Never Tell Anyone You’re Jewish: My Family, the Holocaust and the Aftermath by Maria Chamberlain (Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 2022). Reviewed by Hamish Kallin.
Never Tell Anyone You’re Jewish is a brilliant title for an unsettling and unusual book. The author, Maria Chamberlain, now 77 years old, has lived in Edinburgh since her parents emigrated from Poland in 1958. She tells the story of every close family member from just before the German occupation of Poland at the outset of WWII until their death or survival at its end. The author’s rationale is clear – reconciliation with her parents’ trauma, a humanising memorial to those lost, an act of rationalising her own memories – but for the reader, the force of this book is its relation to scale and pace. The Holocaust is often impossible to comprehend in terms of its dehumanising scale, but telling a whole family’s stories is just enough “mass” to make the horror all the more real. You find yourself yearning for each person to survive, even though you know most won’t. You find yourself connecting to each person as an individual, even though the death-spiral they are caught up in yearns to crush their individuality into insignificance.
More disquieting still is the sense of pace. Genocide progresses through these pages in a series of step-by-step acts of indignity then cruelty then death. Each “then” seems unimaginable from the standpoint of the one before it. The rhythms of everyday life tighten with cruelty. The narrative lightness with which the book conveys this (the ratcheting enclosure of the death-logic of Nazism) is deeply unnerving. Given the focus of the book, I mean that as a compliment. Fascism does not arrive all at once. It steps along under the cloak of a grotesque civility. Rights and laws change bit by bit. Who can do which job? Who can live where? Who is considered fit? These classifications mutate, until we get to a point where it is legal and reasonable for the forms of murder to get faster and more efficient than it is possible to imagine. This is not a book that wallows in horror, but it is unflinching in the details when it needs to be. I had to stop for a while in between each chapter, to breathe, and seek solace from fiction or silence.
Slightly too regularly for my tastes we are led into a story through (cleverly targeted) Google searches. The wealth of evidence is impressive, however. Family testimonies are corroborated with eyewitnesses from other sources, sometimes matched to the same time and place. For example: the memoirs of the author’s mother recall the day she was marched towards cattle trucks at Kleparov Station (having been “chosen for resettlement”). That testimony is then matched with the words of Ben Z. Redner, a Jewish policeman who was also there. The combination sharpens each testimony. You get the feeling the author tried to follow every clue – every named place, event, person, organisation, employer – connected to each family member, and this holds together like a wonderfully patient act of saying “look, they were telling the truth.”
Despite the emotional intensity of the book’s premise, the book is rarely sentimental. It deals with the most horrifying moments with an emotional clarity that feels uncompromising. Her family experienced a grim roll-call of the Nazi death machine: the ghettos, concentration camps, death marches, and so on. Their experiences are general enough to act as an introduction to what ‘the Holocaust’ meant in practice, and specific enough to add another pillar to the halls of evidence. Occasionally, there are moments of rationalisation that completely floored me. When trying to convey how many people were murdered at Bełżec death camp (herded into “shower rooms”, serenaded by an orchestra of prisoners delaying their own deaths, asphyxiated in batches of 800 at a time from the exhaust fumes of a custom built engine), we hear that the number of people killed there in just 270 days was “in the region of the population of Edinburgh.”
Refreshingly, the author makes no claims to her Jewishness (a religion and a culture she admits to being largely estranged from) nor her belonging (there is no Poland to return to). The chapter ‘How was it possible?’ is remarkably short considering its topic, but that isn’t really what the book sets out to answer. This is not a rigorous history of the era, nor a political exploration of the causes and explanations of the Holocaust. It is a patient, perhaps slightly earnest but certainly loving, detailed and clear attempt to record the fate of one family, which makes it a testimony impossible not to value.
Hamish Kallin teaches geography at the University of Edinburgh.