Review: Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial (Random House, 2011)

22 07 2011

This review will appear in Spectrum in The Sydney Morning Herald, on Sat 23 July, 2011.

It was one of those lines in the sand, distinguishing before from after.

I was twelve when Nazi Adolph Eichmann was found living incognito in Buenos Aires, captured and taken to Jerusalem, to face trial for crimes against humanity. Twelve – old enough to devour the newspapers, equal parts engrossed and repelled; not old enough to understand what it all meant or would come to mean. Or even to know what questions to ask.

Eichmann, an upper-echelon Nazi, was the supreme bureaucratic logician in the mechanistic genocide of European Jewry, the so-called Final Solution. Neither designer nor architect, Eichmann was a desk-killer. His was the responsibility for hunting down every Jew – for emptying out cities and villages of their Jews, stripping them of their rights, confiscating their property,  and deporting them to death camps. It was he who made sure that the cattle cars were filled to capacity; that the trains ran on time; that their unloading at the destination was executed with maximum efficiency; and that the on-arrival inspections ensured the best extraction of value for the Reich from the numbered “units” – from body hair and gold teeth to forced labour, as factory fodder or in salt mines.

Evading capture at war’s end, and anticipating a warm welcome in then-Peronist Argentina, he headed south. An earlier work, House on Garibaldi Street (Harel, Viking Press, 1975) detailed the James-Bond-cum-Mossad-style mission – the finding,  ID-ing, sequestering, and removal of this most wanted of men.

Fifty years later, historian Deborah Lipstadt rakes over the evidence, building on the mountain of documentation, to throw a new beam of light on the past – the trial, the crimes and the key stake-holders: defendant; defence; prosecution; judges; the Israeli government; and most importantly, the witness survivors whose distressing evidence distinguishes Eichmann’s trial from the Nuremburg Trials; and ultimately, the harrowing aftermath of the trial, the short- and long-term ripple effects.  Inevitably, then, the work becomes a mixed-genre text: part event-unfolding narrative, part history, and part historiography, that uniquely absorbing domain specializing in how history itself has been studied.

Lipstadt is the consummate historian, deftly combining compassion and cold, hard objectivity. With surgical prowess, she examines Eichmann’s evidence (just as, ten years earlier, she did with Holocaust denier/anti-Semite supremo, David Irving),  as well as the arguments of various commentators, chief being the (in)famous Hannah Arendt, who attended the trial as The New Yorker’s correspondent. Lipstadt speculates, always from the evidence, never conjecture, on the motivations of the key stake-holders – like Ben-Gurion,  Israel’s inaugural Prime Minister, who approved the capture and trial, insisting against strident criticisms, on Israel’s right to try Eichmann; the chief Prosecutor, who had his own agenda; and Hannah Arendt, who had hers, encapsulated in her phrase “the banality of evil”.

For the Jewish world, and especially the fledgling State of Israel, the trial was a watershed moment. In centre-staging witness testimony, it gave voice to the victims, seeking to overturn the namelessness of millions, while demonstrating civilization’s response to barbarism. But it also re-opened wounds, individual and collective, that hadn’t even begun to heal. It aggravated existing tensions in the conversation between Diasporan and Israeli Jews.  And it faced condemnation from many quarters – for breaking international law by the abduction; for holding the trial in Israel (not Germany); for accepting uncorroborated witness evidence. Ultimately and tellingly, for being vengeful (a la Old Testament) rather than forgiving (a la New Testament).

It is Lipstadt’s great feat to deftly dissect Eichmann’s role in the Final Solution, while also exposing the Holocaust as the product of a European Jew-hatred that has flourished with impunity for millennia. It is to her credit, too, that she catalogues the pressure, coming from many quarters, to “universalize” the problem. If the Americans were anxious to detach “Nazi” (the old enemy) from “German” (the new [Cold War] ally),  the Russians were as anxious to make Nazi crimes capitalist (not racist), and the victims uniformly, blandly proletarian; while Jewish intellectuals  in the Diaspora squirmed under the spotlight, finding comfort in the universal, discomfort in the particular.

A major win, as Ben-Gurion allegedly foreshadowed, was the body blow dealt to the myth of “sheep to the slaughter”, the Israeli-born’s blanket condemnation of Diasporan “weakness”. Subsequently, if slowly and painfully, the Israeli-born were to arrive at the understanding that they differed from the victims only chronologically, not qualitatively. They didn’t constitute “a different breed of Jews”, but were “simply generationally and geographically lucky”.

Behind bullet-proof glass, Eichmann presented mostly a sullen demeanour. But over the duration of capture and trial, he would display many faces – timid and fearful; taciturn, surly, mean and reproachful; mendacious, scheming, wily and conniving. He slipped easily between “the Nuremburg defence” (just a lowly bureaucrat following orders), and boasting about his rank and power. His memoirs, kept secret until the Irving Trial, revealed his only regret – having failed to render Europe wholly Jew-free. No remorse. No atonement.

Finally, guilty verdict, execution, cremation, grave-lessness. A line in a Leonard Cohen poem asks:  What did you expect? Talons?

English as a lingua franca

14 07 2010

This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum on Saturday July 10.

Crystal, David,  A Little Book of Language. UNSW. 2010. 260 pages.

McCrum, Robert. Globish. How the English Language Became the World’s Language. Viking.  2010. 310 pages.

Reviewed by Ruth Wajnryb


These two books, A Little Book of Language, and Globish. How the English Language Became the World’s Language, are clearly worthy of being considered in the one review. Each explores language broadly, both vertically (historically) and horizontally (how it pans out today). Yet, they have different emphases and different targeted readers, and while they each do what they set out to do in commendable ways, they’re very different.

First, the Crystal. This renown linguist has penned 100-plus books on language, including an encyclopaedia on the subject. Disparagers might suggest they all roughly say  the same thing, under different covers; but this is spoken from a position of ignorance. Language is such a massive field of inquiry, subdivided into a myriad specialities – you can be a dialectologist and never set eyes on a phonetician. Crystal disseminates insight about a subject that for most people is as (in)visible as the water is to the fish that swim in it. For language is not mythic, God-given, handed down on Mt Sinai, and gifted to homo sapiens. It is an evolving human construction, of infinite variety, built organically over time, that brings with it elements of history, geography, society, culture, politics and everything else that makes us human. Given our infinite variation, as a species, our language(s) could hardly be less so.

Crystal’s book is an introduction to the immensity of language, achieved with clarity and some mirth, and without reducing the subject matter nor patronising the reader. It starts with “Baby-talk” and ends, 40 small chapters later, with where we are today. Crystal uses narrative,  recount, explication, anecdote and illustration to explore topics as varied as accents, dialects, slang, language for feelings, political correctness, sign language, texting and matters of style, amongst many others. At heart, it’s an educative book, a first window on the subject, intended to wet appetites, remove ignorance, and build openness towards matters too often treated with prejudice; or simply not treated at all. Typically, there are no hygienics or didactics; he tells us not what language ought to be, but what it is. At the end, he gets up-close-and-personal with his readers, hoping to infect them with what his passions –   – that World English has endangered many other languages;  that variety, from accents to styles, within a language is rich, telling and worth fostering; that in a globalized world of massive language contact,  monolingualism  is even less appropriate than it ever was; that increasingly, we are everywhere encountering global citizens using English as a lingua franca,  more often a matter of convenience than a statement of cultural affinity.

English as a lingua franca is an apt juncture to bring in Robert McCrum’s Globish. Subtitled How the English Language Became the World’s Language, it is much more in-your-face and provocative, starting with its fire-engine-red cover. To language people, McCrum is known for his The Story of English (with William Cran and Robert MacNeil), originally an absorbing and educational  BBC series. Like Story, Globish takes a journalistic-cum-historical perspective – this time, telling how a small island in the North Atlantic, colonized by Rome, then pillaged for hundreds of years by marauding neighbours, becomes, by virtue of the British Empire,  the dominant world power in the 19th century, and by virtue of the American Empire, remains so through the twentieth.

The term “Globish” was coined about fifteen years ago by Jean-Paul Nerrière, a French former I.B.M. executive, upon noting that a minimal core of utilitarian English vocabulary (1500 words) was enough for non-native speakers to communicate in basic functional terms. Why bother with English if you can get by on Globish? McCrum dates the launch of Globish with the fall of Communism (1989) and the start of a new world order. Capitalism needed a lingua franca, as did the Internet and so Globish was born.

English as a lingua franca is what Globish is all about and it’s what English has become – a medium of communication for people who don’t share a first or other language. Your Japanese businessman doing a deal in Turkey or Singapore; your Russian engineer bridge-building in Bangladesh or Tunisia;  your Israeli family  holidaying in Sweden; your Slovenians in Germany or Holland or Egypt. None of these peoples expects those they encounter abroad to be able to speak their own language; at the same time they do expect them to speak English. It’s so default, now, ten years into the third millennium, that you wonder how people got on in contact situations before they all had English. Well, maybe there was less need in a pre-globalized world; and maybe there were many more interpreters. What’s indisputable is what McCrum presents in a reductionist little formula: English + Microsoft = Globish.

It’s not all yay-and-hurrah. One of the negative impacts of the global spread of English is not only the demise of many other languages, but the broad demise of foreign language learning. If all you “need” (or so goes the thinking) is your first language plus English, why bother with anything else? And when your first language is English, you can supposedly remain resplendently monolingual, knowing that everyone else will make the effort and anyway, you’ll always be at an advantage. This of course ignores all the non-instrumental reasons for learning another language: the cognitive development, the eye-opening nature of exposure to other cultures, the very bulwark against enthnocentrism that is the hallmark of multilingualism.

Will Globish mean that people need not bother with a serious, full-scale attempt to learn English-proper? Or will non-native speakers of English develop multiple literacies to suit multiple purposes – Globish for their basic points of contact (“where is the railway station?”), more serious English for other aspirations, like studying at an English-medium university, publishing in an international English-medium journal, or dare I say it, reading Shakespeare?

What I’m reading now: 2 books about “things”

12 06 2010

I’ve never done this before: read 2 books that are connected thematically, but antithetical, and read them at the same time, trying to let each inform the other.

One is called The Language of Things (Penguin, 2009) by Deyan Sudjic.

The other is called The Comfort of Things (Polity Books,2008), by Daniel Miller.

Both are written in the context of current popular culture – contemporary mass consumerism, if you like. Language is intensely analytical; Comfort is intensely anthropological.

I plan to report back as I read further into each.

What I’m reading now: Lionel Shriver’s latest – So Much For That

5 06 2010

I’m a big fan of Lionel Shriver. I loved her first successful book – We Need To Talk About Kevin – although my book group wanted to kick me out after they all read it on my recommendation. I stick to my guns, though. After a slow start, it was unputdownable.  My daughter and I were both reading it from the one copy, something we often do, and we started to fight over whose turn it was. Her follow-up The Post-Birthday World was also a great read, if very different from Kevin. Being something of a completist (someone who has just got to read everything a particular author has written (I’m a bit that way with Ian McEwan), I then tried some of her pre-Kevin work, but was bored and disappointed. Her latest, though, So Much For That, has restored a good deal of my faith in her. Once again, unputdownable. It’s a book that can be read a number of different ways – the story of a marriage; a tale of disappointment; middle America writ large; disenchantment and disenfranchisement. But perhaps predominantly, it’s devoted to a very timely subject in USA and possibly anywhere there’s an ageing population – that’s most of the Western world, I think.  I’m talk about healthcare and health insurance. Boy, do they have a problem in USA! Now I know what all the fuss is about.

What I’m Reading…

14 05 2010

2 new books, on related topics.

1. David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language (UNSW Press) – Crystal’s umpteenth book on the area of his expertise – language. This time a narrative history of language written explcitly for a young audience. It contains 40 short chapters on themes such as “Baby Talk”, “Accents and Dialects”, “Slang”, “Language for Feelings” and “Language Change”. As is typical of Crystal, there are no exaggerated hygienics or didacticism. He doesn’t tell us what language ought to be; rather, what it is. Quintessentially descriptive, and in parts, fun.

2. Robert McCrum’s Globish. How the English Language Became the World’s Language (Penguin, Australia). This is also a work with a historical perspective – this time, telling how “a small island in the North Atlantic, colonized by Rome, then pillaged for hundreds of years by marauding neighbours, becomes the dominant world power in the 19th century”. Then the rise of another power, originally a colony of the tiny island, and later an industrial, military and cultural colossus. Then, into the 21st century,  as the English speaking world begins an economic and political decline, English performs an unprecedented manoevre. In short, English + Microsoft = Globish.

A combined review of these titles will be published in Spectrum, in The Sydney Morning Herald, in the next few weeks.

Tumarkin, M.(2010). Otherland. A Journey with my Daughter. Vintage Books: Sydney.

6 05 2010

All emigrations are traumatic. They all involve some degree of uprooting. “Deracination” is the word for it –  when you’re displaced from your native or accustomed environment  and sent hurtling into an alien space.

Yet all emigrations are differently traumatic. Some are forced, necessitating a violent wrenching of the spirit. Some are precipitated by the wish/dream/belief that life can be better somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a matter of escape, pure life-and-limb stuff, where the past becomes a no-go-zone, and all that matters is looking ahead. Sometimes, the emigration has the tincture of exile, a kind of limbo status, neither here nor there. Sometimes, the exit might begin as a matter of historical circumstance, and later it’s all about a wistful nostalgia, the hope of reunion with loved ones, somewhere, someplace, a life lived in perpetual displacement.

In Maria Tumarkin’s case the past is not just another country, but one that no longer exists. The Soviet Union that she left in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of Communism, changed irrevocably. So when she returns, some twenty years later, she arrives in an entirely different landscape. This journey, which she undertook with her daughter, is the substance of Otherland.

Painfully aware of having been absent, she writes: “I was not there when my generation was cornered by history”. When a supposedly monolithic super-empire imploded, seemingly overnight, its people emerged blinking and shell-shocked in the daylight, then disintegrated  into multiple fractious ethnic enclaves, fully stocked with all the old internecine prejudices and hatreds, among them anti-Semitism. It is into this messy world of upheaval, where the rule book has been tossed out but the new one not yet written, that Tumarkin takes herself, her daughter and her reader.

The literary beauty of Otherland is essentially textual. Multiple layers of memory and reflection, intertwining historical commentary, cultural and literary criticism, and personal reminiscence. At once a road trip of anecdotes peppered with yearning and longing as well as a politico-cultural window on a huge part of twentieth century history  – the Soviet Empire, from the Revolution, to the War, to the post-war proxy satellite wars (Budapest, Prague, Warsaw), to the fall of the Iron Curtain,  to post-Communist Russia, in all its heady lawless turbulence. Somewhere in there was a moment of glasnost.

The reader’s challenge is to stay with the surface narrative while simultaneously being seduced down cultural, historical, political and literary side-roads. Then you realize that the gold is in the off-centre commentaries, the interstitial moments, when a sentence or two, or a phrase in brackets, or a wry aside to the reader, sums up an entire era.  Highly subjective, and unashamedly so, the personal and the political intertwine, just as they do in life, if not always in history books.

Indeed, several stories nest tightly within the larger one. Most immediately, there’s the personal narrative of a woman travelling with her feisty Australian-born, teenage daughter Billie (after Billie Holliday, and defiantly not an Irina or Olga) “back” to the place that once was home to the author-mother. From the outset we enter the tightly constricted world of mother-daughter dialogue where the hopes and expectations of one generation collide with the burgeoning free spirit of the next. The book is suffused in this relationship richness, a hallmark of Tumarkin’s writing.

It’s also an imaginative journey back in time, back to Tumarkin’s mother’s generation, pregnant with multiple heard stories that now find their first dramatic backdrop and dress rehearsal. In refusing to believe, as many children do, that their parents were born old, Tumarkin comes to know them as if for the first time.

For Tumarkin herself, the return trip is yet another story – it’s how she comes to understand, why her parents “took the biggest leap of faith” and left everything behind.  Not for “sausages and whitegoods” (her demeaning expression for the lure of consumerism). “They just wanted someone in our family to [be able to] think of freedom as a birthright”.

Exile has its rewards, but the price is high.

This review appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 1-2 May, 2010

What I’m Reading…

30 04 2010

Maria Tumarkin’s Otherland. A Journey With My Daughter. (Vintage Books, Sydney, 2010).

This book has been a real reading  treat. As befits an academic who is interdisciplinary to an inch of her life, Tumarkin’s writing is many things at the same time – personal reminiscence, a treatise on the mother-daughter bond, historical and political commentary, cultural and literary criticism. This book, her third, also resonates with self-deprecating wit while revealing an enviable richness of intellect broadly lacking in Anglo academics.

My review of Otherland will appear soon in a Saturday Spectrum, in The Sydney Morning Herald.

What I’m Reading…

15 04 2010

I’ve got a few going at the moment:

  • Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself, which is unputdownable. The title is perfect: absolutely transparent – that’s what the book is about. Apart from the content, Doidge has a way with words, especially metaphors. I’ll come back to this book down the track, when I’ve read some more.
  • Joanne Fedler’s When Hungry Eat, which I am reviewing  for SMH Spectrum. Word of warning: it is NOT (just another) diet book.
  • Kitty Kelley’s Oprah. A Biography, which in answer to your question “why?”, because the Foreword suggests that to know Oprah is to know America, and that is a very worthwhile endeavour. I’m not quite facile enough to know that it’s all this simple – Oprah=America – but a few nuggest of insight never went astray.