
Rózsi then became her whole family. Their captivity in Auschwitz-Birkenau was relatively short, but the conditions of the part of the camp where they were interred, Birkenau III, called ‘Mexico’, were such that few survived. Klári knew that to survive, they had to get out, and the only way was to be selected for slave labour in Germany. On the third selection they were successful and sent to a munitions factory at Allendorf.
After Auschwitz, Allendorf was like paradise, and Klári recovered some of her humanity, until winter came, the food ran out and all the prisoners suffered from toxic poisoning from handling chemicals and breathing poisonous fumes. But the war was ending and the Americans arrived in time for Klári. Many of you will have heard her describe her last days before liberation and her emotional realisation that she was free.
She then had to come to terms with what she had lost, where she could live and how. She and Rózsi returned to Hungary to find none of their immediate family had survived. When the opportunity to emigrate to New Zealand arose, they grabbed it and came in 1949. In New Zealand Clare, as she now called herself, wasn’t confronted by the past, and she had Rózsi. She determined to build a new life, which she did through music. Recalling her first rehearsal with the National Orchestra, she said,
‘I opened the music and it was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and it was somehow as if I were in a dark room and suddenly the window was opened and there was brilliant sunshine outside. … I thought, Oh yes, I’m home. I’m home.’
Through music she could escape her past, or she could express her sorrows without having to name or define them. All that she had experienced remained part of her, somewhere deep inside.
Clare’s need for security and her hunger for love and for family were also met in New Zealand, through her marriages to cellist Karl Kallhagen and Dr Otto Winter, also through Carol McKenzie and her family, her other colleagues in the NZSO, and her circles of friends that widened in her retirement. To the end she was cared for and cherished by devoted friends, and that, she said, made life worth living.
We have lost our friend, but she touched us, opened our eyes and enriched our lives in ways that we will never forget.
Clare died peacefully yesterday morning at the Mary Potter Hospice. I mourn her parting and my thoughts go out to those who lovingly cared for her on a daily basis. Her funeral is to be tomorrow morning at ten o’clock at Old St Paul’s. I will update this post in the days ahead.
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.
News from Vera Egermayer, former Honorary Consul of New Zealand to the Czech Republic, child survivor of Terezin, now leading project to build Children’s Holocaust Memorial in New Zealand – made of 1.5 million buttons each representing the life of one Jewish child lost in the Holocaust.
‘I have just had confirmation from his daughter that Sir Nicholas Winton will be honoured to be a patron of the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial. Having the support of Nicky Winton who has made such an outstanding contribution to humanity strengthens our resolve to get the Memorial built.’
Sir Nicholas’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize again this year received world-wide media coverage and was broadcast repeatedly on radio New Zealand.
Nicholas Winton will celebrate his 104th birthday on 19 May at his home in Maidenhead, England. His patronage of the New Zealand Children’s Holocaust Memorial will be part of the celebrations. Vera Egermayer has accepted the family’s invitation to attend.
from Vera Egermayer
New Zealand Children Holocaust Memorial
The project is under the auspices of The Holocaust Centre of |New Zealand (www.holocaustcentre.org.nz)
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.
The New Zealand Holocaust Centre in Wellington took as its theme for this year’s United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day, New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the Children of the Holocaust. It is never easy to speak or write about the events of the Holocaust, but the strength of the message ‘Never Again’ took on new force in light of this project initiated by children, for children. One of the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust was Mihály, younger brother of Clare Galambos Winter. Clare, now in her 90th year, attended the Remembrance Day in Wellington. So too did Vera Egermayer, child survivor of Terezin concentration camp. (See my previous posts, New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the Children of the Holocaust and Vera’s Story.) My thanks to Vera for allowing me to publish her address here:
27 January 2013
Last December, 20 young children were shot dead in a school in the United States. The world reacted with dismay-horror-outrage-shock-disgust – it was literally sickening. There are no stronger words, in any language, for such diabolical events. So how can we possibly encompass the murder of one and a half million children? It is beyond words and beyond the scope of our emotions – we are left speechless and numb. Yet no human being can afford to forget this indelible stain on our very humanity.
There are many ways of remembering. A gathering like this is one – books have been written – artworks created – films produced – museums and Centres such the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand have been set up.
We can also remember through memorials.
A tree planted in Jerusalem – a cobble stone with a name set in the pavement in front of a house – a plaque in a cemetery where there is no grave – these are all memorials that I have put up for my own perished family in Prague. The sites of suffering such as Terezin, the camp where I was interned as a four-year-old child, have become memorials in themselves, as has Auschwitz .
I have recently visited Auschwitz. As I stood frozen on the selection ramp I remembered members of our Community in Wellington who had stood there almost 70 years before me – Hanka Pressburg – Sofia Galler – Clare Winter. And I thought about all the frightened and bewildered children who were dispatched to instant death from that very ramp. And I thought how close I had come to being one of them.
The Nazis initially had no specific mission to exterminate children – they did not think that children mattered – children were a just nuisance to them when they appeared in the transports – they cried-they could not follow orders – they could not work – they created panic when you tried to separate them from their parents. So how can you get grown men and women – often parents themselves – to kill children? After all, children are innocent – they cannot be accused of all the vices with which anti-Semitism habitually stigmatises Jews. As the persecution progressed, the Nazi propaganda machine developed a perverse narrative. The story went as follows: if you let Jewish children live, one day they will wish to avenge their murdered families and will kill YOUR children in generations to come. So by killing Jewish children you are actually saving your own.
That is why there was a frenzy of child-killing towards the end of the war. Jewish orphanages became a target for transports – they were meant to be safe havens but they turned into reservoirs from which children could be conveniently plucked. This is a reminder of my own deportation to Terezin from a children’s home in Prague in 1945. Fortunately the war ended – I survived and we were able to emigrate to New Zealand as a family afterwards. I will not be symbolised in New Zealand’s memorial to the 1.5 million and that is one of the reasons why I am committed to its completion – to getting it built.
I have been spreading the word about the memorial on behalf of the HCNZ in a number of countries such as France, Poland, the Czech Republic, England and Norway and we have received endorsement from many prestigious individuals and institutions.
The Holocaust is still with us today – it affects all humanity across time and space and it addresses all generations. That is why the children of a small school in New Zealand were able to identify with children, like themselves, whose lives were cut off before they could be lived – decades previously in distant lands. And that is why they decided go beyond sentiment and take action.
The children who perished will be brought out of the shadow of history through New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the Children of the Holocaust and their lives will be validated. As a child who was spared, and as a New Zealander, I see this as a personal victory.
Vera Egermayer has travelled around Europe in the last months, spreading the word about New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the Children of the Holocaust, a project initiated by Moriah College in Wellington and now being brought to fruition by the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand (HCNZ).
Following her visit to the Holocaust Centre of Oslo and to a former Jewish orphanage in Prague (now a Lauder School), Vera travelled to Paris to meet Serge Klarsfeld, renowned Holocaust historian and Nazi hunter.
11,400 Jewish children were deported from France between 27 March 1942 and 22 August 1944. France’s memorial to these children is not made of buttons like New Zealand’s but of paper- many layers of paper. The first layer was cemented with the publication in 1994 of the Memorial to the Jewish Children Deported from France showing the names, dates of birth, ages and, for the first time, painstakingly retrieved, the last known addresses and photos of 1533 of these children. The photos and documentation bought the children out of the shadows of history and provided incontrovertible proof of their existence and of their murder. This publication was the work of one man, Serge Klarsfeld assisted by the Association of Sons and Daughters of the Jews Deported from France (FFDJF) which he founded. Over the last two decades Serge Klarsfeld has continued to add more layers to the memorial with a series of supplements to the original publication. The 10th supplement will bring the total number of photos published and of lives retrieved to 4200. The photos continue to trickle in from the four corners of the world – often removed from the albums of surviving family, friends, former neighbours, school mates or sourced from offices, churches and other institutions.
I discovered another layer of this memorial to Jewish Children deported from France, in the heart of the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris. It is a gallery of photos drawn from the publications. Over 3000 black and white photos – set in 16 luminous, back-lit, wordless panels which line the walls from ceiling to floor. Each photo, each face, represents a life that was stolen before it could be lived. These faces will never leave you once you have seen them. They look out with haunting innocence unaware of the horror that lies ahead. They are all children – some mere babies, others in their teens, almost grown up. Children on their own or in a family group with their brothers and sisters, the youngest sibling standing on a chair, a small face in the back row of a class photo, a little boy in a hand knitted outfit standing beside his rocking horse, a 6 year old girl in her ballet dress with a yellow star stitched on the left breast and a bow in her hair, a passing snapshot taken in the street, boys caught in movement showing off, acting the clown, boys carefully groomed posing for a birthday portrait, small children holding their mother’s hand or sitting on their father’s knee, some elegantly dressed, others in modest attire. A mammoth task of painstaking documentation over almost two decades provides this incontestable testimony against holocaust denial and leaves an indelible memory. It is hard to pass by –you keep wanting to go back and have another look into the eyes of a particular child wondering what he felt as he was trundled around Europe like a piece of debris and then crushed and thrown away. This is was the fate of the 44 children savagely snatched away by a Nazi gang from a communal home in the remote village of Izieu in France where their parents had placed them for safe-keeping. This is what happened to most of the children plucked from Jewish institutions in the Paris area a mere month before the liberation of Paris, the last transport from Drancy to Auschwitz being composed exclusively of children.
Children being rounded up from Jewish institutions are a painful reminder of my own deportation to Terezin from a children’s home in Prague on 16 March 1945, six week before the end of the war. Fortunately, I survived and will not be symbolised in New Zealand’s memorial to the 1.5 million – and fortunately neither will the 60,000 Jewish children (85 per cent of the total) whom the French succeeded in saving.
There are no faces or dates for the 1.5 million children symbolized in New Zealand’ s button memorial. Holocaust memorials take many forms but, whether of paper or of buttons, whether conceived by adults or children, they are all an expression of deep respect for the suffering of fellow human beings, and our abiding responsibility not to forget them.
And what does M Klarsfeld think of our button memorial in New Zealand?
I met Serge Klarsfeld last month in his office in rue La Boetie in Paris just off the Champs-Élysées. When I described the memorial and told him how it had come about, he offered some suggestions aimed at putting more visual and documentary narrative into the memorial design as it is currently conceived. And then he stood up, leaned across his desk, took a pair of scissors from the draw, cut a button from the sleeve of the suit he was wearing and handed it to me. That button will be part of New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the children of the Holocaust. It is the only button from France and it stands for the 74,000 French Jewish children who perished in the Shoah. It is an affirmation that every European country has a stake in New Zealand’s Button Memorial to the Children of the Holocaust.
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.
Hot news in July 2012:
- A useful resource about New Zealand film and television and theatre is Screentalk, New Zealand On Screen. The latest interview is Ian Pryor interviewing iconic actor Ray Henwood. Talking about his life and career, Ray pays tribute to Nola Millar ‘First Lady of New Zealand Theatre’.
- The New Zealand Theatre Archive has been awarded Lotteries funding to continue their interviews of people who shaped our modern professional theatre.
- I was saddened by George Webby’s passing last month. I first interviewed George in 1995 for the Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School Oral History Project, and later again for my biography of Nola Millar who was his friend and mentor. George took over the New Zealand Drama School from Nola on her death in 1974 and directed it for 16 years. The same qualities that make him a successful educator and theatre director – generosity, wisdom and much more (not least a wicked sense of humour) shine through his accounts of his life both in interview and in his memoir, Just Who Does He Think He Is? (Steele Roberts 2006). We joked that we were joined at the spine – our books were reviewed together, they sit together on my bookshelf as they did on his. He is warmly remembered. Ralph McAlister and Danny Mulheron pay tribute to George on Radio New Zealand Upbeat.