Monday, 27 February 2012

Last day at Jewish Book Week

I spent all Sunday afternoon and early evening at the final day of this year's Jewish Book Week. I can't believe its gone by so quickly. The new venue is terrific, the attendance was impressive and there were lots of books to buy. But, most importantly, the programme was one of the best ever. A big thanks must be due to Jewish Book Week Director, Geraldine D'Amico who stood down at the end of the festival. She has made the Week into London's premier literary event. She will be missed.

I have already written about the early part of the week and how much I enjoyed it and yesterday represented the big finish for me. Although I didn't realise it when I booked for Sunday's events, there was a link running through all four of my choices - Europe and the politics of identity.

The first session featured two Kindertransport related novels - Alison Pick's "Far To Go" and Jake Wallis Simons'  "The English German Girl". The session began with an announcement that Simons would not be attending as he was stuck on a train between Windsor and Kings Cross, whilst ironically Pick had made it on time all the way from Toronto! Twenty minutes in, Simons arrived and joined an interesting conversation with Pick and chair Claire Armistead.

Pick related her own personal journey, discovering that her father was Jewish and that this had been kept secret by her Czech grandparents when they managed to leave Europe for Canada, leaving behind and never seeing again, most of their relatives and friends. As she grew older, she experienced a desire to know more about Jewishness which eventually led her to convert.  Six months later her non-Jewish husband also converted. One of her main reasons for this was that she wanted a clear identity for the daughter she was carrying during this time. This theme of identity recurred throughout the day, with Alison Pick encapsulating this desire to belong through her own experience.

She told of her amazement at discovering how religious Jews observe Shabbat as before considering living a religious Jewish life, her and her husband had kept their own weekend tradition called "24 hours unplugged" when the computer, mobile phone, blackberry and TV were switched off in favour of long discussions, walks, reading, eating good food and napping in the afternoon. She feels that it must have been some kind of "cultural memory" and was adamant that she hadn't known about Shabbat tradition until she took the course that eventually led to her conversion.

Both books follow the experience of middle class Jewish children in the former Czechoslovakia and in Germany during the 1930's, the developing threat of something terrible, the initial and sometimes continued denial of many assimilated Jews to believe what was happening and the eventual heart breaking decision to send their children away, knowing they were unlikely to see them ever again. Simons' book also includes description of the reception the German Jewish girl, Rosa, received from distant British relatives who show their disappointment that she is 15 and awkward rather than a cute toddler. Simons' research revealed that anti-semitic graffiti was widespread in the east end of London in the 1930's and describes Rosa's shock on being confronted with this on her arrival.

Prickly Croatian writer Dasa Drndic spoke about her novel "Trieste" recently translated into English from Serbo-Croat. She came over as a difficult, challenging although eventually endearing woman. The daughter of partisans, she has written a novel about identity, bystanders and perpetrators set in northern Yugoslavia and Italy over a period of more than 60 years, encompassing the many wars fought in this part of the world. A large chunk of the book concentrates on the second world war, German projects to establish a "master race" through breeding and, or, stealing children from the occupied nations, to be brought up as "ideal Germans".

Drndic told us that she does not write in a linear style and that the translation had been a challenge. She is interested in form and in the original Serbo-Croat, the book had more of a physicality. There are several pages in the middle of the book listing the names of about 9,000 Italian Jews who were deported to the camps. Drndic's idea had been for readers to locate the names of their families or friends, or of people they knew and tear the page with their name from the book - this section being perforated. She explained that this would demonstrate absence of these people and their descendants, and that without them, the structure of the book, the "whole" would fall apart.

Also in the Serbo-Croat edition, she had listed the names of several known but unconvicted war criminals. These pages had been sealed, as were the lips of many people who knew about these crimes. Her intention had been for readers to cut open the pages with a paper knife, releasing these long held secrets. She told us that some of the book shops selling the original print run thought this was a printing error and sliced the pages open! I would like to see a copy of the original.

She begin the session with single word answers "yes" or "no" but eventually warmed to the valiant chair, Amanda Hopkinson, and spoke passionately about speaking out about things that are wrong, that bystanders are not innocent but complicit in evil and that we all bear responsibility for our actions, words and choices.

This session brought home to me how far the Jewish Book Week has come over the last few years, bringing a Croatian writer, largely unknown in the UK to a discerning audience and getting a turnout of more than 50 to hear her speak. It also reminded me of the former richness of the diaspora and the terrible losses inflicted over the last century.

Professor Zygmunt Bauman stood in for the elder statesman of Israeli novelists -Aharon Appelfeld, who unfortunately was not able to attend. Now retired from his post of Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds, he explored the changing position and challenges of European Jews over the the last 100 years or so. He surveyed the rise of national identities in Europe, the issue of assimilation in the period between the two world wars and the fragmented nature of European Jewry during this period.

He spoke of how the Jews did not fit with the developing national identities in the Europe of the 1920's onwards and that for many, assimilation seemed to be the only route to being a part of national society. He described the "agony" and the "splendour" of assimilated Jewry. The agony consisted of never being able to really assimilate - "once a stranger always a stranger" and that even the most assimilated Jews would not fit the "ideal" national identity of inter-war German and other European societies. The splendour was the great tsunami of creativity and achievement of European Jewry over a sustained period, despite persecution, pogroms and anti-semitic legislation.

He went on to say that the time for assimilation has passed, that assimilation today means, to quote Cynthia Ozick, "thou shalt not step out of line with thy neighbour". As many American Jews in particular  become almost indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbours, he celebrated the end of the agony but mourned what he felt is the loss of the splendour, suggesting that the great creative legacy of European Jewry has now been inherited by other outsiders. I am not sure I can agree with this when Israel continues to supply regular Nobel Prize winners across a range of disciplines and when Jewish writers, actors, musicians and artists continue to produce stunning works, but his views were interesting and were presented in a much more accessible way than much of his writing which is aimed at a more academic audience.

Finally, SOAS Professor of Israeli studies, Colin Shindler discussed his new book "Israel and the European Left" with author and journalist Nick Cohen in front of a sell-out crowd - we were told this was the first of several of the week's events to have sold out.

Shindler and Cohen discussed the history of leftist anti-semitism and the failure of the left over many decades to understand that the Jewish struggle for self determination was just one of a number of national struggles. The book discusses the anti-semitic excesses of the Stalinist periodic the old communist bloc and the habit of using the original Jewish names of former leading politicians such as Trotsky (Bronstein) and Kamenev (Rozenstein) once they had fallen from grace.

Returning to one of Professor Bauman's themes, there was much discussion about "non-Jewish Jews"who not only assimilated but adopted an anti-semitic stance, siding with the Soviet Union when it established the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, even to the extent of supporting the Soviets handing reman communists such as Margarite Buber-Neuman over to the Gestapo once the treaty had been signed.

Shindler's book attempts to explain the antagonism of the left towards Israel, arguing that the European left was more influenced by the decolonisation movement of the 1960's than by wartime experiences, leading them to favour the Palestinian cause, with this identification developing into an accommodation of  nationalism in Arab states, anti-semitism wrapped up in an anti-Israeli package and to tolerate the most appalling excesses in non-western states. Where are the left protests over the current excesses in Syria, he asked. No million man (person?) marches over this one.

His book covers a complex subject and provoked a number of questions from the audience. Unlike a number of other sessions we really did get questions rather than comments, statements or speeches that a number of people just can't resist making. This may well be due to Nick Cohen's spirited warning that he only wanted questions, would not allow speeches and if anyone wanted to make one they should hire a room! Nicely put and greeted with a ripple of applause.

So, another year's Book Week is over. It seems a very long time to the next one, and it will be a hard act to follow. Its a good thing I bought so many books to tide me over!

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