Review: The Nightmare Dance by David Gilbertson

david gilbertson, nightmare dance, holocaust, jewish history, israel, antisemitism, hitler, Josef Blősche, Christian Wirth, Stella Goldschlag, Christian X, Janus Korczak
The Nightmare Dance

Worth of a book can be judged in several ways, just like judging a movie, a meal, a place or even a person. Everyone will have a different opinion and subjective analysis of what’s right, what’s not and all that in between. I, personally, over the years of reading, have formulated a simple yet practical way of judging books, not entirely independent of having studied endless two-scaled models to estimate the effectiveness of business models, marketing tactics and product categories during post-graduation. As most of my reading concerns with history and politics it can be used as it is, but even if it doesn’t then one of the two-scales can be removed to suit the reader. On one scale is the emotive value – does it move me, does it engender a vivid imagery, does it do anything to me to connect with the stories? The other scale is comprised of by whom the book has been written – not in the sense concerned with actual whom but with what profession does the person come from – a historian or a journalist? I do score historians above journalists for their deep analysis and mostly chronological texts, but again not entirely dismissive of the other lot (while I am no professional at checking and cross-checking facts, that is way beyond my expertise, none of which anyways I have, hence to challenge facts in a text is something I can’t engage in as much as I wish I could). When the work is unrelated to history or politics, the second scale can be done away with and the rudimentary first one suffices – I guess it applies to all of us – we all are invariably irrational fools who do things at whims of our impulses, then later justifying to ourselves and other why we did whatever we did. This background was necessary to understand the review of The Nightmare Dance by David Gilbertson. It is not a standard narration of Jewish holocaust history which begins with the origins of it or goes into the workings of its gas chambers and death machinery. It is none of that. And he correctly explains it isn’t only about Nazis as if they came from an alien land and terrorized the world and, when defeated, left us to be happy again. No, none of it. They came from within us and were and still are a part of us, but still “the guilt or innocence of others is at best ignored and at worst denied. Responsibility is heaped upon a few ‘central-casting’ villains”. Nazism was just one strain amongst the various forms our hatred emphatically moulds itself into. Gilbertson covers the personal stories of five determined individuals and what role they played in the horrors of the Second World War. Yet, at the same time, it needs to be reasserted that the Jewish holocaust, inasmuch infinitely terrible, wasn’t the only event which can be termed as ‘The Holocaust’. Several other death knells have been equally, if not more, painful and traumatizing. There can be no numerical objectification of pain and suffering. The Armenian genocide, the Indian partition, the 1971 Indo-Pak war, the Rwandan genocide, Gulag, Chinese deaths during Mao’s revolution, the Palestinian Nakba and the last 65 years, Darfur, Sarajevo and many more belong to the same league. Again, not because of the numbers but because of their profound influence of the societies and groups which were at the other end and our understanding of where humanity is headed. A suffering is a suffering, it multiplied by ten still remains a suffering and so does it when multiplied by millions. Hence, no suffering should be rejected as being small enough to be discounted and ignored.

Gilbertson, who discovers his own Jewish roots after the death of his mother, visits Poland during a research trip and recounts the insulting experience he gets at the hands of two elderly women in their shop. He, and not incorrectly, starts with a diatribe over the current generation’s apathy towards history in an era of instant networking, of how contexts have been reduced to photo-ops and tagging, and what superficial reading in history classes has made them ignorant of their own roots and prejudices – “what matters to them is the urgency and ephemera of today, not events which are fast fading from common memory. For them, the recent past has been moulded by tabloid newspapers, popular culture and Hollywood into bite-sized gobbets; a series of episodes which seldom have any narrative continuity and only passing contact with the truth”. Grisly statistics dote all the chapters of his, which unremarkably present the grim situation which prevailed at that time in its naked starkness – “in the five and a half years between the German invasion in September 1939 and the liberation of Poland by Soviet forces in February 1945, 5,820,000 Poles and Polish Jews were murdered, worked to death, starved or consigned to the flames, representing almost 25% of Poland’s 1939 population and far outstrips the sacrifice of any other nation on Earth during the war”. He does delve in the historiography of Jewish holocaust history, which makes for an interesting read on how the techniques and methods have changed over the decades. His anger against the “pornography of cruelty” being sold as tourist packages can be looked at in two ways – one which asserts that it cannot be forgotten and hence it is necessary for the world to remember it (though much-required sensitivity is lacking in most tourists); the second which, not completely denying the first one, wants to feed its current lot as a practical way of living – after all an empty stomach isn’t going to undo what’s been done. Both are right and pragmatic, but need not be seen as opposing each other, rather going along together with some overlap and some disagreements. He uses numbers often to press deep the evil which to most of us exists only as movies or insignia – at Treblinka “less than 300 people escaped death out of a total of almost a million who were transported there, so there are no stories, indeed barely any record”, and which was visited only by a little over 10,000 visitors in 2011 compared to Auschwitz’s 1,400,000!

The author sets up a brief (I wish it was more elaborate) context of anti-Semitism throughout history. I am not sure how correct he is when he analyses and concludes that Jews being branded as Christ-killers led to their being excluded from “guilds and trades throughout the Middle Ages, ensured that they were forced into the position of becoming Europe’s bankers”. The five individuals around whom the book focuses are Josef Blősche, Christian Wirth, Stella Goldschlag, Christian X, and Janus Korczak. Blősche “was born in 1912 in the small Austro-Hungarian town of Frydland, close to the German border”. His participation in hatred of barbaric proportions in the ghettos and, towards the end of his life, his being tracked down despite having a disfigured face and arrest by authorities is nothing short of an unbelievably moving story. Christian Wirth (“NSDAP membership number #420,383”) is described as someone who is many times the worst self of Blősche, and described by many who knew him as the worst of the kind there ever could be. However, can the testimonies of other war-criminals accused of similar acts be trusted entirely – while ignoring that they could be making an attempt to pass themselves off as less evil while berating the other? Blősche and Wirth were part of the official German organizations, while Stella was herself a Jew from Berlin who resorted to, once the darkness of the Nazi ways lodged itself in the realm of existence, passing information about Jews who tried to pass themselves as non-Jews. Her lack of guilt all through her life (how can the author or we be sure of it?) and then committing suicide at the age of 72 by jumping off her third floor apartment balcony. Christian X was the King of Denmark when Nazi aggression was spilling over the whole of Europe and they wanted to deport the less than 6000 Jews (7500+ including Jewish refugees) of Denmark. His brave stance of not giving in and saving as many Jews as possible while maneuvering diplomatic thin-lines is as thrilling an account as ever can be. The last chapter is about Korczak (actual name Henryk Goldzmit), who studied medicine at Warsaw University and later developed an academic rigour to the study of children and became a worldwide authority. His confinement to a ghetto and still running an orphanage, refusal to leave to other safe places leaving behind the children, accepting dead bodies and giving them a respectable burial and finally leading a march of orphans, who were happy and impeccably dressed for an outing, towards a gas chamber is painful, depressing and tearful to say the least.

A through and through un-putdownable book which should do a great service to all readers irrespective of their awareness of the world around them and scores highly on the second scale explained above; one of those rare ones which you want to read as slowly as possible for the fear of reaching the end. To not read it would be willfully deciding to be ignorant.

(If I may compare the way Jewish holocaust has been written about with the impersonal way the partition of India has been treated by most historians, it stands out that personal histories and stories is what makes them moving and does enable the reader to connect with them. A mass of humanity being slaughtered by Hindus/Sikhs on the Indian side and by Muslims on the Pakistani side is precisely an impersonal mass. But a personal (fictional, yet wouldn’t be entirely unreal) story of Juggut Singh in Train to Pakistan is heart-wrenching and associative. Why couldn’t Indian partition history be written in such personal terms? Or for that matter all histories?)

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