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.