It’s time to post again on this blog but I find myself in a predicament. At the end of last week, I noticed that there might be a problem with my computer but initially, I paid little attention to it. The external hard disk attached to the machine and into which all my material has been backed up once an hour for the past two years seemed to be dismounting itself at random after completing a backup. It was only when it seemed that these random happenings had transmogrified into each and every time, that I decided that it was time to let the experts have a look at it.
They work out of a small lab in South Tel Aviv and have been looking after my computer needs for about 10 years now, so I trust them. They came back to me with a diagnosis that the hard disk on the computer was damaged and needed to be replaced. Well, sometimes these things happen, you know, and because the machine has become so much part of my life, I had little option but to subject it to whatever rehabilitation procedures they deemed necessary to put things to right. I wasn’t unduly worried; after all, it would only be a matter of it costing some money and anyway, everything I had was backed up, wasn’t it?
Prior to delivering the machine to the lab, I asked how long it might take to replace the disk and was informed that if I brought it in early in the morning, then barring unforeseen problems, I might expect to have it back late in the afternoon. In the event, I brought it in last Sunday afternoon but that was four days ago so when I hadn’t heard from them by Tuesday morning, I called and then I called again a few hours later, only to be informed that the machine wasn’t ready yet because “we’re having a problem restoring the data from the backup disk”.
This is a response that all computer users dread. You have a disk onto which you’ve been backing up data regularly for over two years (or so you think) but you can never quite be sure what the situation really is until you have to call upon the backed up data to be put in place on your brand new — but empty — computer hard disk.
So a call yesterday morning brought the nightmare news, but it was news that I had figured out for myself anyway because there was no other plausible explanation. While restoring the data from the backup disk, that very backup disk decided it was time to expire. In perhaps 0.01% of cases you encounter a situation in which two disks fail at the same time., As John Cleese might have said in the infamous “parrot sketch” from Monty Python, “This disk ain’t resting; this disk is dead. This disk is an ex-disk!”. In this particular case, “these disks”, RIP. Hopefully, they can right the issue, otherwise I am, as the saying goes in one of its milder versions, well and truly screwed; in only a slightly wilder version, I am up shit creek without a paddle or a disk.
When the issue first became apparent last week, I did take the precaution on making sure that I had made copies of the many photographs I have taken over the past decade as well as all the documents, too. Some of this stuff is purportedly on additional hard disks. Much of it is also (theoretically, supposedly, hopefully, purportedly, allegedly) also stored on “the cloud” so that (theoretically, supposedly, hopefully, purportedly, allegedly) I shouldn’t need to worry — but I do. Perhaps the gods might be kind to me, perhaps not. It would just be a decade down the drain.
So this is the first post I have started on the iPad although I have no idea what photographs I have available to go with the text but we’ll see as I continue.
Now, every cloud has a silver lining and this cloud gave me an opportunity to finish reading a book that I had bought in London last month and started a few weeks ago. Timothy Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale specializing in the history of Eastern and Central Europe. His 2015 book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning chronicles the rise of the Nazis to power in the 1920s and 1930s but deals primarily with the atrocities that took place in what had been the Pale of Jewish Settlement in Eastern Europe in the period between the dismemberment of interwar Poland, which followed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in 1939 and Operation Barbarossa when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Professor Snyder, as far as I can fathom, is not Jewish so the book doesn’t really have a Jewish (or Zionist or anti-Zionist) agenda to it; he is simply an academic going about doing what academics do and some better than others (and this is one of the better ones).
The main contention of the book is that the two years between the outbreak of the war and the German invasion led to the demolition of state structures and with that, the breakdown and disappearance of all legal status, a situation that aided the executioners to get on with their job. (The abandonment of legal structures—and the events that followed immediately—had actually begun in 1938 in Vienna on the day of the Anschluss). In the Baltic states, Belarus, Eastern ex-Poland, Ukraine, areas that had been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939 and then conquered by Hitler’s Germany, the initial executioners were not the Nazis but the Soviets. After Barbarossa, ex-Soviet collaborators who, in order to collaborate with the Nazis needed to cleanse themselves of their Soviet collaborationist past, joined in the murdering with gusto. Stalinist evils made way for the Nazi extermination.
But the point that Snyder makes is that the annihilation was not just by state institutions such as armies of militias but also by ordinary people who, in the absence of law and order, stole and slaughtered as they pleased. Jews, of course, were most vulnerable in this part of the world and all the more so in places where there all guarantees of citizenship or of identity had vanished. There were no rights to property; there was no protection of any kind. Life itself was no longer guaranteed by any kind of legal and bureaucratic structure.
If the content of the book was painful to read its prose is fluent but stark. In gross understatement, this was an instructive read. The role of the Polish Government in training fighters in right-wing Zionist organizations in the 1930s and even during the war hardly if ever gets mentioned in Israel. Nor does the proposal by Avraham Stern, the leader of Lehi (a.k.a. The Stern Gang) in January 1941 of “cooperation between the New Germany and a renewed racial-national Hebrewdom”, which would involve “the direction of a historical Jewish state on national and totalitarian foundations, which would stand in a treaty relationship with the German Reich, in the interest of the protection and strengthening of the future German power position in the Near East”.
The fact that over 80% of Jews (and others) were murdered before the Auschwitz killing factory was perfected is another oft-forgotten fact. In fact, Snyder writes about Auschwitz and I summarize: “Auschwitz symbolizes the intention to murder all Jews under German control … a story of survival at Auschwitz can enter collective memory. … Yet while Auschwitz has been remembered, most of the Holocaust has been forgotten. [It] has been a relatively manageable symbol for Germany after the … War, significantly reducing the actual scale of the evil done. The conflation of Auschwitz with the Holocaust made plausible the grotesque claim that Germans did not know about the mass murder of the European Jews while it was taking place. It is possible that some Germans did not know what happened at Auschwitz. It is not possible that many Germans did not know about the mass murder of Jews. [It] was known and discussed in Germany, at least among families and friends, long before Auschwitz became a death facility. In the East, where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening. …
… For similar reasons Auschwitz was a convenient symbol in the postwar Soviet Union and today in post-Communist Russia. If the Holocuast is reduced to Auschwitz, then it can easily be forgotten that the German mass killing of Jews began in places that the Soviet Union has just conquered. … In the East the method of mass murder required tens of thousands of participants and was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people … If the Holocaust is identified only with Auschwitz, this experience, too, can be excluded from history and commemoration.”
An anonymous reviewer of this book in The Economist newspaper a couple of years ago wrote “Thinking about the Holocaust should not be easy. Mr. Snyder’s flawed but powerful book challenges readers to reassess what they think they know and believe: a worthy memorial to the victims.” Professor Snyder names names throughout this book and it seems that little escaped his expedition through his many and diverse sources.
In the end, however, this is really a book about people. It is a book about inhumanity and humanity. It is a book about ordinary people. It is a book about how ordinary people can become so vile and evil in so short a time, murdering their neighbours and stealing their property. But as the later chapters relate, ordinary people—ordinary people with the same background—could display such kindness and courage in sheltering and saving lives, putting their own lives and those of their families in jeopardy. The last chapter of the book provides food for thought about the conditions that could — not might — lead to similar slaughters in the future.
Black Earth is a book that should be read by anyone who thinks they know something or know nothing about the Holocaust. Simultaneously chilling and enlightening.
All in all, it’s been a funny week, what with dentists, doctors, hospitals, a death, and much more. The weather has turned really wintry, which in this part of the world doesn’t mean snow and ice but rain and wind.
I decided one day last week that I would venture into the park to see the damage wrought by last week’s night of thunder and lightning and very heavy rain. More or less as I expected, there were a few trees that had either been uprooted or had branches or trunks that had snapped.
There were also things like sandpits that had become flooded …
… and gulls trying to make progress by flying headlong in a westerly direction into a strong wind and vainly getting nowhere.
I continued along the river in the same direction as the gulls and made progress but only with considerable effort as I strode into a wind that made it feel as if I was climbing a steep hillside. As I approached the bridge above on the wooden pathway along the river, I saw three people coming in the opposite direction and suddenly start to run in my direction, shouting as they were running. What they were shouting only became apparent as they passed me on their way up the ramp. Essentially, what they were shouting at me was that the river level was so high that it could flood the pathway in less than a couple of seconds, which it did because a couple of seconds after our paths crossed, I experienced what they were warning me about and found myself standing in brown water to a depth that covered my ankles. I can’t imagine what I looked like, wearing trainers, shorts and a raincoat but as I stood there prior to what I can only describe as the muddiest squelch home that I have ever experienced, I thought I’d better produce an image of the scene. So, still standing in the water, I clicked the shutter button a few seconds later.
Today’s rain produced a raging torrent, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the 12 years we’ve been living here, in the street below our living room window. It created Tel Aviv’s version of Amsterdam or Venice though hardly as picturesque. So much for the 13 months they’ve been working to improve the drainage.
And then there was one day last week when the traffic on one of nearby streets ground to a halt as what looked like a self-propelled supermarket trolly wheeled itself slowly along the street…
… except that it wasn’t self-propelled at all.
The week also brought its usual complement of fire hydrants on the streets of Tel Aviv. One day, and hopefully soon, I will produce a book of these things in what will hopefully become a bestseller and win me both the Booker and Pulitzer prize for humour.
The cultural highlight of our week was Saturday night’s concert at the Israel Music Conservatory down the road—two quintets (Mozart #6 and Mendelssohn #2) along with Prokofiev’s second quartet. We had a family interest in the bottom half of the quartet. And although this was their sixth concert in six days, they were doing anything but playing on autopilot. Glorious.
Finally, I’ve been fascinated by the growth and development of this ginger root that has been sitting on the kitchen ledge for quite some time. It’s used occasionally, sits in a jug, receives no water but apparently still produces shoots which grow from it. Can’t keep a good man down, it seems.