Issue 82 - March 2018
Book Review: 1947 When Now Begins

1947_When_Now_intro.jpgAuthor: Elizabeth Asbrink

Publisher: Scribe

Reviewed by Stephen Keim SC

When my neighbour and fellow Bloke’s Book Club member, M, gave me 1947 as a 2017 Christmas present, I assumed that it was part of a formulaic series in which the author sampled the news headlines for a particular year and summarised the results into a book. I should have known better.

In structure, 1947 is broken up into months. The individual entries in a chapter are delineated by reference to a particular place in the world. They vary from a few lines to a couple of pages. Some do involve headlines of the day. Others record more personal events that no news organisation noticed at the time.

What becomes evident, however, as one reads into 1947, is that Ms. Asbrink has a very personalised view of world events. Her fascination is with good and evil and, particularly, the way the latter comes to its triumphs. And with origins. The sub-title, When Now Begins, reflects Ms. Asbrink’s interest in the way such unnoticed events simmer away under the surface of public recognition until their influence becomes evident, sometimes months, sometimes many years later.

The image of 1947 that is built up, layer by layer, is of a world and, particularly, of Europe in a continuing disarray. The new optimistic post-war world is taking its time to emerge. Europe contains tens of thousands of displaced persons, mainly Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, most of them still in displaced persons’ camps. The borders of the United States and Great Britain are closed to these displaced persons, a fact that many people, today, have forgotten or never known. There is a strong Zionist movement pushing for a Jewish State in UK administered Palestine. There is also strong opposition from Arab Palestinians to any such state. Politicians are wary of this conflict and do everything they can to avoid making a decision. And events move forward despite the efforts of such politicians. A tragedy unfolds.

1947 chronicles the writing of 1984 on the freezing Scottish island of Jura by Eric Blair, known to the world as George Orwell. It is, sometimes, a race between the completion and publication of the novel and Blair’s health finally giving up on him. Ms. Asbrink notes that Blair’s wife died, a year earlier, and that he brings his three year old son with him to Jura.

Again and again, 1947 comes back to events in Malmo, Sweden, and events occurring elsewhere in the world because of those events in Malmo. Per Engdahl is the leader of Sweden’s fascists. Because he is known to authorities, Engdahl’s passport has been cancelled but he overcomes this obstacle. The Nazi fugitives are smuggled across borders and are brought to him. In these excerpts, throughout the book, Ms. Asbrink tells the story of the survival of Nazi ideas in a post war world. She chronicles the way in which Nazis received new identities and obtained jobs; how many of them received false passports which allowed them to travel to a hero’s welcome from President Peron in Argentina; and how Nazi denialism and neo-Nazism found a voice through journals and books that Engdahl and his friends brought into existence. In another link to our modern world, we find, among the contributors to Engdahl’s journals, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s right-wing National Front and father of its current leader, Marine Le Pen. 1947 also chronicles the master stroke by which modern Nazis found the euphemism of “culture” for the intended meaning of “race”. Politicians throughout the world have built on this invention of dog whistling and they have added to the discovery finding many new code words in which their racist messages can be articulated.

Another tragedy is enfolding on the Indian sub-continent, another of Great Britain’s colonial domains. Independence has been agreed as a policy of the Attlee government but much of the responsibility for the execution thereof has been bestowed upon the last viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten. 1947 tells the story Mountbatten’s failings of personality, his favouritism and his laziness and impatience, which contributed to Partition of the colony into the Muslim state, comprised of East and West Pakistan and into the Hindu dominated remainder, India, and the death and disruption that affected millions of people as a result.

Not every thread followed by 1947 is about politics and tragedy. Art and ideas of a broader nature are also important. The beginnings of Christian Dior’s fashion empire are described as well as Simone de Beauvoir’s travel between France and the United States including her relationships with emerging US author, Nelson Algren, and established French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. The Second Sex would not be published until 1949. It established De Beauvoir as the leading theorist and philosopher of the Women’s Movement.

Another poet, Nelly Sachs, became famous in Ms. Asbrink’s Sweden. She escaped Nazi Germany in May, 1940 through her friendship by correspondence with Swedish writer, Selma Lagerlof. Ms. Lagerlof made representations to the Swedish government who granted visas to Ms. Sachs and her mother which allowed them to escape with their lives. Ms. Sachs published her first major work, In the Habitations of Death, in 1947. She is described as a poignant spokesperson for the suffering of her fellow Jews. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966.

Another Jewish writer, Romanian, Paul Celan, who survived labour camps but whose parents died in a concentration camp was attempting to write poetry, ironically, in German, about the death and horror suffered by Jewish people during 1947. 1947 describes his journey across Europe and the beginnings of his writing. Celan went on to become a great friend and colleague of Ms. Sachs and a successful writer. The impact of his experiences may never have fully receded in that, as Primo Levi is suspected to have done, he took his own life, in 1970.

Among its reporting of the virtuous, 1947 traces the desperate work of Raphael Lemkin to convince an unsympathetic world to understand a new concept that he had created, the crime of genocide. The idea that 1947 is influential in the creation of today’s world is indicated by the extent to which many people feel comfortable using “genocide” and the extent to which it is used to describe the actions of repressive governments. Lemkin was successful in that, in 1948, the day before it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention. In 1947, Lemkin appears shabbily dressed and aware of his own obsession. After this success, he continued to work on persuading nations to implement the Convention by legislating it into domestic law. He died penniless and exhausted in 1959.

The key to 1947 appears between the chapters that deal with the events of June and July. It is called Days and Death. It is the story of her family. It links up with earlier anecdotes of a boy in a Zionist orphan’s home who chose to go back with his mother to Budapest (because Hungarian sausage tasted so good) rather than taking his chances in the yet to be created Jewish state. Days and Death contains the miraculous story of the survival of Ms. Asbrink’s father and her father’s mother, Lilly, when everyone else in the family perished in the Holocaust.

1947 is lyrically written. Every word and every sentence, though written in prose, feels like an understated poem. Of all the chapters, however, Days and Death is the most poetic and most wonderful. So many of the incidents in 1947 are about learning to write about things which are unspeakable. It is as if the author has learned the lessons, from Ms. Sachs and Celan, the lessons that they so struggled to teach themselves.

As the child of a Holocaust survivor, Ms. Asbrink’s writing on the creation of Israel might be expected to be predictable. It is not. Ms. Asbrink does not gloss over the long running terrorist campaign of the Zionists in Palestine carried out by Irgun and the Stern Gang. She details Irgun’s kidnapping of two British soldiers and Irgun leader and future Israeli statesman, Menachem Begin’s refusal of all entreaties. Ms. Asbrink relates how, in response, to the execution by hanging of three Irgun terrorists, the two soldiers, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, were hanged from a eucalyptus tree (and the surrounding area mined).

Ms. Asbrink goes on to detail the anti-Jewish riots and looting of business and assaults that broke out across Britain. And she points out that anti-Jewish riots had a long history in the UK.

But 1947 also records the refusal to compromise and refusal to negotiate on the part of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini; the way he imposed his will on dissenting Palestinians by threatening deadly reprisals; and the Mufti’s historic and then current links with Nazism.

And Ms. Asbrink chronicles the experiences of the new victims, the Palestinian Arabs who, in what Lemkin might have called a new genocide and we might call ethnic cleansing, “were the victim of terrorist such as the massacre of men, women and children at Deir Yassin in April 1948, and were forced to abandon their villages and leave what was to be the new State of Israel.

It is as if Ms. Asbrink is saying that tragedies thrive on bad deeds and bad faith from all sides. And the rest of us struggle to make sense of those tragedies.

Ms. Asbrink is a wonderful writer. She has written previously on the detail of the events of the Holocaust. It was she who disclosed that IKEA founder, Ingvar Kamprad, was under surveillance during 1943 as a suspected Swedish Nazi and that he regarded himself as a loyal follower of the above-discussed organiser of neo-Nazism, Per Engdahl. This is her first book to be translated into English. Scribe and its driving force, Henry Rosenbloom, are to be congratulated for republishing 1947 and making it accessible to Australian readers.

1947 concludes with a paragraph that shows that Ms. Asbrink has, indeed, learned to speak, poetically, of the unspeakable: “It is one of the consequences of violence that people who lived before me no longer exist, that memories are annihilated, that entire universes are buried under bombed-out houses. Pain is inherited, in a steady stream from order to disorder, and cannot be reversed. These are the memories; it is in the dark that I see them, in the rai. They are my family. Darkness my light.”