Monday 20 February 2012

A great evening at London's Jewish Book Week

I can't think of any other city in the world where I could replicate the last few hours spent at this year's Jewish Book Week at Kings Place near Kings Cross.

Topping the bill was Deborah Lipstadt, in conversation with Anthony Julius. Ms. Lipstadt is known to many as the woman that the British Holocaust denier David Irvine pursued through the courts, alleging libel for referring to him as a denier in her book "History on Trial". Mr. Julius, himself an accomplished author, successfully defended her at that trial and their respect and admiration for each other  could clearly be seen in tonight's exchange.

The focus of discussion was her recent book "The Eichmann Trial" which marks the 50th anniversary of that landmark event in Jerusalem. This included an examination of why the trial was so important. She explained that at the Eichmann trial, for the first time, the world heard evidence about the Holocaust in the first person singular, that stories were brought to the world in a much more personal way, beginning the process of opening the flow of survivor testimony. There is a myth that until the Eichmann trial,  survivors had not spoken about their experiences. Not true says Deborah Lipstadt - it was just that no-one had been listening.

There was much discussion of Hannah Arendt's controversial take on the trial, in her book "Eichmann in Jerusalem", including evidence of remarks made about Jews that would have been deemed unacceptable if made about other groups or by a non Jew. Ms. Lipstadt did give Arendt some credit however, for drawing attention to the fact that the Eichmann trial was the first time since the year 70 and the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, that Jews were able to sit in judgement on non Jews who had done them wrong. That's almost 1900 years in case you hadn't worked it out.

I have heard Mr Julius speak before and he is eloquent. I had not heard Ms. Lipstadt previously, but I warmed to her very quickly. She gave direct answers, did not embellish her arguments with conjecture and even managed to make us laugh. She made a reference to the sometimes prejudice of "Yekkim" against eastern European Jews, qualified by referring to her own part Yekkes heritage with the joke "I get places on time, but out of breath".

She is working on a new book, part of a series by several writers concentrating on a single word from Jewish history such as "shtetl" and "emancipation". Her word will be "Holocaust". She gave some clues about what the book will cover - an exploration of why this word has come to be used rather than "Shoah", what will the word mean when there are no survivors left to testify in the first person and what does the word really mean? I have already read the Eichmann book and look forward to the new one.

She illustrated the importance of first person testimony by relating a story about her older cousins, brought up in southern Ohio, close to Kentucky. The family had Black "help" including an older man who had been born a slave and who would take the cousins to meet other people also born into slavery. There are now no living survivors from that time. She explained that we know that slavery was evil, but we can't hear the victims speak of it and so are missing a vital link to that experience.

Evil came up in an earlier session when French writers, Agnes Desarthe and Fabrice Humbert spoke about their recent novels, both of which have Holocaust related stories. I was interested in Desarthe's explanation of why she wrote "The Foundling". Her grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 and she described her feelings about this as "carrying my mother's grief". She compared this to the type of grief or response to events such as September 11th, when in real time we can witness death on a massive scale, without leaving our homes. How do we cope with this knowledge? Is our grief real grief, or as she described it "recycled grief".

When asked about current French attitudes to France's behaviour during the Holocaust, she replied that she didn't think there had been a coming to terms with many things in French history, especially the Holocaust. She spoke about being invited to do a reading and signing in France, explaining to the audience that the Holocaust was the backdrop to "The Foundling" when the host cut across her saying "People won't like that, we have heard so much about that, people won't like it..." and that this is a fairly common response to discussion of this period in France.

Fabrice Humbert's book "The Origin of violence" links back to the Holocaust from current times but he felt that his book is more about memory than the event itself. He spoke about the third generation of survivors being able to speak more freely about this period and more able to speak to their grandparents about their wartime experiences than their own parents were. He agreed that his work forms part of a recent canon of French Holocaust related materials including movies such as "Sarah's key" and the forthcoming "La Raffle" - seen in London last year as part of the Jewish Film Festival. He was less critical of French attitudes than Desarthe, saying that the debate began to change in the 1960's, but agreeing there are still problems.

My first session was with writer Neill Lochery who has recently published "Lisbon - war in the shadows of the city of light, 1939-1945". He told a fascinating story of espionage, stolen (and as yet unreturned) gold and German and Spanish plans for the invasion of Portugal in 1941, postponed by the Germans due to being "engaged in the east" and never implemented by the Spanish - Franco having planned a "greater Spain".  He also told of the heroism of Portugese diplomats issuing visas to Jewish refugees against dictator Salazar's instructions, such as Aristides de Sousa Mendes who was rewarded by being driven from office by his own government. Other characters appearing in this book include British Royalty and actor Lesley Howard. Perhaps truth is stranger than fiction. I bought his book as well as Ms. Desarthe's.

Jewish Book Week is 60 years old this year and to celebrate this anniversary, it has moved to a new venue, leaving the somewhat down at heel Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury for Kings Place, a large, new cultural centre with great transport links.

The allocated seating for the major events is a well advised innovation making for a much more orderly entrance to events (dispensing with that Olympian activity of moving seats several times before the show starts) and the Kings Place cafe provision is at least one thousand times better than at the previous venue. The book shop is also better organised than in recent years with its own discrete space. I like it. Can't wait for my next event on Tuesday evening.

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