That old cliché that “A picture is worth a thousand words” is no more evident than in Steven Robins’ book, Letters of Stone, in which he pens a rich exploration of the lives of his Jewish ancestors in Nazi Germany, and how some of them ended up in South Africa. Hundreds of books with a similar premise have been written about the individual sufferings by Jewish people during this time.
This one is different.
Robins’ book was inspired by a photograph that was displayed on a table in the dining room of his childhood home in Port Elizabeth. The black-and-white picture was a portrait of three women. No one spoke about this images and who these people were. And yet, Robins was always aware of it, particularly of the woman on the far left of the picture – an image that seemed to haunt him. It was only as a student that Robins learnt the photo was of his paternal grandmother, Cecilie, and two aunts, Hildegard and Edith, the one on the left that captured him so. In 1989, as an Anthropology student, Robins interviewed his father, Artur, about his life.
Artur had come to South Africa in 1936, leaving behind Nazi Germany, missing the war by just a few years. He left behind most of his family, including his parents and two sisters. But, as Robins puts it, there was a gaping hole in his father’s story. While Robins knew his family had died during the Holocaust, exactly what happened to the Robinskis was not spoken about. It was only some years after his father’s death in 1992, that Robins began researching the family’s fate. And it’s an extraordinary story that reads like a historical mystery novel. Indeed, when Robins begins discovering official records that name his family in museums in Washington and Berlin, he writes, “I felt like a detective stumbling across the first hard evidence that ties a murderer to a crime scene. What had once been vague and abstract knowledge about the fate of my father’s family now took on a concreteness in form.”
As Robins’ search progresses, he connects with distant relatives and unexpectedly strikes gold: a find of a hundred letters sent to his father and uncle by Cecilie from Berlin, before and during the war. These reveal the state of mind of those who were left behind in Germany, and how they coped as their dignities were removed one at a time. These letters turn the spectres of the Robinski family members into flesh-and-bone individuals. It turns memory into meaning and shows how the past reverberates into the future.
As he delves into his family’s past, Robins also comes across key players in eugenics and racial science, and these figures not only tie in with Nazi Germany, but with South Africa’s own past.
Despite the prolific number of works about the Holocaust it remains imperative not just to write about it from an academic and historical perspective, but to keep telling the stories of individual experiences, to humanise the victims of the most dehumanising of conflicts. The players in this book are as vivid and colourful as in any novel where the author has the luxury of omniscient description. Despite the knowledge of impending doom, it becomes impossible to detach from this story.
Letters of Stone is an elegy that is hauntingly devastating and completely unputdownable. It is a testament of how, even after their bones have turned to dust, the victims of the Holocaust continue to defy those who sought to silence them.
“When my father died at the age of eighty-three, the year after I interviewed him, it seemed as if the opportunity to discover anything about his family had died with him. But the interview had prised open a window into the Robinski family’s past, and I became increasingly determined to uncover the truth about their fates.
It was then that I began searching for archival traces and information about a world that no longer existed. At the time, Edith’s photograph was the only access I had to this world. It was, as Roland Barthes put it, an umbilical cord of light, providing a glimmer of hope that would salvage and resuscitate a shattered existence. I looked to this photograph to do the impossible: to mend broken family bonds and bridge my separation from Aunt Edith and my late father. I was asking so much of it.”
Rating: 5 out of 5
Letters of Stone is published by Penguin SA.