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Learning from the Past
on 3 April 2017
When we are children we tend to take family for granted. We expect a mum and dad and a standard issue of two of each when it comes to grandmothers and grandfathers. But what would you do if you had almost no living grandparents - in fact almost no relatives at all? What if both your parents had lost their parents in the war - victims of Hitler’s mission to wipe out all of your kind? Perhaps you couldn’t afford to be too be too literal in your interpretation of grandparenthood. In ‘Our Holocaust’ by Amir Gutfreund, young Amir and his friend Effi are encouraged by their parents to ‘adopt’ additional grandfathers, bestowing the title on elderly gentlemen they consider worthy of the honour. Hence Amir finds himself with lots of grandfathers and plenty of uncles, almost none of them genetically connected to him.
Amir and his friend Effi live in Haifa in a community that’s rich in survivors, most of them from eastern Europe. These are people who fled to Israel after the war and brought with them the kind of emotional and psychological baggage that most of us will thankfully never know. The two young friends share several grandfathers. There’s Grandpa Lolek, the miserly old boy with an ancient Vauxhall which seems to run on little more than willpower and the kindness of mechanics. Grandpa Lolek can get multiple cups of tea out of a single bag, lining up his used bags and joking about his ‘selection process’, hinting unkindly about the activities in the concentration camps where inmates would be regularly assessed to select those who would be killed and those who would be saved.
Grandpa Yosef is the clever one, the academic who fills in as a sort of rabbi when his community needs religious support and his holocaust story touches a total of twelve concentration camps, ghettos and death camps. Along the way he's met pretty much anyone who was anyone in the Holocaust. If Grandpa Yosef has a penny, he’ll find someone who has none and give it to him. He’s generous to a fault and beyond.
These are the two star grandpas but there are more.
Amir and Effi long to know more about the horrors of World War II but their grandpas and their neighbours don’t want to talk about the war. The children are not old enough to be told of the horrors and so they hatch ever more complicated tricks to try to get the older folk to tell them of the past. They make up school projects so they can ask questions, they try to pretend other people have told them things in the hope that more information will be forthcoming. They have a morbid fascination with knowing more about the things that keep their elders awake at night, the things that printed upon them the horrors of the past. But they also know there are things that can’t be told, and questions that can’t be asked, let alone answered. Why is Amir’s mother so frightened of ants and does he really want to know what led to that fear?
The book is structured in three parts and part one is mostly about Amir and Effi's childhood and their attempts to find out about what happened to their neighbours and 'family'. The second part follows Grandpa Yosef’s mission to go to the Caribbean on his own kind of secret mission, and the final section is one where Amir is a father with his own wife and son to take care of. Someone asks him if his child is his ‘eternity’, telling him “We had children too, but it was not enough”. This is a community living in fear of the past. the present and the future.
‘Our Holocaust’ is filled with whimsical and life-affirming stories of survival. But don’t let that ever let you forget that it’s also filled with the kind of horror stories that history almost demands that we don't forget. It addresses all the sacred cows and says the unsayable things. That not everyone who was killed was a ‘good’ person, that people in the camps were forced to do such unspeakably awful things that some will struggle their entire lives to not think back on those abominations, and that good and bad is never a simple matter of black and white. Survival is as much about luck and being in the right place at the right time as it can ever be about deserving to survive.
Our Holocaust is fiction, but not entirely - if you see what I mean. It’s fiction with its feet planted firmly in fact. I read this entire book assuming it was biographically accurate, that these things happened to these people but I was wrong - and it didn’t really matter too much that I was. I think the author intended we should assume it was autobiographical and that the stories were all true, although in retrospect I can see that finding quite so many amazing people with fascinating tales all clustered together might be a bit too much to expect.