As 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?