16 May 2016
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Paulette Mahurin’s historical novel about the Dreyfus affair, ‘To Live Out Loud’ was such an amazing feat I was wondering if she could pull off a similar coup with her new book about the Holocaust, ‘The Seven Year Dress’. No need to worry, Mahurin fans. This book, like its predecessor, will get you right in the heart and the gut. Here is an author who is not afraid of taking on big subjects.
Injustice, persecution and a ruined life for a courageous man bent on upholding his principles were some of the themes of the previous book. In ‘The Seven Year Dress’ we are faced with the ultimate horror, the Nazi-driven ideology to create a super race from which all undesirable elements (principally Jews) would be expurgated. The result, staggering in its enormity, was the Holocaust. The story has been told many times. How, I wondered, would the author engage the reader once again, how address what some have called ‘compassion fatigue’?
There are times reading the opening pages of a book when you know immediately something amazing awaits. It’s as if the author is holding out a promise to the reader. In the Prologue, we witness a confrontation between two strangers. Irma, a 20-year-old nursing student, is looking for a room to rent. She meets Helen, who has a room to let. As the interview proceeds, Irma is seized with a feeling of unease. Who is this old, worn out woman, whose apartment is curiously devoid of personal items and mementoes except for a piece of faded dress material in a frame under which is written ‘Nothing Lasts’? A woman with a tattooed number hidden beneath her sleeve, and who exudes an air of ‘restrained desperation’? The tension builds, then Irma, on the point of leaving to look for other accommodation, changes her mind, and a precious friendship is born. It is a friendship which, though neither woman knows it at the time, will lead to Helen’s story being told to the world.
In the next section we change narrators, stepping back in time to the Germany of the early 1920s. The youngest child of a large Jewish family in Berlin Helen recounts their happy family life with its scenes of domesticity, their friendship with the neighbours, whose son Max becomes an important figure in the narrative. But already the storm clouds are gathering. Helen has scarcely time to enjoy her childhood before the shadow of Adolf Hitler falls like a guillotine on the future of this one particular family, mirroring that of millions of others.
The story is a mixture of documented historical fact and artistic imagination. Like a black and white news reel we follow the relentless rise of the dictator: his vile anti-Semitic propaganda regretting that the ‘Jewish corrupters’ had not been wiped out by the poison gas of the First War, the rise of the Hitler youth movement, the passing of the Nuremberg laws, the emergence of nightmarish figures and institutions, Himmler, the SS, the Gestapo. Somewhere in a place called Dachau the first of the death camps is being built. Others will follow, haunted by devils, Rudolf Höss, Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann.
The events are only too familiar, but they take on a new resonance and impact as we move from the general to the particular, seeing all of this through the eyes of Helen, a normal, happy child, ‘with love in her heart’ who gradually realises her country is changing, that ‘bad things are happening’, that Hitler’s message has permeated society, become ‘a stench in the air’. First banned from attending school, she then becomes increasingly isolated, a victim of segregation, prejudice and growing violence until the realisation finally bursts upon her: ‘I was now a vermin Jew’.
Events accelerate. As Hitler invades country after country he simultaneously develops his policy of racial hygiene, the final solution to the problem of the Jewish question. The turning point for Helen is Kristallnacht, after which she begins a long descent into horror and suffering. The following years are recounted by Mahurin in a series of relentless episodes: the loss of Helen’s entire family, her years spent in hiding, the deportation to Auschwitz, and her experiences there. This is the part of the book that is most harrowing. It is in Auschwitz that, subjected to repeated humiliation and degradation, Helen is stripped of her identity, conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs, ‘dismantled’ as a person. And, amazingly, how she endures, heals, becomes resilient, by observing the altruism of others, by undergoing innumerable transformations, by the realisation that ‘nothing lasts’.
I have already said that the story of the Holocaust has been told many times. It needs to be told many times more, as a metaphor of man’s ultimate cruelty. Years ago Emile Zola stood up and said ‘J’accuse’. The same message is implicit in these events which took place more than seventy years ago but which, like the Dreyfus affair, brings past and present face to face.
Two questions recur throughout the book:
How much can the human spirit endure?
‘Nothing lasts,’ says Helen. Today, reading reports of 21st century slave markets for 9-year-old Yazidi girls, raped and driven to madness by ISIL, of similar fates for the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls forced to become ‘Boko Haram wives’, we are tempted to add ‘Nothing changes.’
‘The Seven Year Dress’ is dedicated to the real Helen Stein, who, Mahurin tells us, ‘bestowed upon me a gift of compassion and humility in sharing her story with me’. She adds: ‘In telling this story, I hope I serve her well.’
You do, Paulette, you do. Now Helen will be forever in our hearts, too.