On Historic Curtains

Curtains can be flimsy things. Or as in old theatres, heavy items to prevent fires. The other day, rereading a book by John Grenville, I came across the phrase, “The curtain of the Holocaust”.  My thoughts immediately turned to the more familiar expression from the Cold War, the ”Iron Curtain”. And Grenville who, in the mid-1970s, taught us Contemporary History at Birmingham University, may have had this metaphor in mind when he wrote these concluding sentences of his (posthumous) book:

”The curtain of the Holocaust lies between the past and the present, impeding easy relationships. What has gone, the death of a civilisation cannot be replaced. A new civilisation has to be rebuilt on the foundations of understanding the past.*

Understanding the past and explaining it is what historians do, in turn enabling others to understand history. Thus, historian Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s biographer, explained in a speech in 1981 the background to Churchill’s speech in Fulton, USA which contained the metaphor of the Iron Curtain symbolizing the divided world of the Cold War. 

Grenville certainly knew what he was speaking about when using this metaphor, as the curtain of the Shoah separated him, the successful professor of modern and international history, from his 11-year-old self, the boy Hans Jurgen Guhrauer from Berlin, who experienced the destruction of his family and all that he held dear.

He witnessed the humiliation of his father, Adolf Abraham Guhrauer, a Landgerichtsdirektor (presiding judge of a state, regional or district court) who lost his job as a result of the anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi state, and who was incarcerated in a concentration camp after Kristalnacht, coming home a  few weeks later a broken man, obtaining a visa and leaving the land of his birth to become a factory worker in a munitions factory in England for the duration of WWII, but who was unable to save the life of his wife.

Grenville’s  mother, Charlotte Guhrauer, née Sandberg last figures in a deportation list on a freight train from Berlin-Moabit station to Riga, Sonderzug Da 401 (18. Osttransport) on the 15th August 1942.  And the boy himself, was sent away with his 2 older brothers in the spring of 1939 on a Kindertransport to England, there to be separated on arrival.**

The contemporary history course taught us by Grenville and Jonathan Haslam took place in the backdrop of the Helsinki Accords, and Charter 77, when the Cold War was beginning to thaw and informal contacts were being made across the divide.

Among the many who thus made contact was Paul Ricoeur who was in touch with Czech intellectuals involved in Charter 77, like Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel. That the thaw was only a beginning can be seen in the obituaries Ricoeur wrote  on the untimely death of Jan Patoka, who was mistreated by the Czech police and died shortly after in March 1977.***

It took 12 years more for the Iron Curtain to fall in November 1989. But fall it did.

*The Jews and Germans of Hamburg (Routledge, 2012), 270.

** John Grenville’s interview with Bea Lewkowicz, Refugee Voices, AJR Audio-Visual Testimony Archive, interview no. 150, 19th March 2007, London; John Grenville, From Gardner to Historian, in Peter Alter (ed.) Out of the Third Reich. Refugee historians in post-war Britain. London,1998, 57-72.

*** Paul Ricoeur, Jan Patocka: A Philosopher of Resistance, The Crane Bag, Vol. 7, No. 1, Socialism & Culture (1983), 116-118; Ricouer, Patocka, philosopher and resister, Telos, 31, Spring 1977, 152-155.


On a fascinating book

Seeing a review of Shmuel Feiner’s biography of Moses Mendelssohn uploaded on academia.edu reminded me of my first encounter with the book, several years ago.

Our university library, in the good old days it could afford to buy print books, had a shelf or two of the latest week’s acquisitions, an area of the library I used to frequent in my lunch hour, just to see what goodies had appeared. Partly out of curiosity. Partly out of a professional desire to keep up to date with my English, as one of my copyediting clients once complained that my English was too old-fashioned.

Feiner’s biography was so engaging that I almost couldn’t put it down. It really was a joy to read. A book I recommended to many others. And even gave away as a gift. It was partly the man himself who interested me, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), an enlightenment philosopher who worked as a bookkeeper in a silk factory; and an ancestor of one of my favourite historians, Felix Gilbert, and partly the way Feiner writes about him.

Moses Mendelssohn proved by thought and deed that one could be a good citizen, while being a member of a minority religion, a topic that resonates to today.

My fascination with the book was so great, that I even found an acquaintance who was keen on translating the book into Danish, and I contacted a local publisher. His basic question, if I knew of 400-500 people who would buy the book, was one I sadly couldn’t answer in the affirmative.  A shame really. A missed opportunity. As I truly believe that the book would contribute to and enrich the political debate of today.

Do authors read book reviews?

Would Camus have read a review of his book, L’Homme revolté (1951), written by his compatriot Paul Ricoeur in the 1952 edition of Christianisme Social (no.60, 229-239)? This intriguing question arose in my mind one Saturday morning, when shaken out of my usual lethargic Saturday morning daydreaming by a husbandly voice with the exciting news that I had mail in our snail mail letterbox from our university library.

Over breakfast, as I skimmed through the 11 paged photocopy of closely written prose in small-sized font – my excitement knew no bounds (fn. Seeing certain parallels in the lives of Camus and Ricoeur, my googling found a blog entry by Olivier Abel, professor of philosophy and ethics, who referred to this book review).

For the past 7 or 8 years, I have been ploughing my way through the translated works of Ricoeur, starting with Time and Narrative, History Memory and Forgetting, Oneself as Another, as well as the essays in Course of Recognition, The Just, and Reflections on the Just, these essays being easier to read and understand than the three monographs (and The Rule of Metaphor which I’m attempting now). Usually a half an hour a day on my bus ride to work.

Not having had any courses on philosophy or any talent for logical thought, especially in the early years of reading Ricoeur, it wasn’t a great deal I understood, but what little I understood intrigued me. With an interest in 20th-century history, from the interwar period onwards to the end of the century, I had often wondered how the great thinkers of the 20th century dealt with the Shoah and the Cold War. Although I had begun with Hannah Arendt, something, which I can’t quite remember now, made me turn to Ricoeur. Yet, the more I read Ricoeur, the more my thoughts turned to a novel we had to read as a set book for our French A’ levels in the sixth form, Camus’ La Chute (1956).

Seen from today’s sensitivities towards religious texts, it is interesting that, in those far off days, forty years ago in a convent school, our French teacher, a devout Catholic herself, could present and go through, word for word, idea for idea, a novel with a protagonist who declares that no one is innocent, not even the infant Jesus, the Mystical Lamb, whose very existence caused Herod to slaughter the innocents.

The foggy canals of Amsterdam, along which the Jean Baptiste Clamence, proclaims this good news is the Dantesque hell in which we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Shoah, on the threshold to nuclear annihilation with the incipient Cold War, and in Camus’ own case, also the unravelling of his beloved Algeria in the background. Clamence calling himself a judge pénitent forms the subject of another blog entry, when we come to consider a section in Ricouer’s History, Memory, Forgetting on moral guilt.

Here, in Ricoeur’s review of Camus’ L’Homme Revolté, what makes me wonder is that he, Ricouer, devotes the final section of the review to an examination of the issue of innocence and guilt, an issue that constitutes a central theme in Camus’s novel a few years later. So, the question remains: Do authors read reviews of their books? Might Camus have read Ricoeur’s review?

Admittedly, times were otherwise, and in a pre-digital world, one was most likely dependent on word of mouth or a sharp publisher or agent with their nose to the ground to find a review in what seems to me today, a somewhat obscure journal. (fn. Very soon after I wrote this post, a search online brought up an article by Guy Basset, philosophe, directeur des Hautes Études Camusiennes, who also wondered if Camus had seen this review in Bulletin of Etudes Camusiennes, 77, January 2006, pp 14-16.

Would the papers of Camus or Ricoeur contain evidence of any correspondence between them, I wonder.