Fiona McIntosh

The Holocaust

The end of the line ... arriving into Auschwitz-Birkenau

I was not going to write a Holocaust story.   Too many people have written immensely moving real life accounts as well as heartbreaking fiction about this topic.  I didn’t believe I was equipped to tackle this enormous subject, nor add anything new.  However, I couldn’t possibly write a story, set in France over 1942-44, and just ignore the fact that 70,000 or so French Jews were rounded up, thrown into camps like Drancy outside of Paris and then packed off in cattle trains bound for the concentration camps in Poland where most perished.

A suitcase each, guarded carefully, left behind on the railway siding at Auschwitz on arrival when most were sent directly to the 'showers'.

Perhaps the pinnacle of brutality culminated at the Vel d’Hiv, which was the greatest round up of French Jews in Paris in one swoop.  A chilling aspect was that thousands and thousands of French police were involved.  Jewish men, women and children – nearly 13,000 I believe – were hauled from their homes.  Buses drove many away to various holding stations and an infamous 7000 were taken to the Winter Velodrome in Paris.  Here, they were left for many days with no food, zero sanitation and a single tap.  Anyone trying to escape was shot.  Few of us can begin to imagine the fear, trauma, hardship, although of course worse was to come for these poor people.

Children were separated from parents, single people separated from families.   ‘Sarah’s Key’ is a fairly recent movie whose story focuses on the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv.  Have tissues!

To learn more, there are any number of true account books but a visit to the Shoah Memorial in Paris is a must.  Be warned, it is heart-rending.  Don’t believe for a moment you’ll feel like going out to a restaurant or a show afterwards.  It will leave you shell-shocked and looking for quiet to reflect for a few hours but you will be in the Marais neighbourhood and that’s a wonderful area to stroll Paris, stop for a drink or take a slow meal and a great coffee after visiting the Memorial.  It’s free by the way and there is strict security.

Walking around the walls of names at the Shoah Memorial

Just walking around the Wall of Names on entry was hard enough but from the moment I stepped inside the memorial I was weeping and I didn’t stop.  Guilt, anger, terror, damage – everything negative about life is in these halls.  The final exhibit, a room wallpapered with the faces of the children taken from France to extermination camps felt smothering and unbearable.  But all that pain put away, I can never regret making this visit and I will go again, hopefully with my sons in tow.  It’s not a pleasant day out but an important one.  The Shoah Memorial is put together in a quiet, dare I say elegantly minimalist style that I don’t believe sets out to shock but simply to tell the story in all of its stark horror and to ensure we never forget. I also put myself through a similarly anguishing experience at the Imperial War Museum in London that has an extensive Holocaust exhibit that visitors should walk around.

By the time I’d come back to Australia I knew in my heart that my education on the Holocaust was incomplete.  There was another challenge to face.  I kept hoping to convince myself it wouldn’t be necessary but the more I pushed it away, the more it pushed back.  I had to visit Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.  I dreaded it but I forced myself to arrange a trip into Krakow and to get out to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is about an hour or so away by car.

Given that this place is a brief but key setting in the sequel of The Lavender Keeper I might save details of my trip to the camp for a future blog when we’re closer to the release date of the peacetime novel.  Suffice to say that the visit had an immediate and powerful effect and I don’t believe I’ve ever written a stronger chapter in my life than the one that followed that trip to Krakow.

Some of the millions of shoes piled as carelessly as the jailers had treated their owners, at Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum

I’ve learned plenty more since through television docos, books, and museums around Europe.  The fate of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe was as horrific – and northern/southern Europe was not exempt either, which is why stories of compassion where people defied Hitler’s demands and hid their Jewish neighbours or helped them to escape feel sparkling and heroic.  Oskar Schindler was no saint but when I stood in his office in Krakow, I felt uplifted that he had saved as many Jewish lives as he dared under the noses of the occupiers and his fellow Germans.

Oskar Schindler's Office, Krakow

And so with all of this horror in my head and knowing that I couldn’t ignore the Holocaust orbiting around WWll, I included a Jewish family into my story.  It felt important to do this in order to show the helplessness and hopelessness of the situation no matter rich or poor, young or old.  But what began as a nod of respect morphed into arguably the most powerful thread running through my story.  Needless to say my novel stayed true to its promise of not being about The Holocaust but even though the Bonet family appears and disappears swiftly, there is no doubting their ghosts haunt the tale.

A chilling tour