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Book Reviews

Postmemory, Psychoanalysis and Holocaust Ghosts: the Salonica Cohen family and trauma across generations by Rony Alfandary (Routledge, £29.99)

A number of Jewish people I know have found a few letters and postcards in Yiddish among their parents’ and grandparents’ possessions, sent by half-forgotten or unknown relatives living in Eastern Europe prior to the war. These ghostly messages from the past, in a faded script that could not be understood by the finder, sometimes disappoint when translated. The messages were often simply “hope you are well, hope your children are well”; flowery greetings with little news other than an engagement or a wedding. They sometimes seem like not very subtle ways of asking for financial support, perhaps for an engagement gift, sent to someone living here thought to be better off by those left behind.

Rony Alfandary’s family found letters, not just a few, which had been kept in a box by his grandparents, and which were later augmented by two further collections. These had been kept by a relative by marriage who had survived the war, unlike, it appeared, most of Alfandary’s relatives from Salonica. The exceptions were his maternal grandparents, who had emigrated from Greece to Palestine in the 1930s, where the author’s mother was born. Alfandary’s grandmother, Rita, was the source of the first cache of letters – written in French and Ladino with some legal letters in Greek. Some were written in the Solitreo script and needed a specialist to decipher them. The box was opened after his grandmother’s death.

Merged, the three collections of letters enabled Alfandary to reconstruct the lives of his family. Except it was a jigsaw with missing pieces, pieces that will likely always remain missing. The first cache included letters to Rita from the family in Salonica and from her brother Leon who had emigrated to France. The second and third boxes had belonged to Leon. which finished the triangle – letters from Salonica,  letters to and from Palestine and France. The last of the letters were from November 1942. Leon and his family were rounded up in France and did not survive (though his wife’s sister did, whose family inherited Leon’s letters). His Salonican relatives were among the Jews taken to their death from that city out of the Jewish population of 50,000, only a thousand of whom survived.

Though the Cohen family had been successful, and middle-class, their star had fallen in the economic circumstances of Greece in the 1930s. Some were unemployed, others in poor health. Here too there were letters – often not so subtle – asking for money. The three branches of the family, in all three countries, were going through hard times.

***

The poet Gerda Mayer, who died last year, came to Britain on a kindertransport. Her father was last heard of in Russia in 1940. At every reading Gerda included her much-anthologised poem “Make Believe”, a poem imagining her father had survived and came across her work in a bookshop, ending

when some publisher asks me

for biographical details

I still carefully give

the year of my birth

the name of my hometown:

GERDA MAYER born ’27, in Karlsbad,

Czechoslovakia…. write to me, father.

Reading Alfandary’s book I was reminded of this poem, feeling that in some ways that the volume under review is a message in a bottle that might be read by someone who knows something, at least to fill in more of the jigsaw. Indeed, in private correspondence with the author he mentioned that one early reader of his book was able to add a little information about a mutual connection. And, when writing the book, Alfandary was able to find two very distant relatives, whom he describes meeting. I said earlier that it appeared that all the Salonican Cohens save for his grandmother died. But what happened to Isaac and his wife Martha? Isaac was Leon and Rita’s brother, Martha his gentile wife. Early in the book Alfandary says both died in the Holocaust, but later he is less clear. They certainly vanished from history in France. They appear on no lists of prisoners, no lists of those transported. And Martha was a gentile. It’s likely Isaac did not survive, but what of Martha? Martha who? Her maiden name is unknown. Was she left behind when her husband was taken, did she remarry, are her children and grandchildren out there? This is one of the pieces of the jigsaw still missing, another is what Isaac did for a living… letters from Salonica to Leon and Rita complain that Isaac never writes to his family back home. Isaac’s own letters to Leon – usually asking for money, sometimes large sums desperately needed at once – come from all over France. Was he a gambler, or what? Alfandary writes that it often seemed like he was on the run.

The title of the book will attract some readers and put off others. It is aimed at an audience familiar with the words in the book title but, other than occasionally, is accessible to all. The author discusses postmemory, the concept that those who had no direct memory of an event or a trauma, are affected by it as if the experience was shared. In this case, however, the experience was shared as Alfandary was the favourite grandchild of Rita, who would tell him of the family members she had lost, and show him their photographs. Not surprisingly, she suffered from depression. Her parents, her siblings, nieces and nephews, friends, her home in Salonica – all gone. She had also been a reluctant immigrant to Palestine, it was her husband who had been a Zionist. The trauma was passed to her grandchild as her yerusha (legacy). Though his generation, his own siblings, have had successful and content lives, the memory, or postmemory, of what happened sustains. And of course, it is too late to ask Rita to fill in the holes in the story, the parts she did not mention and the parts missing from the letters that otherwise bring us into her family’s life. It’s mostly always too late. But we still want to know.

Telling these stories is a way of remembering, and honouring the dead. The author uses psychoanalytic theory to try to create a coherent narrative of the experience and the impact on himself. Others tell their stories through drama and even children’s writing. I’m thinking here of Tom Stoppard’s partially autobiographical play Leopoldstadt, and Michael Rosen’s book The Missing, which is about the gaps in his family history he was able to fill in.

One of Rony Alfandary’s other books is a psychoanalytic study of Lawrence Durrell. While I can recommend the book under review I think he sometimes allows his other interests to edge their way in, not always successfully. He wonders, for example, whether Leon’s path could have crossed in Paris with Henry Miller. Alfandary asks “Is it a justified interpretation to support my wishful thinking that perhaps he [Leon] was also influenced by the likes of Henry Miller?”. My answer would be “I don’t think so”. The strength of the book is the background story and the letters, reprinted in yearly chapters from 1923 to the end. They are incomplete, at times mundane, at times confusing, but I was drawn into the life of a long-dead family, and I cared about them.

The book is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/postmemory-psychoanalysis-and-holocaust-ghosts-the-salonica-cohen-family-and-trauma-across-generations/

Ross Bradshaw

Aftermath: life in the fallout of the Third Reich, by Harald Jähner

Without looking anything up, what five things do you immediately think of if I were to say “Germany immediately after the war”?
Answering my own question… John le Carré ‘s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; the GDR; Orson Welles in The Third Man (yes, I know it was set in Vienna – but that was what I thought of); “picturesque” ruins; the image of the red flag being raised over the Reichstag when the Soviets took Berlin.
Aftermath: life in the fallout of the Third Reich sets out to have a more logical approach. Harald Jähner first outlines who was there at the time, remarking that “more than half the population are where they do not belong or want to be”. Several million were German soldiers who were now prisoners of war. Another nine million were internally displaced civilians, primarily city dwellers who had been evacuated to the countryside (where,  Jähner points out, they were not exactly welcome). There were another eight to ten million prisoners of Germany – primarily forced labourers who were suddenly free. Their number could have been higher but for extensive massacres by their captors, even at a time they knew the war was about to end. Finally there were another twelve and a half million ethnic Germans trailing in from Eastern Europe as, often unwelcome, refugees. These numbers were augmented by 100,000 Jews, primarily from Poland – “a migration that nobody expected” – who were passing through, having faced pogroms when they tried to return to their home towns and villages.
Who was to feed these forty million? Where were they to live? The four occupying forces – Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union – had to deal with this. And create a Germany – well, two Germanies – out of the physical and political rubble. Indeed, the rubble. The cities were largely in ruins and had to be cleared, including by trummerfrauen – “rubble women” – so often photographed. The ruins were a photographer’s dream, and there were even fashion shoots with a background of ruins, as life returned.
The population was shattered, particularly the men returning from the front. There were many divorces as the men who returned after years away came back to a different world. The occupation was harder for women – the incidence of rape by Soviet soldiers is now well known (the 1954 book A Woman In Berlin is a major source of information on this). But it was hard for everyone as the rations were not enough to get by, leading to not just an extensive black market but organised theft. This was described as Fringsing after one Cardinal Frings, who gave a sermon saying theft was acceptable to survive. The Third Man turned out to be a good call after all.
The clear up took a long time. The last Displaced Person’s Camp (for people leaving) did not close until 1957, the last camp for those ethnic Germans arriving did not close until 1966. Yet other issues were dealt with with astonishing speed. Hans Habe – actually a Hungarian Jew – thought that the best tool of denazification was newspapers and he set up sixteen of them, just as soon as major cities were liberated. The jewel in the crown was the Neue Zeitung, based in Munich, which had a star cast of German exiled writers, reaching a circulation of 2.5 million “along with a further 3 million orders that could not be fulfilled because of lack of paper”.
Ah yes, the Nazis… Jähner describes how the worst were weeded out, but former Nazis were soon back as judges, politicians and businesspeople.
Aftermath is weakest, perhaps, on the new GDR – East Germany. One interesting chapter describes how art made a comeback with the GDR promoting socialist realism, while the FDR – West Germany –  saw the promotion of abstract art. A Cold War of artistic direction – and there in the background of the West German art scene was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CIA front. This was one of the few chapters that compared what was happening on the different sides of what became a separation wall. I’d have liked to have read more about the GDR side.
There’s several chapters of material new to me. The impact of the refugee Germans arriving in rural areas for example. One town of 1600 had 600 ethnic Germans billeted on them. These were Germans who often had little connection to Germany, who spoke different dialects, who had different morals, often a different religion from the farming communities who had to put them up. Ironically, this mixing led to a more united German volk than happened under Hitler, with the decline of local dialects and the development of industry in previously farming areas.
What was hard to stomach though was the common feeling that so many Germans felt, that they were themselves the most important victims of Hitlerism. Only a later generation, typically the students of 1968 rebelled against this, pointing out how many former Nazis moved seemlessly into position of power, and who asked the basic question “What did you do in the war, daddy?”
Aftermath is well translated, by the way, by Shaun Whiteside
The book costs £9.99. It is published by Penguin and available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £20)

Some books are hard to review so this is a short recommendation for the current Nobel literature prize winner’s magnus opus. And the first thing you need to know is that it ain’t half magnus. 900 large pages, some of which are in small type, tightly bound ie it cannot be laid flat. So only read this book if you have the thumbs for it.
Secondly, it’s about the life of Jacob Frank, a false messiah in 18th century Poland, whose followers – the true believers – were often drawn from sympathisers of an earlier false messiah, Sabbatai Tzvi from the previous century. Tsvi, in the Ottomon empire, was given the choice of converting to Islam or death, and he chose the former. Frank, on the other hand, led his followers into the Catholic Church, the second leg of the Trinity out of which the final true religion would come. I think. I think only because the detail of his religion was only revealed to close followers so it is never clear what they actually believed. Perhaps they did not know themselves. And there is a cast of thousands whose lives appear in short chapters, and whose names change steadily not least after they are baptised. The settings sprawl over several countries too.
The novel – this is a novel – includes an early follower of Frank who is dead but who is more like the living dead, watching over what happens. Bishops flit through the text and there are medieval disputations as the mainstream Jewish world and the Catholic Church works out what to do with these people.
Frank was charismatic, dicatorial, immoral and believed that the the rules had to be broken to set yourself free yet leaving the Jewish world allowed his followers to prosper in ways that were not open to them before. They were able to move from a squalid life of povery and exclusion, but lost the freedom to decide on their own sexual partner with Frank behaving like all cult leaders do when it comes to that issue. They also has to find the money to keep Frank’s court running.
The text is littered with Hebrew and Polish words. There is no continuous narrative. There is, perhaps, one likeable character, Moliwda, a Gentile who is drawn to the Frankists, works with them as a translator and who tries to smooth their way despite knowing of the deep faults within their leader.
Yet I would recommend the book, with fair warning that you have to give up a lot of reading time, you might not be able to remember who is who of the characters, you might have to dip into the history of false messiahs and the history of Poland and the Ottoman Empire but if you can cope with all of that – dive in.
I was pleased to see that in December this book “bubbled under” (as they used to say on Top of the Pops) our best-seller list. Somehow I doubt it was a Christmas present though.
A more traditional review – and longer – is here: http://www.theguardian.com/…/the-books-of-jacob-by-olga…
The Books of Jacob is available for purchase here :

Ross Bradshaw

Daring to Hope: my life in the 1970s by Sheila Rowbotham (Verso, £20)

If you can remember the 70s… Well, I do and I was there, in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Nottingham and I remember parts with great clarity, parts only vaguely and some parts I regret remembering at all. Sheila, on the other hand, has the utmost clarity as she kept a diary and a journal throughout that tumultuous decade where she was a prominent activist in the women’s liberation movement and leading historian.
Being prominent – being one of the writers of seminal texts published in the period – she knew “everyone” so I found myself nodding at the names, Audrey Wise MP, historians Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Marsha Rowe from Spare Rib, May Hobbs of the Night Cleaners Campaign, the libertarian Marxist doctor David Widgery… and the campaigns and organisations, the Institute for Workers Control, the Claimants’ Union, the campaign against Ted Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, the various campaigns against those who would restrict abortion rights, to name just a few. On one of the latter I can remember an overnight minibus trip to London from Aberdeen to attend a demonstration, returning overnight the next night. What it was to be young.
Of course the 1970s did not spring out of nowhere and the rise of the women’s movement grew from small groups or networks “clusters of women’s liberationists had also cohered in several towns and cities, and the Trotskyist-influenced Socialist Woman magazine based in Nottingham, had appeared.” Nottingham appears here and there in the text, not least as Paul Atkinson came from here, Paul being one of Sheila’s long-term partners in the “duogamy” she shared with David Widgery, both of whom had other partners. Not that Sheila was entirely into duogamy, at one time adding Bobby Campbell to the roster, Bea Campbell’s former husband. What it was to be young…
Sheila talks us through the rise and rise of the women’s movement, and is honest about the crises it went through. These include its battles with “Wages for Housework”, the internal battles over hierarchy (some women thought that she should not have her name on her books as it created hierarchy), the move to recognise lesbians – which she approved of very much – and the later debates about whether, in short, men were the enemy. This was not a position she held at any time, not least as she was teaching WEA classes which rooted her, as well as giving her access to earlier generations of trade union activists (and in one case an elderly Jewish man who lived through the Russian Revolution). My women friends of that era talked over all these issues.
Astonishingly, men attended some of the early women’s liberation conferences. The last time men were allowed saw the Maoist Harpal Brar drone on and on and on, refusing to leave the stage until he was dragged away by security from the University hosting the event. Brar is now tied up with George Galloway in his Workers Party of Britain. Go figure.
The 70s were a period of industrial struggle, the great mining strikes of 72 and 74, Grunwick and the aforementioned Night Cleaners’ Campaign. Night after night Rowbotham was out trying to unionise night cleaners. Ironically, over the last few years, the pop-up unions have had the success that eluded May Hobbs, Sheila and the big unions back then.
On the history front, Raphael Samuel’s History Workshop was at its height and people went to great lengths to rediscover our political past, in Sheila’s case this included Edward Carpenter and a “pilgrimage” to Millthorpe in Derbyshire where he used to live, and other sites associated with him. She remarks that she had to pinch herself on approaching Millthorpe to remember that Carpenter would not be there to meet her. I felt exactly the same on the first Edward Carpenter walk organised from Nottingham by the late Chris Richardson!
The national women’s conferences fell away to be replaced by socialist feminist conferences, a description that fitted Sheila but caused her and others to struggle with the “Leninist” model. She was still involved in campaigning, but now, as a parent, this included organising with the Hackney Under-fives Campaign. At that time the word “libertarian” had not been stolen by the right and the left was in flux. The group Big Flame was influential, there were debates on being “In and against the state” – the important book by that name has recently been re-issued. But Sheila, Hilary Wainwright and Lynne Segal came together to publish – initially in a run of 100! – the book Beyond the Fragments, subtitled Feminism and the Making of Socialism. The 70s ended with this book which is now in its third edition and, perhaps as much as anything, enabled Sheila to call this book Daring to Hope.
I should say this is an exciting read. I read it over a weekend. It’s not just for oldsters who were there at the time. And there are moments of fun… the chic Greek feminists who were not impressed with, shall we say, the downbeat style of living of the Hackney and Brixton left and the American feminists who were surprised at Sheila turning up for a lecture tour with a single dowdy dress (she normally, of course, wore dungarees). And there are moments of sadness – a long drive with Ruth First, talking non-stop on the last time they met “It was the last time I saw Ruth, who was about to leave Durham for a post as director of research at the Centre of African Studies in Mozambique. In 1982 she was assassinated by a parcel bomb…” It was a salutary reminder that those days of hope were not welcomed by all.

A long post with short reviews!

November was a good month for reading! December is starting with The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Fitzcarraldo, £20) which is 912 pages so I doubt I’ll get through as many as this set.
Ken Worpole is an old colleague and occasional Five Leaves’ author. His latest book is No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the land in wartime Britain (Little Toller, £14.00). Here he tells the story of Frating Farm, a colony in Essex set up by Christian pacifists in 1943, which survived fifteen years before passing back to private hands. At one time up to fifty people lived there, working the land and running other local businesses. Frating was only one of several utopian or economic communities attracted to Essex. Worpole followers will know that he is an unofficial historian of all that has been good in that County. Frating did not come out of nowhere, their ideas were drawn from John Middleton Murry, our own DH Lawrence and others around the Adelphi magazine. Their number included Iris Murdoch, whole novel The Bell draws on Frating in its description of communal life. The best chapter in Worpole’s book is the last,”New Lives, New Landscapes” where he ranges widely over the work of authors and thinkers writing about land use.
George Orwell was something of a back-to-the-lander of course, in Jura and Wallington. In Orwell’s Roses (Granta, £16.99) Rebecca Solnit starts from the roses that Orwell planted to wander off at tangents before wandering back to Orwell, his life and work. Stalin’s lemons put in an appearance as well as ecological issues about importing flowers. This is not, not, a biography of Orwell but there are many bits and pieces of information on Orwell I, at least, had forgotten, particularly to do with his slave owning ancestors. Drifting so far from the subject that causes people to pick up the book can be a highwire act, but Solnit remains in command at all times. Mind you, she is one of the few people who could write about telephone directories and make them interesting.
1984 was at the back of my mind reading Lea Ypi’s Free: coming of age at the end of history (Granta, £20). The book is a memoir of growing up in Albania under Enver Hoxha, particularly where the adults in the room would talk about friends being away studying (ie in prison) or using some other words to cover being tortured or killed. The author’s family was always somewhat more at risk than others because of their “biography”. Only belatedly did the child come to understand her great-grandfather was one of a cosmopolitan elite. In fact he was Prime Minister of Albania before communism. Though Ypi lived in the open-air prison that was Albania, she was a content Young Pioneer. After the fall, in 1990, the country embraced freedom, with rapacious capitalism taking the place of the former dictatorship. As many people fled as could get out, and the country collapsed into a mess of pyramid schemes and unemployment. Ypi’s father obtained a responsible job in the shipyards and did what he could to stop the Roma workers being sacked but neo-liberalism did what neo-liberalism does. The country was not free before and it was now too free.
Over the COVID period one or two million poets turned to writing about these strange days. Chris Searle’s Over Eagle Pond (Culture Matters, £12.00) stands out for his gentle observations of the world he sees from the window of his flat, looking out over Eagle Pond in East London. Sometimes it’s the changes in fauna and flora, but the best is a simple poem, a story if you prefer, of the elderly couple who come every day, first thing in the morning, park their car on double yellow lines and walk the fifty yards to the pond, look for a moment, walk back”in a semi-circle of daily devotion/before they drive off/until tomorrow/same time, same place”.
Geoffrey Trease was a well-known children’s writer from Nottingham’s past. Faber Finds publish his Red Towers of Granada (£10), reprinted from 1966. The book is partly set in this city, in the Jewish Quarter in 1290 just before and during the expulsion of the Jewish community. The main character – a local teenager, Robin, wrongly expelled from his village as a leper thanks to a deliberate misdiagnosis by his priest – chances on a robbery in the forest. He sees off the robbers, the victim being an elderly Jew, Solomon, – obvious from him being a “man in a yellow cap”. Robin too is in enforced, distinctive garb, that of a leper (and wearing a clapper to announce his arrival). Solomon takes in young Robin, cures his non-leprous skin ailment and, ere long, they set out on an errand for the ailing Queen to Solomon’s native Granada. There this Christian and Jew join up with a Muslim to obtain that which the Queen has asked for, with lots of adventures on the way. Yes, though not all the Jews, Christians and Muslims are good guys, this is a book about unity in diversity – only flawed by physical descriptions of Solomon and one Muslim that are, shall we say, a bit old fashioned. This isn’t, now, really a book for older children but it’s a fine yarn for a snowy day, with lots of period interest.
The Promise by Damon Galgut (Chatto, £16.99), winner of the Booker Prize. This novel is set in South Africa and follows the lead up to and aftermath of four funerals, all of members of the Afrikaaner Swarts family. Except not all are Afrikaaners as the opening funeral is of Rachel Swart, the mother of the family who, in middle age, returns to the Judaism of her youth as her terminal illness takes hold. “The Promise” is that made by Rachel’s husband – at Rachel’s insistence – that their servant Salome will be given the shack she lives in, a promise heard by daughter Amor. Will this be kept? I’m not telling… The Sward family is dysfunctional. They remain centre stage though Galgut cleverly gives the backstory of the other characters – an avaricious pastor, a confused Catholic priest, a homeless man living in the church porch. Galgut handles time changes well – the story is told over four decades – with the momentous changes within South Africa, from Mandela through to Zuma, forming a backdrop. And he handles changing points of view well, occasionally simply addressing the reader. Galgut picks out some issues nicely, Amor, for example, works as a nurse in an AIDS ward at the same time as Thabo Mbeki’s government was in denial of the AIDS crisis sweeping the country. This is not, well, maybe it is not, a political novel other than how can any novel set over forty years in South Africa not be. It’s a worthy winner of the Booker.
And finally… Keith Kahn-Harris has been working on a book with Five Leaves for some time. It was due out in November but Keith asked if we could put it back as he had another – a commercial book – out then. What is it, we asked. It’s a book based on the warning message in Kinder Eggs, he said. We’ve agreed to publish this man? we thought. And yes, The Babel Message; a love letter to language (ICON, £14.99) is indeed a book on the multilingual message in that ghastly chocolate item (which comes with a plastic toy, which should not be eaten), but it’s also a book on translation, linguistics, linguistic conflict, on why language matters, on linguistic imperialism, on the languages of small communities and long-dead Samarians, on the languages of those who will never have an army and a navy to defend their language, on dialect (including, I am pleased to say, Scots) – above all it’s a book on why languages – plural – matter. It’s a serious book, with lots of humour and an attempt by Keith to invent a language. It is also about Kinder Eggs.
Any of the above can be bought or ordered from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw

The Edelweiss Pirates: teenage rebels in Nazi Germany by Dirk Reinhardt, translated by Rachel Ward (Pushkin Children’s, £7.99)

Though German resistance to Hitler once the Nazis were established in power was difficult, more than difficult, it did exist. The Socialist History Society brought together material on working class political resistance to the Nazis in Anti-Nazi Germans; the Christian resisters based round the Confessing Church especially Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller are well known; the ill-fated assassination attempt by the democratic centre and right under Claud von Stauffenberg, which led to thousands of executions, has been written about, notably in The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg (who came to Nottingham to speak in 1989); the student White Rose Group is also now well known. There were also the  Rosenstrasse demonstrations by the German wives of Jewish men which successfully stopped the deportation of their husbands in the spring of 1943.
The one group that has had limited attention is the Edelweiss Pirates. This book will help to give them a profile, not least as Michael Rosen has written a foreword to the British edition.
The Edelweiss Pirates were actually not so much a group as a movement, perhaps not even that, but their activities eventually involved several thousand dissident young people who were increasingly repressed by the Nazis. It was a counter-cultural informal association of like-minded working class teenagers, who played music, grew their hair longer than was considered proper, camped out in the countryside, and held street battles with the Hitler Youth, an organisation which everyone their age was expected to join. Only in relatively recent times has their significance as resistors been recognised, when earlier they were seen as something akin to drop-outs. People finally realised that being a drop-out under the Nazis was being a resistor and some paid with their lives. There are a number of memoirs of former Pirates published in Germany, but little about them here.
But does it work as a novel, and a novel for older children at that? The book starts with a hanging, the brother of the narrator being publicly executed. That chapter, like most of the book, is written in italics, in diary form, the narrator of the diary being a teenager who starts knocking round with a group of Pirates, gradually getting more and more involved, his contempt for the Hitler Youth leading him into direct confrontation and direct resistance. He was fourteen at the start, with only eight years of schooling and he would soon start work in a factory, treated like dirt because of his views. Alongside the diary – printed without italics – is the story of a teenager from this century who is given the diary by an old man. They meet, seemingly for the first time, in a cemetery where the old man is at the grave of his brother and the teenager at the nearby grave of his own grandfather. Why is he picked out at the person to receive the diary? We will learn, but until we do we follow the paths in tandem – the teenager reading the diary slowly, chapter by chapter, wanting to savour it, wanting to know what it has to do with him. He visits the poor care home where the old man is living and is touched by his surroundings, and by the old man’s love for his pet birds.
I was not completely convinced of the links between the two sides of the story though. The circle that you knew would be completed seemed a bit artificial. What was better was the diary itself, where you could feel the excitement of joining a tribe, a group of people who understood you and were like you (it’s not only teenagers who do this!). There was great tension in the battles with Hitler Youth and the illegal acts the Pirates undertook. However, to my surprise, the part that affected me most in the diary was when the war was coming to a close – the Gestapo was even more murderous  towards those who were not patriots, but also the city of Cologne, the setting of the book, was so badly bombed that people were starving, living under wave after wave of bombings of civilian areas by the Allies. The Pirates were under attack from all sides.
Verdict? Yes, read, try it on a young adult, but also hope for a good English-language book on the Pirates which is not fiction.
Ross Bradshaw
You can order any of the books mentioned from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

The SS Officer’s Armchair: in search of a hidden life by Daniel Lee (Cape, £20)

This book starts at a dinner party. A new acquaintance of the author described how her mother had take an armchair for repair in Holland, and the upholsterer had found a pile of Nazi documents sown into the upholstery to his consternation and to the astonishment of the chair’s owner. Daniel Lee, a historian, immediately wanted to know more – what were the papers, what was the story.
His new friend’s mother had bought the chair second hand in Czechoslovakia many years before. Soon Daniel Lee was examining the documents which had belonged to a Nazi lawyer, Robert Griesinger and was off on in pursuit of the story. Who was he? Did he survive the war? Why did he hide the papers? Did he have any living relatives?
It turns out that Griesinger was a genuine Nazi, a member of the SS, though part of their civilian branch. He was also a war criminal, but in the scale of things, not a serious player. Lee was able to trace the children of Griesinger – indeed, by then he knew more about their father than they did. Pre-war, Griesinger was active in the SS mostly in Württemberg in Swabia, and their records show that the SS behaved in many ways like, say the Rotary Club but with added marching, singing and racism. They had a community function, in one case building a new house for a member’s family who had died in an accident.
The membership rules, however, of the SS were strict – marriages had to be approved and a full family tree of the partners had to be presented to ensure there was no trace of a genetic illness or Jewish blood hidden in the background. It was still unclear what would happen later. In 1936 the – now Nazi – government even removed anti-Semitic posters for the period of the Olympics, replacing them with adverts for Coca Cola. International image still mattered and the SS did love sport.
Of course it got darker. Spoiler alert – Griesinger did not survive. He died, or was killed, in mysterious circumstances in Prague at the end of the war. His wife and children made it back to Germany, with difficulty – but he stayed at his post after it was all over and the Czech people arose against both the occupying Germans and the ethnic German community in Czechoslovakia. There were war crimes there too.
What makes this book stand out from other war books is that it concentrates on the life and career of a middle-ranking Nazi official. He was not a monster, neither was he just compromised as he was a career Nazi by choice. What also makes this book stand out is the astonishing amount of information Lee was able to find out. Every move Griesinger made was tracked, every house he lived in was examined from the outside (and sometimes from the inside) and through its extant records of residence. It seems that Germany kept everything – thus Lee was able to examine internal references and reports on Griesinger’s work. Within the dusty files of the Ministry of Economics and Labour he was able to find documents that Griesinger wrote, including, bizarrely, correspondence about recycling beer bottles in 1944 when, it appears Bulgaria was “the only country not to return bottles”. Meanwhile, across Europe…
There is also some irony – is that the right word? – that Griesinger’s father’s family came from America, migrating back to Germany. His father had been born in 1871 in New Orleans. The family had been involved in slavery, both as owners and – there’s no surprise – fathers of children. Griesinger, the Nazi, had Black relatives in America. Lee was able to trace them and met one relative, Marshall Honoré  Jnr., then in his mid-90s. Honoré fought at Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Rhine in spring 1945, penetrating deep into Germany fighting the Nazis. Here the word irony works; his unit was segregated.
 
Ross Bradshaw
The SS Officer’s Armchair is available here: fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/the-ss-officers-armchair-in-search-of-a-hidden-life/

Mudlarking: lost and found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

New Year – new hobby? How about mudlarking? First find a big tidal river which has a couple of thousands of years of human habitation alongside – the Thames will do nicely. Get yourself some maps and tide calendars and a knowledge of history. Get your eye in, you only have to look. And you are all set. Within minutes you’ll likely pick up a bit of an old clay pipe, some nails, and, if you are not careful, an unpleasant water-borne disease, a welly-boot full of stinking mud and be trapped by the sea coming in.
You will need a long-suffering partner – Lara Maiklem’s wife has only visited the foreshore a couple of times ever – who doesn’t mind you coming up smelling of the riverbank and stuffing your house with twenty years’ worth of bits of broken crockery, dolls’ heads and bits of metal type. For Lara is the sort of person who writes ” I came to bricks fairly late, having ignored them for many years, but they are surprisingly interesting…”
Whatever we have used, it has ended up in the Thames. Chucked in or dumped, mostly, as sewerage is a fairly modern invention. Or lost. At one time there were 12,000 wherries operating on the Thames, the taxi service of the day, and things – and sometimes people – fell overboard.
From time to time Maiklem over-uses “perhaps” in imagining who might have held the 400 year old item that has just surfaced. She is on more solid ground when she researches the real stories of coins, tokens, beads, pin-heads, pipe-bowls and the former buildings that lined the Thames giving rise to the particular rubbish outside their premises. Because mostly this is the rubbish of the past, buried in mud for hundreds of years. The mud preserved the material as it was without oxygen, which sometimes meant that items that surfaced would break down on contact with the air and fresh water.
The history of mudlarking is not a great one – it’s the story of the London poor who would scrabble for bits of metal, coal and the debris of ships and rubbish generally to survive. This at a time when the Thames was the heart of our Empire’s shipping and an open sewer. Indeed, as late as 1957 the water of the Thames was considered to be dead. Even now there are places on the foreshore where the soil contains “asbestos, lead, arsenic and cadmium. It is filled with poisons and carcinogens…” And there is our modern additions of plastic and micro-plastics too.
Maiklem is one of the mudlarkers who uses her eyes, not metal detectors, scanning the ground carefully – mostly down on her knees wearing fetid kneepads and only slightly less fetid overalls. (Please don’t sit next to me on the tube…) She is critical of the mudlarkers who use metal detectors or who dig deep in the foreshore, their holes encouraging erosion. There’s a wonderful section of photos in her book showing some of her finds – and I would like to see more.
The best story, however, is hinted at on the cover. The title page, the running heads of the book and some of the text is typeset in Dove. The owners of the Dove typeface (in the days of metal type) fell out and every bit of it was chucked in the Thames in 1916. One hundred years later a designer wanted to recreate Dove and started trawling the banks around Hammersmith where he knew it had been dumped. After twenty minutes at low tide he found the letter “i”. Of the 500,000 bits of type thrown in the river, with the help of some divers, he found 150 or so – the site had had concrete poured on it during a bridge repair. But he did not find a comma – Maiklem did.
Another reason to read this book is to learn more about the history and geography of London – the most tantalising part being the story of the Tower Beach where 1500 barges of yellow Essex sand was dumped on the foreshore in 1934 to create a “London Riviera”. In 1935 100,000 Londoners went to their own “seaside” to build sandcastles, watch Punch and Judy shows and the like. It was closed in 1971 due to concerns about pollution and all that now remains is a much smaller half-moon of yellow sand, the rest washed away by the tide.
Ross Bradshaw
Mudlarking is available here – fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/mudlarking/