The Hollow Bones launched

March 1, 2019 by Elana Bowman
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Shalom Sydney Jewish Writer’s Festival hosted the book launch for Leah Kaminsky’s latest novel, The Hollow Bones.

Michaela Kalowski and Leah Kaminsky

ABC interviewer Michaela Kalowski was in conversation with Leah at the Waverley Library who told the attendees astonishing and random historical facts about her latest novel.

It was confronting for Leah to write this book as a general practitioner, vegan, and animal lover as she researched what happens when scientists are bedfellows with politicians. Her research also delved into explorers, where in those days explorers ‘hunted’, killed animals, dissected them, drew them, and bought them back.

The book is set in the 30s in Berlin and Tibet, about young zoologist, hunter, and ornithologist Ernst Schäfer about to investigate the origins of the Aryan race. His exhibition to Tibet was to try to find evidence that their ancestors emerged triumphant in that far off land from a great cosmic battle between fire and ice.

Leah spoke about The World Ice Theory (“Welteislehre” aka just WEL) or Glacial Cosmology (“Glazial-Kosmogonie”) which was explained in the book and it was a theory which gripped Leah. She couldn’t believe that German intelligentsia believed and swallowed this.

During the conversation, some of the questions Kalowski asked were about Leah’s writing style, about being a general practitioner, and how long it took to write her book. Leah answered how when she writes, she doesn’t have a style but uses pen and paper when writing novels. Her book took 5 years to write, and as a general practitioner all the devil is in the details so research, and gaining knowledge and understanding is very important to her. 

Many of the book’s topics dealt with theories during the Nazi regime as well as focused on Ernst a little known villain, whose scientific obsession with rare Tibetan birds has seen him lead previous expeditions. What could an ornithologist prove to the world about the human race? His initial doubts gave way to his ambitions, as he recognised his opportunity to rise through the ranks of the SS and the Reich.

While Ernst prepares for the trip, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Herta, with whom he has recently been reunited. She was a beautiful and forthright flautist who became frustrated by the ideals of womanhood and marriage under the Reich.

Leah’s fictionalised account of Herta, gave her a voice in the novel where she essentially become an upstander, who grew increasingly suspicious of Ernst and his expedition. Leah explained how there was a Nazi bride school where women learnt to cook, clean, polish boots, and to serve their husbands during the Third Reich. Herta appeared in very few historical texts about Ernst and his expeditions, so Leah’s fictional account of her and her husband is drawn from letters, films, photographs, and secret documents.

Another narrator in the book; gave animals a voice through the eyes of Panda, a panda who was shot in Tibet when he was four months old. “His voice came to me. Panda was the heart and voice of the story, he became a voice for the voiceless.”

When Ernst finally sets out on his expedition in April 1938, he and his colleagues realise they had very little to discover in remote Tibet so they returned to the horrors of a changing Germany.

The book delves into morality, our choices, science, politics, explorers, hunters and human nature. Leah wants readers to question our own morality, and the choices we have and make.

During the audience questions, Leah spoke about becoming an upstander, and about how she witnessed images and accounts of ordinary mundane lives during her research which she found even more horrific than the photos and accounts we are all aware of.

When Leah writes, it’s her form of activism. Through writing about humans and in this case animals she wants to give a voice to the voiceless. She also hopes that readers heed warnings about falling for ‘rational’ theories, for not realising that there is good and evil in all of us, and to understand nature, nurture, and choices.

The Hollow Bones has already received high praise in literary circles including festival favourite Bram Presser who said:

‘From the embers of history, Kaminsky weaves a cracking tale of adventure, competing loyalties and the folly of sacrificing reason on the ideological altar’

During question time Leah fascinated the audience with random and bizarre facts, some which made it into the book while others didn’t. She talked about The Hundesprechschule Asra a training ‘school’ for dogs, who learnt to tap out words with their paws to eventually be involved in or with espionage.

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