The hand that keeps the photograph


The Hand that Signed the Paper
By Helen Demidenko
Allen & Unwin: 1994. 157 pp., $13.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Vivienne Porzsolt

I am Jewish. My parents got out of Prague the day Hitler's troops marched in — March 15, 1939. Most of my mother's relatives and many of my father's were slaughtered in the Nazi Holocaust. I was born and grew up in safety in New Zealand.

I say this because I wish to make clear my standpoint — the point of experience from which I view the matters raised by Helen Demidenko's The Hand that Signed the Paper. Helen Demidenko, too, has a point of view, based on her own history.

I have no quarrel with the portrayal of evil. In fact, it must be remembered and portrayed, whether fictionally and historically, or "factionally" as in Demidenko's work. Nor do I have any problem with portraying people who commit evil as human beings, even sympathetic ones. This is the only way we can see that such people are made of the same stuff as the rest of us.

But in the portrayal of evil action, the point of view is both politically and ethically crucial. My stomach clenched into a tight fist as I read Demidenko's factional account of her discovery of the pictures of her father grinning in his SS uniform or chasing "a poor-looking man with a big star around his neck ... with deadly intent". What ghoul could retain such mementos here, now, on the other side of the world, 50 years after those horrors? What writer could construct this image and feel unobliged to make clear her perspective, no matter how obliquely, not so much on the events themselves but on the keeping of the photograph?

The keeping of the photograph is significant because it is kept in secret, but kept. And not only the photograph is kept. A tale is constructed, describing and, above all, justifying the participation of many Ukrainian peasants in the Nazis' "final solution" for the Jewish people.

It is a version of event as experienced by one of the groups of perpetrators, a tale furtively passed down from generation to generation unexamined, unchanged. The tale is distorted by the burden of historical hatred.

This distortion, "perspective", has been justified by the judges of the Miles Franklin competition and others in the name of art. The cloak of fiction may seem safer than compromising facts, but it is not an alibi for its impact. It is simply not good enough to say, "This is art". Art, if it is effective, can have a more powerful role in constructing reality than an academic history — Goebbels and Stalin knew that.

Demidenko herself testifies to the power of myth in the continual coupling of "Jewish" with "Bolshevik" as a justification by Ukrainians for their widespread complicity with the Nazis. Stalinist propaganda mirrored this with the couplet Jewish Zionists/Ukrainian nationalists to label and exterminate all those, Bolsheviks included, who opposed his policies.

Demidenko's point of view is drawn from tales handed down like heirlooms with inherited enmities. These tales, presented in the context of a critical stance, would have made a brilliant book. If they are relayed without benefit of examination in the light of the broadest possible range of facts, they can perpetuate the historical hatreds and acts which flow from them.

Demidenko's book does just that. Demidenko seeks to assign responsibility for the acts of her forbears on the Reds, the Nazis and, above all, the Jews. She presents her inherited tale as a valid perspective. But she is not a poor, ignorant, starving peasant, like her forbears. She is a highly literate lawyer and has access to a much wider range of information, values and analyses.

Depending on time and place, all people, singly and collectively, can be guilty of oppressing others. This does not obliterate the fact that in specific times and places, there are perpetrators and there are victims, and there has to be accountability.

Demidenko's objection to trials for war crimes is particularly obnoxious here. War crimes trials are not about revenge, but about setting the record straight and assigning some accountability. We do not allow the passage of time to erase accountability for single murders of passion — why should mass murderers be immune, even if old and frail? (That can be addressed in any penalty imposed on the basis of proven guilt.)

The real question is, what do we do about our history? In any case, "the Jews" were simply not responsible for the starvation and murder of so many peasants under Stalin. The Nazis and their allies, including Ukrainian nationalists, were responsible for the attempt to annihilate the Jews, Gypsies, the unfit etc.

Moreover, suffering is no alibi for oppressing others, even if the others were "guilty" for that oppression; otherwise there is no end to it. Palestinians are not impressed with continual rehearsal by Zionist Jews of their suffering at the hands of the Nazis as a justification for oppressing them and occupying and annexing their land. The injustices and miseries of Anglo-Celtic convicts and the industrial revolution were no justification for hunting down and expropriating Aboriginal Australians.

For reconciliation to occur, the perpetrators and their descendants must face guilt and give up the tales inherited to evade it; the victims and their descendants must face their agony and give up their tales to numb the pain. Failure to do so continues the cycle of oppression by both parties.

If we are to get the stench of the crematoria out of our nostrils, we, descendants of both victims and perpetrators, must cleanse ourselves with courage, not continue to spread the filth.

Demidenko's book does just the reverse — it seeks to evade, evade, evade. The hand that nurtures the distorted, hate-filled photograph in the present must be stayed as surely as The Hand that Signed the Paper was not.