Thursday, 3 June 2010

WWII: The human race's most shameful episode?

Victory, indeed. Winston is the reason this post is in English, not German.

If anyone is looking for a good book to get stuck into (and let's face it, some of us are still struggling to adjust to life post-Twilight) may I recommend the Zion Covenant series by Bodie and Brock Thoene? My mum has been urging me to try them for about the last 15 years, and now I've started, I wonder what took me so long...

I think we in Britain have a kind of fond nostalgia for wartime – it's all "Spirit of the Blitz" and funny stories about rationing and jam made out of carrots. Reading an account set in the heart of Europe has given me more of an insight into just how horrendous it must have been, how fast it happened and how easily Hitler slipped to world dominating power.

The really frightening thing is that I can see how it happened. If you're constantly told that a certain group of people are “vermin,” and they are responsible for all society’s problems, you’d probably welcome a leader who promised to take a tough line on them. For instance, wouldn’t there be a general rejoicing if our government vowed to eradicate chavs?

Anyway, I digress. Vienna Prelude is the first of these novels, set in Europe on the eve of World War II.  Elisa is a violinist, travelling Europe with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Her father Theo can feel the political situation heating up and decides the family needs to leave Berlin for a "holiday" in Austria. It seems they are not quite in time to escape the growing danger – as a well-known Jew, Theo is detained by the Gestapo. Elisa has already suffered the heartbreak of being dumped by her soldier boyfriend Thomas, whose career would be over if he carried on associating with a half Jewish girl. How will she cope with the fact that her homeland has become a danger zone and her family has been devastated?

Luckily a nice young American is on hand to be heroic; John Murphy is a journalist who is one of the few who can see the danger in this Hitler chap being given so much power. He and Elisa keep bumping into each other and form a friendship, complicated by the fact that she still loves Thomas, and her friends are encouraging her to marry Murphy for the privileges an American passport could afford her. Meanwhile, Elisa's mother and two brothers remain in Austria – but can they trust the family they are staying with?

When Elisa finds out her father is not all he seems, she begins to take a more active view of the war – rather than just taking care of herself and her family, she wishes to become part of the resistance and help the millions of Jews who are trapped within Nazi borders. A career in smuggling false passports beckons – and her little Guarnerius violin case is the mode of transportation.

Cleverly, with its array of characters, the gripping story manages to incorporate some who are close to Winston Churchill, and those who are part of the Nazi party and therefore privy to Hitler's inner circle. The attention to detail makes for a fascinating read.

The book also has a strong spiritual aspect (even the Jews seem to be Christians...?!) – which isn't surprising, since it must have seemed as if the world was on the verge of apocalypse. (Hitler's hatred of Jews and desire to be worshipped does seem somewhat Antichrist-esque)

There is a particularly moving scene in Dachau, a concentration camp where two prisoners manage to find peace even while they are suffering horribly at the hands of the Nazis.

'(The professor said) "Pity them, Jacob. Pity them for the evil they worship and the end that will surely come to them. Weep for our tormentors who have forgotten they are also eternal. There will be a moment when it is too late to beg forgiveness."

'From that night on, he was no longer afraid. The fierce hatred he felt for the well fed SS officers and guards settled into a quiet pity. "Burn your book of Ayran magic!" he wanted to shout. "There is hell more fierce than Dachau, and it lasts forever!"'

The following sequels cleverly introduce new characters in order to give an insight into various different scenarios – the Jews in hiding, the refugees whose ship is rejected at every dock, the Nazi mistress who decides that perhaps she wants to keep her baby rather than handing him over to the Fuhrer. The new stories are woven in with the characters we already know and produce some nail-biting scenes.

I always like a book that makes me feel more educated, and this series has been meticulously researched and is historically accurate (to the point where I came across things I'd never heard of, and thought "Nah... I'm sure that didn't happen," and then when I looked them up, they turned out to be true). The disadvantage is that it can be depressing to read about unspeakable horrors, knowing they will not have "blown over by Christmas". Reading about concentration camps isn’t easy when you are nice and cosy in your comfortable bed.

However, if you want a dramatic and emotional read, this one is worth the heartache.

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