The Anne Frank story continues

The first time a friend told me that Hitler had the right idea about the Jews I was six. Most of my classmates agreed, and quoted their parents in evidence – from which I conclude that anyone who suggests that they don’t understand how the Holocaust happened is either a fool or a liar. It was a team effort by popular demand. If the Germans had won the war, no one would have felt bad about it. But the Germans lost. How awkward. Anne was freezing, starving and dressed in rags. ‘They took my hair,’ she said. Then she disappeared It became necessary to convince non-Jewish Europeans that mass-murdering Jewish

Nazi on the run: The Disappearance of Josef Mengele, by Olivier Guez, reviewed

Who would have thought that someone would write a novel about Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor and infamous experimenter on live human bodies? Other characters in the French writer Olivier Guez’s story are also from the Nazi gang of debased criminals: Adolf Eichmann, Franz Stangl, the concentration camp commandant, and Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyons. This is a historical novel, and Guez has researched it well. He invests the structure of events with his imagination and has Mengele relate his experiences throughout his long avoidance of capture. There’s a vivid sense of reality about the crazed, unrepentant eugenist’s attempt at an acceptable fugitive way of life, and Guez holds

The unimaginable horrors confronting the Allies in 1945

No one had prepared the Allied soldiers, as they began their invasion of the Reich early in 1945, for what they would find. The discovery by the Soviets of the extermination camp of Majdanek in July 1944, and Auschwitz in January 1945, had not really registered, not least because they had been partly emptied and demolished by the retreating Germans. In any case, no one – not the International Committee of the Red Cross, nor the Vatican, nor the British and American governments – had been able, or wanted, to believe what they had been told. The scenes of slaughter and horror that awaited the British, Canadian and American troops

Should you take your children to visit Auschwitz?

Is the Auschwitz museum suitable for children? I pondered that question on a visit accompanied by a plane load of secondary school teachers, organised by The Holocaust Educational Trust. The Holocaust was first included on the UK’s National Curriculum in 1991 and the Trust charters aeroplanes for a professional development course for UK teachers, taking them to Auschwitz and back within a day. It aims to increase their understanding of the atrocity so that they can teach it more effectively.  That it’s possible to fly from London to Krakow in Poland and back with budget carriers and then take a cheap bus ride or short rental car drive to Auschwitz all within 24 hours makes the idea

Mind over matter | 23 August 2018

The return of Sue MacGregor’s long-running Radio 4 series The Reunion (produced by Eve Streeter) is a welcome reminder of just how good radio can be at taking us inside an experience while at the same time opening our minds to things we should know about. First there is MacGregor herself, such a vibrant, resonant voice, never too fast or too slow. Then there is her understanding of how to communicate. Each week she gives a short resumé of how and why the people she has gathered in the studio were first brought together, summarising complicated events in such a concise but clear way, giving all we need to know

Diary – 27 April 2017

When Trevor Phillips stood down as chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, he had served nine years. His period remains the longest of any UK equality commissioner. So when the confected outrage started over my Sun column about Everton footballer Ross Barkley I was not surprised to see a text pop up from Mr Phillips. I feared he would join the Liverpool bandwagon claiming I was a racist because I had compared the look in the eyes of Barkley with a gorilla. Actually I and every football fan I had ever met believed Barkley to be white. Unluckily for me, but luckily for my enemies in the north-west,

Filming the Final Solution

In July 1986, nine months before he died, I met the Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin. He was in shirtsleeves for the interview and the concentration camp tattoo 174517 was visible on his left forearm. (‘A typical German talent for classification,’ he tartly observed.) If This is a Man, Levi’s chronicle of survival, offers a warning to those who deliver facile judgments of condemnation: only those who have survived the Nazi camps have the right to forgive or condemn. Attempts to recreate the Final Solution on screen were mostly a ‘macabre indecency’, said Levi. The 1978 Hollywood television soap opera Holocaust, starring Meryl

The house that Alfred built

This is a book about boundaries — and relationships. At its heart is the eponymous house by the lake, which in 1927 was the first of many small wooden summer houses to be built in the village of Gross Glienicke. Both its situation, just outside Berlin in the lakeside area that would later abut Gatow airport, and its many occupants, from well-established German Jews to partying neo-Nazis, would expose the property to the more tidal waters of modern German history. But the house has not just provided a stage for human drama; arguably it has been integral to the action itself, helping to shape lives, just as it was itself

The brutal mask of anarchy

In September 1939 Britain went to war against Germany, ostensibly in defence of Poland. One big secret that the British government didn’t know at the time — and not until much later — was that while the Anglo-Polish alliance treaty was being negotiated during the previous months, the Poles had been actively training and arming terrorists to kill British troops in the Middle East. I don’t normally believe in convoluted conspiracy theories, but this one happens to be true. In the 1930s the anti-Semitic government in Warsaw wanted rid of 3.5 million Polish Jews. Initially they tried to pack them off to Madagascar. But then the Poles hit on the

Dizzying swirls of impasto

With a career of more than 60 years so far, Frank Auerbach is undoubtedly one of the big beasts of the British art world. His personal reticence, however, and the condensed, impacted idiom of his painting have contributed to his enigmatic, somewhat opaque reputation. Catherine Lampert, who has sat regularly and patiently for him since 1978, is uniquely qualified to throw light both on the man and his art, but the tactics she employs here are very different from those of Martin Gayford in Man with a Blue Scarf, his intimate, engrossing account of sitting for Lucian Freud. Matching Auerbach’s reticence with her own, she keeps herself largely out of

The lives of others | 14 May 2015

‘I call Zelma Cacik who may be living in London,’ says the announcer, in the clipped RP accent of the BBC in the 1940s. ‘I call her on behalf of her 16-year-old cousin…’ The voice betrays no emotion, no feeling, it’s so matter-of-fact, but the script spares no punches as it tells the cousin’s story in blunt statements of fact. She was born in Poland, separated from her family when she was 12 and made to work in a munitions factory while her parents, her sisters and brother were sent to Treblinka extermination camp. Twelve names in all are called out on the archive radio programme from 1946, one of

The horrors of concentration camps

Seventy years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, Roman Kent, who was 12 when he was sent there, wept as he implored the world not to allow anything like that to happen again. ‘How can one erase the sight of human skeletons – just skin and bones, but still alive?’ he said. ‘How can I ever forget the smell of burning flesh?’ Paul-Emile Seidman was working as a doctor in Bichat hospital in Paris when the survivors of the concentration camps began to arrive. In a few days our beds were occupied by skeletons…They all seem to be of the same age, whether they are twenty or sixty. Their heads

Process of elimination: the horrors of Ravensbrück revealed

Concentration camps in Nazi Germany were originally set up in 1933 to terrorise Hitler’s political enemies; as war drew near, their function expanded to gratify his obsession (and that of Reichsführer Himmler, as head of the SS which administered them) with ‘purifying the race’ by getting rid of gypsies, Jews, ‘asocials’ — prostitutes, criminals, vagabonds — as well as the mentally ill and handicapped. An all-female camp at Ravensbrück, set up in 1938, soon afforded the prison doctors a steady supply of women — the ‘rabbits’, as these prisoners became known — for medical experiments . After war broke out in September 1939, Resistance fighters from France and other occupied

Rod Liddle: my favourite books of the year

I’ve been away in Oslo. Not the world’s most exciting destination, I have to say. And the locals really do talk and smile exactly like Frances McDormand does in Fargo. Anyway, as there’s still a few days left before Christmas I thought I’d mention a couple of my favourite books of the year, just in case any of you are still looking for ideas. Engel’s England, by Matthew Engel, is a survey of the old English shire counties, including those which have ceased to exist (such as Middlesex) and a whole bunch which have little more than ceremonial function. Engel mourns their passing, as should all right-thinking people, much as

Némirovsky’s love letter to the France that spurned her and killed her

By 1940 Irène Némirovsky, who had arrived in France at the age of 16 as a refugee from Kiev, had become a prominent and successful novelist. In March of that year she celebrated what was to be her final publication day. She was Jewish, and for French publishers under Nazi occupation she had ceased to exist as an author when the German army entered Paris. But she continued to write. She moved with her children to a village in Burgundy, hoping to protect her family from the Vichy government’s manhunt, and she started work on her masterpiece, Suite Française, which would lie undiscovered until 2004. She also started three other

The Zone of Interest is grubby, creepy – and Martin Amis’s best for 25 years

‘Everybody could see that this man was not a “monster”, but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown,’ wrote Hannah Arendt of Adolf Eichmann, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Indeed, Eichmann was certified as ‘normal’ by half a dozen psychiatrists. On more than one occasion in Martin Amis’s troubling new novel one of its main characters, the fictionalised commandant of a thinly disguised Auschwitz, declares himself ‘completely normal’. He also happens to be an oaf, a clown. We are dealing, then, with the banality of evil. Set in the months from August 1942 to April 1943, when it became clear that the Germans were going to

When a survivor of Auschwitz asks for your story, what do you say?

My aim as a hospital visitor is to cheer, befriend, have a chat, do something to disrupt the bleak monotony of the modern hospital day. Some patients talk amiably while others are grumpy, demented patients kept on wards for months and who won’t shut up. Many conversations lead nowhere. Some days the pillow talk is dull, so I paid attention when someone in the chaplaincy mentioned a lady who’d been in Auschwitz and still had the camp tattoo. I’d heard of Polish girls working in London cafés after the war showing numbers etched on their arms, but I’d never met anyone who had one. I taught English in Poland for

Hanns and Rudolf, by Thomas Harding – review

Confronted by this lavishly endorsed book — ‘compelling’ (David Lodge), ‘gripping’(John le Carré),‘thrilling’ (Jonathan Freedland) — I felt depressed. Two weeks ago, the New York Times’s savvy London correspondent accused the British of being obsessed with the Nazis. This might appear a case of pots and kettles: not for nothing did America’s widely watched History Channel become known as the Hitler Channel. Nevertheless, Sarah Lyall had made a valid point. A stupefying 830 books on the Third Reich were published in the UK in 2010 and — although no figures are yet available for 2013 — a reduction any time soon seems unlikely. Germany’s history of genocide is unforgivable. Still,