Posts tagged ‘genocide’

February 17, 2011

Book Review: The Witness House by Christiane Kohl

by thiszine

by Christiane Kohl

Other Press
(October 2010, $14.95, 272 pages)

What would happen if Hitler’s right hand men shacked up under the same roof as Holocaust victims? It’s actually a true story and is told in The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl.

The Witness House takes place during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, after the fall of the Third Reich. Accommodated in Novalisstrasse, a boarding house on the outskirts of Nuremberg, are witnesses for both the prosecution and the defence of the Nazi regime’s war crime trial. Mediating opposing viewpoints in Novalisstrasse is Countess Ingeborg Kálnoky, a local appointed by American liberation troops. At the Countess’s every beck and call is Elise Krülle, Novalisstrasse’s chambermaid and waitress.

It’s interesting to see the level of intellect Nazi devotees have in this story. For example, Rudolf Diels, the first to head the Gestapo, claims he was never a Hitler supporter. He perpetuates the guise by acting like a ladies man as he attempts to charm the Countess by kissing her hand, among other flirtatious moves, but Kálnoky knows that Diels is a dangerous man and is on “room arrest” for a reason.

Erwin Lahousen also projects an air of mystery. He was on the front line during the war, often close to Hitler, but he claims he was a member of the Resistance and that he came inches from murdering the head of the Nazi party.

The Witness House offers lively scenes begging for analysis. For instance, Countess Kálnoky acts as a middleman between Lahousen and Hoffman, Hitler’s personal photographer and close friend. Lahousen is in need of soap and razors, scarce items in post-war Germany, which Hoffman has stashed away. The Countess cons these items into her possession and then passes them on to Lahousen. You can only ask, when would this ever happen in the outside world?

Kohl’s research into wartime Germany and the Nuremberg trials offers moments of serious awakening. Gerhard Krülle, the chambermaid’s teenage son, grew up as a hypnotised Hitler youth. He tells of how, under the regime, he believed in the Fuhrer but was rudely awakened when National Socialism fell and his mentor was exposed as a war criminal. The propaganda young Germans faced is a viewpoint rarely exposed and it is worth reflecting upon.

Concentration camp life is also revealed. Stories of SS brothels run by Nazi soldiers sicken the reader and shed light on a part of the war we try not to think about. The most gruesome scene comes by way of French prisoner Maurice Lampe. He witnessed political prisoners “forced to keep carrying heavy blocks of stone up [. . .] steps. One after another, the men had collapsed, and soon the stairway was covered with blood and corpses.”

Aside from telltale violence, it is the absurd which gives you nightmares. Stories of “daily roll calls, often lasting for hours, when the prisoners were ordered ‘Caps off!’ or ‘Caps on!’ again and again”; in the Mauthausen camp, “a macabre execution scene that [. . .] had been accompanied by music from a gypsy band forced to play the melody of ‘J’attendrai’ (‘I will wait’)” raises your neck hair.

Down the line, getting all the way through The Witness House becomes an uphill struggle. For the first half, and a good chunk of the second, each chapter focuses on a new arrival at the house. The writing is vibrant, the characters animated, but you find yourself fidgeting in anticipation of when the exposé will cease, and hoping a climactic fever will finally overcome redundancy. However, you shake the blues near the end, when some of the most dark stories of Nazi Germany are revealed. At times you really are amazed at the similarity to fiction this true story has.

– review by John Coleman

August 9, 2010

Legends of the Front Lines: What Makes Great Reportage?

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Sometimes, a book must be content with the dubious accolade that its shortcomings serve as a reminder of what one loves about a genre more generally. Finishing Roxana Saberi’s Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, I immediately began to meditate on why it left me cold. It’s a vital project; Saberi’s account of her one hundred days’ imprisonment by Ahmadinejad’s regime in early 2009 on fatuous charges of espionage is a riveting account of the Kafkaesque posturing she was forced to undergo, a disarmingly honest tale of courage, and a delicately balanced description of the variety and challenges of daily Iranian lives. But it doesn’t tick any of my literary reportage boxes, though Saberi, a Japanese-Iranian-American and former Miss Dakota with Masters degrees from Northwestern and Cambridge, England, seems an ideal candidate to shake things up a little.

We can speculate on why – the rush to cash in while Iran still dominated the headlines? A clash between a journalist’s dispassionate eye and the need to tell her heartrending story? Perhaps we expect too much. More usefully, and enjoyably, we can turn to explore some of literature’s finest reportage, the stuff that thrills and inspires even as it documents humanity’s grittiest realities and history’s most critical events. Let’s consider these five for the sweaty, dust- and blood-spattered crown of reportage:

1. To the End of Hell by Denise Affonço

To go deeper than the headlines surrounding the thirty-five-year prison sentence given to notorious Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader Comrade Duch in July, turn to Affonço’s memoir. She spent almost four years in the regime’s camps, having turned down the opportunity to escape to France in order to keep her family together, convinced by her passionately Communist husband. How she survived and what she lost – including watching her daughter die from starvation – will stay with you forever.

2. Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War by Robert Fisk

Reporting out of Lebanon since 1976, Fisk lived and breathed every gruesome twist and turn of Lebanon’s convoluted civil war. To be sure, at the end of 700-odd pages, you’ll feel like you did too, but it’s a peerless testament to the single-minded devotion of a top war journalist to delivering as much of the truth as possible, and to the dreadful dance of history and power struggles in the region. Though more or less peaceful today, Lebanon has a worthy biographer should it wish to remind itself: ‘never again’.

3. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romeo Dallaire

Dallaire is no journalist, and the urgent, painful drive to recount what he saw and experienced during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide rings out even truer as a result. Commander of the UN force charged with keeping the peace as events unfolded, his first response to his posting was ‘Rwanda? Isn’t that in Africa somewhere?’ He returned to Canada disillusioned and suicidal, haunted by the butchery and rape of Hutus and Tutsis that claimed around 800,000 lives in the space of approximately 100 days. Dallaire spares us no detail of the horrific events, nor of the obtuse, elephantine bureaucracy that left him almost powerless to help.

4. The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

Auschwitz survivor Levi’s last literary will and testament; he committed suicide in 1987, shortly after completing it. His writings on the concentration camps are world-famous, and If This is a Man usually the first choice. But ‘The Drowned and the Saved’ is of crucial importance, not just for the well-known clarity and lyricism of his writing, but also for the unnerving contemplation of the role of memory for the witness, and how it can never be taken for granted. His contribution goes far beyond that of a survivor; he is relentlessly critical of the act of witnessing itself.

5. Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

A timely reminder that reportage doesn’t have to be unrelentingly blood-soaked, and how a damn good book can make all the difference to your work. Famously, Polish international correspondent Kapuściński survived 40 revolutions and four death sentences; but for all that, he was as concerned to celebrate the countries and the people he encountered through literary endeavour as he was with the balder side of reporting. This alternative autobiography uses Herodotus’s The Histories as a frame for the story of Kapuściński’s work; a delight.