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Sunday 17 October 2010

Dreaming in Black and White



The word euthanasia originates from the Greek language. It is derived from eu meaning good and thanatos meaning death. Literally “a good death”.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t recall reading children’s books after working my way through Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series. The next book I remember reading was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped in Primary 4 which would have made me about 8. I know I borrowed Journey to the Centre of the Earth from the local library at much the same time. I’m not saying I was an especially precocious reader, I simply don’t remember being offered books specifically written for my own age.

I know there’s been a big kerfuffle recently about sticking labels on books and there are pros and cons. Having been in the position of having to buy books for kids I can sympathise with the parents but I’ve always found bookshops quite good at organising their stock into broad age ranges and I think that’s the way to go and the same holds true online. There’s no need to print some kind of ranking on the book. Kids have enough pressure these days without getting slagged for reading something that someone has decided is beneath them.

Dreaming in Black and White is a children’s book. There’s nothing to suggest this from the cover but a michael-morpurgo recommendation from Michael Morpurgo on the back is enough to tell you this is not intended for grownups. The content, however, is quite grownup. Frankly I can’t imagine being handed a book like this when I was a kid. I don’t honestly think World War II was mentioned at school until I was fourteen. I remember we covered the Greeks, the Romans and British (as opposed to Scottish) histories but that’s all I can remember; history has never excited me. Maybe the teachers simply thought that a war that had only ended twenty-odd years earlier was too recent to count as history.

There were several things that interested me about this book: firstly, it was written specifically for kids; secondly, it was written by a German author and finally, it concerns the Nazi’s treatment of disabled people. We’ve all heard about how the Jews were treated and I’m not saying we’ve heard enough but because of the sheer number of them it’s easy to forget that Hitler’s plans involved far more than their extermination even if that was at the top of his list.

I may not have been fond of history at school but I liked sums. Here’s one for you:

According to conservative estimates, there are 300,000 mentally ill patients, epileptics, cripples and so forth in institutional care in Germany.

a) What do these people cost annually, in all, given expenses of 4 Reichsmarks a day per person?

b) How many low-interest government loans of 1,000 Reichsmarks each could be made per year to young married couples with the same sum of money?

It’s not a sick joke. In the textbooks that children worked from in Germany in the 1940s they were asked to tackle problems like that. This one, the one from the book, is an actual example; it’s not made up.


We don’t actually know for sure the name of the book’s narrator. He’s a German boy who’s just hit puberty and has been studying “back then” for a school project. What he’s been learning troubles him greatly and starts daydreaming about the past. In these dreams he has a name, Hannes Keller, and, as in the real world, he is disabled; he walks with the aid of a crutch and has a speech impediment. He attends school in a town called “Kaulbach” which he has difficulty pronouncing and calls “Kauba” which is African-sounding and probably grafted into his dream because he has been thumbing through an “album of photos [entitled] Adventures in German South-West Africa” that belonged to his great-grandfather. Presumably this is also why, when the children tease him, they call him “the lion of Kauba”:

Oh, come on, Hannes, don’t be a spoilsport. We only want you to roar for us! Do us the King of the Beasts!

He has a protector, a girl called Hilde Rosenbaum who sits beside him in class and who often “interprets” his mumblings for the teacher.

The dream opens with Hilde rescuing Hannes from some bullies but they’re late for class and there’s little the boy can do to hurry. The teachers and headmaster are used to him and accommodate him. All of that is about to change though. Because they’re late the two children get to witness their maths teacher, Dr Goldstein, being forcibly removed by two members of the Gestapo. His pleas for compassion fall on deaf ears:

‘But what have I done? I fought for my country at Verdun!’


The second Gestapo man says quietly, almost soothingly, ‘You’re Jewish Maximilian Goldstein. You’re Jewish, that’s enough, isn’t it? Now are you coming quietly, or do we have to . . . ?’

They don’t and moments later he is whisked away.

Der Jude (poster) Hannes and Hilde arrive at their class just ahead of the headmaster who informs the class that their teacher “has unexpectedly left the school” and that his replacement won’t arrive from Berlin for two days. He then reprimands the two children for their tardiness. Hannes gets excused because of his disability but Hilde isn’t so lucky. She has to go back to his office where “a black mark” is entered against her name; she also gets a letter to hand to her parents. It transpires though that this is the only way the headmaster can think to get a message to her parents unobtrusively. The letter says:

Dear Dr and Mrs Rosenbaum

I have given your daughter a black mark for bad conduct. I know she doesn’t deserve it, but it was the only excuse I could find to write you this letter.

Maximilian Goldstein was taken by the Gestapo this morning. They came for him in the staff room. You will know what that means. He hardly resisted at all, and there was no more I could do to help him. Would you please let his family know? And do be careful yourselves.

They have appointed a man from Berlin over my head to keep an eye on me, one Dr Wilhelm Lang. There will be nothing more I can do for you now. They’ll have your daughter expelled from school simply for being Jewish. When you have read this letter please burn it. I never wrote it, and you never received it. And would you please mind signing the enclosed form about your daughter being late for class? That will tell me that you have read this. I don't want to arouse suspicion, even in the office.

My very good wishes.

It can’t be stopped now.

EwigerJudeFilm Lang arrives in due course and toes the party line. Hilde is expelled as expected and then he turns his attention on Hannes. After ridiculing the boy in front of the class Lang brings the matter before the staff:

My dear colleagues, I will repeat it: the boy ought to be in an institution. A useful member of society, a national comrade? Not a hope of it, not him. He may even be an epileptic; you should have seen him standing up there at the blackboard. I think I may say, in fact I think I must say, among ourselves, that it simply will not do for our young German citizens of the future, boys and girls from healthy families who are ready and willing to study, to be held back by such a creature’s slowness and infirmity. Hannes Keller should be in a home.

The matter is put to a vote. Only the headmaster makes any effort and abstains which will probably get him in as much trouble as actually voting against the motion. A letter is sent to Hannes’s parents. All that’s required is a signature. Frantic his mother visits the Rosenbaum’s for advice. There she learns enough to realise that if she signs that permission slip she’s as good as signing her son’s death warrant. She doesn’t have to worry. Unbeknownst to her her husband signs the papers and when she objects he spurts propaganda at her:

Interests of the individual have to come second to the interests of the nation as a whole.

Hanne doesn't hang around to be taken. When he hears his father beating his mother to keep her quiet he makes his escape, heads to the Rosenbaums, but Hilde and her family have gone. She has left him a picture: “[a]n ocean-going steamer with America on the bows.”

We never find out what happens to Hannes, the narrator’s dream-self, but we do get to learn what has been happening to the boy in the real world. Although I’ve told the tale in one clump that’s not how the book tells it. We get glimpses into the real world as well. We see him having fits and needing injections from the doctor. We see how his mum and dad treat him. By putting himself in the position of a boy in the 1940s he has begun to realise that the world he is living in is not as different from the one that the Nazi’s were proposing:

When I think about it, I'm not so sure I could be born today. There's genetic testing now. They can test you for hereditary diseases, and if people who want to be parents have a defective gene they're advised against having children of their own. That way a person like me wouldn't exist. Genetic testing won't let anyone but perfect human beings through.

But then where will the others be?

Back then I'd probably have been killed.

These days I ought not to exist at all.

But since I do exist, I'm a living reproach. A living example of what won't have to happen in the future any more.

His experiences in his dream also cause the boy to reassess his relationships with his real-life parents. He has no doubt that his mother loves him the way he is. But he’s also well aware that he’s an only child. He asks and is told by his father that he’s too young to understand. But he understands well enough:

I know what it is: they’re afraid of having another child like me.

This is a striking little book. It may only be 90 pages long and clearly written to accommodate people with limited reading skills but it asks all the right questions. And it gives answers too, answers like the one above, an answer that can be expressed in the simplest of terms but is not necessarily the kind of answer we would want our children to hear and I can imagine some awkward family discussions arising out of this book.

nazi_poster2 It’s not a perfect book. It is a little spare on detail and the jumping back and forth between the real world and the imagined one gets a bit muddled. I also didn’t think all the talk about lions and Africa helped it. The appendix ‘Back then’ is very helpful. Personally I would have liked to read it before reading the story but it did fill in some of the blanks. It explains, for example, about ‘Operation T4’:

The ‘elimination of life not worth living’ was planned and organised by an inconspicuous civil service office at No. 4 Tiergartenstraße, Berlin. The operation took its name from the number of the building and the initial of the street.

This department for murder began its work in 1939 with a systematic survey of all the patients in psychiatric institutions. By August 1941, those involved in Operation T4 had shown, within a very short time, that they had the organisation and technology, the necessary staff and the administrative back up to handle the murder of over 70,000 people.

That last sentence is vague. As the facts stand between October 1939 and August 1941 Operation T4 (also called the Euthanasia Program) actually killed 70,273 people. The Nuremberg Trials found evidence that German physicians continued the extermination of patients after October 1941 and that about 275,000 people were killed under T4 in total.

The "euthanasia decree", written on Adolf Hitler's personal stationery and dated 1 September 1939, reads as follows:

Reich Leader Bouhler and Dr. Brandt are charged with the responsibility for expanding the authority of physicians, to be designated by name, to the end that patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment [menschlichem Ermessen] of their state of health, can be granted a mercy death [Gnadentod].

The product description suggests a reading as of 9-12 for this book. I could certainly have read it when I was nine and I did find it on one online Seventh & Eighth Grade Summer Reading List. The real issue is whether the concepts the book introduces are too much for youngsters to grasp. I personally don’t think so. I think too often we underestimate what our kids can cope with. The sad thing is that we live in a world where things like this still need to be talked about.

I know of only one other children’s book that deals with the horrors of World War II, Ian McEwan’s Rose Blanche, but there are many others. Here’s a list.


bamberts-book-of-missing-stories Reinhardt Jung was born in Germany in 1949. After working as a journalist and advertising copywriter, he joined an international children's organization, and later became head of children's broadcasting in Stuttgart in 1992. Jung died in 1999. He has one other book in print in English, Bambert's Book of Missing Stories (which I’ve not read but I did buy my daughter for a present). Billed as suitable for ten years and up, it is an imaginative, bitter-sweet story of a handicapped man, Bambert, trapped in his upstairs quarters by the fear of people's laughter. It will appeal more to a particular mindset than an age group.


Born in 1936, Anthea Bell is best known for her work as a translator and adapter of novels and stories for both children and adults, creating a body of work that is over 200 titles strong. Her translation of Dreaming in Black and White won praise from Betsy Hearne in Bulletin of the Centre for Children's Books. Hearne noted that the "clean minimalist style that delivers this complex tale-within-a-tale is well supported by veteran translator Bell's practiced clarity."

This is an expanded version of the review that appeared first on Canongate’s site.


Rachel Fenton said...

My daughter's nine and I am staggered by the breadth of her reading appetite. I don't think I read as widely as a child of a similar age. I was into my fairy tales and Hans hristien Anderson and Black Beauty etc...Like you, I came across the first refs to WW2 at secondary school. My daughter's read a series of books called "My Story" and "Anne Frank's Diary" which seem to have affected her deeply.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve just started working on a post looking at the comics I read as a kid, Rachel, and reading through some of the strips I have to say I’m appalled by how puerile they were. I remember looking back on my parents’ time and thinking how innocent they were. I never imagined looking back on my own childhood and thinking the same; I thought I was so savvy.

Kass said...

What a striking contrast to the Nancy Drew books and Secret Garden variety I devoured as a child!

You provided a timely explanation of euthanasia. I mull over those people who can be responsible for this kind of leaving. In certain cases, it may be the ultimate kindness, but I don't understand how anyone can take that kind of responsibility for another person.

Several months ago a hospice worker encouraged me to turn off Mom's oxygen and overdose her on pain meds. She would take her oxygen off while bathing her and watch her turn blue and call me over to see how remarkably different she looked. My daughter and I labeled her "Munchie" (after Munchausen By Proxy). When I shared this information with the head nurse, she was fired. In retrospect, the hospice believes she was responsible for the deaths of the last two people she 'cared' for.

You and I have talked about our spiritual musings so you know I'm a hopeful skeptic. Thinking about aiding someone with their departure from this realm has added a new dimension to these musings. I know Mother is suffering and is neither dying nor living right now, but the possibility of some cosmic consequence is a huge pull to not be any part of deciding when it is time for her to go. I must believe there is another force in play.

I am blown away by the people who can provide death for another. Life is so huge. How can it be treated lightly? These words are stirring to me: "These days I ought not to exist at all. But since I do exist, I'm a living reproach. A living example of what won't have to happen in the future any more."

Aren't we all some sort of living reproach? Reinhardt Jung is right to encourage children of any age to reverence life in all its complexities.

Jim Murdoch said...

Is there such a thing as a ‘good death’, Kass? What’s good about death? Assisted suicide is one thing and more people are coming round to the idea that the right to die should be something we as individuals should have some say in. What the Nazis did was decide that someone’s life was not worth living for them. How many of us live ideal lives? Very few. But we cope. We have good days and bad days. The problem really comes when things have been left too late and an individual is no longer capable of making an informed decision on their own behalf. This is why I think families need to talk about these kinds of sensitive issues well in advance because you never know when things might change and someone is asking you to switch off your mum or dad or son or daughter.

I think this is a brave little book. The big question here I suppose is: how soon do we want to shatter our kids’ illusions about the world in which we live? Childhood seems to be getting shorter and shorter.

Gwil W said...

Hi Jim, My juvenile reading was along the usual lines, or at least I think it was; after Rupert the Bearannuals, I got on a run rather like you probably via Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Journey to the Centre of the Earth etc., and then I joined the local libary at age 10 or 11 and read biographies, mainly American or America bound heroes funnily enough: David Crockett, Eric the Red, Columbus etc. I don't recall reading war books, I don't know if Biggles was a kind of war hero, and I can't rmember how I found out about Hitler, the Holocaust, and all the rest of it, but it wasn't through books at school or otherwise, it was probably through my dad's war photos (he was in India, Ceylon etc.) and Vera Lynn songs schoolboy jokes about Jews and scrap metal dealers and such and other kids' family war stories and the odd piece of shiny metal and ribbon in a box. It was certainly not part of my official education. I think even at Grammar School we stopped history at Gladstone and Disraeli. It was convenient ot do so. On the other hand, as you point out, the history was too recent. It'll be a while, more than 20 years, before Oil Wars I and II are on the school syllabus. It needs 60 years before we can stare history in the face. That's seems to be the rule of thumb.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

This sounds like a heavy book for young readers, but a very interesting one. I’m going to look for it during my next trip to the library or bookstore. I agree with you that books shouldn’t be rated for young readers. Kids develop at their own pace and as long as they are reading something, I won’t complain.

Anonymous said...

Sixty-five years on the Second World War continues to cast its shadow over literature. I read voraciously from age four onwards and by ten I was obsessed with books about the war, of which at that time a decade or so after its conclusion there were many. I was reading mainly prison camp escape stories and accounts of the war in the air, most of them published by Pan, Panther and Corgi.

There were war stories available for kids, but they were all adventure tales of the traditional gripping yard genre. What fascinated me about the autobiographical accounts was their authenticity and, within the best of them, a perspective on experience that enabled the reader to infer, if not any direct querying of the purpose or morality of warfare, at least a sense of ambivalence and philosophical distancing from the generally accepted view.

And now, after the war story having been distinctly unfashionable for a couple of decades, the genre has returned, but this time onto the youth market. History, of course, sixty-five years on - part of the GCSE syllabus. Sufficient veterans remain hale and hearty enough to provide their accounts; newsreel abound as anniversaries come and go; and most important of all, post-war and contemporary parallels exist for comparison to be drawn and, supposedly, for appropriate lessons to be learned.

Had any one of the new generation of youth market war books been slipped back through some convenient time-loop to my early reading days, I wonder what I would have made of the perspectives provided and the agendas driving the tales today.

Jim Murdoch said...

When I was at school we had a choice between History and Modern Studies, Gwilym. I took the former but wasn’t really interested in it and so didn’t do very well. I don’t remember when I first learned about the World Wars. I knew my dad was in the Royal Navy – there was a photo of him with two shipmates – and so I suppose when I saw that he’d have explained about his involvement in the war. My first awareness of the concentration camps came when I discovered a newspaper clipping that he’d saved showing a line of naked women queuing up to be gassed. I never asked me about it though.

It’s not that heavy, Jane, but it’s the kind of book that really needs to be talked about afterwards. I bought it on for 1p + postage and I see that you can get it in the States for 1¢ + postage too.

And, Dick, I’ve never read much war fiction, not even All Quiet on the Western Front. I never read Commando comics either or anything of that ilk. My father certainly never glamorised war when he talked about it. He was on a destroyer for most of the war and being mechanically inclined it was his job to look after the guns. I don’t think he ever fired them so he got through the war without personally killing anyone but that certainly wasn’t how he felt about it.

Elisabeth said...

This one is chilling, Jim, because it hits close to the bone. I am not disabled but as I hobble around on crutches I sense the degree to which I have become a disabled person in the eyes of the world.

My husband's brother was born without enough oxygen at birth and as a consequence suffered mild cerebral palsy. He had a dreadful time growing up.

When I broke my leg and came home in a brace this brother compared notes with me. It was as if suddenly we had something in common.

The pitch for perfection in humankind scares me more than I can say.

Thank you for a beautiful review.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think we sometimes forget just how much control over our lives governments wield, Lis. I got a letter a few months back telling me that I was now no longer eligible to receive the state pension until I reach 68. That’s three years out of my life gone. Pfft! And what can I do about it? And it’s the same with everything, one day you get free milk handed to you at playtime, the next day you don’t. One day you’re unfit for work, the next you’re not. One day you’re walking into a gas chamber, the next you’re not.

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