Surviving The Death Railway -Review

This book documents two things: what happens to the  men of 27 Line Section when they are captured by the Japanese during WWII, and the efforts of Barry Custance Baker and his wife Phyllis, not only to keep in touch with each other but the valiant efforts of Phyllis to keep the families of other prisoners of war as well informed as possible regarding the fate of the men.

deathrailwayT

Phyllis was in regular contact by letter with relatives of the captured men who, for a long time, had no idea whether or not they were still alive, where they were, or what condition they were in. Over a period of time she compiled what someone at the War Office referred to as a ‘fearsome dossier’. She could not have worked harder at this. Many letters from relatives are quoted, and without exception the relatives, mostly women, do their level best to express themselves and their feelings even when they know their letter-writing skills could be better.

The enforced slave labour of the POWs has been well documented, and is so again here. Barry proved to be an enormously resourceful man who did his utmost to help his men in the appalling conditions they found themselves. Many died, and at one point he was given the job of making crosses to mark their graves. There was also the ever-present danger of disease and the measures the POWs were forced to take to combat it.

‘There were, of course, no antibiotics regularly available though small quantities of one of the sulpha drugs did appear occasionally. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb, almost always a leg, would be amputated. Markowitz got to work immediately to sort out the backlog. It is recorded that he took off over a hundred legs in his first month.’

On the subject of these nice Japanese:

‘To discourage looting from the windowless shops anyone caught by the Japanese Special Police, the Kempi Tai [Kempeitai], was immediately beheaded. The heads were then displayed on small bamboo stands at street corners in the city, each head being guarded by a Japanese sentry with a fixed bayonet. Each stand also had a small notice in English and in Chinese characters describing the man’s crime. The Japanese policy, as we later learned, was to be generally very anti European and pro Asiatic, this being part of the ‘Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere’.’

And yet, what struck me most about this account was the amazing efforts of Phyllis to keep her marriage alive through writing, which provides a strong narrative thread running through the book. She adopted the technique of numbering her letters so that Barry could tell at once if one or more had failed to arrive. But sometimes her problem was what to include, how forthright to be. She could be very forthright indeed.

‘Now I’ll say goodnight and try to dream I am sharing that small bungalow and big bed with you. All day I want my husband and Robin’s Daddy home again, but now I want a lover back, and those times when you read bits of Bilitis, or Song of Songs to me before we once again translated their subtle, delicate, sensuous imaginings to glorious reality. My body lacks the vigorous, healthful stimulus of your presence, beloved, almost as much as my mind the perfect peace & relaxation of our fulfilled love. I can keep myself busy during the day, but at night I ache for you, body and soul. Remember, won’t you, your love means my whole life, darling.’

When reading a passage like this I feel uneasy, an intruder. Phyllis herself was aware of this possibility; on one occasion she writes:

‘My own dear darling, If when you get this you are with a crowd of people, please put it away to be read for another time. For I feel so full of love & longing for you, that I may be very indiscreet.’

It is known that Phyllis kept a diary but the editor of this volume, her daughter Hilary, was unable to find it and wonders whether she destroyed it because of the intimate passages it contained. We shall never know.

One factor here had to be the mental effect on Barry of the privation he suffered for several years as a POW, magnified by the responsibility he felt for those under his command and for whom he could do much less than he would have liked. Towards the end, after he has been freed but before his return, he writes:

‘I am very sick of my fellow men, and I’ve a terrible distaste for orders or authority in any form and even stronger distaste for any personal responsibility. This will disappear quite soon I hope. Whether I stay in the army or not must depend on a later decision. When I am mentally fitter than I now am to make it. Just now an army career fills me with horror.’

Hilary Custance Green has done an amazing job bringing order to the disparate materials at her disposal and bringing them into a coherent narrative. I read that it took her six years to complete this work and I can well believe it. But her efforts have paid off in an excellent book which, among other things, is a fitting tribute to her amazing parents.

hilary-custance-green

 

 

Learning by accident

When we arrived we went to our hotel, a well-designed modern building; every room has a picture window view over the river.

Victoria Hotel 3

This photograph of the parliament building was taken through the window of our bedroom.

Parliament from bedroom

To one side of Reception was a bar, to the other a dining room.

Victoria Hotel 2

But behind Reception, to the rear of the building, was something else entirely, an area normally kept locked. Through the doorway we could see beautifully carved woodwork and a flight of stairs.  ‘What is this?’ we asked the receptionist. This, he told us, was a reconstruction of rooms where a famous composer had lived before the Nazis invaded. The house had been destroyed during the defence of Budapest against the Soviets when Germans and Hungarians had tried to hold off Russians and Romanians.

And who was the famous composer? He was Jenő Hubay, which disconcerted me a lot because I hadn’t heard of him. A little research found that he was a fine violin player who had studied with Joseph Joachim, played chamber music with Brahms and had a string of famous pupils himself, including Carl Nielsen’s son-in-law, Emil Telmanyi, for whom Nielsen wrote his violin concerto.

B_hubay_jeno_0

The owners of the hotel have carefully reconstructed some of Hubay’s house, where he used to hold recitals until his death in 1937. They were so popular that his wife started them up again two years later.

Hubay rooms 2Hubay rooms 1

Hubay has a considerable number of compositions to his credit. These include operas and also, as you would expect, compositions for the violin including four concertos. It sometimes happens that when a virtuoso writes concertos for his or her instrument they are strong on technical demands but weak in musical interest. This is not always the case, though, and certainly isn’t with Jenő Hubay. His concertos are excellent and well scored. Here is the excellent Ragin playing part of the third concerto.

And there are a few recordings featuring Hubay himself.

Two more little wrinkles. Hubay married a countess, Róza Cebrian.

Hubay and Cebrian

And then there is the Chaplin connection. Chaplin’s daughter, Antoinette, studied violin with Jenő Hubay in Budapest in the 1920’s and often mentioned Hubay and members of his family in letters home.

But I have just begun to explore all this and haven’t even mentioned General Bem.

Does History Tell the Future?

There are questions I can’t answer: is the frog the farmer’s friend, does history tell the future?

Many believe that history repeats itself, and looking back there is evidence of that, but telling the future is something else again.

I have been reading Black Sea, by Neal Ascherson.

Appearing on television discussion programme A...

Appearing on television discussion programme After Dark in 1987 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not a work of marine biology but a history of the human activity in the Black Sea area over hundreds of years. It is full of detail and constantly interesting, but I was struck by these passages.

‘Tomorrow it will be the turn of the customs officers and frontier guards of the European Union to be outwitted and “hunted” by ten million illegal, inaccessible, fast moving aporoi immigrants.’ (Page 56)

‘That nightmare survives in the new Europe after the revolutions of 1989. It survives as Western fear of all travelling people, of the millions pressing against Europe’s gates as “asylum-seekers’ or “economic migrants”, of a social collapse in Russia which would send half the population streaming hungrily towards Germany.’ (Page 76)

The  Black Sea was published in 2007.

Love and Survival in the Gulag

Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag

This book, by Orlando Figes, tells the story of two people, Lev and Svetlana, forcibly kept apart because Lev is serving ten years in the Soviet Gulag.

How did this come about? He was captured by the Germans, escaped to the Americans, then chose to return to Russia. At which point he was charged with being a spy and sent to a labour camp. The fact that he could speak German didn’t help, but it didn’t make him a spy either.

Once separated, they communicated by letter. Most of the letters have survived – over 1,240 of them. As is well known, letters were censored, so in some cases reading between the lines was necessary. But since it proved relatively easy to smuggle letters in and out of the camp, they soon became more candid.

Although this huge cache of letters needed to be translated for this book, Lev and Svetlana helped the author in his task by numbering them. This was not with an eye on posterity, but a method of alerting each other to the fact that a letter had gone missing, or that letters had arrived but in the wrong order. This betrays a methodical approach befitting two people both of whom were scientists.

The letters left an unexpected impression on this reader. The fact that the regime was run on inhumane and paranoid lines did not come as a surprise, but both Lev and Svetlana were in some ways supportive of it despite having inside knowledge of some of its worst horrors and stupidities. This attitude is hard to explain, but since it didn’t trouble the authors they make no attempt to account for it.

One aspect of the Gulag system which did not occur to me was why it was bound to fail. In the years immediately after the war, show trials resulted in a good supply of prisoners to the Gulag. But as the trials reduced in number at the input end and prisoners were released when they finished their sentences, the population of slave labourers started to fall off dramatically.

So what are we to make of our lovers? This can be well illustrated by an observation Figes makes about Svetlana.

She was a practical person, emotionally generous, often warm in her affections, but far too honest and plain-speaking to succumb to romantic illusions.

Or as she puts it herself:

Sentimental words about love (both lofty and cheap) produce the same effect on me as commerce. Mine to you, just as yours to me. From them stem never-ending grievances. P70

If I had to summarise this book in a word, that word would be ‘worthy’. It is worthy because Lev and Svetlana were worthy. Good people who were put in a horrendous situation by a corrupt system and wrote to each other over a period of ten years about their feelings and their lives.

I am reminded of other books dealing with life in repressive regimes, such as Wild Swans.The people who rise to positions of power in these regimes like to bend everyone to their will, for example, by killing them in their millions. And in extreme cases they may try to bend things to their will as will.

Wild Swans, Chang's first international bestseller

Wild Swans, Chang’s first international bestseller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mao declared war on grass and flowers – which should be hard to believe but is not.

Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

I have recently read two novels set during the Third Reich: The Death of the Adversary, by Hans Keilson (1959) and Alone in Berlin (1947). I have already posted a review of The Death of the Adversary (under Book Reviews) and am following it now with a review of Alone in Berlin which, in my opinion, is very much better.

Hans Fallada is not the author’s real name. He came up with a nom de plume on the advice of his father, who knew only too well that his son had been jailed for killing a friend in a duel and, on two occasions after that, for embezzlement. What a deplorable person, I hear you say – especially compared to Hans Keilson, a notable psychoanalyst who lived to the ripe old age of 101 after a lifetime of good works.

English: 100th day of birth of Hans Fallada (1...

English: 100th day of birth of Hans Fallada (1893—1947) Deutsch: 100. Geburtstag von Hans Fallada (1893—1947) :*Graphics by Nitzsche :*Ausgabepreis: 100 Pfennig :*First Day of Issue / Erstausgabetag: 15. Juli 1993 :*Michel-Katalog-Nr: 1683 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of Fallada we can safely say that there was little concerning human weakness with which he was not well acquainted, including reliance on what we would now call substance abuse for most of his adult life. Now people with human weaknesses are all around us, and no doubt inside us as well, but life under a repressive regime like the Third Reich will expose weaknesses rather more than would be the case in the relatively comfortable societies we now inhabit in the west.  Alone in Berlin has many weak characters and a wide range of weaknesses on display.  Fallada’s life experiences equipped him singularly well to give us these people, but Fallada could also write.  He brings them to life. And there are strengths too.

The story is based on a real case, and if you buy the Penguin edition you will find considerable documentation about it as an appendix. A couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, fought a campaign against the Reich by writing postcards and leaving them to be found. The postcards called for civil disobedience and sabotage in the workplace, and the Hampels managed to keep it going for nearly three years before they were caught.

In the novel, the Hampels become Otto and Anna Quangel, and it is amazing how the apparently simple act of leaving critical postcards on stairways and window ledges can cause dilemmas for all concerned, including the police and the Gestapo. Neither  the Hampels in real life nor the Quangels in the book are highly educated, but they have considerable moral force and the determination to fight for what they believe to be right. Their philosophy, which seems to have been shared by the author, is found in several places.

‘Anna Quangel felt herself trembling. Then she looked over at Otto again. He might be right: whether their act was big or small. No one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.’ (Page 140)

On one level they are kidding themselves in thinking that their postcards were having an effect: most of them when found were handed straight over to the police. Fallada explains their state of mind.

‘Neither Quangel doubted for one moment that their cards were being passed from hand to hand in factories and offices, that Berlin was beginning to hum with talk about these oppositional spirits. They conceded that some of their cards probably wound up in the hands of the police, but they reckoned no more than one out of every five or six. They had so often thought and spoken about the great effectiveness of their work that the circulation of their cards and the attention that greeted them was, as far as they were concerned, no longer theoretical but factual.

And yet the Quangels didn’t have the least actual evidence for this. Whether it was Anna Quangel standing in a food-queue, or the foreman with his sharp eyes taking up position among a group of chatterers – bringing their prattle to an end merely by standing there – not once did they hear a word about the new struggler against the Führer and the missives this unknown sent out into the world. But the silence that greeted their work could not shake them in their faith that it was being discussed and having an effect. Berlin was a very large city, and the scattering of the postcards took place over a very wide area, so it was clear that it would take time for knowledge of their activities to permeate everywhere. In other words, the Quangels were like most people: they believed what they hoped.’ (Page167)

On the other hand, the Gestapo officer charged with tracking down the culprits, Inspector Escherich, is under so much pressure to get a result that he puts someone in the frame whom he knows well is not involved. The man in question is Enno Kluge, and this part of the narrative comes to a head in Chapter 32. The following quotation does not reveal the upshot of this scene between the two men, but it does paint a graphic picture of the treatment suspects could expect. Violence is the stock in trade of the Gestapo and the SS. He goes into detail concerning the interrogation techniques of the latter.

‘It’s you they want now, Kluge, the gentlemen of the SS, and they’re keen to question you in their own inimitable fashion. They believe the statement, and they believe you’re the author, or at the very least, the distributor of the cards. And they’ll wring that from you, they’ll wring everything they want from you with their techniques, they’ll squeeze you like an orange, and then they’ll beat your brains out, or they’ll put you on trial before the People’s Court, which comes to pretty much the same thing, only your agonies will be more drawn out.’

The inspector paused, and the wholly terrified Kluge pressed himself trembling against him – the man he had just called a murderer – as though seeking help from him.

`But you know it wasn’t me!’ he stammered. ‘God’s own truth! You can’t deliver me to them, I can’t stand it, I’ll scream . . .’

`Of course you’ll scream,’ affirmed the inspector equably. ‘Of course you will. But that won’t bother them, they’ll enjoy it. You know what, Kluge, they’ll sit you down on a stool and they’ll hang a strong light in your face, and you’ll keep staring into the light, and the heat and the brightness will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. And at the same time they will ask you questions, one man will take over from another, but no one will take over from you, however exhausted you get. Then when you fall over from exhaustion, they’ll rouse you with kicks and blows, and they’ll give you salt water to drink, and when none of that does any good, they will dislocate every bone in your hand one by one. They will pour acid on the soles of your feet . . .’

`Please stop, sir, oh, please stop, I can’t hear any more . . .’

`Not only will you hear it, you will have to suffer it, Kluge, for a day, for two, three, five days – and all the time, day and night they will give you nothing to eat, your belly will shrivel up to the size of a string bean, and you will think you can die from sheer pain. But you won’t die; once they have someone in their hands, they don’t let them go that easily. No, they will . . .’

`No, no, no,’ screamed little Enno, holding his hands over his ears. ‘I don’t want to hear any more. Not one more word. I’d rather be dead!’

`Yes, I think you’re right there,’ confirmed the inspector, ‘you’d be better off.’  (Pages 296/297)

Partly because they are that way inclined, but also because they do not want to put anyone else in danger, the Quangels become increasingly self-reliant, without realising the nature of the state they are opposing, one in which everyone is expected to toe the party line.

‘So, increasingly, they took refuge in their happiness as husband and wife. They were like a pair of lovers clasped together in a flood, with waves and currents, collapsing houses and the bloated corpses of cattle all around them, still believing they would escape the general devastation if they only stuck together. They had failed to understand that there was no such thing as private life in wartime Germany. No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.’ (Page 306)

In due course the ‘law’ catches up with them, and Fallada takes us through the process of interrogation, imprisonment and trial in great detail.

There are quite a few characters in this book, and they are all brought out very well: the venal Emil Borkhausen, the excellent retired judge, Herr Fromm, the strutting party member Baldur Persicke, the post-woman Eva Kluge, and young Trudel Baumann, to name just a few. Fallada brings out their states of mind remarkably well as their situations change – usually, but not always for the worse. And the narrative notwithstanding, this is really what the book is about. In my opinion, it is a major achievement and one of the best novels I have read.

Word of the Week 4 – Soothsayer

Today this word is taken to refer to a seer or prophet. But what is a prophet? It has two related but different meanings.

The first is one who speaks by divine inspiration. This is the sense in which Muhammad is said to be the prophet of Allah. Allah speaks through Muhammad, the Quran is divinely inspired and so the word of god.  Plainly, if there were no divinity, this definition of the word prophet would be devoid of meaning.

The word ‘prophet’ is also used to mean someone who predicts the future, and this is the denotation carried by the verb ‘to prophesy’. In this sense, prophets occur in Hebrew scripture, where the gentlemen in question (they are always men) are given to predicting that the wrath of God will fall upon the chosen people if they don’t mend their ways, live a more moral life, stop adding yeast to their bread and so on.

Though many people claim an ability to predict future events – astrologers, tipsters, assorted preachers – few are so vainglorious as to call themselves prophets.

The word ‘soothsayer’, seldom used these days, was free of all this baggage back in the old days where, as some of you must suspect by now, I like to pitch my tent. All it meant was someone who told the truth. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon words truth and say – soðsagu.

In the untitled poem we call The Wanderer, the poet says at one point, ‘Ic to soðe wat,’ meaning ‘I know it to be true’. What did he know to be true? That it was a good idea to keep your thoughts to yourself, whatever you might think. I was much influenced by this poem and have remembered the following lines since I first came across them. The poem is written in the four stress alliterative line.

Ic to soþe wat
þæt biþ in eorle             indryhten þeaw,
þæt he his ferðlocan     fæste binde,
healde his hordcofan    hycge swa he wille.

A lingering death-blow was dealt to this culture by the invasion of William the Bastard and the importation by the Norman French of their language and repressive feudal system, small vestiges of which remain with us to this day.

I do not read fantasy fiction, but I would guess that might be a good place to look for instances of the word soothsayer still in use today. Another fruitful area might be historical fiction.

The True Date of Christmas

There seems to some doubt as to when Jesus was born since there is not a shred of documentary evidence to guide us. There are other indicators, however.

According to my Christmas Cactus, the birth probably occurred some weeks earlier than we are usually led to believe. It’s quite insistent on this point, coming into full  flower some three weeks ahead of the official date every year.

christmas cactus with flash

For the purposes of this post, I have set the knowledgeable plant on a plinth of sorts for maximum effect.