Tuesday, 16 May 2017

This is the book that put me through all the emotions from A to Z and then some.

East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands is an incredible book: it received rave reviews, it is still on the best-seller list and won the Baillie Gifford prize for non fiction. If you want to read the most eloquent of the reviews, google The Oxford Culture Review East West Street - for some reason the link won’t work.

It was published over a year ago but I have only just read it.  I knew I would read it but I couldn’t bring myself to.  If that sounds a bit pathetic – this is why.

I was born and grew up in South Africa after the Second World War. My father had volunteered for the Army – there was no conscription and it was a toss-up whether the South African government would support the Allies or the Axis.  He was a surgeon, newly married in 1940 and felt that it was his duty, especially as they knew whatever was happening in Germany was bad for the Jews – the full horrors were not apparent. He spoke little about his military service although I did know that he served on a British Hospital ship the “AMRA” and they went in behind the troop ships after various landings and the wounded were ferried back – they operated continuously with ten minute breaks. In the days when speed counted, he was very quick and accurate.

We move onto the 1950s.  By then the horror of the concentration camps had emerged, the Nuremberg trials had taken place and the phrases “Crimes against Humanity” and “Genocide” were appearing.  My childhood was spent rather in a bubble but my teenage years were haunted by what I learned. Our families had left Poland and Lithuania for the UK, USA and South Africa before the beginning of the 20th Century so our immediate family was not directly affected but many that we knew were. As the stories came out it was like a miasma that hung over us – far away as we were. Of course there were documentaries and  “The Diary of a Young Girl” also known as “The Diary of Anne Frank”. How potent to read that at a similar age to the girl who wrote it. And it wasn’t just the non-fiction – such as William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” but the fiction and films – Leon Uris “Exodus” and “Mila 18”.

I find world events and the swirling political maelstrom very troubling at the moment so fiction is my distraction.  I am very visual when I read and live the books so I am a little resistant to reading non-fiction about the horrors of Nazi Germany and WW2 these days.  That is why I delayed reading East West Street.  Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.  It has all the excitement and tension of my favourite genre – crime fiction:  this is not to trivialise it, the pulling apart of the threads and weaving together of patches of information is totally absorbing. The personalities and the challenges of the individuals leap out of the page into your head; the research involved was extraordinary. The tension between “Crime against Humanity” and “Genocide” continues to this day.

If you only read one book this year, make it this one.

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