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Reliving the holocaust from the perpetrators’ point of view

Sunday, 3rd September, 2017 7:15pm

Reliving the holocaust from the perpetrators’ point of view

20km from Auschwitz the radio operators go to Hoecker to pick blueberries. Pictures courtesy of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum..jpg

Thomas Lyons


A picture paints a thousand words. They establish a platform where flights of fancy can launch a person into an entirely contrived story based on a moment in time.

Historic fiction allows the reader to live in an imagined reality for a longer period than one of those flights of fancy. When properly executed it involves a huge amount of painstaking research, because the fans of the genre tend to be sticklers for authenticity.
One author who has trod the line of historic accuracy, engaging plot lines and literary flair is William Ryan. The Limerick man’s Captain Korolev novels have garnered a significant following since the first was published over seven years ago.
His latest novel, The Constant Soldier, switches the time period of his work, but it maintains the fidelity to historic accuracy.
On Thursday, September 7 William will make his way to Johnston Central Library for a presentation that will set a framework for his latest novel. The author will discusses the photographs of daily life in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which inspired his latest tale.
The pictures that lit the fuse of The Constant Soldier are contained in an album put together by an SS officer and adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz between June 1944 and January 1945.
The Karl-Friedrich Hoecker album was in the possession of a US Army officer from 1945, when he found it in a bombed-out Frankfurt apartment, until it was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007.
Many of the photographs were taken at a rest hut for the SS who worked at Auschwitz, located near a village called Porabka, around 20 kilometres from the camp.
“I am very much looking forward to it. I like to do as many events as possible in libraries. I do a lot of  writing in libraries,” the author told the Celt.
The event was organised by Marlene Kennedy. Marlene is involved in the Crime Writers Association and is one of the judges in the ‘The Dagger in the Library’ an annual award given to a particular “living author who has given the most pleasure to readers”. William said that the talk will discuss the photographs and their role in the growth of The Constant Soldier.
“It’s about how you take an idea and research it, and how it [the story] changes. You take something that is real, an artefact like the photograph, and turn it into something that is fiction,” the author says of the Cavan library reader event.
This will be the first time he has engaged in an event like this in Cavan, but he is no stranger to this neck of the woods.
“I go to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig. Marlene has organised a couple of events before. I did an online discussion on the role of the photographs for one of Marlene’s book groups.”
The talk will deal with how the images influenced and inspired the story.
“There are no real people in the book, it is a fictionalised account, but some of the scenes in the books relate directly to the photographs. It should be interesting for anyone fascinated by reading or writing, they will see how I go from an idea to building up a story,” William said.
“Auschwitz and the holocaust is something that I have been very interested in for a long time. It is the disconnect between these ordinary people and the terrible crimes that they have committed that I find terrifying and fascinating. You look at these photographs and they give an unseen picture,” the author explained.
The research for The Constant Soldier threw up many anomalies for the writer that reinforced that disconnect: “The commander of Auschwitz trained as a confectioner. How did he go from making sweets to murdering people? That, for me, is interesting. How ordinary people turn into something quite different.
“It is not that we have forgotten the holocaust, only that we may have forgotten some of the essential truth of it. These were ordinary people who, through a series of extraordinary events, became part of the mass murder of millions of people. And that is something that has happened again and again in places like Cambodia, the former Yugoslavian Republics, Rwanda, the list goes on and on,” the author expounded on the book’s core.
Thematically the book is ambitious: “You want to engage and make people think. The novel takes a differed perspective on the holocaust. It gives it from the perpetrators’ point of view and, without excusing them, tries to work out why. When I started the novel that was not necessarily what the novel was about.”
The photographs that will be discussed were taken as the war came to an end. One particular image shows a group of young girls in the company of military men:
“That particular trip did not make its way into the book. That is a group of radio operators. Some of those would have been conscripted, so perhaps they did not have a choice about being there. What is extraordinary is that they are having a nice time. Because they are radio operators it is inconceivable that weren’t directly involved in what Auschwitz is all about.”
“The same day that those girls are collecting blueberries in the woods there are two transporters arriving from Hungary and everyone on those trains would have been murdered.
“That disconnect is extraordinary. The girls are 17 or 18, what happened to them afterwards? What did they tell their children or their grandchildren? How did they deal with having to be involved in that? There are lots of fascinating questions,” William says.
The novel under discussion is the 10th the author has had published. The next will be the return of the 1930s era Soviet Captain Korolev:
“I am half way through another Korolev novel and I am hoping it will be published next year. It is quite nice to go back to it, because I found that The Constant Soldier was quite difficult to research and so even though the Soviet Union isn’t that much nicer, there isn’t as much of the wholesale murder,” William said.

The William Ryan reader event will take place at the Johnston Central Library, Cavan Town on Thursday, September 7, at 7pm.

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