Are the Liberators Here?*

LiberationAs I write this, it’s the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz. Until that time, many people either did not know about, or chose not to know about, what was going on in camps such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. But the films and photographs taken when the camps were liberated made it impossible to ignore the Holocaust.

Millions of people were killed in those camps. But some survived and, after World War II ended, put their lives together as best they could. No-one could get through such an experience unscathed, but there are many people (I’ve met some personally) who did create lives for themselves when it was all over. We’ve heard and read their stories in real life, and they’re written into crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples.

In Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel, Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk and his wife Arlette travel to the small town of Zwinderen to help solve a troubling case. Several people in the town have been getting vicious anonymous letters accusing them of all sorts of immorality. The matter is so serious that two people have committed suicide and one has had a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to make much progress, because the town’s residents are very close-mouthed. So it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be more successful. He and Arlette settle into the town and he begins to ask questions. The evidence seems to point to one person, M. Besançon, as the guilty party. Not much is actually known about Besançon, really. Reports are that he’s a French Jew, a Holocaust survivor, who settled in Zwinderen after the war. He keeps himself to himself, as the saying goes, and even has a high-walled garden to protect his privacy. Although it’s soon shown that he didn’t write the letters, it’s interesting to see how the town regards him.

In this novel, we see that one challenge survivors have faced is trying to make a life among people who don’t really understand their struggles. It’s not so much that others have no sympathy, but in some cases, there are a lot of cultural gaps that need to be bridged. What’s more, for very good reasons, surviving a trauma such as the Holocaust leaves a person with little if any sense of trust. So it’s very hard to become an intrinsic part of a new community.

And some new communities weren’t particularly welcoming to survivors. We see that, for instance, in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. In that novel, which takes place in late-1970’s Buenos Aires, we are introduced to police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. Early one morning, he is called to a riverbank where two bodies have been ‘dumped.’ They bear all the hallmarks of an Army killing, and Lescano knows better than to question them too much. At that time, the Army is in control of the country, and anyone who goes up against them risks everything. But then Lescano finds a third body. This one doesn’t look like a military-style execution, and he begins to ask questions. As it turns out, the victim is Elías Biterman, a Holocaust survivor who made his way to Buenos Aires. He became a successful moneylender and therefore, had contact with a lot of people, including some important people. So there are all sorts of possibilities for suspects. One of the things that is made clear in the novel is the anti-Semitism in Buenos Aires. In fact, more than one person wonders why Lescano would care at all about the death of ‘just another Jew.’

Even when they settled in communities that welcomed them warmly , Holocaust survivors have faced plenty of other challenges. For one thing, the Holocaust experience left permanent mental and emotional scars. We see that for instance in Sara Paretsky’s Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel, who is a close friend of Paretsky’s PI sleuth V.I. Warshawski. As we learn in Total Recall, Herschel’s family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis, moved to London and then on to Chicago. The scars from that trauma are still there, so when an enigmatic stranger named Paul Rabudka comes to town claiming to be looking for Holocaust survivors, Herschel is emotionally devastated. She has made a good life for herself as a skilled doctor, and doesn’t want to be reminded of that time. So she asks Warshawski to find out whether Rabudka is who he says he is. The trail leads to a case of insurance fraud that Warshawski is already investigating.

Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police shows another sort of Holocaust survival. In that novel, we are introduced to Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, Chief of Police for the small French town of St. Denis. When Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr is murdered and his body found in his shack, the investigation touches everyone, since his son, his grandson and his grandson’s wife have roots in the town. Two of the characters we meet in this novel are Bachelot, the local shoemaker, and Jean-Pierre, who runs the local bicycle shop. As we get to know the town, we learn that these men were involved in the French Resistance, although they were in rival groups and have hated each other because of that ever since. Part of the novel tells their stories and we see how devastating the Nazi occupation of France really was. Neither man escaped unscathed; they have deep scars and long memories. And yet, they’ve gotten on with life.

There are fictional sleuths, too, who survived the Holocaust. For instance there are David Del Bourgo’s Simon Wolfe of the San Francisco Police, and Peter Leonard’s Harry Levin, who runs a Detroit scrap metal business. And fans of Geoffrey McGeachin’s Charlie Berlin will know that he is married to Rebecca Green, whose parents escaped from Stuttgart just in time to avoid being sent to concentration camps. Berlin himself saw more than his share of life in concentration camps, and although he’s not Jewish, you could certainly argue that he’s had to survive the experience.

The Holocaust changed everything on a lot of levels. And on some of those levels, the real work of survival didn’t end when the camps were liberated. This post is dedicated to those who had the courage to start over after the end of the war – and to the memories of those who never got that chance.

ps. For a powerful novel (not crime fiction) that tells the story of the camps and of the work that lay ahead when they were liberated, may I recommend Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Red Sector A. Did you know that Rush’s frontman Geddy Lee is the son of concentration camp survivors?


Filed under David Del Bourgo, Ernesto Mallo, Geoffrey McGeachin, Martin Walker, Nicolas Freeling, Peter Leonard, Sara Paretsky

24 responses to “Are the Liberators Here?*

  1. Great post Margot, the memoir I’ve just read, A Fifty Year Silence touches on this subject too. This is a good reminder of why we shouldn’t forget what happens when predujices spin out of control.

    • Well put, Cleo! We should never forget. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for mentioning A Fifty Year Silence. I’m really looking forward to your review of that book.

  2. What a touching tribute on Holocaust Memorial Day! I remember visiting Mauthausen (an Austrian concentration camp) with my class as a child and I resolved then and there that no such things would happen on my watch, I’d fight tooth and nail against that.

    • Thank you, Marina Sofia. I’m very glad you got the opportunity to visit Mauthausen. I believe that one of the most effective ways to be sure that nothing like the Holocaust will ever happen again is to remember it and to teach our children about it. And I can well imagine you fighting like a tiger to prevent it.

  3. It’s so important we remember these dates because we can never let something like this happen again. Few of the camp survivors are left, so those who were able to write their stories down and see them published performed a great service.

    • I agree, Pat. We must remember and teach our children and their children and their children… about what happened. You make a good point about those who wrote and shared their stories. They are the connection for those who won’t have the opportunity to meet survivors in person.

  4. Kathy D.

    Very appropriate post for the day, and to even find themes in crime fiction: awesome.
    I try to avoid reading about WWII, in general, but, talking about Sara Paretsky and her character, Lotte Herschel, Critical Mass goes back to the site of her childhood in Vienna and tells the fate of her family. It has very sad moments, and the sections of the book set in today’s times relate back to the war and events in Vienna. It’s an interesting book, but it has some sad moments and tough pages, too. It’s worth reading, especially today.
    Paretsky flew to Vienna to research that book, and was forced to be searched in the airport and was quite taken aback by that, remembering
    the war.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the kind words. And thanks for mentioning Critical Mass. As you say, that too explores Herschel’s background and family story and adds to her character. I didn’t know that Paretsky had such a difficult time at the airport; that must have been quite an experience…

  5. Margot: Thank you for honouring the day. If I might ask do you have any personal connection to the Holocaust?

    In thriller fiction I think of Spies in the Balkans by Alan Furst in which Constantine “Costa” Zannis is a multi-lingual, 40 year old single Greek senior police officer handling “special” cases for the Commissioner in Salonika who becomes involved in rescuing Jews from Germany before the Holocaust actually began.

    Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson is a powerful fictional story of the Holocaust at its worst in Poland and the personal aftermath 60 years later.

    • Bill – I’m glad you mentioned both the Furst and the Balson. I remember your excellent review of the Balson in particular, and still intend to read that one. Both books are excellent examples of how the Holocaust has found its way into fiction in general and crime fiction in particular.
      And as far as personal connection with the Holocaust goes, as far as I know, I don’t in my immediate family of origin. But I’ve met several survivors. And the Jewish tradition is of a collective ‘I.’ In other words, each Jew is taught to have a sense of connection with every other Jew. So what happened to those who suffered and died in the Holocaust, happened to all of us and to each of us.

  6. As a young child at school (in the UK) my husband was shown the films taken when our soldiers found these terrible camps. He has never forgotten it. Nor should such things ever be forgotten. History has too much of a habit of repeating itself when we do forget.

    • It does indeed, Dawn. And those films and ‘photos are important ways to help us make sure that every generation knows what happened. I think that’s the way to make sure such things never happen again.

  7. Patti Abbott

    The best novel I have read about this subject is ANYA by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. Truly remarkable. She died too young.

  8. Ann

    Good post. I didn’t realize until recently that Audrey Hepburn was in Holland during the occupation and was malnourished. Sad time for so many people.

  9. A lovely post, Margot. I have not read any of the books you mentioned. I will have to seek them out. I am pretty sure that LOOT by Aaron Elkins has characters who are holocaust survivors, but I cannot give specifics. The book is about recovering art stolen during WWII.

    • Tracy – Oh, I am so glad you mentioned Loot, which I most definitely should have mentioned in this post. Yes, it does discuss Holocaust survivors and in fact, raises the difficult and all-important question of returning stolen art and other valuables to their families. I left a definite gap in not bringing up that book – glad you filled it!

  10. Great tribute Margot. Never forget. And I recently read Double Barrel with its timely and thought-provoking references to the Holocaust.

    • Thank you, Moira. And I agree: we need to never forget. Isn’t it interesting how Double Barrel really hasn’t aged in some respects… And I do love the way it portrays the insular small town.

  11. Col

    A timely reminder. I absolutely loved the Peter Leonard books with Harry Levin. I’ll get to the Mallo one day, when I locate my copy!

  12. Mary

    There’s a new concentration camp in Bosnia where thousands of Bosnians had died there.

    • Mary – I’m glad you mentioned that. It’s a sad, stark and important reminder that we must actively stand up to and oppose the kind of hatred that leads to camps like that. They are not just fragments of history.

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