Thursday, 12 August 2010


James Watson
Blog 14

*What’s it about the Belgians?
* Hardy & Chekhov: happy endings?
* Lest We Forget… Gaza, the pusillanimous West
* ‘Snaps’ & ‘Tom Thumbs’

What's it about the Belgians?
No one seems to have much of a good word for the Belgians so I’m glad to report on a book that does them proud. The Twentieth Train, by German journalist Marion Schreiber, is an account of the Nazi occupation of Belgium and the persecution of the Jews; the key focus being the determination of the SS etc. to get the Jews on to trains heading for Auschwitz.

The 20th train was the one – the only one – in which escape took place, resulting from the hi-jack action by three Belgian friends armed only with pairs of pliars, a hurricane lamp covered in red paper and one pistol between them. The train was halted, a skirmish followed and 225 prisoners managed to escape.
The book matches any thriller, the events being described in the kind of detail which allows the reader to dramatically and movingly realise the wider picture.

In fact, the book devotes only a chapter or so to the ambush of the train – successful for many on board, disaster for others, including the leader of the tiny guerrilla band. The rest of the book focuses on the build-up to the attack, taking in the many connected people among the Jewish and non-Jewish community.

Protecting the hunted
What is so much to the credit of both Jews and non-Jews in Belgium is the respect that was shared, the very real (and dangerous) protection the non-Jewish extended to the Jews under the manic eyes of the Nazis. Families were hidden. Children separated from arrested parents were ‘adopted’. Time and time again Belgians risked their lives to protect the hunted.

Of course there were SS stooges who, to curry favour with the Germans, wormed their way into the confidence of Jews and then betrayed them; men such as the elegant and charming Pierre Romanovitch, the self-styled ‘Russian count’.

The leader of the ambush of the 20th Train, Doctor Youra Livichitz, having survived that fateful night of 19th April 1943, having so successfully kept the enterprise secret, relaxed his guard. Putting his trust in the apparently honest Romanovitch, he let slip the names of those needing help; and for that misjudgement paid the ultimate price. He was arrested, tortured and shot – as his brother, and fellow conspirator, had been.

It is a traumatic as well as a moving and inspiring story. Those that escaped were but a tiny fraction of those who completed their journey to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. But Schreiber’s excellent and important record of events pays due regard to the courage and resolution of ordinary Belgians during these horrific times; something folks should remember when a nation is classified as little more than a bunch of chocolateers.

Notes in passing…1
From the Writer’s Notebooks

Hardy, Chekhov & happy endings
Even in his short stories, Thomas Hardy sets Destiny against happy endings. While Chekhov’s Lady with the Little Dog does not exactly end happily, it does not end sadly; indeed though the affair between Gurov and Anna will continue to be troubled, because it has to be kept secret, it suggests there will be no end; that true love will overcome circumstances.

The same would probably happen in Hardy’s stories, but there is always the invisible hand of fate unwilling to permit happiness or true deserts.
Chekhov focuses on the human predicament of fate, nevertheless, in that both lovers are married to people they do might have been the opportunity to commit to love without concealment.

Love as identified in the Chekhov story is difficult to define, to pin down, and the characteristics which induce love in the first place are unclear. What is it about Gurov that makes Anna love him? He is twice her age, greying. In turn we learn very little about what he sees in her except her beauty, for her sense of guilt at the affair, of being a sinner, is not a feature that draws him closer; on the contrary.

So we are left with a mystery, though it might be asked whether the need for secrecy, the risks that are being taken, the on-the-edge nature of the affair is the spice which, for both of them, gives the relationship its frisson.

Notes in passing…2
From the Writer’s Notebooks

4th Jan. 2009: Another year, another protest
Having practically choked Gaza to death, Israel has now been bombing it for days. Last night they invaded. Meanwhile between London’s Embankment and Trafalgar Square thousands of us protested, in bright sunshine surrounded by an ocean of banners.

It may do us good, the marchers; make us feel that we are achieving something, but as with the million-strong march against the invasion of Iraq, we were powerless, probably even pathetic.

The war went on because those in power willed it, were in collusion. As always the odd man out was Joe Public. Of course the New Labour government’s response has been pusillanimous – oh, the grave concern of it, the wringing of hands; but as for doing something about the situation, nothing.

Politicians keep using the word ‘disproportionate’. When a rocket from Hamas takes one life in Tel Aviv and Israeli bombs kill a whole mosque full of worshippers, that is disproportionate.

What does that bloody-well mean? Not fair; not just; not playing the game? And yet, under media interrogation the foreign secretary, Mr. Arsole Miliband, refuses actually to speak a word. Oh yes, it has been collectively expressed at the United Nations – but for a minister of the Crown to say it out loud, no.
Of the many placards the one that took my eye said:


Snaps’ & ‘Tom Thumbs’
Visitors to the excellent blog of Sarah Salway (Sarah Salway’s Writing Journal) will have become familiar with her short stories of 50 words, the triggers for these being odd or intriguing snapshots. I’ve been doing something similar only (so far) without the snaps and with a more indulgent word-count of 100, or fewer. These tiny tales I’ve called Tom Thumbs. Who knows, Snaps and Tom Thumbs might catch on – an annual festival, maybe…

To round off this blog, here’s one that abides by Sarah’s rule of 50 words:

Two’s a crowd
The world’s greatest faced each other across the Signoria. ‘After you, Maestro,’ said Michelangelo.
‘No, after you,’ replied Leonardo.
You’ll need longer,’ argued Michelangelo.
Leonardo: ‘I’ll wait till you have a decent wash.’
Without adding a brushstroke they went their separate ways. A lesser painter, one Vasari, spared Florence’s blushes.

Thanks for reading this. As ever, feedback welcome.