I love the challenge and excitement of writing. In a brilliant but bleak image, no doubt influenced by the fact that he composed The Four Quartets during the Second World War, TS Eliot described the poet’s task as
….a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment
Are of these limitations, I think of writing as the endeavour to connect heart, mind and language. Sometimes words flow with impassioned intuition; sometimes one cannot coax a single sensible syllable put of one’s head.
This week brings the launch of my new book, My Dear Ones, One Family and the Final Solution. I am grateful to the community not only for allowing me time to write, but for seeing this as an essential part of what being a rabbi entails.
This book in particular is a form of tribute.
It is dedicated to my family, especially to my father. It was after his sisters died, and close of his own death, that my cousin and I opened the old wooden suitcase in which I found the letters through which the experiences of his family in the terrible years of 1937 – 1948 suddenly entered my life with a fullness, tenderness and horror of which I had heard only half articulated, semi-secret resonances before.
It is also dedicated to my close friend, the historian, public intellectual and holocaust scholar David Cesarani. ‘You have to write about those letters’, he would tell me, until I finally got down to work. He and Dawn would often join us for Shabbat lunch, where David would appear with a book, saying, ‘I think you ought to be reading this’. Or a parcel would arrive from Amazon. I miss our meals, walks and late night conversations. You left this world too early, our good friend.
The book is a tribute to those who perished. In the small Polish town of Ostrow Lubelski near Lublin there is not even a single marker to the thousands of Jews who were deported there, and thence to nearby Majdanek, or eastwards to Treblinka or Sobibor. David and I visited the town with Mossy, last July, seeking traces of my father’s aunt Trude. ‘It shows you can murder thousands without a trace’, David said. There are only a few broken gravestones in what was once the Jewish cemetery.
Perhaps even more importantly, My Dear Ones is a tribute to how those who lived, lived – whether or not they ultimately survived; a testament to their physical, emotional and spiritual courage, exemplified by the words of my great-grandmother, ‘Nothing of this can shake my faith’.
The book is not however, solely a family document. I have tried to show the development of Nazi policy in some detail, from the curtailing of the civic rights of Jews, through robbing them of their possessions, until the decisions were made to murder them systematically, sometime in 1941, in response to the slow progress of Operation Barbarossa and the setbacks inflicted by the Red Army. Only in this way is it possible to ponder how evil works towards its intention, and to consider the impossible circumstances with which those who could not escape its grip found themselves confronted. It’s a book Ken Livingstone ought to have on his reading list.
Finally, the book is dedicated to all refugees, especially the children, who may, if the world allows them a future, discover in forgotten texts and emails the terrible quandaries faced by their parents and grandparents.