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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Witnesses to Nazism

The year is 2039, Jack Fisher is 100 years old and the final witness to the Nazi Holocaust.  Jack is especially close to his great-granddaughter, Christine, a history teacher and the two are desperate that mankind never forgets what happened to European Jewry during World War II. But a menacing  group of revisionist white supremacists have other ideas, and  while attempting to obliterate people’s memory of the truth, resort even to murder anyone in their way.

So much is the background to a  thriller by journalist-turned-novelist, Jerry Amernic, who claims his book is  “a commentary on what is already happening in the world today” as more and more people  appear ignorant of and complacent about the events of the Nazi Holocaust and World War II.

Amernic has worked incredibly hard to make his story work. He has researched in depth, interviewed real-life camp survivors and has been helped by noted British historian and Churchill biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert. The result is a petrifyingly real picture of Jewish ghetto life in Lodz, Poland followed by the horrors of travelling to and then trying to remain alive at Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Last Witness teems with its author’s commitment and integrity, makes compelling, even compulsive reading and so renders well-meant objective criticism difficult to pen. But here goes:

Jerry.AmernicAmernic says one publisher rejected his book as he felt forced to "’suspend belief’ (the correct phrase is ‘suspend disbelief’) that people would be so ignorant a mere generation from now”. But this is not the problem. The great mass of humanity always turns a blind eye to that it does not wish to see.

The issue is that despite its many wholly readable strengths, much of Amernic’s thesis is implausible.  First,  Jack and his family live as Catholics whereas in reality, many Jews fairly ache to return to their roots when they discover their true background. Indeed, it is proverbial that if ever a Jew forgets himself, there’s always a non-Jew anxious to remind him!

Second, Christine suffers late-onset Tay Sachs disease which  would be impossible unless both her parents carried the mutant gene. She would not contract it via her great-grandfather and as I am aware from a personal acquaintance,  her condition would not deteriorate as swiftly as the story makes us suppose.

Then there’s the revisionist history which dominates education and popular feeling in the imagined near-future – a mere 25 years - or only one generation hence. I do not believe this could happen, despite the odds stacked in favour of Amernic’s theory. The very fact that rich, raw, naked Jew-hatred has always and continues to reign supreme even to the furthest corner  of the public psyche should itself ensure that what happened in Nazi Europe will never be quite forgotten. The more the world tries to obliterate knowledge of Jews and the State of Israel, the more they will be discussed.

Moreover, during the short time that I read The Last Witness,  it was reported variously:

  • A museum and visitor centre is planned at the former Sobibor death camp in Poland and a team of strength athletes is rescuing the Jewish community’s tombstones.
  • France agreed to put $60 million into a fund managed by the United States to compensate Holocaust victims deported by the French state rail firm SNCF to the Nazi death camps.
  • Vienna, the Austrian capital, has set up a memorial and museum dedicated to the stories of the people behind the Kindertransport, the organized shipment of about 10,000 Jewish children saved from the Holocaust.
  • Israel’s  Raanana Symphonette Orchestra is to honour Italian Giorgio Perlasca, who saved 5,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis.
  • A memorial in the Jerusalem hills depicting the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel created by Holocaust survivor, Nathan Rapoport was found vandalised on Tuesday 09 December.
  • The next day,  British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Auschwitz for the first time - a trip designed to help him gain a deeper understanding of the Holocaust.
  • Finally, a major row has erupted following the news that mention of Israel has been banned at next month’s Irish national Holocaust Memorial Day event.

Amernic and I are both Jews. We’re also journalists and know that ‘Jewz is always newz’. For this reason alone, I’m convinced that  whatever future evil may beset us, it seems improbable that the Holocaust will ever be totally forgotten.

* The Last Witness by Jerry Amernic is available as an e-book and in print from and in print through Story Merchant Books.


The Woman in the PhotographNext I turn to a revelatory real-life Holocaust memoir in which a bewildered,  emotionally dislocated daughter discovers that her penurious, straight-laced mother had once  been accustomed to a life of great ease , luxury - and had indulged in youthful sexual abandonment.

The Woman in the Photograph by Mani Feniger is billed as the author’s search for her mother’s past. But it is as much  a highly-charged self-examination as it is an odyssey seeking evidence of her maternal family in pre-war Leipzig, eastern Germany.

I guess people like Feniger’s well-heeled grandparents and their ilk were the type of Jews whom the Nazis hated most. They were wealthy, cultured, owned a fine house in one of the city’s grandest suburbs and, judging by the picture, exuded an air of  ineffably relaxed grace.

But Feniger discovers a sinister aura of domestic oppression lurking behind the glamorous facade that ended only when her grandfather died from a sudden heart-attack followed by  her grandmother committing suicide by throwing herself from a window. Moreover, it appears that such self-harm was not uncommon among the women in that milieu.

So while the war brought untold terror to millions and Feniger’s mother and aunt first lost their parents, then their home and most of their possessions to the Nazis, it also gave them a fantastic freedom that they would never have otherwise enjoyed. It also cut a swathe through the other intangible unpleasantness that neither Feniger nor her readers may ever quite define.

That aside, the sisters fled Nazi Europe, first to  pre-state Palestine and then to the United States, where they lived out their lives in markedly reduced circumstances. It is due largely to Feniger’s tenacity that a tiny fraction of what the family lost has been retrieved.Mani.Feniger

* Towards the end of her exceptional story, Feniger several times mentions  the Ephraim Carlebach Foundation in Leipzig. This was created  in 1992 in memory of a famous Leipzig rabbi to foster an understanding of Jewish history and culture.

Rabbi.Felix.CarlebachAs an American, she may be interested to learn that the Carlebach family’s influence extends to the U.K. as well as to Israel and the U.S.A. One of Ephraim’s nephews,  the late Rabbi Felix Carlebach, was the grand presiding presence at South Manchester Synagogue for 37 years until his retirement in 1984.

* The Woman  in the Photograph is available from several outlets including

© Natalie Wood (13 December 2014)

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