The Great Writing conference was as intriguing as ever. I gave out a lot of business cards this time. One of the highlights for me was chairing a session by Moy McCrory, Liz Cashdan and Helen Brunner. All three sessions were very relevant to this project.
Moy talked about work of Primo Levi. We have to suppose that Levi’s death was suicide. Was it living daily with the horror of the Holocaust that would not go away or the knowledge that he was suffering from prostate cancer that prompted this action?
Levi’s stories do not have happy endings or even particularly conclusive ones. The Holocaust just was. Is there a danger that we sanitize a little too much if our Holocaust story does have an escape at the end?
I guess in Potatoes in Spring the main character in the one strand of the story has hope at the end. Her grandmother, though she lived an impeccably good life, always giving to others, died eventually in Treblinka after being interned for some time in Theresienstadt. That strand does not have a good outcome. The third strand’s outcome is mixed: the German girls realise the horror of what has been going on and have the grace to realise it is wrong.
Liz Cashdan’s story does have a good outcome: the Polish girl is rescued and comes to live in England. She has conducted role plays in schools on this and has even cast some of the children as Nazi officers. This is important. We need to unpick where the cruelty came from and why. The Holocaust, just like the Slave Trade before it, has now become history. Although my generation are still touched by the Holocaust, today’s schoolchildren can gain enough objectivity to step back and ask what happened and how it happened, hopefully with the aim of learning from past mistakes enough to avoid them in the future.
Helen Brunner asked the question of whether there is only pleasure in creative activities. Clearly there can also be pain – there certainly was for Primo Levi and whatever the good outcome in Liz’s story and one strand in my story, we both have to face some painful moments. In fact, I’m very aware that I’m going to have to look after my own mental health as I complete this project.
What is certain, however, is that we must express the truth as we see it – it may kill us if we do not – and that we can, even when dealing with the gruesome, feel a certain satisfaction about having conveyed our version of the truth clearly to others.
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