Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Auschwitz’

Son of Saul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th September, 2016

son_of_saul_posterThe stark reality of the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz are hard for the human mind to imagine, even when one visits the eerily empty huts that have been preserved on site. And although concentration camps have figured in many Hollywood movies — Spielberg’s Schindler’s List perhaps being the best-known example — none conveyed the true atmosphere in the way László Nemes’s Son of Saul achieves. It is a grey and brown world cut off from normal life, the air filled with smoke and the barked orders of the German SS overlords and their Polish and Jewish kapo underlings, the noise of banging doors and the shrill cries of victims arriving on transports and being shepherded to their death. The film — the director’s first — focuses on one man, Saul (brilliantly played by the Hungarian writer and poet Géza Rohrig), who is one of a team that empty the Jews’ clothes of valuables, drag the lifeless bodies to the furnaces, shovel coal and throw human ashes into a river, beyond which the “real” world exists, if only they could escape. Conversation is in brief, snatched moments, as they fulfill their gruesome tasks like automatons, all at great speed, chivied on by blows and threats. The camera rarely leaves Saul’s face, the action around him often reduced to a blur. He is emotionless, as if his mind has retreated into the innermost part of his being, until he sees a boy who briefly survives the gas chamber before being killed and whose body Saul latches on to as if it were his own son, desperately trying to locate a rabbi among the transports to give the boy a proper burial.

son-of-saulSon of Saul deservedly won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year. I saw it at a screening at the EBRD in London last night, after which Géza Rohrig (unrecognisable behind a bushy black beard) was interviewed by Henry Fitzherbert, film critic of the Sunday Express. The actor was so affected by the experience of working on the film that he got circumcised and traveled to Israel to study Judaism. He made the telling point that other films about the Holocaust tended to focus on the one in three Jews who survived rather than the two who perished, whereas Son of Saul concentrates totally on the victims. They all die, and there is a grim inevitability about that which gives the film so much of its power, making it literally unforgettable.

 

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Holocaust Memorial Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th January, 2016

Auschwitz BerkenauMore than 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the lessons of the Holocaust are still highly relevant. Over the past year there has been a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other instances of ethnic and religious discrimination, not least in Europe, and Holocaust Memorial Day is a stark reminder of just how terribly wrong things can go when prejudice and discriminatory behaviour are considered acceptable and reach extremes. The refugee and migrant crisis of the past year has given rise to some splendid spontaneous acts of generosity but it has also provoked negative reactions in some quarters. Hearing the British Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons today refer dismissively to “a bunch of migrants” I found chilling, as well as reflecting a disturbing element of entitlement within the current Conservative government. Even worse has been the shameful proposition from the government in Denmark to seize valuables from asylum seekers. Don’t the Danes realise what dreadful echoes of the not-so-distant past that provokes? Europe is undeniably under pressure at the moment but the way forward is to cooperate with compassion, not to scapegoat vulnerable communities and incomers. Even among our indigenous populations in Europe there are growing numbers of marginalised and dispossessed people, including homeless in our cities, not least London. We should not fall into the trap of looking down on people, including those sleeping in the streets, because that is the start of a slippery slope.

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Holocaust Memorial Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th January, 2015

Karel BaracsEvery year on Holocaust Memorial Day I go to a commemoration of some kind, usually at an embassy of one of the central or eastern European states, but this year was special — and not only because the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was being marked. Europe House, the London offices of the European Commission and the European Parliament, housed a remarkable show this evening: Why Tram 8 No Longer Runs. A monologue by the self-styled Story-teller of Amsterdam, Karel Baracs, with musical accompaniment, recounts the true story of how two young Dutch women — one Karel’s mother — managed to spirit 80 Jewish children out of a creche set up by the Nazis prior to their intended deportation and extermination, one or two at a time. In particular the narration focussed on the experience of a six-year-old girl and her two-year-old brother taken to safety to live on the farm of a gentile couple, with the active participation of a Jewish man who had been hiding in a basement in Amsterdam for months — and who after the War married Karel’s mother. As with all good storytelling, the facts only emerge gradually, amidst passages of suspense and moments of humorous relief. The tragic back-story is that most if not all of the parents of the rescued children did perish in concentration camps or under other dreadful conditions. There are bad guys among the Dutch, as well as heroes, in the story, as well as one good German soldier, who played a crucial role in ensuring the two infants and Karel’s father survived. These are the sort of stories that must never be forgotten, even as the last Holocaust survivors die out and it was a wonderful tribute, as well as a moving performance, to have a descendant keeping the flame of memory so brilliantly alive.

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Gerald Howson: A Very Polish Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th May, 2014

Gerald Howson PolandGerald HowsonIn 1959, at the height of the Cold War, the British photographer Gerald Howson was sent to Poland to take pictures for Queen magazine, in principle to illustrate an article that would be written by a friend of mine (long since deceased), the writer Frank Tuohy, who was then working for the British Council in Warsaw. What Gerald found was a country trying to recover from being marched over, occupied, divided up for centuries and latterly dominated by Soviet Russia. He took his cameras into the streets of Warsaw, Krakow and other towns and cities, photographing ordinary people and everyday scenes, deliberately not artfully constructed, almost surreptitiously, though many people realised he was snapping away and were quite unconcerned about it. Frank never wrote his article, as he worried that identifiable people might suffer because of it, and Gerald did not find it easy to place many of his pictures on his return home, as they did not fit into the then popular genres of fashion or glamour. The Polish authorities weren’t too happy, either, asking him where were the pictures of people dancing and being happy (as Gerald says openly now, “there weren’t any!”). Many years later, a former BBC World Service colleague of mine, Bogdan Frymorgen, who was searching for images for a museum of 20th century Polish history, from the layperson’s point of view, went to see Gerald and discovered the treasure trove of black and white images that he had stored in a chest of drawers. The net result is a fascinating exhibition, which has already been shown in Poland but is now in the 12 Star Gallery at Europe House in Smith Square, London (the HQ of the European Commission and European Parliament’s offices in London) until 13 June. There are some stunning images, several of them drawing their power from their very banality, but often with an unspoken deeper message behind, such as the almost deserted but rubble-strewn streets of the Jewish quarter in Krakow or two little boys with cows in a field, with the menacing fence of Auschwitz in the background. Gerald — now in his 90s, but scintillating in conversation, as well as in the historical writings that have occupied his later years — captivated the people present at the exhibition’s London vernissage this evening when he declared that people in Poland in 1959 were just so bored of the Soviets being there. The same cannot be said of him or his work; one can get a good flavour from the following video clip on YouTube: 

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International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th January, 2011

Cities round much of the world will be marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day today, as several years ago the United Nations designated 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Last night, the Slovak Embassy in London held a memorial event that mixed glorious music (courtesy of members of the Slovak National Opera) with moving testimony by Holocaust survivors and other reatives of those who perished in the worst case of genocide in human history. The Jews were the largest group who were condemned by Hitler’s Final Solution, but as a Polish rabbi who spoke at the event pointed out, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled, amongst others, all were declared undesirable and destined for extermination. It is hard to credit that there are still Holocaust deniers in this world, given all the physical and documentary evidence, which is why it is important that new generations are made aware of what happened. And even those, like myself, who often find the policies of the present Israeli government towards the Palestinians despicable — as well as illegal — and so campaign for justice and respect for International Law in the Middle East, must not forget what happened to the Jews in the last century.

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Degrees of Theft

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd December, 2009

Every evening in Bangkok, as I walk from Sathorn to Silom to have dinner, I pass a sacred tree, which juts out into the pavement, the base of its trunk painted white. Ranged around it are scores of votive offerings, most of them tiny model elephants. They’ve been there as long as I can remember and they are never moved, though sometimes they get dusted with white or red powder. It would be unthinkable for anyone to steal one, even though they just sit there, day and night. Looking at them this evening, I was reminded of the time, years ago, when I sailed to Abu Simbel on the first cruise boat to operate on Lake Nasser. I stayed overnight on the vessel and went for a late night walk round the little settlement that serves the temple. The day trippers had long since flown back to Luxor or Cairo, but thousands of statuettes and other souvenirs were still laid out on tables near the site, not guarded by anybody. The following morning, when I asked some of the vendors whether they weren’t woried that someone would steal something during the night, they looked at me as if I was mad.

In the one case, it is religion that preserves the votive elephants in Thailand; it would be a form of sacrilege to remove them. But in the other case, it is a matter of honesty — and community spirit — albeit rooted in a moral principle backed up by the force of Koranic scripture. Moral strictures can be very strong, which is why, I suppose, so many people (including me) were scandalised when robbers pinched the iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from the entrance to Auschwitz concetraion camp. Mercifully it was quickly retrieved, though cut up into three sections. But when it comes to burglaries in a country like England — whether from houses or gardens or cars — often the stolen goods are not retrieved and one wonders about the mentality and morality of the people who thieve. I have lost count of the number of times our window boxes — full of plants — have been nicked from the living room window-ledge during the night and have ceased wondering what happens to them. Petty theft is so common — and considered so trivial, including by the police — that it is shrugged off as part of modern society. But this is not just a matter of material losses, either great or small. Theft is a violation of people, often unknown, individually or collectively — which is why most religions speak out so strongly against it. And it is one reason why ‘modern societies’ like Britain need to to regain their moral compass.

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