The Butcher of Poland

by Garry O’Connor

Condemned to death and hanged in 1947, Hans Frank’s public repentance was unique among the leading Nazi criminals tried at Nuremberg. One psychiatrist pointed out Frank’s ‘beatific tranquillity merely hid his own tensions’. But what of such carefully acted out piety? Didn’t this hastily cultivated yet forceful and theatrical piety have something about it which was so patently flimsy compared to the much more formidable integrity and long studied piety of Pope Pius XII?

Both had their roots in South German and Italian theatricality. In the way Frank called attention to himself on every possible occasion he was no ordinary criminal. He was not only criminal in his acts and attitudes, which he acknowledged, but also he flaunted, in an egotistic, nihilistic way, a vanity of evils which today remain a significant part of our culture. Unlike Ribbentrop, who lamented he would never be able to write his ‘beautiful memoirs’, Frank wasted no time during the trial and had gone ahead. He composed his testament, Facing the Gallows, with a dedication from Goethe’s Werther, in quoting from which he subtly changed the wording to serve his self-serving account of ‘former and partial guilt’ – to make it sound as if God endorsed it, which was not in the sense of the original.

And now, faced with execution, commented the much younger but level-headed psychiatrist, Frank really felt spiritually liberated as never before. All he needed was sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, the fresh-faced and pleasant psychiatrist might have commented. His dreams took him ‘beyond the confines of his cell’, he noted. Frank transfixed him. He had not made up his mind as to whether Frank was sincere or not: he recounted that he saw ‘Vast vistas of endless sea, and high mountains of sky….’

Before the trial Frank had dreamed of Hitler, and that made him doubly resolved to take an upright stand and admit common guilt. It was all so realistic. Sometimes he had nocturnal emissions. In one dream he was stood at the seashore watching the waves, and then a girl appeared – he thought it was his daughter – then with the mountains and the yodelling and the vast spaces he awoke with an incredible feeling of emotional relief (this implies it was one of his sex dreams). He went on talking about how independent one could be of the restrictions of the environment if one had inner fortitude.

Unfortunately this Faust had not just an hour but nearly six months to wait in a state of suspended guilt and contrition before the crunch: his stand in the dock. Would he last the course? Would he be able to prove the depth and integrity of true penitence?

How long would it last? And had the lawyer and politician, now still intent on controlling the salvation of his body and soul, finally and forever renounced evil?

Facing the Gallows was later introduced and promoted by Gertrude, his wife, who remained loyal to the spirit of his life. It became a bestseller. Winifred Wagner found his account of Hitler ‘the best character study of Hitler that I have ever read’. It was to win him thousands of posthumous admirers, while some claimed, as one 1952 letter put it, ‘he was a great European in the finest sense of the word’. It was perhaps the beginning of a revisionism which is still a marked part of German culture, most recently in the works of Bernhard Schlink (The Reader).

Hans Frank (1900–46), was a German politician and lawyer, serving as Governor-General of Poland during the Second World War, having fought in the Great War. He studied economics and jurisprudence. In 1921 he joined the German Workers’ Party (which was later the Nazi Party), and became the party’s chief legal counsel and Hitler’s personal lawyer. After the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933, Frank was awarded several important posts, including President of the Reichstag and Minister of Justice in the Nazi government. In 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, Frank was appointed Governor-General, becoming the supreme chief of occupied Poland’s civil administration. A proponent of Nazi racist ideology, Frank oversaw the execution of hundreds of thousands of Poles, the confiscation of Polish property, the enslavement of Polish workers, who were then shipped to Germany, and the herding of most of Poland’s Jews into ghettos prior to extermination. Frank remained as Governor-General until the end of the war, although Hitler stripped him of his other posts in 1942. He was captured by US Army troops on 4 May 1945, and was indicted for trial before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and on 1 October 1946 was sentenced to hang.

Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. He has published two works on Hans Frank. His play The Butcher of Poland, published by CentreHouse Press, is available on Amazon Kindle and most other ebook platforms.


Harry Greenberg Reflects on a First Creative Project From His Early Teens

I have restored the family heirloom. It was handed down and went with the family wherever they went.

Some of them said, ‘For God’s sake, leave it behind, lose it in transit; who wants it? Who needs it?’

But it was never lost and never left behind. You might say it had a charmed life, though not all the family would agree. ‘Not even the dead ones,’ Aunty Minnie said. Grandfather Moishe, for starters, he would have been glad to see the back of it. The thought of it – if you have thoughts where he is now – would make him twist in his winding sheet. That, apparently, is what he was buried in, under terrible circumstances, talked about only in whispers, when I wasn’t there. If truly he was in his winding sheet, members of the family looked for him in vain. They said as they clustered, ‘That’s not him, never. Not in a million Yom Kippurs. Look at the nose, and the ears. Nothing like him.’

Anyway, there it was, the heirloom, hanging on the walls of different houses, sometimes exiled to the attic or the cellar in the hope that it might be forgotten or just disappear, then taken back again, dusted off and re-hung. It was sometimes placed in the front room where it couldn’t be ignored, but was usually consigned to one of the minor rooms, a guest bedroom or the study (where no one studied), a place half full of boxes, unread newspapers – all those things a family no longer requires but hopes to find a use for some day, and refuses to throw away or give to charity.

‘Give to charity!’ Aunt Minnie screamed. ‘We, we are charity! Give away what one day, God forbid, we might ourselves be in need of?’

Not that I judge. She wasn’t mean. It’s just that her past experience had denuded her of generosity.

You might say the heirloom was a kind of family history, though from time to time a family needs to forget, put aside, relegate, repress, exile its history. There are times when a history is like a bad smell. You can take only so much of it, before you have to leave the room.

There is, alternatively, another view: that when a nation, or a person even, forgets or refuses to remember its / his / her history, it / he / she goes on making the same mistakes. So is it with families. Individuals within a family, also. It could be that our family couldn’t make up its mind and that’s why the painting was sometimes in the dining room and at other times in the attic.

My Aunt Sadie, who was the only one in a family of fourteen to go for analysis, had strong views on remembering and forgetting. Dr Gruber, the analyst, who told her he had studied under Freud, but didn’t say where or when, also told her that we must all come to understand our past, in particular our personal past – if we are not be controlled by it and go on repeating our mistakes to the day we died. And even afterwards, God forbid, because some believed that death is not the end. You could come back as a stone, a vegetable, a flower. She said she would prefer a flower, a red rose, but not too sickly perfumed would be fine by her.

‘We shall have to see,’ said Dr Gruber. ‘It’s early days.’ That’s what Aunt Sadie said he said, anyway. But now I come to think of it she had lots of tales about what Dr Gruber, the analyst – as she always called him – had said or done. And as I now appreciate, recollections of patients are not always reliable. I won’t go so far as to say they tell lies or are schnorrers with the truth, but some go in for a fiction or two. Could be the practitioners are also a little guilty of shuffling the cards, but then what do I know?

Anyway, I didn’t mean to make such a diversion. It’s just that when I look back on those semi-halcyon days and wonder what was going on I think I must have been trying to understand something that drove me to look deep into the heirloom. For what purpose, who knows?

The painting was in a frame with scrolls and the kind of moulding you see usually on a ceiling, painted gold over a dry pasty stuff where it had broken away. It was discoloured from over- and even under-exposure. The layers of varnish I had to remove, you wouldn’t believe. In some places it looked as if generations of cats had stealthily pawed their tracks across it on their way to somewhere more interesting. There were cuts, where the glue hadn’t taken, curling at the edges like small wounds that hadn’t healed properly. Were they wounds collected on its travels and travails, inflicted by careless removals men, or premeditated stabbings by incognito (family?) assassins? The frame was ornate enough in its infinite scrolling but had been scored and chipped so that in places the plaster showed through. In others the gilt had tarnished to a curious brown.

Sometimes it was displayed in a good position where the light might fall in all the right places and show its best features to advantage. At others it got tucked away in the gloomiest possible position as if it reminded the family of something they preferred to forget, or at least not be reminded of too often – as I have mentioned above.

It was difficult to get the restoration started. I had permission from some members of the family. Others said yes, go ahead, but don’t tell anyone we said so. Yet others couldn’t or refused to make up their minds.

Aunt Sadie screwed up her lips into a purse with tight strings. ‘What you want to do that? It’s nice as it is. Let sleeping hyenas lie. Keep them far hence. Don’t dig up what’s best left interred. Who knows what lies hidden beneath those layers of varnish, what secrets are ensconced, what vast futility, what futile history? You willing to take responsibility for what you find? Not me, boychik. Count me out.’

Once she got going no one could hold a candle.

So I said to myself if you want to wait for permission from everyone you’ll wait a lifetime. By which time I might be in the heirloom myself and wish to take up a different position. So I counted my savings and took them in a bag to ‘Plinsky’s and Shpengler, Restorers and Investigations’.

‘You done this kind of work before?’ Mr Plinsky wanted to know.

‘You got experience?’ inquired Mr Shpengler.

‘I’ll learn as I go along,’ I told them.

‘What are you, a smart Shmuele?’ said Plinsky.

‘What’ll you do when you hang the skeletons in the closet out to dry?’ Shpengler demanded. ‘When in the interstices of the past you find something you least expect? What was thought to have been swept under the carpet? Screwed behind the skirting board? Taken in a plastic bag to a remote part of Hackney Marshes only to return limping next day? And bedraggled. Worse for wear.’

‘You can say that again,’ said Plinsky.

‘Worse for wear,’ said Shpengler.

‘Gentlemen,’ I said, ‘you have your agenda and I have mine. Give me the tools and I’ll finish the job.’

‘Agenda?’ Plinsky wanted to know.

‘Tools?’ inquired Shpengler.

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘You’re not the only investigators and restorers,’ I said. ‘I’ll go somewhere else.’

‘Hoity-toity,’ smiled Shpengler.

‘What vaulting ambition,’ remarked Plinsky.

In the end they gave me the information I required and wished me well, pointing out that their demurring was solely in my best interest.

‘It’s in your best interest,’ said Shpengler.

‘I second that, nihil obstat,’ agreed Plinsky.

When I got home I went straight to my room. Who should I encounter on the stairs but Auntie Estelle. She comes to call sometimes. She has a weak bladder and has to make frequent micturation visits. There’s only one toilet in the whole house. When Auntie Estelle visits no one else gets a look in.

‘What you got in that parcel?’ she wanted to know. ‘It smells,’ she sniffed, ‘suspicious.’

I might have been discovered in my endeavours had she not been on her way to relieve herself. By the time she had performed I was already in my room with the notice do not disturb: homework in progress, on the door.

I undid the string, opened the cardboard box and spread the contents on the bed. Anyone who knows anything about restoring knows how important it is to do the restoring yourself. There is some satisfaction to be had from taking a picture with the patina of many years from hanging in the cellar or resting on a joist in the attic: awash with coal dust and covered in small but virulent spores the flies leave behind. And giving it a good clean. By yourself.

You could leave it with the restorer who holds it at arm’s length and nods sagely and asks you to return in ten days. When you do, there it is. As good as new. Almost. What was brown has become yellow. A black cloak has been whisked away to reveal one of cerulean blue. Yellowing grass at high summer restored to the green of spring.

But to do it yourself, to bend over a canvas, discharge a pipette full of whatever it is and dab away until whatever lies beneath is exposed – it is as good as, perhaps better than delicately removing the ultimate intimate garments of someone you never expected to be able to see under her muddy mackintosh. An experience denied to me for several years but one for which restoration more than adequately prepared me. And compensated, you might say.

If Dr Gruber was alive today, and for all I know he may well be, he would like my comparison quite a lot. He would say I have hit the nail on the head. But in a different language of course.

I won’t bore you with details of what I mixed and how applied and how stood back to scrutinise and how inspected under a magnifying glass. If you want such technical instruction you know where to go, though I doubt you will find the premises occupied by Shpengler and Plinsky. Time being what it is, they are both probably restoring and investigating themselves and each other in premises far removed.

The instructions on the bottle advised me to spread thinly with a soft brush and wait until the shine had removed itself. It was a little more complex but I simplify for those of you who are uninterested in the technical side of things. If this account of restoration is read by anyone I imagine it will be by those who are more interested in the aesthetics of discovering rather than a chemical analysis.

So there I was, applying whatever it was to the heirloom, which I had rescued from the cellar and carried to my room during one of our interminable family funerals. My father was one of eleven children, my Aunty Minnie one of nine. Funerals were always occurring in those days due to the rifeness of various illnesses that had permeated Hackney and attacked mainly Jewish people (Aunt Estelle would have us believe). There I was, with the heirloom, waiting for it to stop being shiny.

But how did I get the heirloom from the cellar to my bedroom without being apprehended? Let me explain.

I had invented a phobia about cemeteries, about which I had been helped by my cousin Isher’s real phobia for playgrounds. Or so he said. Whatever it was he had, it enabled him to stay in the classroom and out of the playground where all sorts of pogroms took place daily. And as he explained, if it wasn’t a pogrom they would come at you with elbows, and strong boots fixed to even stronger legs for the most effective bruising and breaking of bones. So, it was better to forgo the pleasures of fresh air and exercise and have a phobia. That way, please God, you didn’t have to run away or live to fight another day.

‘Listen,’ Isher explained to me, ‘I’m fixed on accountancy, what do I want with elbows and kickings? While they’re out there with their pogroms I’m inside in the warm, adding, subtracting and above all multiplying as our only begetter suggested. And I’ve got this diagnosis to prove it.’ And he used to show anyone who looked a note which said ‘Please excuse Isher on account of fobia’. Now and again some of the kids got him to show them the note and then snatched it from him and tore it up. He would turn away with a little smile and say, ‘You think I can’t get plenty from where that came from? My uncle on my father’s side is in sikiatry.’ That was how he told it anyway.

So all I had to do was glean from him a few symptoms and rearrange them for cemeteries. All of which meant that when you accounted for the time preparing for a funeral, and the time it took to visit the cemetery, and what you did while at the cemetery, and add to that the recovery period on returning from the funeral, it could be two or three days before anyone noticed where I was or where I had been.

Now I had to smooth away the residue with a lint-free cloth a little area at a time. It soon became apparent, after several brushings and time spent waiting for whatever it was to dry that it was a portrait of several persons. I counted fourteen in all. Seven standing, seven sitting.

Of these I recognised three immediately from photographs I had seen in family albums. One was of an uncle who had eloped from his wife with someone else’s, a long time ago, in a shtetl long since erased from memory and geography. My grandmother had explained—

‘Such a turmoil, such a shtoonk you wouldn’t believe,’ Bube said. It turned out she was only half-Jewish and not on the mother’s side either. Although they didn’t know much about chromosomes and genetics in those faraway times, which gave the women an advantage. The men too probably. There’s also another explanation which I won’t bother you with.

Nah, why not? Why shouldn’t you be bothered? What happened was: a long time ago in a place a long way away some soldiers came to do their duty, and while they were doing it, or perhaps afterwards, they forced the women against their will. About nine months later, when the babies came mewling and screaming into the world, who was to tell which came from a soldier and which didn’t? Another theory is: it’s not such a big deal who the father is anyway, because he only has to do it, but the mother, she has to be with the baby while it’s in the womb and then for a long while afterwards.

So she is the major influence you might say. And if she herself is one hundred per cent kosher, all is well. I could be wrong about this but if I am I am sure there are enough of you smart Alexis out there to put me to rights.

Then there was another uncle, or might have been a cousin, who was supposed to be a prison warder in a prison where he lived. He left early in the morning and returned late at night. Bube explained how it all transpired. Whatever his crime had been, he was sentenced to hard labour, but accommodation was wanting and he came to an arrangement. He would report for his duties during the day but would sleep beneath his own roof. He was a very strong man and broke twice as many stones as other prisoners, and for this the authorities gave him payment. In this way he could provide for his family, not as well as before but sufficient to the day.

Until one Pesach when he celebrated the flight from Egypt with a little more wine than usual and was incapacitated for several days. During which time several warders came looking for him in their immediately recognisable uniforms. I asked Bube why he had had to go to prison in the first place.

‘You don’t want to know,’ she said.

‘But I do, I do,’ I assured her.

‘You don’t want to know,’ she insisted.

‘But I—’

We could have gone on like that for a long time. Had she not pointed out another long lost departed relative, Helga Siperbaum. Beautiful she was, in satin and lace, not fat, not thin, but nicely in between; such teeth she could have demolished a half-chicken in next to no time; and the bosoms on her I didn’t see anything like until I first saw Silvana Mangano. About her more later.

‘Helga Siperbaum,’ Bube sighed shaking her head.

Among other things she was a lady in a house of ill-fame. I was pretty sure I knew what that was but I wanted to hear Bube say it.

‘You don’t want to know,’ was all she said, and hastily closed the album.

I asked the question: ‘Are there, were there any good or famous people among our family ancestors? Rabbis, scholars, escape artistes, violin performers?’

Bube thought for a moment. ‘Not on our side of the family,’ she said. And then she leaned forward and took a large piece of my cheek between her finger and thumb. Perhaps you will be such a one, and laughed: heh, heh, heh.

Back in the heirloom there were at least five others who were trying to be included, but had only succeeded in inserting a half head, a shoulder, an arm, a foot or a few fingers. Of those already in the painting, some of them showed obvious irritation with those who were trying also to be. Those already seated clearly had no intention of giving up their seat. Those who were standing stood as if on board a ship and ready to repel any contraband boarders.

On the left a burly, bald-headed man with side whiskers had raised a fist to deter a young man in a waistcoat of cabala symbolism and white trousers with a thick dark vertical stripe. On the other side, another gentlemen advanced in years (I’ll spare you a description, which would impede the narrative flow), seemed anxious to persuade a young woman who was trying to enter the portrait, to sit on his knee, restrained as she was by someone outside the frame. Since there was no one sitting in front of him and he was so much larger than she, she could have been accommodated with little or no fuss or inconvenience to anyone.

But what struck me as remarkable about the portrait was that it could have been a photograph, taken at a time when there were real members of the family, or friends even, who were desperate to be included but found themselves repelled. Yet it was not a photograph. It was a painting.

As I was preparing for a final sweep with my lint-free cloth a thought occurred to me. What if the painter had intended to confuse the onlooker by presenting the painting as if it were a photograph? I had heard of paintings being photographed but had never seen a painting that aspired to the condition of photography. If there were such a thing could this be an early example of its kind? Might this be one of the first of its kind? And what if it was older than I supposed, painted before photography was invented?

I was pondering this possibility when the house suddenly filled with people and I could hear my mother shouting up the stairs that it had been such a splendid funeral, sad and uplifting at the same time, how the Rabbi had given such a moving eulogy and had discovered many traits of beatitude in the deceased that the family had overlooked and hardly suspected were there. And was I coming down to partake of the funereal bake meats? I hurriedly collected my brushes, my lint-free cloths, screwed tops to bottles and put everything including the heirloom beneath the bed and joined them downstairs.

I shook hands briefly with Uncle Avraham whose cousin had just been interred. His sniffing I took to be an expression of grief.

‘This boy smells of turpentine,’ he shouted. ‘Is he going to burn down the family home? Heh, heh, heh? You don’t believe, smell my hand,’ and he offered his hand to all and sundry.

No one stepped forward but my mother came up to me and gracefully inhaled. ‘You do have a curious odour about you,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘It’s the new soap Aunt Rebekah brought back from the foreign parts.’

This was an aunt who suffered from a washing obsession. She took a bath each morning and paid a particular attention to different parts of her body. I forget quite how it went but something like head and neck on Mondays, knees on Tuesdays, elbows on Thursdays and there were other days or parts of days spoken about only in whispers. Aunt Rebekah was also a mighty traveller and covered great distances in pursuit of cleanliness. No spa was unknown to her; no thermae free from her inquisitions. She returned from these visits with gifts for everyone: soaps, shampoos, lotions and cleansing creams, made from curious herbs, essences that only Dame Nature knew the secret of. Combinations of leaf and petal whose intricate melding was known only to tribes obscured by lianas and curiously shaped leaves in the remote Amazonian jungle, or to those who lived in a permafrost somewhere in the taiga.

All of her gifts had a peculiar smell. One I remember fondly was a wax to relieve wrinkles, made from camel fat. When you washed with her soaps or anointed with her lotions you could decimate living rooms and find places in the theatre and cinema without booking.

And that is how I escaped further interrogation that day.

I had an arrangement with my parents that I would tidy my room and that they would be able to inspect it once weekly, a check on the requisite degree of order, and that I didn’t have any poster depictions of semi- or demi-naked ladies to give me, God forbid, lascivious thoughts or hardness of the musculature where it shouldn’t be, promptings that might lead to uncontrollable emissions. This my father had explained when he came uninvited and unannounced into my room one day and observed a representation of Silvana Mangano, in a film I was too young to see, called Bitter something. In my picture of her on the wall her buttocks were looking to escape from the very short shorts she was hardly wearing and her bosoms from her blouse likewise.

I knew the boy whose father stuck up the posters outside the picture house and had paid dearly for it, three sets of cards of famous footballers. Not that I cared about footballers: all that rushing about, you ran from one end of the field to the other and as soon as you got there they kicked the ball back again – who needs it? But then again you have to collect something, so why not footballers?

Also these posters were what the son of the poster sticker said were at a premium and his father had to collect another set on account of the mysterious disappearance of the first set, which his farshtinkener son had sold at triple prices and which reappeared on the walls of many bedrooms of young boys all over.

So my father comes in and takes one look, a long look I noticed, to appraise the various felicities and then stands back and goes nearer and then goes to the side, first one side and then the other. Then he gets serious.

‘A boy of your age must not have such a depiction of such a woman,’ he said. ‘It could give you ideas above your station.’

I stared at Silvana long and hard for what I knew would be almost the last time. Or not quite, for I had another smaller version under my pillow. At night she sometimes got unfolded and lay by my side. When she did this I always wore a sock. In case of an uncontrollable emission. My mother was one of those who before washing sheets searched them for signs of incipient manhood. For some reason when you are of a certain age such things are to be ashamed of.

‘And so,’ my father said, ‘she will have to go.’

Sometimes he snatched posters or photographs from my wall, and screwed or tore them up: exemplars of excess, political impropriety, anti-Semitism. I once had a photograph of T.S. Eliot about whom I knew very little apart from a poem about Macavity the mystery cat.

‘Get that anti-Semite off my wall,’ my father cried.

‘It’s my wall,’ I protested.

‘I don’t care whose wall,’ he shouted. ‘I won’t have him in the house.’

‘What’s anti-Semitic about cats?’ I wanted to know.

‘Don’t argue with me,’ my father shouted, ‘my decision is final.’

It never occurred to me that my father was different from any other father. He was all I knew as far as fathers went. This is why I have grown up as far as I have without too many psychological peculiarities. None of which I would tell you about anyway. Even if I knew what they were.

And so he removed Silvana, but carefully I noticed, and folded her carefully too. I sat on my pillow in case he decided to look there.

But, I didn’t mean to go into all this detail. All I wanted to say was that I kept my room tidy so there was not much chance of anyone coming in and discovering what I was doing with the family heirloom. I get carried away sometimes.

That year there were three more funerals, all around September and October. Which is also the time of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, a very solemn day when you go to the synagogue all day and not a morsel passes your lips. Even your spit you’re not supposed to swallow, I was told.

I remember my mother saying, ‘Three funerals and two High Holy Days, we’ll end up religious maniacs!’

‘Not if I can help it,’ my father said grimly.

So, what with the funerals and my not being expected to stay and pray all day I had a goodly time with the heirloom. Which was coming on apace. In fact by staying up at night and rising early in the morning I had completed the restoration by the evening before Atonement Day.

On that evening you eat as much as possible to tide you over the following day. Except me, and, I suspected, others. Not everyone went to shul for the all-day service. Some of them came back to the house and you could hear eating noises sometimes and come across an aunt or an uncle, a cousin with jaws going like a beaver’s.

If you saw them they would leave the room where they were very quickly as if they had something very important to do.

Once I was wasting as much time as possible in Victoria Park before going back to the synagogue for even more praying. There I saw Auntie Rachel eating something alongside the boating lake. I went up behind her and made such a loud boo! she nearly jumped out of her dress, one with sequins. You could see she wasn’t very pleased. She stared at me and then at the sandwich in her hand and then she threw it as hard as she could into the lake. Ducks appeared from all points in a flurry of wings.

‘I’m feeding the animals,’ she said. ‘What’re you doing?’

By the time they all returned in the evening the restored heirloom was hanging on the wall above the mantelpiece. It replaced a sketch made of Grandfather Herschel by an artist on the pier at some place of watering. It was always an object of disagreement. Did he look like that or not? Look how the ears stick out, and the nose, how could such an anti-Semitic likeness be tolerated! A vote was taken. Eight for, eight against. Grandfather Herschel voted for himself and the picture hung above the mantelpiece from that day on.

I had even cleaned the frame and put the restoration in it.

Everybody was so busy filling the emptiness or in some cases the not-so-emptiness occasioned by the Great Fast that none of them seemed to notice the restored heirloom had replaced the ears and nose of Grandfather Herschel. And couldn’t have noticed the big piece of missing plaster behind the heirloom where I had knocked in the first nail.

I was proud of my work and the excitement was increased because I was not sure how long the nail would hold up the picture.

The first to notice was my mother who had been staring at it absentmindedly as she sipped her borscht. The spoon fell from her hand as she pointed and cried, ‘Where did that come from! Who put that there!’

The rest of the family did different things. One put a hand to a mouth. Another pressed both palms to the ears. Another forced a fist to a mouth so that she shouldn’t scream. Yet another pointed, convulsed in mirth. A fifth shook his head slowly from side to side. A sixth whispered into the ear of the seventh who nodded with vigour. And so it went on: the pulling of faces, the protuberance of eyes, the wringing of hands. Some got up to inspect, to view from the front, and the side.

‘I never seen it like this. You seen it like this?’

‘Who’s the one in the middle of the back row?’

‘The picture I remember there was only six, from where come the others!’

‘Are you sure it’s the right one, could be a falsification?’

‘Look at him on the end of the front row. Look at the bulge in the trousers.’

‘Bulge, what bulge?’

‘I thought it was destroyed.’

‘Consigned to obloquy.’

‘Never to see the light again.’

‘It just goes to—’

‘You never can tell.’

And then a cry, an ululation more like, from my mother: ‘Who did this! Who has dared to perpetrate such a…such a—’

She was so convincing I thought she was pretending and I stepped forward to give a simpering bow, bending the back and extending the left hand to the side as they did in the old-fashioned films I sometimes went to with Auntie Minnie in the Mile End Road picture house.

When alone in my room, with only a few spoons of borscht and dumpling, I soon realised she wasn’t pretending.

But I wasn’t there for long. In my absence a family meeting had taken place. I had been voted to return by nine to six. Auntie Minnie came to fetch me.

‘Of the six who voted against you,’ she said, ‘four are on your side but they didn’t want to upset your mother.’ She patted me on the head. ‘You know something,’ she said, ‘I think your father voted for you.’

In the end it all turned out sunbeams, as they say. My father poured a glass of wine and requested the others to do likewise. He rose to his feet and extended his glass to the portrait.

‘How can we reject,’ he said, ‘our forebears? Forebears you can’t chose, you come into the world and there they are already. With all their intransigencies, solecisms and I wot not what. Show me a family that does not have its fair share of golems and gonifs, schmucks and shmendriks.’ He stared around and almost everybody nodded. ‘To go with successes in the realms of business, academia, music and what-have-you. Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ he concluded. He raised his glass. ‘Next year in the Catskills.’ All the glasses were raised, including mine, in which there were granted a few teaspoons of wine.

‘Next year in the Catskills!’

I will not take up much more of your precious time to explain how I was feted and how my mother was eventually reconciled to her son the restorer, if not of the family fortunes. Or how I was called on to explain and demonstrate the ins and outs of my craft.

‘Craft?’ Uncle Moishe the presser objected. ‘It’s an art.’ Not all of us glimpsed this subtle distinction, but how could we disagree?

They brought me pictures from far and wide and such was the pressure for restoration that I had to develop a phobia to varnish that would, as far as they could know, last well into my teens.

I went to pay Shpengler and Plinsky a visit.

‘How did it go?’ they asked in unison.

‘I knew you had it in you,’ said Shpengler.

‘In my mind there was never any doubt,’ Plinsky agreed.

They paid a visit to make an inspection. They smiled and nodded at the picture and at each other. They agreed I had felicitously stumbled across one or two techniques that were not widely known beyond the purlieu of the profession. And would my parents consider a period of apprenticeship after which, and of course for a reduced fee, I might emerge as one of the Worshipful Masters of Restoration?

‘It would be the chance of lifetime,’ observed Plinsky.

‘Not to be sneezed at,’ added Shpengler.

‘Perhaps when he has recovered from his phobias,’ my mother said thoughtfully.

But I never did take advantage of their kind offer, despite a promise, a hint that they might leave their premises to me.

No. For even then, young as I was, I had plans of my own. What I would do I did not know. Who I was I had yet to find out. But such deeds I would perform, such discoveries I would make that would determine a place for me in a canvas of much larger proportions than the one I had restored in those far-off days. And who knows how many I might appear in, in which I would be the only occupant?

Thus are our dreams established and become a canvas towards which we stride and in which we sit or stand until the varnish of time deposits its patina on us. Heh, heh, heh.

Harry Greenberg was a counsellor to victims of torture, and spent many of his latter years writing and publishing stories, articles and witty asides on Jewish life and upbringing. His Letters to Kafka is published by CentreHouse Press and is available here at Amazon Kindle and on most other ebook platforms. There are plans to publish more from Harry’s backlist.

Personal Tragedies in Rodrigo Hasbún’s Los afectos

by Kathryn A. Kopple

In 2015, the Bolivian writer Rodrigo Hasbún published Los afectos (Affections), a slim volume loosely based on the Ertl family, a clan foisted on the reader with precious little introduction. “The day papa returned from Nanga Parbat (with some heart-rending images, of a beauty that wasn’t human), he told us while we ate dinner that mountain climbing had become too technical and what mattered was being lost, that he wouldn’t climb anymore.” His wife and daughters take in their papa’s words, careful not to interrupt, as he sermonizes about communing with nature. These speeches – the reader learns – go on uninterrupted for lengthy periods and, finally, culminate in a bruised vision of the world that, in a fine turn of phrase, can only be healed by seeking out those places “where God is untroubled by our ingratitude and sordidness”. A lofty sentiment and one that is in lockstep with the character’s historical counterpart: the Nazi cinematographer and alpinist Hans Ertl – the same man who, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, fully earned his reputation as Hitler’s photographer. Hasbún, however, is not deeply invested in this aspect of Ertl’s story; he is drawn to the private life of the family man. Untethered by all but the most tenuous historical references, Ertl and every character in the book become protagonists in a private tragedy.

Throughout this tragedy, the intimacy of perspectives creates the feel of memoir, albeit one that is subject to fragmentation. Although Hasbún is best known as an acclaimed author, his scholarly work focuses on the interconnectedness between diary, biography and literature. He takes issue with the idea that diaries must be read as at face value, as testimonials, when their very existence opposes worldly interests and demands. The diarist writes for a reader of one, presumably herself without, as Hasbún contends, “deference to the literary institution or publishing world”. Diaries may enter the public domain but their purpose is other. They are reclusive, hermetic. It is as if there is no activity more solitary – or personal – than that of the diarist. Nor is it coincidental that Los afectos is a book imbued with solitude. Hans Ertl’s treks up mountains and through Amazon forest are journeys into the heart of solitude. He is the man who “leaves”. His wife, Aurelia, languishes in the imposed solitude caused by her husband’s absence. Each of his three daughters is a solitary creature unable to sustain familial ties and relationships. Solitude of this sort is profoundly Heideggerian, that is, inescapable.

In fact, the entire novel reads like a Heideggerian fable. The characters are cast into a strange, new world to live out their finitude with precious few inner resources. Severed from their German homeland because of Hans’s Nazi past, their identities are stripped away; they must begin from scratch in Bolivia. In the high-altitude, low-oxygen city of La Paz, time is as precious as air. Hans wastes no time between expeditions. He returns from filming in Nanga Parbat already determined to set off again in search of Paititi, the lost Inca city of gold. His two eldest daughters, Monika and Heidi, are intensely aware that the clock is ticking and they are growing older by the second. The youngest daughter, Trixi, spends a melancholy Christmas alone with her mother, Aurelia, who tells the nearly thirteen-year-old that life is longer than people imagine, and that at times it feels “interminable”. Trixi sees her mother as terribly lonely. She fails to understand how she has too much time on her hands. In her abject pronouncements, Aurelia echoes Heidegger’s assertion that it is through boredom our awareness of time is heightened. Boredom leads to gloominess but forces us to reflect upon the groundlessness of our existence. Aurelia smokes, drinks, and reminisces but, most importantly, she philosophizes. Sadly, it’s all downhill for her from there.

In contrast with Aurelia’s lassitude, the eldest daughter, Monika, suffers fits of anxiety. Heidi, who fears and resents her sister, describes these episodes as grotesque. “It was ugly to see her writhing about, I won’t deny it. It was shocking, horrible even, to the point that, the last time, we had to tie her up.” The episode passes and Heidi suspects that Monika’s outbursts serve an ulterior purpose: they are a means of holding her distracted parents’ attention. Her resentment of her sister intensifies when she learns that their father is taking Monika with him on his next expedition. Heidi demands to go. Her father agrees in a way that unnerves the girl. “As if he had predicted all of it, including the questions I was asking, a strange smile appeared on his face. My chest froze and I looked at my sister and she at me and at that moment neither of us knew what to say.” A limit has been reached. Words fail. There is no turning back for Heidi. Now, like her father, she is the one who leaves. She also falls in love with Rudi, one of Hans’s assistants. Most significantly, she becomes lost, psychically speaking, unable to remember the day or the reason for the journey. This stripping away of perspective, time, and purpose brings her closer to what Heidegger calls authenticity.

Authenticity, for Heidegger, refuses imitation, it can’t be contained in archetypes. Rather, it prefigures socialization as an ideal mode of being. Hans may be the paterfamilias of the Ertl clan but he is, above all things, a man who is true to himself. He becomes disillusioned with mountaineering because alpinists have become mere technicians. Averageness disgusts him. In contrast, he aspires to all things sublime. The rain forest is no less sublime than the glacier. Sublimity involves terror. It is awe-inspiring. Add to that a mythical Inca city of gold – buried in all that forest – and the quest promises certain glory. At one point, he heaps praise on Hiram Bingham, the man credited with discovering Machu Picchu, thus inserting himself in the tradition of great explorers. But then he has already proven his worth by filming the 1936 Olympics and being at Rommel’s side during the war. Hans also possesses a certain erotic magnetism. When Trixi asks her mother if she fell in love with him at first sight, she replies, “The second I saw him…. But I wasn’t the only one. I think everyone on the committee was a little in love with him.” And then, not least, his eye never fails him. Whatever he films turns to magic. Authenticity – the discovery of the ideal self – goes hand in hand with exceptionalism.

For Hans’s daughters, living with such a man is overwhelming. Their feelings for him cause rifts and divisions – an utter lack of peace reigns over the family. It’s apparent that Hans loves Monika the most, ostensibly because she tests him. Of all the ironies to be found in the novel, the fact that Monika will go on to become a left-wing revolutionary is the most poetic. (But then, Heidegger too was a revolutionary. He found academic philosophy guilty of all manner of sins, not the least of them complacency. There is an air of nihilistic joy that runs throughout his writing, a sense that once the old norms have been destroyed, philosophy will arise like a phoenix from the ashes. And no doubt, Heidegger thought of himself as that phoenix. It’s also true that he was a committed Nazi and antisemite.) In Los afectos, it is Monika who forces the issue of Hans’s Nazism. She accuses him of being a “lackey of the powerful, a disgusting fascist”. Her words open a great wound in him. After her assassination by the Bolivian military, the elderly Hans has a grave dug for her, literally forcing him once and for all to stare into the abyss.

When Los afectos first came out, it was marketed as a historical novel. From the disclaimer on the first page of the book to his assertions in numerous interviews, Hasbún is adamant that the book is historical only in the broadest sense of the term: as story. The story involves multiple points of view, lack of chronological cohesion, and a directness of expression that breaks down aesthetic distance. Instead of history, we are presented with instances that turn inward, personal, and reflective. Out of this assemblage of disparate voices, the question that arises is why history at all? Especially since Hasbún claims to use as little biographical detail as possible. The author seems to be pulled in by the unwritten aspects of the story – in what the historical record either suppressed or omitted. Nazism recedes into the background, almost imperceptible, as if opening a window to let in some fresh air.

In the essay “Fascinating Fascism”, Susan Sontag remarks that it may “seem ungrateful or rancorous to refuse to cut loose” the work of Nazi propagandists from their past. She takes issue with the rehabilitation of Leni Riefenstahl despite the cinematographer’s ongoing commitment to fascism. The same could be said of Hans Ertl. He never became disillusioned with Nazi Germany: it was post-war, democratic Germany that failed him. Moreover, during his self-imposed exile in Bolivia, he sought out the friendship of the notorious Klaus Barbie. Barbie is thought to have been involved in Monika’s assassination by Bolivian security forces in 1973. Given his friendship with Barbie – and, as mentioned in the novel, Ertl’s relationships with high-ranking members of the Bolivia military – he may have had more to do with his daughter’s death than the novel suggests. Whatever role he played (active or passive), Ertl never repudiated Nazism or his fascist associations. He would go on to write two memoirs, both of which are imbued with sentimental accounts of mountaineering and exploration. Both memoirs pay homage to the Germany of his youth.

However Hasbún adjusts the lens – the ever-shifting angles – it’s scarcely possible to insulate Los afectos – or any work of art – from its source material. The connection between old-world fascism and new-world exile is not severed but revised. Nazism may find itself reduced to mere figments, but even these have the power to mesmerize. The Argentine writer Manuel Puig, in his masterpiece El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman), explores the Nazi aesthetic, and how it catches us in a web of repulsion and attraction. The goddesses of Nazi cinema are no less beautiful because they are instruments of a brutal regime. They fascinate regardless. They provide an ideal of physical beauty and an antidote to the ugliness of existence. Fascism is predicated on a host of aesthetic values, among them the dictum that, without beauty, life is simply not worth living. Los afectos offers us a taste of such a life in the Ertl family saga. They are doomed and therefore beautiful. To paraphrase Heidegger, beauty is only as true as it is tragic.


All translations from the novel are mine unless otherwise cited. Regarding Hasbún’s critical investigations, please see Enea Zaramella, “Interview with Rodrigo Hasbún” in The White Review,, accessed 22 August 2021. A thorough discussion of the fascist aesthetic of Hans Ertl’s memoirs can be found in Caroline Schaumann’s “Memories of Cold in the Heat of the Tropics: Hans Ertl’s ‘Meine Wilden Dreißiger Jahre’” in Colloquia Germanica, vol. 43, no. 1/2, 2010, pp. 97–112, JSTOR,, accessed 22 August 2021. Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism” may be found at UC Santa Barbara, , accessed 22 August 2021. Los afectos has been translated into English under the title Affections by Sophie Hughes.

Kathryn A. Kopple holds a doctorate in Latin American literature (NYU). Her focus is the surrealist poetry of the Rio de la Plata. She has also published original poetry and prose in multiple venues, including The Threepenny Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. She has published two novels – Little Velásquez and The Leaving Year – set in Spain. Kathryn also hosts the literary blog The Leaving Year.

May Uprising, Paris, 1968

by Garry O’Connor

‘The past is bourgeois propaganda,’ booms a deep voice in French from the stage of Paris’s Odéon Theatre. I am participating after a fashion in the May uprising of 1968. I have lived for some months in a tiny maid’s room, eight flights up on the Île Saint-Louis, happily exiled, insulated from reality, smiled upon by fate, blessed and at the same time deprived. Most days I eat chicken necks and gizzards served with rice at a corner café – and eye the glittering and sexy world of Paris without taking much part.

My English friends, Kate and her husband Robert, found it rather curious I should be living all alone, doing a minimal amount of work, a bit of teaching, a bit of translating, maybe one or two articles for a newspaper, to get by, but they couldn’t see what I was carrying. Nor could I, perhaps. I was an inner darkness, even to myself. I had no why and wherefore, even about who I was. I was, in the words of one of Dad’s songs, ‘wandering on life’s highway’, or perhaps just desperately trying to avoid the past, with its mighty sucking action.


Then came the Odéon occupation. And I was there. The student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, popped up, red-headed, round and jovial, a jack-in-the-box, or devil in a morality play, a Daniel Quilp. He knew what to say, dwarfing the mellowed bust of Pascal, of La Rochefoucauld. This was not the Sorbonne, where the uprising had started, but the Théâtre de l’Odéon, which had been thrown like a dog’s bone to the insurgents. Thousands of protesters crammed the auditorium and the loges. The stage was so jammed it was a wonder the worn and creaking boards stood the weight.

Everyone talked at once. It was forbidden to forbid. Everything was equal. They were screaming at a middle-aged professor that he was a ‘sélectioniste’ – he favoured selecting students to follow a university course. Shouting that his other crime was of not being working-class, they started to threaten him with blows.

‘Let the professor explain himself, and if we think he’s a bastard we’ll tell him “Monsieur Blanc, you are a bastard!”’

Monsieur Blanc spoke at length but no one bothered with what he said, and soon a murmur grew and it silenced him. By now it was so stuffy I thought I would faint. People left for fear of suffocating. I explored backstage. At the back was an eerie, dark little passage leading down one side of the stage to the other. Underneath was hollow. Perhaps the floor really would not hold! What if three or four hundred people went crashing down into the chasm? I came back. Everyone now talked at once. Order does not exist; licence was without licence: there were not two sides to any question but twenty – fifty, a hundred. There was no person in the chair – no master or mistress of ceremonies – it would be a symbol of hierarchy, of oppression. Every blade of grass had a tongue. Everything was equal. Everyone had a right to the truth, and to voice an opinion. Was this a foretaste of the twenty-first century, with its Twitter and Facebook rule, with its faction-ridden societies and nations?

Actors tried to speak – neat, well-shaven, ordinary men and women; musicians, artists – the latter with the beards of anarchists. Over and over again they told each other that bourgeois culture was dead.

The Odéon – a symbol of repression – had been seized. They were delirious. Now it, too, was dead. Henceforth it would be a political forum. Malraux, Barrault, Renaud, Claudel, Messiaen, Boulez, these great names of French culture – they no longer existed. ‘One doesn’t compose with a society in decomposition.’ ‘Long live communication. Down with telecommunication.’ Maybe this really was a new beginning. What had André Malraux, Minister of Culture, once said? ‘Christ: an anarchist who succeeded. That’s all!’ What did he say about the twenty-first century, that it would either be ‘a century of religion, or not at all’.

During the next hours of night and day while discussions raged on I visited other parts. Dressing rooms had been turned into kitchens or dormitories. I tiptoed from room to room sometimes fearful that I might provoke the numerous and naked two-backed beasts copulating over or under blankets. No one seemed much bothered that I was there to see them. Shame? They had abolished that. Others pounded tall typewriters, issuing slogans, directives. Grim-faced militants in rimless spectacles, bald, bearded men under banners mesmerised me. ‘THE MORE I MAKE REVOLUTION THE MORE I MAKE LOVE.’ Next day I was still there and I couldn’t leave.

The real beneficiaries of revolt appeared. ‘You’ll get the plague if you stay,’ Katie warned before she left, for she had been there to begin with, begging me not to stay. ‘All that filth. There’ll be rats. You’ll see….’

I laughed in disbelief, but then they appeared. Great brown things, their bodies could be seen bobbling among the filth accumulating under the stage. Above, and in the auditorium, the great debates on class, on Marxism, on poverty, on the great new future, continued without halt. Backstage the dressing rooms overflowed with stench. First used for rutting, they became a cesspit. Vandalism was rife, obscenities scrawled everywhere, light fixtures broken, mirrors cracked, costumes and make-up strewn over everything. In the costume stores there was even worse havoc. At first these had stayed locked – until broken into from the skylights above. The theatre’s director, Jean-Louis Barrault, France’s greatest actor, looked in to see what was happening, made a speech supporting the students, and then left weeping. Half the seats had been torn up. Later, for having shown sympathy, he was relieved of his post.

Then walking down a corridor, I found myself seized from behind.

My assailants were two blond men, naked to the waist, scarves tied round their necks and army fatigue caps on their heads. Their grip was like steel and it was useless to resist. Anyway they had a purpose so they propelled me in a certain direction.

‘Where the hell are you taking me?’

They didn’t answer but pushed open doors ahead with their feet. They looked older than the students, and were military professionals. Breathless with fear and exertion, ‘I work for an English paper’ was about all I managed to say. I freelanced for the Financial Times. ‘Who cares?’ said one of them. ‘We were told.’

A room where hundreds of seventeenth-century costumes for Molière and Racine lay scattered had become a parlour for clochards. ‘Parlez-moi d’amour…. Je vois la vie en rose….’ they quavered and warbled. The brutal-looking, gap-toothed men from the Île Saint-Louis and old women who pushed prams from which dangled brown stockings of uneven length, laughed and waved. Godot had arrived. Estragon and Vladimir had infiltrated the headquarters of Phèdre and Harpagon.

The next store was a ‘medical centre’ – so one captor told me: on duty there was a motley collection of half a dozen lunatics in white coats. They seemed more like junkies or members of the Living Theatre who toured with a cast running naked up and down the aisles. In the middle of the largest of costumes stores was an odd assortment of weapons. Crowbars, axes – the theatre fire axes – cudgels, chains, chunks of masonry, and what I took to be Molotov cocktails. We had reached the inner sanctum. The arsenal. My first inclination was to laugh – more from nerves than anything else.

‘Who are you?’ I asked.

There were between twenty and twenty-five of them. The leader was dark-haired, his hair close-cropped and thinning, cut to give an appearance of firmness. His forehead was lined – not by thought, I guessed, but by screwing his eyes up in extreme heat and glare. He was a big fellow, over six foot, and looked fit. He had narrow, small eyes, darting with the threat that he could be very nasty if crossed.

‘You must be the Katangais,’ I said. I had heard of them. They were mercenaries, now on leave, and with no employer. They got their name from the fact that some of them had been in Katanga – but others fought in Korea, Algeria, and Indo-China. Wherever a dirty war needed to be fought, they fought it, the dirtier the better.

‘We heard the call of the students,’ the leader answered slowly, chewing over his words. He spoke mildly enough – as if playing down the violent side. ‘As we haven’t any education, we decided to join in and place our physical strength at the service of the revolution.’

‘The pay here can’t be very good.’

I regretted saying this: it slipped out without my meaning it. But I had cast a slur on their altruism, and I would be beaten for it, so I braced myself for blows. Surprisingly, they did not seem to mind.

‘There isn’t much work around for us at the moment,’ grumbled one.

‘So how do you envisage your role in the revolution?’ I asked somewhat more cautiously now – although they seemed ready enough to chat.

‘We have founded the CIR,’ says their leader. The CIR, he explained, was the ‘Committee of Rapid Intervention’.

‘But why do you come here, to the theatre?’

At this they went silent, and appeared to rumble with bellicose intention. I had better not press the question.

‘Please, what do you want with me?’ I asked.

‘You must stay with us,’ he answered,’ In case there is trouble.’

His purpose was plain. I was a hostage.

They brought food – a baguette that was slightly stale and tasted rubbery – and some cheese – and poured out wine. The enormity of my trap grew on me, for the siege might go on forever. Yes, the government had thrown the dog a bone and were waiting till he grew tired of it.

The nights were worst because I couldn’t sleep. I rocked myself backwards and forwards on the mound of costumes that was my bed, but it did no good. The dark had captured my brain. What if I myself dissolved in the dark?

I fought against the darkness. I listened to the sounds outside – and inside my head. Sometimes the rain outside was fierce. I closed my eyes. Several times my nervous condition dominated. So it went on – and then I fell asleep and had this dream.

I’m waiting for my dad to come on stage. I’m about six years old – the wide-eyed boy. And I’m sitting in the front seats of the dingy brown, upholstered stalls of the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgware Road, about to watch Mum’s powerful lover – the embodiment of every woman’s dreams. You – the Vagabond Lover – are about to stride out to bask in the glow of ambers and reds, and capture the hearts of a thousand attentive watchers and listeners.

I wriggle a bit but am rapt. But I have butterflies in my stomach. Jerry is still, where he can, bombing the hell out of provincial cities and ports – and sometimes London too. Air-raid sirens have warned earlier as Heinkels and Dorniers pass over the suburbs. Maybe they’ll be back.

Arms linked, legs kicking, tits thrusting out, the dance duo before yours comes wheeling, gasping and clattering off, like some monster gone half mad and out of control.

It’s your turn. Top of the bill. The act everyone’s been waiting for. The big star. Beside me Mum sharply takes in breath, her eyes shining and full of happiness as she composes herself with pleasure.

Ever since I can remember Mum would say, ‘Come on, you’ve got to watch your father’ (she, from a different class than his, always called him ‘your father’).

So I’d seen your act a hundred times – if not more. But I’m not just sitting here, watching you; without me knowing you’ve become so much a part of me, the deepest part. My dad. So I’m here, not only out front, but with you in the wings, ready to go on before you do – inside you, as you’re about to stride out into the lights….

The pit band plays a chorus of your signature tune, ‘I’m only a strolling Vagabond’ – a big cheer of recognition – and then out you stride onto the stage looking as if nothing mattered to you, throwing half a smile up to the circle as if you’ve spotted some old friend there, and this has caught your attention far more than the other thousand-odd members of the house.

By many such little tricks, I knew and could see later, they’d be captured by you and listen. If you can get them sufficiently at ease with themselves, they’ll let go and float easily off into the dreamy fabric of your songs—

I’m bound for the hills and the valleys beyond
So good night pretty maiden, goodnight.
I follow Fortune that beckons me on
I catch at her skirts and the lady is gone
But that’s just my lot, if so right….

Your clothes help the informality. The Strolling Vagabond against a backcloth of lanes and trees in the far distance, farm horses and hills, a blue sky, endless peace. A wooden stile for you to lean against and place your foot upon. A tree trunk as a seat.

You finish the chorus of your song. We all clap. Violent and sustained applause. I wave at you, Dad, and you smile, motion for the audience to be silent. ‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,’ you declare in your lilting, stage-Irish voice.

‘And now if I may I’d like to sing you an old favourite by that most illustrious of song writers, Irving Berlin – “When I Leave the World Behind”.’

Cheers. Applause again. The song was well known. Effortlessly your voice glides and coasts over the colourful orchestrations.

I’m not a millionaire
Who’s burdened down with care
Somehow that’s passed me by….

But Dad, you are – in my and everyone’s estimation! A millionaire! Suddenly I’m frightened. What if the Heinkels and Dorniers on their way back to Germany swarm over North London again? And what if searchlights stab the darkness, outlining hundreds of gleaming insect structures packed under the roof of the sky, and guns lick out red tongues at the night? What if the Germans drop their bombs on us?

Would you pack it in? If a stick of bombs made a direct hit on or near the Met, with the air-raid sirens caught unawares and no warning given, would you stop singing? Never. You would go on singing regardless.

But what of the little boy sitting there, watching you? Would the song go on for him – and forever?

I woke up. The vast inside of the Odéon lay empty, desecrated, battered – like some fetid, yawning mouth. It seemed irredeemably fouled: the exhaust gases of idealism and spontaneous expression. The theatre’s ghosts had suffered wholesale extermination.

The CRS and gendarmes had surrounded the theatre; they were helmeted and armed with teargas grenades. The word had gone round that the Odéon would be reoccupied by the authorities.

‘What will happen?’ I asked one of my guards.

He sighed. He was unmoved. ‘Negotiations….’

‘No fighting? No last-ditch stand? What’s happened to the spirit of Katanga?’

‘Jackie’s not negotiating with the police,’ he answered tetchily, ‘he’s negotiating with the television and film people. Americans are offering a big fee.’

‘But how much would you ask – to put up some resistance to the police?’

The other dropped his usual air of lassitude. ‘Why? Can you pay?’

Once a mercenary, always a mercenary. He was about to go and fetch the others.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m penniless. It’s purely an academic question.’

The guard shrugged.

A voice we could just about hear floated up from a loudhailer outside. ‘Let those who want come out, do it now! You will be free if you leave without weapons, and without any bellicose intentions.’

I looked at my captors.

‘Where does that leave me?’

‘Shut up! I told you we have to await the results of negotiations. Jackie’s down there now.’

Another Katangais put his head round the door.

‘Come on: the order has come through. We’re going!’

‘What about him?’ asked my guard, meaning me.

‘He’s nothing to do with us now.’

I beat the Katangais to the exit, and hid by the pillar of an arch to watch. They emerged clean, well-shaven, their clothes crisp and pressed. They walked upright, without looking at anyone. In the street quite a crowd had collected. The Katangais presented their papers to the police control and marched off without a word.

In the square, top police brass had assembled: prefects, sub-prefects, stood to attention as everyone left. The mayor complimented the police on the ‘cleansing of the public building’. Then an officer in plain clothes climbed out on the roof of the Odéon and removed the red and black flags. The French tricolour soon fluttered again over the weather vane, but there had been no time to erase the ‘Ex’ prefixed to the ‘Théâtre de France’ on the entablature.

In the rue Casimir Delavigne a young man opened a window on the second floor, and started jeering and shouting: it needed all his father’s strength to grab him and haul him back inside.

What was the significance of my dream? Was the contrast of it with the stinking theatre pointing to a path I would have to follow in the future? Was this what destiny had in store?

Dad was after me, had pursued me even to Paris. And he would continue to be after me, relentlessly, until I turned to confront him. Would I have the courage to investigate his life, find out all I could about him, all there was to know? Had I resources enough to tackle the central part of the mystery? And could I present him as he was, expose him to the world?

A line from a poem drifted into my head. ‘O maison, où donc est ton maître?’

Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. The Vagabond Lover, his father-son memoir, is an incisive probe into the life and career of his father, Cavan O’Connor, famous as a popular tenor and active throughout most of the twentieth century, and into his own life and career as a writer. The above is an excerpt from it, published by CentreHouse Press in hardback, paperback, and on most ebook platforms.

About Harry

By Peter Cowlam

I first met Harry at the back end of the ’90s, almost a decade after I had left London but had kept my friendships there. At that time he was still living in his flat near Highgate, where I dropped in as often as I could. Almost his entire living space was floor-to-ceiling with books and journals, some of the latter carrying short pieces Harry had written. At that time I was never shown his work in progress, which, if my memory serves correctly, was all put down using traditional pen and paper. This would now have been the early 2000s, when I never left his flat without Harry having first filled my bag with books he thought I would like to read – a William H. Gass, one of those many enormous tomes by Harold Bloom on the subject of canonicity, Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Chevillard’s The Crab Nebula, and many, many more.

I saw Harry less often once he had moved to East Finchley, but was glad to find, once he’d installed himself there, that all his writing was now through a laptop. He did not seem to understand the importance of backing up, so I bought him an offline hard drive and showed him how to use it. His scepticism wasn’t so much at the technicalities. What he was uneasy with was the thought of allowing some article of electronica into his house whose factory assembly was at the hands of slave labour working in some godforsaken sweatshop somewhere in the East. And of course, I wasn’t able to reassure him. The episode didn’t end there. On a later visit I asked him about his backups. He told me quite calmly he had lent the hard drive I had brought him to a great nephew, for use with a computer game, but since its return it had never worked. I looked at it, and yes, it was quite dead. By now storage technology had moved on, to a point of greater and greater capacity crammed onto smaller and smaller devices. I bought a couple of USB sticks, and personally backed up Harry’s machine – once on a stick I left with him, and again on a stick I took away with me. This was December 2015, the last time I saw Harry. I didn’t know that he had died until I mentioned his name to a mutual friend (Harry it seems had a great many friends whom he did not introduce to one another). A few months after this shock news I had a phone call from Fiona Ford (a new name to me), who had been going through Harry’s things. Bless him, Harry had taped a note to his laptop, to the effect that he wanted me as his literary executor. If I managed to publish anything he had written at a profit, then whatever profit there was should be to the benefit of charities named in his will. And that was Harry, charitable by nature.

A first effort at bringing all that literary activity to light was Harry’s witty insight into the trials of living as, or of being a writer – his Letters to Kafka, now available as an ebook. In some ways his Kafka could have been Harry himself, plunged into the periphery of publishing and its adjuncts, where if you cannot conform to what is au courant you are likely to be badly misconstrued. There are too many in the business of book production who cannot venture beyond public obsessions or the bestseller, or just stop for five minutes to try to get a grasp on what gifted human beings may have turned their attentions to.

Harry Greenberg’s Letters to Kafka is available on most ebook platforms. There are plans to publish more from Harry’s backlist.

I am indebted, of course, to Fiona Ford, and I would like also to thank David Salaman, who delivered the laptop to me. We are hopeful of more Harry Greenberg books to come.

Peter Cowlam

Peter Cowlam has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates.

Cowlam is also a freelance editor and the author of plays and poetry. His first novel was published in 1998, by CentreHouse Press. His second novel, New Suit for King Diamond, published in 2002, was nominated for the Booker Prize. His brief stint as a commissioning editor saw two issues of The Finger, a journal of politics, literature and culture. His fiction, poems and reviews are published in a wide range of print and online journals.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

Review by Jon Elsby

Reviewers have been divided about the purpose of this book. Supporters of Donald Trump see it as an exercise in score-settling. Other Comey critics, not necessarily Republicans, are inclined to see it as an ego-trip – the former Director of the FBI seizing a final chance to take centre stage before he slips into historical oblivion. Fair-minded, non-partisan readers will probably disagree; they will regard the book as, first, an attempt to set the record straight, after the avalanche of lies from Trump and innumerable misleading statements in the media, by telling the truth about James Comey’s tenure of office as the head of the FBI; and, second, a sustained meditation on the virtues and values of leadership by a man who has had extensive experience of leading (and being led) at multiple levels, including the highest.

In fact, the book is more than any of these. It is probably as close to an autobiography as Comey will ever get. It tells us something about his upbringing, his schooling, his experience of being bullied, the traumatic and terrifying experience as an adolescent of confronting the Ramsey Rapist, and his early experiences of leadership in the workplace. (Comey, then aged sixteen, and his brother, who was a year younger, were at home alone when a gunman broke into their house and threatened them. The boys eventually managed to escape by climbing out of a bathroom window, and the gunman had to flee to avoid capture. Only later did they find out that the armed intruder was, in fact, the so-called Ramsey Rapist, who had been terrorizing the area for months.)

We read about his admiration for the proprietor of the grocery store where he got his first job – an honest man who knew how to be firm but fair, and how to temper toughness with kindness: something Comey adverts to again and again throughout the book. It is clearly his view that such knowledge is absolutely indispensable to wise and morally good leadership.

In his career in law enforcement, Comey was at great pains to ensure that everyone was treated alike, irrespective of rank, status, fame, or wealth. In order to be genuinely impartial, justice had to be blind to social distinctions. Comey’s education, his early moral and intellectual formation, peculiarly suited him to the career he chose. He was brought up in a family strongly imbued with the religious values of Christian orthodoxy. He very quickly acquired a hatred of bullying, partly from being on the receiving end of it at school and partly from the shame of meting out similar treatment to another boy later on. This gave him an instinctive sympathy with victims of crime or anti-social behaviour. He noted that good leaders inspired loyalty not by threatening or terrorizing others, but by having clear moral values, by treating others fairly, by being just but also merciful, by combining confidence with humility, by being good listeners, and, above all, by being anchored in the truth.

That last quality became especially relevant when Comey, as a federal prosecutor, first had to deal with members of the Mafia. The Mafia – La Cosa Nostra, “this thing of ours” – had a warped ethical code which enabled them, despite their brutal and immoral conduct, to maintain the fiction that they were “men of honour”. Comey lists the rules a “made man” supposedly committed to and abided by—

“… [T]he rules of American Cosa Nostra: no killing with explosives; no killing law enforcement; no killing other made men without official permission; no sleeping with another made man’s wife; and no dealing in narcotics. As a general rule, the Mafia did a good job following the first two rules. The American government would crush anyone who harmed innocents with explosions or killed law enforcement. But the promises not to kill made guys, bed their wives, or deal dope were lies […] Mafia members routinely did all three. […]

“The closely related Sicilian Mafia had a different rule, one that highlighted the centrality of dishonesty to the entire enterprise of organized crime on both sides of the Atlantic. Newly inducted members were told that they were forbidden to lie to another ‘made member’ – called a ‘man of honour’ in Sicily – unless […] it was necessary to lure him to his death.”

This meant, as a Mafioso once explained to Comey, without a trace of irony, that “men of honour may only lie about the most important things”. Anyone with a normally functioning conscience will see the contradiction. The moral orientation of the Mafia was the diametric opposite of being anchored in the truth. They were embedded in the lie.

The experience of having dealt with sundry members of the Mafia as a prosecutor stood Comey in good stead when, many years later, he came to deal with the forty-fifth President of the United States. He recognized Donald Trump’s type, and he describes it well (more accurately, he came to recognize it. Initially, he was nonplussed, as anyone would be whose past experience of dealing with presidents had not prepared him in any way for an encounter with a serial liar and, in the words of Lord Patten, a “vulgar, abusive, ignorant man”. Only when Comey made the connexion between Trump and the gangsters he had met in the course of his career in law enforcement was he able finally to take the President’s measure)—

“[T]his president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego-driven, and about personal loyalty.”

The indictment may seem extreme, but it is borne out by the facts. At an early meeting with Trump, the President told him, “I need loyalty.” It rang a bell with Comey, both in the sense of sounding an alarm and in the sense of stirring a memory. He writes—

“The ‘leader of the free world’, the self-described great business tycoon, didn’t understand leadership. Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear – like a Cosa Nostra boss – require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice. They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations – to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions requires people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration – ‘love’ is not too strong a word – that builds lasting bonds and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.”

Of course, what is at issue here is the fundamental opposition between two different conceptions of leadership. The opposition between them is logically necessary and ineradicable because it is rooted not in mere opinions, but in convictions – in their antecedent ethical beliefs and assumptions. On the one hand, we have Comey’s concept of ethical leadership, deeply rooted in the moral teachings of the Christian tradition. On the other, we have Donald Trump’s concept of leadership (if he were capable of conceptualizing or articulating it), which, did he but know it, is rooted in the ruthless pragmatism of Machiavelli’s The Prince. The former, at its best, produces outstanding leaders who earn (but do not always get) the loyalty of their subordinates without ever asking for it. The latter, at its best, produces Cesare Borgia (Cesare Borgia, 1475–1507, though hardly a model of Christian virtue, was probably no worse than many other Italian noblemen of his day. He was prepared to do whatever was necessary in order to win and secure political power for himself. That included committing or authorizing assassinations, perpetrating various acts of treason and treachery, embarking on aggressive wars of conquest, and imprisoning political rivals and adversaries without charge. Throughout history, dictators, from Caligula to Kim Jong-un, have displayed similar qualities. Donald Trump seems to have most of the instincts of dictators, but to be restrained from their worst excesses by the checks and balances provided in the American politico-legal system).

Given the unbridgeable gulf that separates their respective worldviews, it is unsurprising that Trump and Comey did not get along. Comey struggled to understand Trump: a basically decent, rational man will always struggle to understand someone who is neither decent nor rational. He lacks the concepts and criteria by which to take his measure – although, ironically, in a different context, Comey would have understood Trump perfectly. If he, as a federal prosecutor, had been interviewing Trump with a view to charging him with, say, racketeering, he would have appraised him swiftly and accurately. But his expectations of a gangster, and of the President of the United States, were, not unnaturally, quite different. Comey had already had dealings with two US presidents, both of whom, despite significant differences in policy and personality, were steeped in Christian moral values. Trump, as he well knew, was not; but even so, he was not prepared for the reality. He was shocked by what he found: a man whose moral compass was not so much broken or defective as non-existent.

All this is vividly described in the book. The prose is not literary – and, arguably, literary prose would have been inappropriate to Comey’s purpose here – but it is clear, concise, and readable. It does the job it has to do. It enables Comey to get his points across economically and forcefully.

There is a danger, of which Comey is sensitively aware, that anyone writing a book with a high moral purpose will come across as sanctimonious. In his prefatory Author’s Note, Comey admits to being “stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego”, adding that “I’ve struggled with those [faults] my whole life.” What saves him from sanctimony is self-awareness. He is disarmingly honest about his own failings, and tells many stories against himself. A sanctimonious man would not. An egoist would not. And a narcissist most definitely would not. James Comey has been accused by his detractors of being all three. In my view, these accusations are unjust. The person we encounter in these pages, it seems to me, is honest, morally serious, well grounded, intelligent, objective, rational, and humane. And those are seven more reasons why his views on leadership should be attended to with respect, and pondered long after we have finished reading the book.

Jon Elsby is the author of numerous books on aspects of Roman Catholicism, and is a specialist in opera, on which subject he has written a wide-ranging survey of operatic tenors, titled Heroes and Lovers.

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