Kia ora! Welcome to my website

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.

Vera’s Story

In my post about International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2012 I referred to the opening in Parliament of the children’s poster exhibition inspired by the theme ‘Keeping the Memory Alive’.  The posters can be seen at Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies. Closing the exhibition on Friday 16 March, my friend Vera Egermayer, who organised the exhibition, gave personal meaning to the art works, and to the day itself, in the context of her own story:

I was startled to realize that today is the 16th of March. On that very date 67 years ago – the 16 of March 1945 – I was transported to the concentration camp Terezin.  Then, I was one of the youngest victims of Nazi persecution; now, I am one of the last witnesses of the Holocaust. A new identity born from fragments of memory strung into narrative.

When I visited Yad Vashem and discovered these posters I felt an instant emotional connection and a resurgence of memory. Yes, they are works of art – beautifully designed-original-arresting. Yet their immediate appeal to me personally was more emotional than aesthetic. They brought my own experience back to me in images. An experience that I have been struggling to shape and put into words for many years  (both for myself and for others) had been translated into a visual dimension – and this by young artists of today who have managed to capture the essence of something that they did not live through themselves. That is the power of the artistic imagination. It is perhaps paradoxical that I will now have to resort to words, which are my way of telling, to talk about some of my memories which have been triggered by these posters.

In this poster we see a child-a little girl – probably my age at the time- standing at the end of a railway track. She is standing there alone. No one is holding her hand. She is carrying a large suitcase and wearing lace-up shoes.  Separated from both my parents, I was transported to Terezin on 16 March 1945 in transport AE9 – the last train carrying  Jews from Prague to Terezin. The last round-up. By that time Auschwitz had already been liberated – it was clear that the war would soon be over, yet the infernal machine could not be stopped, it had its own blind momentum, and Jewish children were still being sent towards death. I don’t recall what was in my suitcase or who packed it for me but when I look at this little girl’s shoes I remember how I had to struggle to do up my shoe laces.

The Nazis murdered one and a half million children. Of the fifteen thousand who went from Terezin to death camps, only one hundred survived.

In another of the posters we see a child being thrown in the air by her father – it is a game – the child is joyful, laughing expecting to be caught, but her father will not be able to catch her because his own legs have disappeared in smoke. I can now see why my mother and father were not able to do what parents are supposed to do – look after their children, keep them safe from fear. The ground had been cut from under their feet too. They were disempowered and living in fear and degradation. My father, who was not Jewish, suddenly disappeared one day. I kept asking where he was and no one could tell me. . He was sent to a forced labour camp for refusing to divorce my Jewish mother. Divorce would have spared him persecution but removed from us the relative protection a mixed marriage provided. His resistance to Nazi pressure delayed our transportation and saved our lives. When my mother was called up for a transport, she asked my non-Jewish relatives to take me in. I now understand why they said “no”.  The ground had been cut from under their feet too – they were simply terrified and who can blame them for not putting their own families in danger.

Trust in the adult world shattered in childhood is not easily restored, even in a lifetime. That, too, is the legacy of the Holocaust and those are the memories that this poster brings back to me.

I look at the poster with the hopscotch and the Jewish star and it makes me remember how I watched other children play and I was not allowed to join them because playgrounds were forbidden to Jewish children. I was too young to be branded with a star but my mother had to have one. Once, she managed to persuade a playground attendant to let me in to play and I can still see her standing on the other side of the wire fence, looking in, with her yellow star sown on her winter coat. Little by little, the Nazis passed wide-ranging discriminatory laws designed to make Jews outcasts- pariahs in countries where they believed they were citizens. I remember how our neighbours in Prague looked the other way when my mother passed by with me at her side.

The poster with the shirts neatly stacked up with the striped and numbered one on the bottom – the object kept – strikes a cord. I had no toys to take with me to Terezin but my mother made me one by folding a handkerchief into a mouse – with big ears and a long tail. I still have that pink mouse. It is my equivalent of the shirt at the bottom of the stack in the poster, a remnant which brings back memories of a lost childhood.

There will always be such a remnant. Nothing ever disappears completely – there will always be a fragment, a thread left somewhere. Even if all the letters in a text are deleted, the punctuation marks will remain, as one of the posters displayed here today reminds us. Even if a life is extinguished, someone may want to pick up a person’s story or his photo and keep his memory alive.

Acts of kindness during hard times are never forgotten either. A Dutch couple who emigrated to New Zealand often spoke to their family about a little Jewish girl they had sheltered during the war. Sixty-five years later they found her living in Brazil. We have just learned that Yad Vashem, which provided these posters, has posthumously awarded the rescuers the title of Righteous and the ceremony will soon be conducted in Wellington by Ambassador Shemi Tzur who we have here with us today.

The past is not the past. The past does not go away. Our personal memories are etched inside us and when released, they add to the collective memory of things we must never forget as human beings. I believe that this exhibition has succeeded in its mission of Keeping the Memory alive.

In conclusion let me thank Michelle Janse and her assistant Casimar Larkin for hanging these works so effectively in this space and for attaching the accompanying texts to help our understanding. Finally sincere thanks once again to Chris Finlayson for hosting this exhibition in Parliament and for his ongoing support.

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.

 

Music Joke

I hesitate to share this joke as it requires knowledge of music, but many people will enjoy it:

C, E-flat, and G go into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, but we don’t serve minors.” So E-flat leaves, and C and G have an open fifth between them.

After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished, and G is out flat. F comes in and tries to augment the situation, but is not sharp enough. D comes in and heads for the bathroom, saying, “Excuse me; I’ll just be a second.” Then A comes in, but the bartender is not convinced that this relative of C is not a minor. Then the bartender notices B-flat hiding at the end of the bar and says, “Get out! You’re the seventh minor I’ve found in this bar tonight.”

E-flat comes back the next night in a three-piece suit with nicely shined shoes. The bartender says, “You’re looking sharp tonight. Come on in, this could be a major development.” Sure enough, E-flat soon takes off his suit and everything else, and is au natural. Eventually C sobers up and realizes in horror that he’s under a rest.

C is brought to trial, found guilty of contributing to the diminution of a minor, and is sentenced to 10 years of D.S. without Coda at an upscale correctional facility.

 

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:

 

JUSTICE and ACCOUNTABILITY AFTER THE HOLOCAUST

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

Brahmissimo!

Bravo New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, soloists and conductor Pietari Inkenen for their inspired four-day festival of Brahms in Wellington last week. I want to write about this here for several reasons.

First, The Violinist tells the story of the NZSO since its pioneering days when the courage and spirit of players such as Clare Galambos laid the foundation for the superb orchestra we hear today.

Secondly, I simply love Brahms. I fell in love with his Violin Concerto as a girl, I sang his German Requiem many times in my years with the Orpheus Choir of Wellington (the last time was in 2008 on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht ) and, more recently, my work on Crisis was relieved by pounding around the hills listening to his symphonies on my i-Pod. The Brahms experience last week left me thirsty for more.

Thirdly, to show how strangely interwoven the strands of writing and music can be, concert pianist Diedre Irons, soloist for last week’s Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, helped proofread The Violinist. It’s a measure of friendship, but also her interest, that she devoted her hard-earned holiday between Christmas and New Year to such a task and The Violinist benefited from the attention of her musical intelligence and sensitivities.

The book’s main text is over 180,000 words – an average length. I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands notes the soloist plays in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2 but it’s the biggest work in the piano repertoire. Diedre’s rendition last Wednesday night was built on hundreds of hours to learn it, all the Brahms she has played previously, and indeed, a lifetime’s work in music since her debut with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12, playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. It was wonderful to hear her colleagues, especially other pianists, pay tribute. Of the critics, Peter Mechen on Upbeat best reflected their views. Listen to Upbeat online – TuneIn

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.

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