Thursday, 23 July 2009

Book Review: Landscapes of Memory

Landscapes of Memory: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, by Ruth Klüger

Is it right to laugh at a Holocaust story? Is it wrong to not feel sympathy for certain people who - though certainly never deserving of such an horrific end to their lives - are described as being unpleasant? According to Elena Lappin's review of this book, in The Guardian, "the millions of Holocaust victims were not a dehumanised, faceless mass but real people, each a separate individual with his or her character and life story". In my humble opinion, the tragedy of the Holocaust springs from the flawed belief and fervent assertion that all Jews were essentially the same corrupt and detrimental influence on an otherwise great nation. The fact that each and every Jew who suffered the humiliation of a ghetto or concentration camp, or the ignominy of racially-motivated murder, was an individual, and therefore capable of being a nasty person in their own right is hugely important.

Klüger went through everything but the gas chamber, which she narrowly escaped due to a mixture of luck and paranoid foresight on the part of her mother Alma. Her father and half-brother were not as fortunate, nor were most members of her extended family, but at no point did I feel more sorry for them for being related to the author. In fact, sentimentality is thrown right out of the window, here. Küger is clearly keen to underline how history has made the Jews more victimised than the Nazis ever could. The overwhelming feeling transmitted is one of anger: anger at the Jews, Socialists and Communists, and all the other oppressed people for not getting up and saying "no", when they could; anger at her family for not escaping their native Vienna when they had the chance; and anger at her mother for frequently being a thorn in her side, juxtaposed with a very deep sense of love and respect, as well as gratitude for being her saviour. Despite all this anger, however, she doesn't blame. Blame, Klüger argues, is for those who didn't have to live through the experience, and therefore have the benefit of hypocritical hindsight to be able to afford the luxury of pointing fingers.

One of the press quotes provided with my copy says the following: "It is as important as The Diary of Anne Frank - and equally unforgettable." I would go further and say it is more important than Anne Frank's diary, precisely because Klüger was fortunate enough to achieve something the former never had the chance to do; namely, grow older and look back. Not for nothing is the book called Landscapes of Memory: Klüger writes about all stages of her life, and is able to compare her thoughts and feelings of the time with those of the present. She indignantly refuses to let others argue that her childhood was "stolen". Of course she had a childhood, but unlike her Aryan counterparts it was spent in less than desirable conditions. She had rivals, friends, crushes, secrets and angst just like any other teenage girl: the only difference was she was tattooed on her left arm and condemned to death.

The best word to describe this book is honest. I was left feeling angry that this had been allowed to happen; not thinking how sad it was, but how ridiculously unfair; not feeling sorry for the Jews and other minorities perscuted, but less respectful for any ideology which promotes scapegoating and persecution. As well as being informed, I was motivated to be aware of the dangers of something like this occuring during my own lifetime (which, unfortunately, it already is). This book is important for those reasons, and an excellent introduction to any literature which deals with the Holocaust.

Five Stars.

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