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The weight of memory: Michele Magwood discusses Letters of Stone with Steven Robins

A tragic history emerges from an old photograph and a cache of letters, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Letters of StoneLetters of Stone – From Nazi Germany to South Africa
Steven Robins (Penguin Books)

At the beginning of this devastating book Steven Robins quotes the writer WG Sebald on the subject of memories: “If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight.”

Letters of Stone is the story of the weight of memory, of the burden of guilt and regret; of the obliteration of hope, of identity, of human beings.

Robins grew up in Port Elizabeth in the ’60s and ’70s in a thoroughly anglicised, secular Jewish home. He was aware, as children so often are, of unspoken things. In the dining room an old photograph of three women watched over their meals. He was vaguely aware that they were family members but he never asked who they were, and no one ever spoke of them. It would be many years before he learnt that they were his father’s mother, Cecilie, and his sisters Edith and Hildegard, and that they had died in the Holocaust. His father went to his grave without ever mentioning them. “There was a silence that completely shrouded anything about them,” he says.

Robins is a professor of anthropology at Stellenbosch University and he speaks in the cadences of a man used to debating, analysing and explaining. He writes in this tone, too. At first one presumes it is because he is an academic: he lacks the artistry of Edmund de Waal in The Hare With Amber Eyes, the dramatic skill of Mark Gevisser in Lost and Found in Johannesburg, the rich idiom of Dov Fedler’s Out of Line, all family histories dealing with the extermination of Jews in World War II. What Robins does, instead, is let the material speak eloquently for itself.

“I thought if I got too closely caught up in the emotions of the story it would swallow me up,” he says, “and I also didn’t want to burden the reader too much with the heaviness.”

Robins’s father, Herbert Robinski, escaped from Germany to South Africa in 1936; his younger brother, Arthur, settled in what was then Northern Rhodesia. They left behind their parents, their sisters, and another brother, Siegfried, who hoped to follow them. Over the years, all Robins was able to learn was that they had perished in Auschwitz and Riga. Having come to a dead end with his research, he visited Berlin in 2000, laid commemorative Stolpersteine outside their home, and believed he was closing the chapter.

And then, in 2012, while clearing out their parents’ flat in Sea Point, Arthur’s children found a cache of old letters. They were written mostly by Cecilie to her sons in Africa, reporting on their days in an increasingly frightening Berlin, and their futile attempts to leave. The quotidian details of their doomed lives are heartbreaking: a new felt hat, card games with coffee and cake, the scarcity of matzos, and the constant gathering of papers to help them emigrate.

At last Robins was able to “hear” their voices. Indomitable Cecilie, keeping up a cheerful front; her quiet husband David; proud, spirited Edith; and Hildegard, who it is clear was disabled. The years pass, Cecilie’s optimism begins to wear thin, and as readers we watch the dates on the letters with dread, knowing what lies ahead. And after the last letter, silence.

There is another important strand to this story which emerged for Robins when he was researching a forebear in the Karoo – the work of the German professor Eugen Fischer, a pioneer of eugenics and racial science. Fischer conducted experiments on the Baster people of what was then German Southwest Africa before returning to institute his diabolical programmes in Nazi Germany. Southern Africa was his laboratory.

As an anthropologist, this was crucial for Robins. “I didn’t want it to be yet another holocaust narrative that didn’t deal with the broader implications. I’m hoping this book does something different, that it draws wider connections between what happened in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and what had happened earlier in the colonies.”

One senses that at last Robins has shifted the heavy stone at the heart of his family history, filled the lacuna of emptiness with commemoration. We are reminded of the words of Philip Larkin in his poem “An Arundel Tomb”: “What will survive of us is love.”

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

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