Monday, 30 November 2015

Tiny Books #5 - Lilliput Aboriginal Words of Australia

My cousin has been decluttering recently, and as a result, I scored two cartons of books! Then she turned up last week with this little gem that she'd found in another box of bits and pieces:
Published by A.H. & A.W. Reed, NZ, in 1966, it was the second such publication, the first being a similar dictionary of Maori words (1962). They both followed original publications of cloth bound, regular sized editions. This is the first edition of the Lilliput version. A quick online search yielded that there is one copy of it in each of the National Library of Australia, the State Library of NSW, the State Library of Western Australia, and the Library of the University of Queensland. As well, there is one available for sale with Abe Books, and several of the Maori edition with various booksellers around the world. 
It has soft vinyl covers, plain end papers, and beautifully detailed illustrations. It's arranged as most foreign language dictionaries are with both English/Aboriginal and Aboriginal/English sections. It also makes a point of acknowledging, in the foreword, that it is a tiny sampling of Australian Indigenous vocabulary. There were some 250 country groups of Indigenous Australians, prior to white settlement in the late 18th century. They all had their own languages and cultural practices, with proximity and/or distance playing an enormous role in how disparate they could be. 
Photo courtesy of the ABC showing locations of different country groups

The book measures 39mm x 49mm. The photo below, with an Australian 20 cent coin will give some sense of size comparison:
The other reason my cousin felt I'd like to have it, apart from my book junkie tendencies, is that it was a gift from my brother and I to her father, our uncle, for his birthday in 1967, and has an inscription written in my mother's beautiful script.
We were three and a half and two and a half at the time, and I'm sure, knowing my mother, that there'd have been a sense of the fitness about two tiny children giving such a tiny book as his birthday gift. He was also a bit of a book junkie - it runs in the family, so I had no hope at all, really. Many of the books I've acquired from this declutter carry my mother's inscriptions, because she was THAT sister and aunt, who gave books, much as I have been. There's even one with an inscription from me, a gift for my uncle! 

This is quite a little treasure to add to my collection of tiny books, and has provided much enjoyment already. As DB is a Kiwi, I can see I'm going to have to follow up the Abe Book lead and get a copy of the Maori one as well....

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Waiting Room - Leah Kaminsky

Without actually trying to, I've managed a succession of Holocaust novels in my latest lot of new books. There seems to be a new 'flavour' in them of late, and I don't know if that's due to where we are in history now, with fewer and fewer Holocaust Survivors still alive, or some other factor.
The Waiting Room, by Leah Kaminsky, is definitely a bird of a different feather. It tells the story of a child of Holocaust Survivors. Australia took the largest number of Survivors per capita than any country other than Israel, after the war. Both Sydney and Melbourne had very large numbers within the Jewish communities, with others scattered throughout the smaller communities in other capital cities and smaller towns. 

Life for the children of Survivors was often fraught, many of them growing up without really knowing what had happened to their parents. They were haunted, nevertheless, by the nightmares and horrific memories that affected everyday behavior of the Survivors for the rest of their lives. In my experience with Survivors, there were those who told their stories, and those who didn't. Many who did were prompted by one of two motives - either to honour those of their families they had lost, and/or to teach others what happened in an effort to ensure it could never happen again. What they had with those Survivors who didn't tell their stories publicly, was that many of them had rarely shared their stories directly with their children. Occasionally, they'd tell their grandchildren, but not their children. When asked why not, they used to say that they didn't want their children knowing and being hurt by the stories - or that they didn't want to relive it within their families. Often, it was many years after the events before they started recounting their stories in public, and for those bearing testimony, it was frequently to school aged children in museums or schools, learning the history. That made a certain level of logical sense to me, then, thinking about them deciding to pass the stories on to their grandchildren. 

Dina is an Australian doctor living and working in Haifa, married to Eitan, an Israeli. She met him while travelling, on an unplanned visit to Israel after a medical conference in Europe. They marry, and have a son, Shlomi. As the story begins,  Shlomi is six and she is heavily pregnant with their second child. Eitan proves to be what previous boyfriends and lovers in the past have failed; able to live with the ghosts she carries with her from her parents' past. 

She grew up in Melbourne, the only child of parents who both survived the camps in Europe. Her father was in Auschwitz, having lost his wife and daughter before being deported. None of his extended family survived. Her mother was in Bergen Belsen, and was the only survivor from her family. They met in a DP (Displaced Person's) Camp, and married when they got visas for Australia. Dina's father is a quiet man, a tailor, who never speaks of his previous family. However, her mother, who keeps photos of that first wife and child, cannot stop herself relating countless tales of the horrors she endured, and stories from other Survivor friends. From Dina's earliest days, there are periods when her mother is admitted to hospital, and to add to her mother's ghosts are mysterious things like 'shock treatment' and endless absences that are explained to her as her mother needing 'a little rest'. 

Dina's father dies from a massive heart attack, and she is left caring for her increasingly fragile mother who, eventually, commits suicide by overdosing when Dina is eighteen. After qualifying as a doctor she attempts to escape the past by travelling and falling in and out of short term relationships. Eitan, a sabra (native born Israeli) who grew up on a traditional kibbutz, is a surprise to her. Exotic, calm, persistent, he holds her when she cries, and asks to be introduced to her ghosts, eventually convincing her to marry him. They choose Haifa over other Israeli cities to settle, on the basis that it is 'safer' than Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Beersheva where there are all too frequent terrorist attacks. 
However, the time is the second intifada, and attacks by suicide bombers are more frequent and widespread. Pregnant and vulnerable, Dina begins to obsess about Shlomi's safety, and the ghost of her mother, particularly, becomes more persistent, castigating her for flying off the handle and wanting to leave and go back to Australia where it's safer, telling her that her place is in Israel with her husband, because NOWHERE is safe for Jews. Eitan is struggling with the distance that is growing between them and continues to tell her that Shlomi will only become anxious if he sees her being anxious and overly protective of him. Having grown up in Israel, he is more pragmatic about the risks and understands the need to go on living as normally as possible. Dina is unable to find a similar pragmatism.

The book is, essentially, a story of one woman's struggle to reconcile the fears of the past and those of her present. She finds herself talking back to her mother's ghost while in the middle of other conversations with actual people as her mother's presence begins to dominate more and more as her own stress levels rise. In real time, the story is a tale of a single day when there is a terror warning for Haifa, and Dina ricochets between her surgery, Shlomi's school, the local shuk, and back to the surgery. It is her very panic and inability to stay in one place that ultimately saves her from dying in the attack, as she doesn't make it back to the surgery in time to be inside the building when the bomb is detonated. Instead, she is out by her car, knocked down by the blast and witnessing everything.

At a time when, once again, Israelis going about their everyday lives are being threatened by lone wolf attacks from Palestinian terrorists, this book is chilling. My friends in Israel are living the fears, stresses and anxiety that Dina goes through in that one day. They don't necessarily have the ghosts of Survivor parents haunting them. However, many must have ghosts of friends and family lost in both intifadas. When I was there in 2008, it was a calm period. But one of the Australian in my group studying at Yad Vashem took us one evening to a Jerusalem restaurant for dinner. A restaurant that had been rebuilt after it had been blown up during the second intifada, killing many innocent people, including friends of his. There is a memorial plaque at the entrance with a list of the names of the dead. He wanted to take us there; he always goes when in Jerusalem. 

Although, at the end of the book, Dina goes back to Melbourne with her son and newly born daughter (named after her father's first child), she knows she will go back to Haifa. She knows that the way forward is to be tenacious and grab onto life in Israel with Eitan. My friend goes back to that restaurant to eat for the same reason, and in honour of his friends.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Book of Aaron - Jim Shepard

I've read some tough Holocaust books - both fact and fiction - but I have to say, Jim Shepard's The Book of Aaron is right up there with the toughest.
Set in the Warsaw Ghetto, the book begins as the walls to shut the Jews in from the rest of the city are being built. Nine year old Aaron's family lives within the area that is being enclosed, having previously moved from the country when his father was offered work in a Warsaw factory. The family is often at odds with each other, relationships are brittle and frequently acrimonious. Aaron is nicknamed Sh'maya (a play on the Hebrew 'sh'ma' - 'hear') by an uncle who says he 'did so many things that made him put his finger to his nose as a warning and say, 'God has heard.''. He doesn't like school and comes home with unsatisfactory on all his reports. His parents are constantly frustrated with him, but are mostly unable to convince him of the benefits of knuckling down. He seems to deliberately continue to provoke them by getting into more trouble - almost as if any attention is going to be good attention, even being in trouble.

As more and more people are moved into the Ghetto and daily live gets more and more difficult, Aaron teams up with a gang of other children smuggling food via tunnels in the walls. It is dangerous, and often they fluke escaping the authorities - German, Polish and Jewish. His gang is as dysfunctional as his family, constantly sniping at one another and inflicting punishments on each other. Aaron is often the butt of their fears and frustration of their collective circumstances, as he is frequently unsure of himself and cries enough to aggravate them. 

Uncertainty is the norm for everyone in the Ghetto as, first, men and older boys are rounded up and taken off to 'work details', and then deportations to the death camps begin. Disease starts to take its toll. First Aaron's younger brother dies. Then his father and older brothers disappear in a 'work' roundup. Through a contact within the Ghetto's Jewish police, he manages, in exchange for intelligence of underground activities, to get occasional word of them. Eventually that dries up, but he is now caught up in having to make reports to his police contact. Then his mother dies of typhus and he is left alone. 

When he and a fellow gang member, Lutek, are caught, Lutek is shot, but he is let off - no doubt to take word of potential consequences back to his gang, and others like them. The rest of the gang no longer trust him and he is left with no one to turn to. Having had a number of chance encounters with Janusz Korczak, director of an orphanage for Jewish children, he seeks refuge there, and begins a strange relationship with Kosczak - part colleague, part protege, part protector. 

Janusz Korczak was a world renowned pediatrician, writer and educator. When the Ghetto walls were erected, he received countless offers to be rescued, hidden, looked after. He refused them all, because he wouldn't leave the children. One of the legendary figures of the Holocaust, he was transported, along with all the children and orphanage staff, to the death camp, Treblinka, where they were gassed on arrival. 

The narrative of the novel creates a picture of those last weeks in the Ghetto within the orphanage before they were ordered to the trains to be deported. Most of what I've read of Korczak paints a noble portrait of a sensitive, self-sacrificing, intelligent man, who devotes his life to children and their welfare. Shepard offers up a portrayal that shows us a man down to his last resources, worn out begging for food and money for the children, ill with malnutrition and a heart condition, despondent and depressed. He smokes too much, drinks too much, doesn't sleep enough, and smells bad. He is often frustrated and angry, but never with the children. Aaron shadows him trying, along with orphanage staff, to discourage him from going out as it gets more and more dangerous. Aaron, in turn, is terrified of going out, fearing retribution from those gang members still alive, and of being picked up again by the authorities. 

Ultimately, the order comes for the orphanage to be deported. In the chaos of the Umschlagplatz - the square where the Jews were gathered before being put on the trains - their arrival in neat, orderly lines, four abreast, with Korczak leading them, is one of the most poignant scenes reported. The novel ends as Koczak is lifting the smallest children into the cattle trucks, and we know there were no survivors. 

I had to not read this book at night, in the end. It gave me nightmares. I've had Holocaust nightmares for years, particularly since studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, doing an educator's course there for my then job at the Sydney Jewish Museum. I've heard many Survivor testimonies, I've read so many books, and watched countless documentaries. During the course - nineteen days straight, with only Saturdays off - we all lost it at some point. On the whole though, I developed ways of keeping it at a bit of a distance. A great deal of Holocaust fiction is 'sanitised', to a point. There's a sense sometimes, of a certain degree of nobility in the suffering - which of course, there really wasn't. 
Shepard's book doesn't have any of that. It's gritty and raw. The dirt, disease, monotony and suffering are not hidden or minimised. Aaron's family argue. The relationship between his parents is fragile and deeply flawed. He appears to mostly be afraid of his father. He has a close bond with his mother, but that is cracked often with her despair over many of his actions. 

There is nothing elegant about Shepard's text - it is terse, and pointed. The sentences are mostly short and abrupt. Descriptions are very basic. Dirt is dirt, the misery is miserable. I have a highly tuned visual sense, and reading this book created dark imagery in my head as I read. I found it very difficult to shake off, so after the first night of bad dreams, kept different books by the bed for night time reading. My sense is that this is an important book. At a time when many of the last Survivors are dying of old age, the history is becoming more distant. There is nothing quite like hearing first hand testimony from a Survivor. For me, the style of this book came close, even though it is a work of fiction. 

I think that, perhaps, this is an important book. There is nothing of the 'story' about it really. It feels real. It's not an easy read, but it's one I think I'm glad I persevered with - for all the attendant difficulties.