Zdenka Fantlova’s The Tin Ring and Vasily Grossman’s The Road – remembering the realities of the Holocaust.

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.

Zdenka Fantlova with Jane Arnfield

Zdenka Fantlova with Jane Arnfield

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.

The Tin Ring

The Tin Ring

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

The Tin Ring

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.

Stalin died just before Grossman's intended arrest

Stalin died just before Grossman’s intended arrest


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.

The Hobbit and Life of Pi

There have been some wonderful movies showing over Christmas and the New Year.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, is spell bindingly good. The story revolves around a 16-year old Indian boy called Piscine Molitor, “Pi” Patel, who suffers a shipwreck in which his family dies. He is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat and raft with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. We poignantly share in Pi’s journey of self discovery and his spiritual awakening – and how he ultimately places himself in God’s hands.

Many of the themes which make the Life of Pi such a good yarn can also be found in this year’s other epic movie, J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit – brought to the screen by Peter Jackson. Here, too, is a battle against all the odds, another journey of self discovery and a reliance on a faith which sees you through.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (to give it its unabbreviated title), was published on 21 September 1937 and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It paved the ways for “The Lord of the Rings”, which followed in 1954.
In a letter which Tolkien wrote, in1955, to W.H.Auden, he says he began to write The Hobbit in 1929 while marking school examination papers. On coming across a blank page he felt inspired to write the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” By late 1932 he had finished it and then lent the manuscript to several friends, including C.S.Lewis.
Having been read by millions, 75 years later The Hobbit is now being viewed, as part of a trilogy, in cinemas across the country. The Hobbit– An Unexpected Journey – will be followed in 2013 and 2014 by The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again
The story of The Hobbit is located “Between the Dawn of Færie and the Dominion of Men” – and tells the tale of the home loving, adventure adverse, Bilbo Baggins who sets off to gain a share of the treasure which has been appropriated by the Dragon Smaug – who now guards his hoard. The story culminates at the Battle of Five Armies, and in this climax we meet again, as combatants in this defining conflict, many of the characters encountered in preceding chapters.
The story of the hobbit is about the growth of individual character and courage, about the solidarity of fellowship, and the nature of evil.
It takes us out of the usual comfort zones – second breakfasts and sumptuous delicious mouth watering teas at four o’clock much favoured by all hobbits.
The last thing which Bilbo wants is the appearance at his home of the wizard, Gandalf – and thirteen very disorderly dwarves who have been dispossessed of their homes and country – all of which threatens to disrupt Bilbo’s ordered routine.
In 1937 Britain’s political leaders felt much the same as Bilbo about Europe’s dictators and offered the excuse that these were “far away countries about which we know very little”.

The prevailing climate was that it was better to stay at home than to go and pick a fight with some nasty European dictator. Appeasement was not yet a dirty word. Bilbo Baggins has been compared with Neville Chamberlain – then the Prime Minister – as a creature who simply favoured a quiet life.

Like those reluctant to see their lives disturbed by unwelcome events, Bilbo spends his life “dreaming of eggs and bacon” and of his well stocked larder.

Uncomfortably, Gandalf gives him the unwelcome reminder that Bilbo’s mother was a Took and that more is expected of him than complacent indifference.

Thorin, the dwarf king is initially sceptical and contemptuous of Bilbo and fails to see Bilbo’s inner strength and qualities and Thorin has to radically reassess his first impressions – ultimately describing the hobbit as “the child of the kindly west.”
In describing the setting for his epic tale Tolkien wrote: “The board is set, the pieces are now in motion, at last we come to it – the great battle of our age” – true for Europe as well as Middle Earth.

Many of the characters portrayed by Tolkien were deeply influenced by his own experiences and by the men he encountered during the First World War while serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers.

In The Lord of The Rings we meet Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee, the hobbit, who remains totally loyal to Mr. Frodo and who ends up carrying him and the ring to the destiny which saves Frodo and Middle Earth. Sam is like Simon of Cyrene, sharing his Master’s burden and at the climax his devoted loyalty in following Frodo to the very end is rewarded as the burden is lightened and he is transfigured.

Tolkien said:
My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 War, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”

Sam’s humility turns him into the greatest of Tolkien’s heroes. Although he is only Frodo’s gardener, Tolkien is reminding us that so often we miss what is important about the people we meet, what matters most, and too frequently judge them by the job they do or their social origins. Tolkien says that his stories are concerned with ‘the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble’ – and the meek Sam certainly inherits the earth.

It will be Frodo, Sam and their companions, the next generation of hobbits – “children from the kindly west” – not Bilbo nor his alter ego, Chamberlain – who will be called upon to save Middle Earth from the evil which now threatens to engulf and destroy it.

It is hardly coincidence that The Lord of The Rings is written while the fight against totalitarian forces is raging and as Churchill is called upon to lead the country through the Battle of Britain.
In “The Hobbit” Tolkien isn’t writing a polemic and his story works at any number of levels. He wants to take us into a new world, a different universe, but one which relates to our own. Underlining this is his use of runes, both as decorative devices and as magical signs within the story, introducing us to a new language – as you might expect from a professor of philology. The stories are also full of pointers to Tolkien’s faith and he wrote that “The Lord of The Rings” is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision”.
C.S.Lewis, writing in The Times said that both children and adults would enjoy “The Hobbit”:The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology.”

Peter Jackson has produced a movie worthy of that story and, to use another of Lewis’s phrases, it is a story which requires adults and children alike to go “further up and deeper in” and to discover the richness of the many stories within the story.HobbitLife_of_Pi_2012_PosterHobbit 2HobbitLife-of-Pi-3D-poster