Before attending a performance of the powerful drama, The Tin Ring, brilliantly brought to life by Jane Arnfield in the intimacy of Mr.Speaker’s House at Westminster, I hadn’t known that Zdenka Fantlova would be in the audience.
It would be impossible not to be profoundly moved by the poignant and harrowing story of this now elderly woman. And where better to be challenged to affirm life over death and love over hate, than in the heart of the British Parliament – a building which also survived Nazi attempts to destroy it, along with the democratic values it represents.
As The Tin Ring unfolds we learn that, somehow, the remarkable Zdenka defied all the odds, all the horrors of the concentration camps, and somehow survived.
Somehow, she had retained and never been separated from the tin ring which Arno, the boy she loved, had secretly passed to her in the camp.
And, somehow, this troth serves as a repudiation of the visceral hatred and violence represented by Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen Belsen and all the other monstrous Nazi extermination centres.
The Tin Ring takes us into Dante’s Hell but here is someone who has survived and emerged to give the lie to Hitler’s confident belief that he could act with impunity and never be held to account; someone who is able to speak for the countless mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers whose kith and kin were slaughtered; someone able to channel the suffering, pain, and their shocking loss into a defiant testimony.
Zdenka’s story reminds us how great is the power of true humanity; the greatness of the power of love; the triumph of life over the ideology and culture of death. Here is a love story to rebuke the evil hate story of the Shoah.
Arno’s tin ring comes to represent love, hope, truth and life itself.
The narrative reminds an all too easily forgetful world of the savagery of the Holocaust: the indifference, the silence, or collaboration of so many; and the danger of “never again” happening all over again in our own times.
The political and moral consequences of this collective amnesia – let alone the catastrophic human consequences – are appalling.
The Tin Ring uses the powerful medium of drama to address this danger of collective forgetfulness and obscene attempts to rewrite or minimise the history of those times.
But if collective memory is to have any purpose it must surely prompt us to reflect on reports, at home, of anti-Semitism and the scapegoating of minorities.
What, too, does it say to us about contemporary and horrific genocidal events overseas, from Sudan to North Korea, from Syria to Burma. Or do we mimic Neville Chamberlain’s infamous remark, as Hitler invaded Zdenka’s Czechoslovakia, that it was “a far away country about which we know very little.”
After the Holocaust world leaders declared “never again” – and after every subsequent genocide, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, Burma, Kosovo, and the rest, they have said exactly the same thing.
We need to understand gross inhumanity precisely because it has, does, and will happen all over again.
Not long after watching the Tin Ring a friend gave me a copy of Vasily Grossman’s book, The Road.
It’s a collection of essays and short stories. Some were written after he had written first hand reports of the Battle of Stalingrad for the Soviet press. Grossman – from a Russian secular Jewish background – sees the Communist USSR as the only hope in the struggle against Nazism. After Stalingrad he travels West with the Red Army and takes first hand accounts of the industrial scale inhumanity which characterised Treblinka. My friend rightly says that The Road “should be compulsory reading for those for whom World War Two is ancient history – as a reminder of how lucky we are to be living in era of relative tranquillity.”
The Road is an amazingly powerful account of the sheer depths of evil to which man can sink. The Treblinka narrative is poignant and disturbing and Grossman’s belief in the Red Army and Lenin’s legacy, now entrusted to Stalin, is touched by a naively optimistic view of Communism. The later stories in his collection, affected by Stalin’s Great Terror and Purges, the Gulags, and the suppression of his own writing, leaves Grossman with a more realistic view of Stalin’s Soviet Union: and he was fortunate that Stalin died just before Grossman himself was about to be arrested.
In reading The Road and watching The Tin Ring I was reminded of the remark of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, who said “do not ask where was God at Auschwitz, ask where was man.” That same question is at the heart of Zdenka’s story, and Grossman story.
If we are to find the correct answer t0 Sack’s question “where was man?” we will need to immerse ourselves in accounts like those contained in The Road and how good it would be if plays like The Tin Ring were staged more widely and seen in universities, civic halls, churches and popular venues – prompting us to raise our voices and to take action on behalf of today’s Zdenkas and Arnos and challenging those who promote their own versions of twentieth century xenophobia and hatred of minorities.