Rachel Seiffert and the guilt of living on the wrong side of history

Looking back over time from the Trump presidency to the Holocaust, author Rachel Seiffert worries not that history repeats itself but that, in the words of Mark Twain, history too often rhymes.

???In the divisive language of the Brexit campaign and the US President she sees too many echoes. "Trump's shifted the posts so far but in such a clumsy and clownish and doltish way that he's made a space for a more reasonable, more intelligent sounding fascist - fascist is too strong a word - a far-right inclined person, to come along and to be making the same promises but sounding more sensible about them, and that's frightening to me."

Seiffert speaks as the granddaughter of Nazis.

Her father Leslie Seiffert was a Grammar school boy born in West Ryde who was an Oxford don and met the author's mother in Berlin and settled in Britain.

Unlike the Australian Seifferts, German migrant pastoralists from Goulburn and Wagga Wagga who put a century between themselves and war, Seiffert's maternal grandfather was in the Brownshirts and a doctor in the Waffen SS, patching up wounded soldiers on the Eastern front. Her maternal grandmother was an active member of the National Socialist Party in Hamburg.

Born on the wrong side of history, it is a cross Seiffert carries into her fifth book, A Boy in Winter, which begins on a fog-bound November morning in 1941 as members of the SS are rounding up Jewish residents in a small Ukrainian town which Germany had only weeks before "liberated" from the Red Army.

Seiffert's characters are similarly poleaxed by history - from the German engineer building roads behind army lines, to the young Ukrainian dairy maid Yasia and the Jewish couple Ephraim and Miryam herded from their beds with their young daughter at dawn.

The events of the next three days mostly keeps faith with the wartime accounts of Willi Ahrem, sent to the Ukrainian steppes as a road builder and witness to a Jewish massacre.

The war is "unfinished business for me'', says author Rachel Seiffert. Photo: Ben Rushton

The war is "unfinished business for me'', says author Rachel Seiffert. Photo: Ben Rushton

"The real man basically had a nervous breakdown," says Seiffert, who lives in London and is in Australia for the Sydney Jewish Writers' Festival. "He saw this crime unfolding in front of his eyes. He had done what he could to avoid fighting in the war."

He wanted to do the right and honorable thing as far as a totalitarian regime would allow, and then there he was. He hadn't anticipated there was this other crime going on aside from the war.

"This was a point where it could still not have happened but the momentum of it was too strong for people to resist given how it played out.

"But you also think, 'what would have happened if everybody in that town had just said 'no', like so many people in Boston turned out and said to the far right protesters last week, 'We can't hear you'. 'We are more than you'.

"Those points are very critical, which is why it was very important to follow his story."

Ahrem's response to the winter of 1941 was to assist local townsfolk smuggle out five Jewish residents into ghettos where they survived the war.

Though Seiffert's grandfather was to later regret his participation in the Nazi party and never rose high in the party, her grandparents were "early adopters" and their conduct hard to excuse.

"Maybe my grandfather held a placard outside a Jewish shop that said, 'Don't buy here', maybe he was part of the book burning in Hamburg. He was somebody who was part of the beginning.

"What my mother says was he was one of those that perpetuated the war. In that sense to me he is one of the people that made the Holocaust possible. The massacres were only possible because of the war and they were 'justifiable' in many soldiers' minds because this was what happened in the fighting."

Her grandfather's letters home from a Russian POW camp where he had been held for five or six years contained no admissions and no contrition. "He did talk an awful lot about the future to my grandmother beyond his captivity and how they would have a life together again. He wrote as a husband and there wasn't enough mention of what had happened and what had been done."

???The bilingual Seiffert regards her grandfather's conduct "with a lot of sadness". "It's very sobering because he's a person to me and it's people who do this. I can't externalise it. I can't say it happened over there and it was done by other people.

"It was very close to home. It means I'm very much aware of human capacity for that kind of cruelty."

German war guilt was the subject of Seiffert's first book, The Dark Room, which told the stories of ordinary Germans living in and under the Third Reich. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Seiffert was writing another book entirely and in no hurry to return to the bleak subject matter of the Holocaust until the political upheaval of Brexit and Trump.

Dr Beate Meyer at the Institute of German Jewish Studies in Hamburg pointed her to Ahrem's writings and Ahrem became the inspiration for Seiffert's character, Otto Pohl, a man who is trying to see out the war as an engineer but who must make a moral stand and either turn a blind eye or act in the face of an unspeakable crime. The short story became a novel.

A Boy in Winter is a call for caution, says Seiffert. In a connected globalised world, she hopes a crime on the scale of the Holocaust can never happen again, but she worries that hate is still used by politicians.

"The 1940s may not happen again, but the 1930s could, and that really is bad enough. As the Holocaust falls out of living memory, regrettably it may become the stuff of 'flimsy' fiction written for entertainment, rather than fiction that speaks more directly to us."

The war is "unfinished business for me", Seiffert says. "I think it will always be."

A Boy in Winter is published by Hachette, RRP $29.99

This story Rachel Seiffert and the guilt of living on the wrong side of history first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.