Be the Light in the Darkness

“Be the light in the darkness” is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021, 27th of January.

The theme encourages everyone to reflect on the depths humanity can sink to, but also the ways individuals and communities resisted that darkness to ‘be the light’ before, during and after genocide…We can all stand in solidarity. We can choose to be the light in the darkness in a variety of ways and places – at home, in public, and online.

For more information about this and to find out more, please click here.

To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, Chelsea Library held a virtual Chatterbooks last Saturday, reading the novel Friedrich, with a group of local children.  Ten copies of this poignant book were bought, giving an opportunity to our young readers to read it.

Hans Peter Richter‘Friedrich’

Superb, sensitive, honest and compelling

Hans Peter Richter wrote his novel ‘Friedrich’ in the style of a memoir. When the book was published in 1961, it was one of the first German books to deal with the Nazi period.

It is about two German families, who live in the same apartment house. It is the story of friendship of the non-Jewish narrator and his Jewish neighbours. ‘Friedrich’ begins in 1925, when the narrator was born, and ends in 1942, when he is 17. It takes place during the period when the Nazis came to power and into the early years of World War II.

“Before every genocide, perpetrators divide society into those considered worthy of human treatment, and those who are not. Distortions are deployed using propaganda and stereotyping to identify and victimise a specific group (or groups), followed by discrimination – often enshrined into law. The darkness leading to genocide also causes deep emotional trauma. For those affected, fear, hopelessness and dread all have a profound and long-lasting impact.”

This is exactly described in Hans Peter Richter’s novel.

A snowy day in 1929, the narrator is five years old and watches from his window Friedrich and his mother playing in the snow and making snowman. He is begging his mum to hurry up, so they could go downstairs and join the Schneiders. Eventually, they are ready, just about to leave, when this incident happened. The landlord, Herr Resch insulted the child, as soon as Mrs Schneiders went inside, and the five-year-old was on his own. The narrator’s mother did not say anything comforting to Friedrich or to her son, just to move away from the window. Neither did she want to be associated with the Jewish family (hence her delaying getting ready), nor did she want to get into trouble with their landlord.

Richter’s style encourages the reader, not only to learn about growing up in Nazi Germany, but to develop a nuanced view of the characters and circumstances of the period. The novel provides an accessible and complex picture of the issues of this period, tied to a historically accurate chronology.

Since the narrator and Friedrich are two, eight year-old boys, young readers more readily engage with them. As the boys grew older, the situation in Germany was getting worse.

This extract from “The Ball” (1933) illustrates that the boys were eight years old.

“Initially the Schneiders, the Jewish family, are much better off than the narrator’s family but gradually their lives become restricted and diminished, economically, politically, and socially. During this period the overwhelming majority of Germans came to believe in and support Hitler and the Nazi Party. The vast majority of Germans were neither sadistic nor perverted; they were normal people in extreme circumstances. The narrator’s father joins the Nazi Party and the narrator joins the “Jungvolk” (usually called “Hitlerjugend,” or Hitler Youth) and participates in Kristallnacht. One of the core issues that Friedrich allows students (readers) to explore is how, and why, the narrator and his family become Nazis.

As the events and incidents unfold, told from a boy’s point of view, we see the confusion and misunderstanding about the changes in society under the Nazis, and wonder who, if anyone, attempted to understand where things were heading.”

(Museum of Jewish History, Teacher’s Guide)

I would like to express my gratitude to Carla and Maximilian Lubin, our regular Chatterbookers, who read the novel and recorded “Potato Pancakes” and “Snow” for us to share with our readers.


Zvezdana, Chelsea Library


Holocaust Memorial Day

27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day, on which we remember the victims of the Nazi Holocaust and of the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The theme this year is “Be a Light in the Darkness”, with a focus on those people who risked their lives to resist evil. We have many books in our Special Collection of Biographies about rescuers, who took unimaginable risks on behalf of their fellow human beings, knowing that discovery meant death (you can see a selection of them in this picture).

One of our books about a rescuer has a special significance. It was donated by our very own Library Customer Service Officer at Kensington Central Library, Besart Zhubi, and is My Life Under the Nazi Occupation by Mimi Kahmi Ergas-Faraxhi (Shkup, 2018). I spoke to Besart about the book, and what it means to him:

CJ:  Can you tell us a bit about the background to this book?

BZ: I never knew my maternal grandmother well – she died before we had time. We escaped Sarajevo in 1992 when I was 6. A genocide was being planned to eradicate all those of Islamic heritage. A civil war was raging. The government considered us stateless. We arrived in London and the UK gave me a new home.

Nenedaja (Grandmother or literally the mother of my ‘maternal uncle’) died in 2001. But my mother kept her memory alive, often telling me stories of Mimi. Mimi was the woman Nenedaja would say was her Jewish friend in Albania. “Mimi had the most amazing voice. Mimi would sing so beautifully”.

Fast forward a few years and Facebook was ubiquitous. I set out on a mission to find Mimi. Mimi had died, but I found her daughter Drita (Ita) Bartova. Drita means light in Albanian. It amazed me to discover my mother’s history and mine too. Drita told us about this book! The North Macedonian Cultural department sponsored it as a recognition of the role Albanians played in protecting Jews.

CJ.  Can you describe the situation in Macedonia during the Nazi period and how it affected Jewish people?

BZ. Much of the Balkans had come out of imperial domination from the Ottoman empire. The interior was underdeveloped, and this was especially true of North Macedonia. By 1941 the Axis powers invaded. Collaborationists filled train loads of Jews for transportation to death. The only refuge was Albania, conquered and ruled by Italians. Italy – while thoroughly Fascistic – was less concerned with Jews earlier on in this period, though later this changed, and the Albanian government had a certain amount of lee-way to protect Jews.

The Ergas-Faraxhi family recognised that if they stayed in North Macedonia, they would die at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators. It’s also important to note that a resistance developed in Bulgaria later on, and in Serbia. However, Albania was the only country in mainland Europe to experience a rise in the population of Jews during the period of the war, due to the number who sought sanctuary there and were helped.

CJ. What can you tell us about your grandmother and her family?

BZ. My Grandmother, or Nenedaja, was a young girl from a wealthy family of many years standing, with an incredible history of trading with their own ship. She was a pioneer. In her community most women were illiterate. Her father forced her to go to school and join the anti-Fascistic league. She was to learn to read and write–and my mum tells me that Nenedaja was so ashamed of this! She cried for being forced to go to school. Traditional culture viewed women’s education as unimportant. But Nenedaja persevered. She became committed to the Partisan cause. She learned to read, write and use a typewriter. It sounds utterly trivial now, but there wasn’t a single woman in her home city of Ulqin that could read, write and type. She read widely, but mostly communist propaganda. She taught other women to read too.

CJ. How did your grandmother get to know the Ergas-Faraxhi family?

BZ. Under Ottoman rule, Jews could work in whatever business they wished, whereas they were traditionally forbidden to join guilds in Christian Europe, where many were desperately poor and were subject to regular pogroms and murder. This rampant and poisonous level of antisemitism was relatively absent in the Ottoman empire and so Jews were integral to life in Albanian cities. (Before WW2, King Zog – absolute monarch of Albania – was eager to encourage Jewish specialists to move to Albania to help develop Albania. King Zog would never return as Albanian Communists took power.)

Now, my grandmother spent much of her youth in her family’s compound in Shkodra, Albania. Mimi Ergas-Faraxhi, her husband and her daughter (Drita) moved in next door. My grandmother, naturally curious about the new family, visited and became friends with Mimi who posed as Albanian – but they were refugees from Macedonia and when they revealed they were Jewish my Great Grandfather promised them complete sanctuary and safety. Mimi and my grandmother became good friends and my Nenedaja and her cousins would try their best to cheer her spirits as news came of what was happening to Jews and to her family–in Macedonia. Mimi described being invited to a wedding at the ‘Shurdha’ household (my grandmother’s maiden name). Mimi described it as a lavish occasion with each table having its server. Mimi would have baby Drita over to my grandmother while Mimi took a rest. It was a close friendship formed in trying times.

CJ. Your grandmother’s family helped Mimi, her husband and baby daughter Drita to hide. Do you have any thoughts about what might have informed their courageous behaviour?

BZ. The Canon of Leke Dukagjini codifies Albanian custom in an ancient manuscript dictating how Albanians should behave. We treat guests with the utmost esteem. In Albanian custom, we treat a guest as a young king. The householder would rather die than hand over a guest to his enemy.

CJ. What kind of practical help did your grandmother’s family offer the Ergas-Faraxhis?

BZ. Italian and later German soldiers raided and interrogated the wealthier families; soldiers extorted the local population through raids to find weapons and hidden Jews. These raids were the norm – to seek Jews and the resistance. My grandmother’s father often paid off soldiers. In terms of physical help it was mainly financial. Milk, flour, food, and babysitting. Baby Drita was looked after by my grandmother and when raids happened they didn’t betray a single person, though if their complicity had been discovered they would also have been killed.

CJ. Did you grow up being aware of the story of what your forebears had done during the Nazi occupation?

BZ. No. I had no idea what my grandmother did during WW2. I became aware from relatives in Albania that she was in fact a spy for the Communists, giving the location of Italian, and then German troops who were being terrorised by Albanian partisans. Italy was invaded by the allies and Mussolini’s regime collapsed. Marshal Tito gave Nenedaja a medal in recognition of her efforts.

CJ.  It is fantastic that your research led to you and your mother actually meeting Drita, who was a baby when your grandmother helped make sure her family survived – can you describe what you felt? Can you tell us about the meeting with her in Israel, and about the inscription she wrote in the book?

BZ. It was incredible. I felt such a deep connection to my grandmother by meeting Drita. Drita kindly sent us the wonderful and heartbreaking tale written by her mother. She inscribed her mother’s memoir of her experiences, including being helped by our family, saying “Meeting you has been an incredible stroke of luck, and very special for me. Our mothers would have been glad to know….and perhaps somewhere they are.”

CJ. What do you think is the significance of this story, and why do you think it is important to remember stories like this?

BZ. Well, it’s a story unique to its time and place. But, ultimately it’s a universal story because it’s about friendship, survival and the capacity for human kindness and barbarity. It’s a story that Jews, Muslims, and Christians can live happily side by side together. It’s a story of courage in the face of barbaric crimes, and of survival. It’s interesting for me, but there are countless other tales of bravery. History has erased Albanians. It’s a source of great disappointment. I fear that history repeats: first as tragedy, then as farce.