The Writing on the Wall: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

July 26, 2019 by Geoffrey Zygier
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The Holocaust may be the most written-about episode in modern history. More than seventy years have passed since the liberation of the extermination camps, yet interest never seems to flag.

Perhaps this is because that while we know the narrative so well, we never fail to be shocked by the Nazis’ inhumanity (historian Saul Friedlander asserts that the essence of Nazism was that it sought to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world, an aim so vile that it is incomprehensible to most people). At the same time, it is always possible to detect something life-affirming in Holocaust survivors’ reactions, not least the will to live. This too can be a shock, but for a very different reason.

Writing about the Holocaust includes a range of genres. A relatively recent subset of Holocaust writing contains authors hoping to discover what happened to their families during that nightmarish period from the rise of the Nazis until their surrender. This blend of history and memoir – which entails a mixture of objectivity and subjectivity – has been described as necessitating the skills of historians and creative writers and the urgent need of bereaved children to know what went on before.

The result has been many outstanding works of literature. Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Art Spiegelman’sMaus: A Survivor’s Tale, Saul Friedlander’sWhen Memory Comes and Jonathan Safran Foer’sEverything Is Illuminated(a fictionalised account of his search) are just a few that come to mind. While not reaching their exceptional heights, Juliet Rieden’s The Writing on the Wall (due to be released in September) is nonetheless a worthwhile addition to this genre.

Rieden was born in the UK to an Australian mother and Czechoslovakian Jewish father. For the past 30 years, she has worked in the UK and Australia as a writer and editor for numerous magazines and newspapers and is currently Editor-At-Large of national icon The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Rieden grew up in the leafy county of Surrey, enjoying an idyllic childhood in a loving family. Despite this, she always knew that there was something “different” about their life. The Riedens had few relatives on her father’s side. Her grandparents were “… inaccessible, shadowy phantoms whom I imagined huddled under blankets speaking in foreign whispers, always looking over their shoulders.” She never met her grandfather and her grandmother only for a short period in the 1960s, but Rieden later found out that they had arranged for her father John (originally Hanus) to be smuggled to the UK by a British Christian organisation dedicated to converting Jews.

This took place when John was eight years old, only a week before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. His parents subsequently were imprisoned in Theresienstadt and while they miraculously survived World War Two, they never brought John back home. Decades were to pass before Juliet Rieden became driven to know more. How did her grandparents survive and why didn’t they collect their only child in 1945? Did the author have any relatives anywhere on her paternal side? And what was the real story behind her father’s rescuers; was it only missionary zeal that motivated them?

The Writing on the Wall is the story of Rieden’s eighteen-month search for the answers to these questions and what she discovered. This was truly both an exhausting and exhaustive journey and likely one she could never have undertaken without her extensive journalistic skills and experience. (That being said, a great strength of this book is that it also works as a manual for others who may wish to undertake similar research and Rieden’s fortitude and determination will surely inspire any such seekers). Clearly, she travelled a great distance, physically and intellectually and most certainly emotionally.

I don’t want to elaborate on Rieden’s findings in this review. In reading The Writing on the Wallin one long sitting, I was engrossed in its twists and turns and believe that this will be the experience of many of its readers who should similarly have the pleasure of surprise.

At heart, this is a personal story but with universal political and moral implications underpinned by considered research. Juliet Rieden writes freely and forcefully and brings together the story’s various threads in a professional and seamless manner. Her heartfelt love for her father is touchingly apparent all through the book, as is her deep compassion for the victims of the Holocaust. I was particularly struck by her outrage when expressing her thoughts and feelings, most fiercely about the Nazis of course, but also about the shortcomings of the British, their own type of antisemitism and the obstacles they put in the way of uprooted seekers of refuge. (And as an aside, the Czech Jewish experience will be instructive for Australian readers whose Holocaust knowledge is largely derived from Polish survivors.)

In conclusion, I’d like to quote a few words from The Writing on the Wall, which I think teach an extremely important lesson. “With all the films, the documentaries, the books and the plays, you think you know about Auschwitz and what went on here, but you don’t. I didn’t.” That’s very true. Sometimes I think I can’t read one more piece of information about the Holocaust (or other atrocities for that matter) and indeed wonder whether there is any more to know. Well, that’s a terrible mistake. We will always need eloquent reminders like Juliet Rieden’s The Writing on the Wall that constant vigilance and action are critical if we are to defeat the potential for evil that exists in every one of us.

The Writing on the Wall

by Juliet Rieden (Macmillan, 2019)

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