Book Review: Greece Crete Stalag Dachau, by Jack Elworthy

In bookstores now. Jo Elworthy will be speaking about her father’s war diary at Unity Books in Wellington, Thursday 10 July 12 – 12.45pm. cv_greece_crete_stalag_dachau

This personal story touches some of the rawest parts of New Zealanders’ experiences of the Second World War. Greece Crete Stalag Dachau is the tile of Jack Elworthy’s eyewitness of heavy defeat in Greece and Crete, of staunchness in surviving the privations of being a prisoner of war in two of Germany’s Stalags and the horrors encountered with the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.

The names in the title are some of well-known headlines of the war. This story ranges through these areas frankly and honestly in an almost diary-style of writing. What is not a regular feature of many other war memoirs is the revelation of the personal toll that leaving and returning to his family after seven years had on Jim, his wife and young child. Settling back into ‘normality’ was hard for all of the family.

Jack Elworthy was a professional soldier who joined the army in 1935, and rose to the rank of Warrant Officer 1st class  (a rank more popularly known as Sergeant Major). He stayed in the army after the war, retiring in 1956 with the rank of Captain.

Officers command men, sergeants lead their men. That seems to have given Jack a closer focus on the experiences of the rank and file, because he was part of what happened to the ordinary soldier. When taken prisoner on Crete, he was not separated from his men, as officers were. His account of that battle is real, personal, sometimes humorous, often bitter.

Image of British POWs at Stalag VIIB, Lambsdorf from http://www.lamsdorf.com

Image of British POWs at Stalag VIIB, Lambsdorf from http://www.lamsdorf.com

His POW experiences included having to lead prisoners from his own side into forced labour in coalmines. His care for his men often got him into trouble.

It is difficult to understand what really drove him to do quite extraordinary things after he was released from the Stalag in March 1945. Released prisoners were not allowed to return to the fray, but Jack did, by teaming up with an American unit which was fighting their way through Germany. He had the chance then and often later to go back to New Zealand, and chose not to do so.

Jack was court marshaled for being AWOL, but the charges were dismissed when it was realised he “wanted to do something further in the war.” He got back to England after a number of incidents, only to break the rules once again and hitchhike back into Ally-occupied Europe to have another wander around, before getting back to England and an interview with MI5.

The chapter on his return to home and family is poignant as well as a letter to his daughters on their visit to Crete in 1993.

This book is not the first time Jack’s story has been told. The genesis of the publication is a never-screened documentary prepared in the mid-1980’s and then turned into a radio programme. However, now as a book, publisher Awa Press has done an excellent job in bringing this experience to full public view. The indices, bibliography, timeline, appendices, end notes, add a lot to the personal account.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Greece Crete Stalag Dachau: A New Zealand soldier’s encounters with Hitler’s army 
Written by Jack Elworthy
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249123

 

Book Review: Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

cv_look_whos_backAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

It’s 2011, and Adolf Hitler has returned. Or, as the tagline puts it: “He’s back. And he’s Führious.” Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) imagines what would happen if, instead of dying in his Führerbunker in 1945, Hitler travelled through time and reappeared in the present day. Answer: assumed to be a pitch-perfect impersonator, he becomes a media sensation.

It’s an intriguing and unsettling premise that raises the important question: have we, as a Western society, learned to reject Hitler (and other hate-filled fanatics) and keep him away from power? Vermes’ answer is no. The Hitler of his book becomes worryingly famous and influential, and we never really see a sign that this will change. The fascination of Hitler, the power of his magnetic fanaticism and cast-iron self-belief, has not waned. Even as his hatefulness and epochal crimes appal us, we cannot look away.

It is this horrified, almost spellbound fascination that is at the heart of Look Who’s Back, that forms both its context and its appeal. As a publication, it has been wildly successful both within Germany and across the globe, and Vermes undoubtedly has Hitler to thank for that (helped by the excellent cover by Punch Design). As a work of literature, Look Who’s Back is nothing particularly special, nor does it have anything new to say. The entire story, which is pitched as a black comedy, is told from Hitler’s point of view, with a lot of the humour reliant on the tried-and-true formula of the bemused alien (that Herr Starbuck sure has a lot of coffee houses, etc). This unchanging point of view coupled with the total lack of character development on the part of the narrator makes the novel oddly flat, with stilted pacing and a tailing-off ending that I found unsatisfying. In a strange way, Look Who’s Back is both shocking and rather dull (albeit with funny moments).

What Vermes has grasped, though, and what I keep coming back to as I reflect on this novel, is the power of silence. Hitler was a charismatic orator, and in Look Who’s Back we see this used to full effect. In the TV studio: “I listened to the silence … my physical presence unleashed a hush upon the assembled crowd … I could see the uncertainty triggered by nothing more than simple eye contact in that breathless silence … The tension in the room was palpable … I enjoyed it.” Here is the tense and painful silence in which we still contemplate Hitler. Part of what makes him so difficult to conceptualise is that what he achieved was so extraordinary. If he had only used his powers for good, we would revere him as a gifted and world-changing leader. But we are horrified not only by what he and the Nazis did, but by the fact that ordinary people, voters like you and me, enabled him do it. Hitler scares us into silence because he shows us the dark side of what we − as a collective, a citizenry, a Western nation; as a group of people we automatically think of as the good guys − are all capable of. Here is the silence in which no one says no.

As a physical book, though, Look Who’s Back is very pleasing. As well as having an absolutely superb cover, it has been beautifully designed and typeset (well done Patty Rennie). I thought it was particularly effective how Hitler’s speeches have been laid out as poetry, inset and with only a few words per line. As a typesetter myself, I always find it interesting when the act of typesetting enters a novel. In Look Who’s Back, Hitler reflects that he ought really to develop his own typeface: “Then it occurred to me that before long graphic designers in printers’ workshops would be discussing whether to set a text in ‘Hitler Black’, and I scrapped the idea.” Look at that – the Führer can make typesetting jokes too! How very, very unsettling.

Look Who’s Back is, in the end, an odd pendulum lurching between horror and farce. It is both a worthy thought experiment that raises important questions, and an inconclusive story that leaves a bad taste in the brain. To read it and enter its world is to see ourselves and our modern, media-drenched society as through a Halloween Hitler mask made of flat cardboard − an uneasy and unsatisfying experience. But perhaps I should let Vermes have the last word: “Books don’t have to educate or turn people into better human beings – they can also just ask questions. If mine makes some readers realise that dictators aren’t necessarily instantly recognisable as such, then I consider it a success.”

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

Look Who’s Back
by Timur Vermes, translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
Published by MacLehose Press
ISBN 9780857052933