Lorna Byrne (2010) Angels in My Hair.

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I think I’ve read this good book before. I get that sometimes. Words wash over me and through me and I’m not really reading, although I am. For the record, I read ‘The International Bestseller’ a few weeks ago, again, or not again (as this might have been the first time). Just to remind myself, where I look at words every day, Lorna Byrne sees angels. (I don’t know if Angels is a proper noun, or is it a bit like cows or sheep? No capital letter?) Here’s the rub, I believe she does see angels.

Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe in Angels and I’m not American. Probably ninety-six percent of them voted for the moron’s moron. Around seven percent of the UK population attend Christian worship. We are an agnostic nation, verging on the atheist and that’s just the way I like it. I can witter on about cognitive dissonance, or Schrodinger’s cat, but the truth is I’m with Eva Lowenthal in that I find it quite easy to believe that ‘evil does exist’. Lowenthal was secretary to the Reich Nazi Propaganda Minster, Joseph Goebbels from 1933 to 1945 and she observed first-hand how under the right conditions evil flourishes. I read about how Alabama is trying to shut all abortion clinics and outlaw abortions, even in the case of incest or rape and that to me is an evil perpetuated on poor, mainly, black women. I hear about a five-year-old girl trafficked and taken into care in Glasgow, with no nails, kept in a box and raped. And I want to kill. To hurt. To maim. I’ve no problem believing in the reality of evil. Or even the devil. I’ve got a problem with religion and a problem with God.

Probably, the best definition of religion is the Dali Lama’s, my religion is kindness.

That makes me smile.

Karen Armstrong in her introduction to A History of God, summarises how I feel.

As a child, I had a number of strong religious beliefs but little faith in God. There is a distinction between belief as a set of propositions, and faith which enables us to put our trust in them. I believed implicitly in the existence of God; I also believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the sacraments, the prospect of eternal damnation and the objective reality of Purgatory. I cannot say, however, that my believe in these religious opinions about the nature of ultimate reality gave me much confidence that life here on earth was good or beneficent. The Roman Catholicism of my childhood was a rather frightening creed.

Richard Holloway, like Karen Armstrong, was a cleric and walked away but gives us an insider view of the box-ticking religion. They could no longer trust God and no longer believed in God. Holloway’s favourite novel Andre Schwartz Bartz, The Last of the Just, has a hero Ernie Levy on a train destined for Auschwitz telling consolatory lies to children about the kingdom of God. That sounds like a good fit. A good way of describing religion.

Lorna Byrne, like the fictional hero, describes our world in the opening chapter: ‘Through Different Eyes’.

When I was two years old the doctor told my mother I was retarded.

As a baby, my mother noticed I always seemed to be in a world of my own. I can even remember lying in a cot – a big basket – and seeing my mother bending over me. Surrounding my mother I say wonderful bright, shiny beings in all the colours of the rainbow; they were so much bigger than I was, but smaller than her, about the size of a three year old child. These beings floated in the air like feathers and I remember reaching out to touch them, but I never succeeded. I remember being fascinated by these creatures with their beautiful lights…angels.

I’m not one of those people that can remember being a kid. I certainly don’t remember being in my pram. I can remember being scared of trains coming into Dalmuir station, that somehow the wheels would suck me under. Sorry, no angels, apart from my mum.

Moses and the burning bush. Jesus in the desert. Buddha under the tree. Muhammed in the cave. All saw and heard things beyond themselves. Holloway describes this as a kind of psychosis. Hearing voices and seeing things. What made them real was their ability to convince others that what they experienced was true.

Here’s the testing, here’s the knowledge gained, here is salvation. God does not take kindly to being questioned if we follow the precepts of the Book of Job… Where were you when I created the universe?

Well, according to Lorna Byrne, she was in heaven and she has been tested by Satan himself, she has met with the Virgin Mary and Archangels Michael and Gabriel, been tutored by the Prophet Elijah, she has met the Son of God and I’m sure there’ll be a place in heaven for her.

I’m not too sure about myself and the rest of humanity. We read our own belief into others. I recognise the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the possibility of runaway global warming and nuclear winter. I know that’s an oxymoron. Evil does exist. That I know, I’m not so good at the good stuff. Lowenthal, aged 103, said something quite profound. ‘There is no justice’. She could just as easily be working for the antichrist Trump, bookended by the fundamental Christian Right and Vice President Mike Pence. There, I’ve done it now. A victim of my own verbosity. As soon as you mention antichrist and  Hitler you lose the argument. But here’s the rub again. Hitler could not wipe out humanity. Trump has the devil’s own pride. You don’t have to be able to see angels to notice it.

We can call on The Angel of Belief. The Angel of Strength. The Angel of Courage. The Angel of Miracles. The Angel of Patience. God knows we need a Guardian Angel and all the help we can get to avoid Armageddon. I believe that. The message of religion is quite a simple one. What matters isn’t yesterday, or tomorrow, but now. What matters is this moment. Hope in the now.  May my religion be kindness too.


Andre Schwaz-Bart (2001 [1959]) The Last of the Just.

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I heard about this book in a kind of roundabout way. Richard Holloway had given a reading at Dalmuir Library and this was one of the books he said he re-read every few years. Well, that was good enough for me. I finally got around to reading The Last of the Just and was not disappointed.

Where is God? That is the question this book asks. In the final chapter, the narrator of the biography of Ernie Levy, the last of the just men, is in a sealed freight car travelling from Drancy to Auschwitz. He cradles a living corpse the body a young boy. A fellow passenger, a doctor, who is doing her best to relief the suffering of the children digs her fingernails into Ernie’s flesh and tells him the child is dead.   He rocks the child’s body, insists the child is merely sleeping.

‘Madame,’ he said finally, ‘there is no room for truth here.’

Where is God?  March 11, 1185 in the old Anglican city if York, Bishop William of Nordhouse sermonises and shouts to the mob below: ‘God’s will be done’.  Mobs have arms and legs and one voice and what has become, through the ages, a familiar refrain: Kill the Jews.

Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, one of the Just Men, gathered his followers and urges them to commit suicide: ‘God gave us life. Let us return to him by our own hands…’

Familiar lamentations. ‘ “When an unknown Just [Man] rises to heaven,” a Hasidic story goes “he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise.”’

Is God a lullaby? Prayer books and Talmudic texts littered the Levy house in Stillenstadt. The infant Ernie learns his prayer at the feet of his ancient grandfather and Just Man, Mordecai, who has fled the pogroms in Zemyock, and followed his son, Benjamin, into the safety of Germany, Nazi Germany. There is no telling on which male child God will bestow his blessing and consolation of becoming a Just Man. He works in mysterious ways.

Is God a dream? Ernie seems to think so. The delicate little blonde girl, Fraulein Ilse, his classmate, who looks like a picture of a medieval princess, he gets to kiss and kisses him back. A Judas kiss.

Does God stand outside Drancy? Paris offers respite and God seems to be smiling on the Levy’s. Nazi Germany has been left behind. Even Grandfather Mordecai finds work and they have enough to eat and the French pastries are to die for. But Nazi Germany follows the Levy’s to Paris. Ernie a Jewish German joins a foreign division of the French army to fight against Germany, the country of his birth. He is one of the few survivors. God, he believes, has given him more lives than a cat. For a time, he imagines himself a dog and eats only raw meat. His marriage to Golda lasts but one night. He presents himself at the gates of Drancy, as a Jew, demanding entry. His love has no end.

Does God exist? Ernie cradles Golda’s broken body in the boxcar on the way to the concentration camp. His voice is a consolation to the children and his fabulous tales of the kingdom that will come, a balm to their spirit. When Doctor Mengele tries to send him right, he corrects the medic, he will go left with the broken and the old and those who do not want to die and demand the lie that the shower heads contain water. ‘Breathe it in,’ Ernie tells them. The last of the Just does not need to know that God exists, he needs to know suffering exists and he too must endure it and be broken too.

Wendy Whitworth (editor) (2004) Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story.


Marina H.  Smith in the Introduction to the 46 Jews published here, who survived the Holocaust, tells the reader: ‘Every life is different. Every story is different too.’ That is true of us all, but there is a pattern of before and after. The survivors are young, middle or upper-class adolescents, some of them younger children, when the Nazis came to power and swept through Europe, when transport to the East meant certain death in Concentration Camps such as Auschwitz. I came to hear about this volume when a fellow writer Elsie wrote a moving peace about the funeral of her father. His story is here, each story different, each story the same, a broad synagogue of suffering, arranged alphabetically under S for Schaufeld, Avara, ‘A Journey – Chorzow to Wembley’ followed by the story of Elsie’s mother Vera, ‘Saved by the Kindertransport’.

Vera Schaufeld’s story is self-explanatory. She grew up in Klatovoy in the 1930s. Her father studied law and one of his teachers went on to become President of Czechoslovakia. Her mother was a paediatrician who studied in Prague and Paris. The population of their town was around 8000 and about 350 of them were Jews. Vera’s parents weren’t observant Jews. They were assimilated intellectuals. The nearest kosher butcher, for example, was 30 miles away. After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia on the 15th March 1938 Jewish survivors could be counted on one hand. Vera’s mother and father used what clout they had to get their daughter on one of the Kindertransports leaving Prague for England. She survived, quickly forgetting how to speak Czech and German, becoming nominally assimilated into everyday English life.  Her family died.

Her odyssey was not unique other tell here of the rituals of humiliation on the Kindertransport of having their property looted and of a group of children being taken from the train on the Dutch border and being made to lick the platform by SS men and missing the train, being sent back to their deaths. Vera met Avram and they married. Here again is a commonality, like marrying like. I imagine it has little to do with Jewishness, more to do with unspoken suffering. After the war nobody much talked about the camps, the deaths, and nobody much wanted to know. For ten years or more there was collective amnesia and silence.

Andre Swarz-Bart in his fictional masterpiece The Last of the Just chronicles the pogroms against the Jews, against the idea of their otherness, and the way ‘history penetrates legend and is assimilated by it’. And the Just Jews, Lamed-Vow, becomes ‘experts in sorrow’.

O God, cover not our blood with thy silence.

Avram Scaufeld’s survival is indeed miraculous. He was a thirteen-year-old adolescent in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. The next day he became a man and had to work for the Judenrat in Sosnowitz to survive. He was one of the lucky ones taken to work in a forced labour camp in Lower Silesia in autumn 1942. Then his luck ran out. In 1943 he was sent to work on construction with thousands of others, from half-a-dozen countries, in Blechammer. Rations became sparser and camp conditions worsened. Each prisoner fighting for scraps of potato.  Avram survived but as the Red Army closed in the Germans began to evacuate camps. Long columns of prisoner marching in the cold to an unknown destination. The Death Marches were walk or die, those that couldn’t walk being shot and left in a ditch. Avram suffered from a leg ulcer and was crawling with lice, a Musselman, who could no longer keep up. His decision to step onto the cart picking up stragglers ensured his death. But when the SS came to shoot stragglers outside a cemetery, Avram found enough strength to climb the wall and hide. He was recaptured by a German policeman and handed back to the SS. He was packed in an open cattle truck with other prisoners and sent to another overcrowded camp. He was sent away once more to a forced labour camp, Langstein, digging tunnels into a mountain. Little food and any transgressions punishable by death the mortality rate was so high the dead were stacked like ‘cordwood’. His legs gave way, he was incontinent and he couldn’t walk. Two SS men with Alsatians found him and he thought this ‘a funny way to die’. Taken to the sick bay as the Allies got nearer an SS man came to evacuate it and warned those that couldn’t walk would be left burnt in their bed. Most of those that  could walk were taken by the German on another march died. Avram drifted in and out of consciousness.   How many miracles keeps a man alive in a few short years?   

We can know little of the camps, a few grey outlines against the backdrop of the raw emotions and human experiences. Perhaps Scwarz-Bart’s image of hell in which Andalusian Jews ‘venerated a rock, shaped like a teardrop,’ comes closest, or the Hasidic story of the Just Man that rises to heaven, but ‘he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between his fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise’.

Post-war the silence of those that suffered and the eugenic policies of the Nazis led to a kind of moratorium for about ten years while those countries involved in the war rebuilt their economies. Now we have the right-wing backlash that mass murder did not take place and that is why these witnesses light the way and show that it did and show it by their storytelling.

But evil does not go away. It morphs in new ways. There’s something familiar about Jacob Judah, on the Mynamar border writing about 70 000 refugees trying to cross the border into Bangladesh and being turned back. Contemporary echoes of the SS in reports that Rohingya men and women are indiscriminately killed and Myanmar ‘military are taking the children from the arms of their mothers, and throwing them away.’ Echoes of the grey ghosts of the Sonderkommando moving among transported Jews and telling mothers to give their children to an older aunt.   The problem is that no one can offer workable solutions and even fewer care to try. Nobody wants refugees. We prefer to let them die. But there for the grace of god, go I.