Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Remembering the Holocaust

This Thursday, at 7:00 p.m. at the Buena Vista Branch of the Burbank Public Library, Julie Kohner will tell us about the Holocaust ordeal of her parents, Walter and Hanna Kohner, who left an unforgettable memoir of their experiences during those terrible times in Hanna & Walter: A Love Story. There is a short review of that book here, followed by a somewhat longer one of an important new book on the Holocaust. Hanna and Walter’s story might be called the personal or micro-view of history. It is one that has great impact on us and brings meaning home to us in a personal way. We “feel” the Holocaust. But a full understanding depends also on the macro-view, the large picture of what happened and why it happened. In service of this notion and for this occasion, the library has recently published two new bibliographies, one that lists important history books in our collection, and one that lists our collection of memoirs of eyewitnesses and survivors of the Holocaust.

Hanna & Walter: A Love Story

Hanna & Walter is a memoir written by Hanna Bloch and Walter Kohner about their personal experiences during the Holocaust. They met in a small Czech town in 1935, when they were young, and fell in love. With the German invasion of their homeland, Walter, an aspiring actor, fled to America, where his brothers were at work in Hollywood in the film industry, while Hanna stayed behind with her family. She escaped to Amsterdam, but was later rounded up by the Nazis occupiers of the Netherlands and subsequently survived transport to four different concentration camps (including Auschwitz) before her liberation by the Allies from Mauthausen in 1945. Walter returned to Europe with the American military during the war. After the Allied victory, he was given leave to travel through Europe to find Hanna, and eventually located her in a suburb of Amsterdam. They were married on October 24, 1945, in Luxembourg, and moved to Los Angeles in 1946.

Hanna & Walter is a compelling story. We witness as unguarded, ordinary lives slowly devolve into the unimaginable. Hanna’s experience of the horrors of transport and the struggle for life in the camps make this an especially moving story, while Walter’s story engages us, not only because of his abiding love for Hanna, but because we can share in his anxiety about her unknown fate. He also gives us vignettes of the exiled European artistic community in Los Angeles during these years.

The memoir is artfully paced, with Hanna and Walter narrating their experiences in alternating chapters. The shared sense of confusion and uncertainty, as well as the contrast between what is happening to each of them (unbeknownst to the other) at the same time, serves to build tension, to engage our deepest sympathies, and to make us understand just how precious is the ordinary. It would be wrong to call this a Holocaust story with a happy ending. It is a story of survivors, who suffered and lost much. But there is something uplifting about the fact that their love survived a period of extraordinary terror and that they were able to make a new life for themselves in America. The exceptional nature of their story reminds us of the many whose fate was worse, and of the things we should never forget.

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