Reading is my religion. This book is billed as a true story, marked down as a genre somewhere between The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Choice. The latter was a life-affirming, marvellous book, beautifully written with a clear moral message. The former – I only read the first fifty pages. I find myself in the same misgivings with The Librarian of Auschwitz as I did with The Tattooist
Here are a few examples.
A black shadow, darker than all the rest is walking along the Lagerstrasse…Dr Mengele…Mengele studies her at length. /‘I never forget a face.’/His words carry a deathly stillness. If Death were to speak, it would do so with precisely this icy cadence.
If I was marking this I’d give it a B2. Not bad. No face ever forgotten. No cliché left unused in the cliché box.
What about a warning sign for novice writers? *Shoehorning something you really want your reader to know – I wonder where the key to the car is that’s under the plant-pot variety?
*Dita rushes off to reassure her mother, who will have already found out about Block 31 inspection. As she runs down the Lagerstrasse she comes across her friend Margit.
“Ditnka, I hear you had in inspection in Thirty-One?”
‘That disgusting Priest!’
“Did they find anything? Did they detain anyone?”
“Absolutely nothing; there’s nothing for them to find there.’ Dita winked. ‘Mengele was there, too.”
“Dr Mengele? He’s a madman. He experimented with injections of blue ink into the pupils of thirty-six children in an attempt to produce blue-eyed people. It was horrible Ditnka. Some died of infections and others were left blind. You were lucky to escape his notice.”
In other words, you were lucky to find the car key that was under the plant pot. B2 or not B2 that is the question?
How does the author plan to tell the reader about lousy bunks and people that just won’t share?
“*It’s cold, and your parents are outside, Dita. Won’t they catch pneumonia?”
“My mother prefers not to be inside with her bunkmates, who has a lot of horrible boils…although she’s no worse than my bunkmate!”
“But you’re lucky— you both sleep on top bunks. We’re spared among the lowest bunks,” said Magrit.
“You must really feel the damp seeping up from the ground.”
“Oh Ditnka, Ditnka,”
Oh, reader, oh reader, I will not go on. Perhaps you will. I feel no sense of place. This could be Butlins, not Auschwitz. Something lost in translation? Read on.
I know this man. He is one of us. All of these people are people I know. Good and bad, flawed humans. Fergal Keane is much the same age as me. His father was a well-known actor and his mother a school teacher. Ireland was a generation behind us when he was born, in a different times zone, gripped by a dangerous nostalgia of what could have been, a different kind of Ireland, one that was ruled by priests and hypocrisy. Fergal’s father was an alcoholic, the disease of the Irish and handed down from father to son. His mother a miracle worker as his father follows his star from stage to stage from Southern Ireland to London and back again just in time to put the kettle on for the Troubles and the Celtic economic miracle.
Fergal dreamed of Africa and being the kind of hero that changes the world as we all do. He dreamed of writing and with his mum and dad’s connections got started in the reporting business and on the right track for the writing business in general. His Uncle John B Keane was holding forth about writing and writers as they walked. And here is the way it is, ‘If I couldn’t write,’ he said, ‘I’d go stone fucking mad.’
There’s no guarantee of course you won’t go stone fucking mad even if you can write. Fergal’s dad’s pals, politicians, playwrights and poets such as Brendan Behan and Fran O’Brien were professional drinkers and dreamers. His father a greatly loved story teller of some renown, who brought the written word alive, but the drink pulled him under, pulled them under. Fergal is honest enough to declare he too fought on that front, but the war never finished, a waiting game, until the next skirmish.
He makes the leaps from boy to man from Cork to Limerick junior reporter on the Leader – 17th September 1979— to reporting on Northern Ireland and the Troubles to world stage and lead report for the BBC telling the word about South Africa before and after Mandela’s release, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Serbia and Syria. His dreams had become reality with the added glitter of a loving wife and child to give him ballast.
Look into the Nietzchean pit long enough and the pit will look back at you. Sectarian violence in Ireland, in South Africa, in Serbia and in Rwanda had a common feature. Hatred of others in their midst no different from the Nazi ideology of hatred of the Jews. The dehumanising effect of ideology no different from which we’re spoon fed today when people cheers when ships carrying immigrants sink in the Mediterranean or border guards beat men to death, or guards separate children from their mothers and put them in cages as they do in Trump’s America.
In Rwanda Keane saw men and women running with children in their arms, pleading to be let into the reporter’s cars to escape their attackers, only to be hacked to death in front of them. Keane admits he’s not a brave man. The car did not stop. He did not step out, his white face a passport to be treated differently, he wanted to live. He left the others behind. The reporter’s job is to report, not intervene, as a mantra.
How do you find peace within yourself after what you have seen, lived through? That’s a question that runs through this book. A question we all should ask ourselves. Honesty allows Keane to admit—as I would too—the Nazi guard, that could have been me. Caught up in forces and ideologies that perpetuate hate and give one a choice of either for them or against them, most folk, myself included, take the easy by-line and easy life. From the Milgram Shock Experiment to the Stanford Prison Experiments authority figures telling us what to do frees us from the restraint of morality, unleashes the evil within us.
Initially, Keane naively asks why the Tutus never ran from the Hutus when the genocide began. The answer was staring him in the face. Murderers, rapists and child killers weren’t some foreign body but people’s neighbours and friends, people that went to the same places you went to, that knew the back roads and side roads you would take and where there waiting. And when places of sanctuary like a Catholic church was filled with those without hope, they rounded themselves up, encircled on all sides.
One of the stupidest things I’ve read, comes from the mouth of a heroic character in The Librarian of Auschwitz in which he declares the Jews had no army, or the Germans wouldn’t have defeated them. Sectarian and ethnic violence is premised on that argument. Trump supporters carrying make America great again. Franco’s fascist supporters carrying placards calling to make Spain great again. Le Pen’s right-wing army calling for the deportation of immigrants to make France great again. Or Farage’s cull on the immigrants, with the pictorial smiling face of Boris Johnson with a Union Jack, send them back motif behind him.
Hatred has many flags and many faces, a cancerous growth Keane recognises runs through us. He’s paid the price with his reporting life. And like pastor Martin Niemöller he witnessed the politics of hate from Cork to the whole of our creation which brings nothing but corpses,
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.