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The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen

Rosen The Tenth Witness

I find cultures endlessly fascinating, each one the fruit of cumulative experiences unique to the physical area and the people who inhabit it. Take Britain, for example. I grew up surrounded by the damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe which did its best to level all the shipyards and their factory supply chain based a few miles from my home. That experience is somewhat different to the French who, to some extent, escaped the physical destruction but had to endure occupation. I suppose that’s why France retains its ban on the public use or display of the swastika and other Nazi insignia. But if you were to go to Taiwan or Singapore, the Red Swastika Society or 世界紅卍字會 is a major charity which proudly displays the symbol above its schools and other public buildings. Yet if you were to show these island people Japanese symbols from the War, you would get a very different reaction. Cultures, wartime experiences and current responses are highly localised.

 

The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen (Permanent Press, 2013) produces a prequel to the excellent All Cry Chaos explaining why the youngish Henri Poincaré joined Interpol. We’re back in time to 1978 with Henri and Chin, his partner in engineering, off the Dutch coast to search for a 1799 shipwreck. The day before the first dive is to be made, our hero goes for a guided waterlogged hike across the low-tide flats of the Wadden Sea. The guide is Liesel Kraus, heiress to the major German steel conglomerate and, to his surprise, he finds himself invited to a family gathering on their local estate. Initially, this is a ploy so that Liesel has an excuse not to be even vaguely civil to the latest man Anselm, her older brother, would like her to consider marrying. But there’s a mutual spark and despite the differences in wealth and status, they begin an exploration of the emotional ground between them. Their mutual problem is the cultural baggage.

Leonard Rosen

Leonard Rosen

 

Although both were born after the War, the Kraus family was inevitably a part of the German Reich. The steel it produced was used to make weapons for the Wehrmacht. The owners of this business not only voted for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, they met Hitler and other key people in the government. Worse the family did engage in the activities judged to be war crimes. Fortunately, Liesel’s father Otto produced evidence to show he had been another Oskar Schindler, helping some Jews escape persecution. This distinguished him from Alfried Krupp and other leaders of German heavy industry. Nevertheless, there’s always going to be a taint in the eyes of a French engineer.

 

So this is a love story. Henri loves his work as an engineer and shares his joy of “making things” with the Kraus family. Because of his immediate commission to attempt the recovery of gold from the suspected wreck, he also shares his love of this particular piece of history with Anselm. He may also be falling in love with Liesel. But how practical is that if there are skeletons in her family’s closet? Can individuals accommodate the sins of their fathers and forge new ties? Well how different is the new generation? Nazi Germany ran some of its manufacturing capacity using slave labour. Suppose a Western company identifies an underdeveloped country with chronic unemployment. It offers the unemployed the dirty and dangerous work its own people will not do. It pays them a pittance. They are dependent. They do the work even though it makes them ill and some die. Morally, how is this distinguishable from actual slavery? We call it outsourcing. On a different tack, you can accept the reality that many Nazi Germans had a deep-seated prejudice against Jews. Suppose a modern man has a comparably visceral prejudice against gypsies? Neither is rational — prejudice is by its nature irrational — or morally defensible.

 

Henri and Victor Schmidt go to the ship-breaking yard in Hong Kong where the Kraus company processes the old tankers it buys for two million with the scrap worth double. It’s not a pretty sight. Anselm is also interested in stripping the precious metals from electronics. Henri begins to work out the process but, when he injures himself, that leaves him time to begin investigating the Kraus family and Otto’s claim of Schindler qualities to escape prosecution for war crimes. It seems there were ten witnesses as to his essential good character. Ah so now you see the point of the title and understand the race if these witnesses start to die.

 

Last year, we had Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman and Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard look at the Holocaust with the question of revenge uppermost. It’s therefore interesting to take this slightly different path to the same question. Courtesy of the Allies, many Nazis like Wernher von Braun were allowed to wipe the slate clean if their skills could prove useful to the winning side. Yet no matter how thorough the sanitisation may initially appear to be, people remember and some records escape for later generations to find. After time has passed, this book invites us to consider whether there’s a social good in the truth emerging. Because cultures are dynamic, the answer will change over the years. Immediately after the war, the victors play out the roles most appropriate to their national interests. It will be a balance between the understandable desire for revenge and the need to provide a basis on which the defeated can find some measure of forgiveness and move into the future.

 

After the peace has been converted into greater international harmony, some might argue these men have been rehabilitated by their years of good and loyal service after the war. They might have earned the right to maintain the fiction of their pasts. Others might say there should be no statute of limitation on war crimes, that states should not conspire with criminals to cover up past crimes. Whatever your view, this book poses the question to the children, asking them where their loyalty lies. Is filial duty more important than accountability for crimes against humanity? Should a man accept complicity if he falls in love with the daughter of a possible war criminal? The answers come in this very elegantly written book with a plot that reminded me of Anthony Price, balancing history against a modern investigation with possible gold at the bottom of it all (even if only recovered from discarded electronic equipment). The Tenth Witness confirms the promise of the first book. Leonard Rosen is a writer to watch because this book not only offers a fascinating investigation and thrillerish elements only one of which is gratuitous and fails to ring true, but also stimulates thought by probing some emotionally and culturally sensitive issues.

 

For a review of the first book by Leonard Rosen, see All Cry Chaos.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman

In Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman (Minotaur Books, 2012), eighty-seven-year old Baruch “Buck” Schatz used to be a homicide detective with a reputation like Dirty Harry but, when his old friend Jim Wallace makes a death-bed confession he let a Nazi go for a bar of gold, this is a wake-up call. In 1944, they had been in a POW camp run by Heinrich Ziegler. Buck had additional problems because he was Jewish. The idea Ziegler might still be alive slowly eats at Buck, but his wife has her feet on the ground with lines like, “Nazis don’t have gold, Buck. You’re thinking of leprechauns.” From this you’ll understand Daniel Friedman does one-liners as our geriatric ex-detective slowly talks himself into the hunt. This is not, you understand, an easy decision. He’s not exactly the fastest man on his feet and his hand would probably shake if he pointed a gun at anyone.

What tips it for him are the contempt of the local police who think he should go back to being senile, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Apparently their agents vaguely looked for Zeigler but information went missing from the files and Avram Silver, the man who tried to keep the hunt going, was discouraged. When Buck and his grandson call Silver, he lets a little nugget fall. The Nazi may be in St. Louis. Suddenly, the wild goose chase got narrowed down to something more manageable. But why should Buck get back into the action? You can spout all kinds of bullshit about war crimes and justice but, for an eighty-seven-year old retired homicide detective, it would be personal. Ziegler almost beat him to death in the POW camp. Even after all these years, revenge would be sweet. For everyone else who knows this man might still be alive, the motive would be the gold. All Nazi leprechauns better watch out if the end of the rainbow is in St. Louis.

Books like this are slightly problematical. As I commented in my review of Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard, our modern culture has developed ambivalence about the Holocaust. Anger has been replaced by silence. With the passage of time, the enormity of the crime has been eroded. In the public’s imagination, new atrocities have taken the place of the Nazi attempt at extermination. You need only think of Cambodia and Rwanda to see one group systematically trying to remove the other whether for political or racial motives. This is not intended to devalue the Holocaust nor, indeed, to dishonour the memory of those who died. But simply to see this atrocity as being part of a continuum of extermination policies based on racial or other characteristics of difference. But the real problem is in defining the benefit to society to continue the prosecution of those who have survived, the most recent being the case of Heinrich Boere. In 2009, this former SS member was charged with three murders. To get a conviction, you have to dehumanise an individual Nazi. This is what the Nazis did on a national scale to Jews as a justification for their extermination. Criminals like Boere who escape justice get old. It’s not clear what moral value accrues to a modern society for punishing one man for what he did sixty-five years ago. Boere began serving a life sentence at the age of ninety.

Daniel Friedman as seen by Barry Keziban

For me, the most interesting book on this subject remains The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld. It makes no bones about the personal nature of revenge. Unfortunately, Peter Leonard loses his nerve and changes the nature of the plot from revenge to self-defence. This brings me to Don’t Ever Get Old which has now won my Award for the most entertaining. It may seem a callous evaluation. The Holocaust and its aftermath are supposed to be treated with tactful reverence. Yet Daniel Friedman has assembled a cast of characters that win prizes for their excesses. Take Dr. Lawrence Kind as an example. He wants Buck to get the gold and give it to his mega-church because he’s been losing too much of the church’s money to the casinos in Mississippi. Perhaps he classifies himself as one of the deserving poor. Fortunately for Buck, he doesn’t hang around for very long. His morals were dubious anyway, although his choice of the woman to marry was probably right.

Norris Feely, who has the honour to be Jim Wallace’s brother-in-law, wants the gold because he’s a greedy, no-good son-of-a-bitch. Then there’s Yitzchak Steinblatt, a giant Russian who’s been sent to intimidate Buck, and T. Addleford Pratt of the Silver Gulch Saloon who reckons he’s entitled to the gold because it will pay off Dr. Kind’s gambling debts. I hope you’re following this because it should give you a flavour of the book and a good reason for wanting to read it. When our eighty-seven-year old ex-homicide detective is finally provoked into picking up his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum (and refuses to celebrate his eighty-eighth birthday), you can imagine what his wife would say about the quality of his eyesight and the brain behind it. Then there’s Detective Randall Jennings. He’s not one of Buck’s biggest fans but figures he might solve a mess of crimes if he can keep up with the old guy. Then there’s Buck’s grandson, William Tecumseh Schatz (Tequila to his friends), who thinks his grandfather is an ornery, senile, half-crazy old fuck but, with some gold in the offing, perhaps they can work together.

In the end Don’t Ever Get Old does say some wise things about the passage of time and whether revenge solves anything. It also gives us a chance to see the value of a relationship between and old man and his grandson. As an expert in the semiotics of film might say, “The elderly in our cultural narratives signify mortality, either the annihilation of the self, or the preservation of wisdom by passing it on. This character’s story arc is a journey toward death, and toward finding his peace with that inevitability.” After I made you read that I hope I need not say anything hyperbolic. This is a very good book. You should read it.

This was nominated as a Best First Novel in the 2013 Edgar Awards.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard

February 7, 2012 2 comments

When you start off any review, it’s as well to talk about the elephant in the room first. This clears the air. Not that elephants regularly pollute the atmosphere with foul gasses, you understand, but we need to keep a proper sense of proportion so we can see past the beast to the “real” issues. Voices of the Dead (The Story Plant, 2012) begins with an introduction from the father about his son. This is Peter Leonard‘s fourth novel. His father, Elmore Leonard, has been writing for slightly longer and has managed to build up quite a name for himself. I think he’s published forty-nine novels — I always have trouble counting over ten when I run out of fingers — and has written screenplays for both cinema and television. So here comes a simple truth. Peter is not his father. On the evidence of this book, he’s a talented writer on the merits. Perhaps more importantly, he’s neither ashamed nor intimidated by admitting the relationship. This distinguishes writers like Joe Hill who start off their careers without broadcasting the identities of their more famous parents.

The book begins in what feels a conventional way but, after a few more pages it becomes obvious this not a book like any written by Elmore. It’s altogether darker with sensibilities that would not sit comfortably in a genre western or suspense-oriented thriller. In dealing with the Holocaust, an issue in history that tends to raise emotions, Peter Leonard is taking a risk. Our protagonist is called Harry Levin. He’s a survivor, but not because he was strong. At the age of thirteen, he was left for dead, buried in a mass grave. The action starts in 1971. This keeps the ages of those involved credible for the decisions on flight or fight. The catalyst is the death of Harry’s daughter in a traffic accident. The driver was hopelessly drunk but has diplomatic immunity, which triggers Harry’s desire for revenge. Except the moral nature of this desire changes when the identities of those involved are revealed.

In theory, the passage of time gives us a better perspective on the events of the past. When an author has no direct experience to draw on, he must imagine how it felt to be a survivor. It should provide a way of presenting the trauma in a more objective way. So Peter Leonard gives us a fairly straight description of how Harry escaped death and subsequently left Germany. There’s little commentary and the emotional content is kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, the modern reader comes with a complex set of emotional responses to the Holocaust. Today, there’s more silence on the subject, yet this lack of voices can be as loud as speaking when we consider the status of Jews in societies around the world and view the difficulties faced by Israel. In the period immediately after WWII, the discourse was full of condemnation and the politics of revenge. Some believe the establishment of the state of Israel was, in itself, an act of revenge against the state of Germany. The din death squads were active until 1960 and the trial of war criminals has continued into this century, most recently in 2009 with the case of Heinrich Boere, a former SS member charged with three murders.

Peter Leonard turns his back on books

Thematically, we are in the same territory as The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld in which Erwin Siegelbaum murders the camp commandant, Colonel Nachtigel, who killed his parents. This brings him no peace of mind. Murder is hardly the most noble of human actions and it’s rarely rewarded with salvation when the motive is revenge. Ironically, it may be easier to kill a man if you see him as a monster, but this process to dehumanise an individual Nazi is what the Nazis did on a national scale to Jews as a justification for their extermination. In a way, this captures the problem for Peter Leonard. If Voices of the Dead had been written in the 1970s, it would have been sufficient that the son was resuming his acquaintance with the man who killed his father. As it is, even though he’s set the story in the past, the modern reader might not approve revenge based purely on what happened during the war. To us, this is old history. Peter Leonard therefore makes his unrepentant Nazi continue life as a serial killer (and a drunk driver), i.e. if anything he’s become even more monstrous with the passage of time. There’s then a further change to defuse the scale of the moral decisions Harry must take on his journey. His initial attempt to kill is frustrated. This produces what we may term a cooling-off period. There’s a chance for all interested parties to reflect and pull back from the precipice. What happens after this is slightly more mainstream.

I have a slight problem with the characterisation of Harry. The German language is inevitably linked to the experiences of his childhood. It’s also the language of those who took the family to the camps and murdered his father. This should taint the language in the ears of the child, raising an emotional question mark over its use. Coming to America, Harry solves the problem by learning a new language in which he can distance himself from his memories. Over time, the fear and anger subsides, and he remembers the happier moments with his parents before the war and, less frequently, immediately before the family is taken. Yet in 1971, he seems able to drop back into German without hesitation. Further, although there are minor resonances when he actually returns to Germany and visits the scenes of his past, there’s little sense of any underlying trauma. In this, I think the novel somewhat pulls its punches.

Overall, the choice of the Holocaust as the main theme may mean some readers will be deterred from reading it. This would be a shame because Voices of the Dead is beautifully written and relatively dispassionate in its handling of difficult issues. It may not deal with the complexity of the moral issues but, in its silences, it does speak powerfully about the past and how we should react to it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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