Suffer the little children

27Sep08

Last Tuesday night I was having dinner with some Iranian Bahá’í friends who have two very lively and talkative daughters, aged 8 and 10. At some point during the meal, my hosts and I got on to the subject of our slightly beleaguered Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

“What are you talking about?” piped up the older of the girls, a confused expression furrowing her brow.

“We’re talking about the Prime Minister,” I said, “You know how your headmaster is in charge of your school. Well, the Prime Minister runs the whole country.”

“I thought the Queen did that,” said the younger one.

“No,” said her sister, “She just wears jewellery.”

The perspective from which children try to make sense of the world is a never-ending source of fascination.

This evening, on the train home from seeing a profoundly moving new film observing how two children on different sides of the fence – literally and figuratively – experienced the holocaust, I suddenly recalled a surprising radio interview I set up in February 1995. It was the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and at the time I was producing a daily news magazine programme. I had called a holocaust survivors’ support group in north London and invited them to send someone to be interviewed, which they agreed to do.

The gentleman who arrived was not what I expected at all. I suppose I was presumptuously anticipating someone very elderly and frail, with a haunted expression revealing all he had been forced to witness. The guest when he arrived, however, turned out to be very tall, and quite well-built with a shock of gingery-brown hair and an open, unlined, innocent face. Now that I think of him I suppose he could only have been in his late 50s, since he was still a child when the nightmare of  Auschwitz came to an end.

The thing that was most surprising though was his answer to the presenter’s first question. “What is it that you remember most about your experience of Auschwitz?” she asked.

Our guest did not hesitate with his response, since he had probably been asked this rather inadequate question several thousands of times before.  “It was boring,” he said flatly.

“Boring?” The presenter and I looked at each other in surprise.

“Well yes,” he replied. ” There was nothing to do. No games, no toys. We just sat around all day, bored.”

The boredom of life for two children, within the camp and outside its electrified fence is captured brilliantly in the film, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It is a subtle, beautifully observed piece of cinema based on an even better novel by John Boyne. I read the book a few months back after picking it up at Steimatzky’s airport bookstore at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. I later bought a copy for my dad too but told him not to read the back cover or any of the blurbs about it because the author unfolds what is happening so skilfully, from the viewpoint of an eight year old, that the reader should have no prior knowledge of what is to come. If you intend to read it, I will now issue a ‘spoiler’ warning and expect you to read this posting no further.

The book is written from the perspective of Bruno, the inquisitive son of the commandant at a concentration camp. Bruno himself is bored at the non-eventful life his family now leads away from Berlin and his friends. He blames it all on the man he thinks is called “The Fury” who has promoted his father to this unexciting outpost. Exploring the woods at the back of his house, Bruno comes upon the tall, wire fence of  what he thinks is a farm. The people who work in the farm are strange – they wear pyjamas all day.

“They are not really people at all,” Bruno’s father tells him.

The “farm” is not named in the film but in the book, it is Auschwitz – or “Out With”, as Bruno hears it. On the other side of the fence, Bruno encounters Shmuel, sitting hopelessly all day, trying to protect himself from the horror that surrounds him.

I will say no more, except to urge you to read the book before you watch the film to see with what care the author has got inside the head of Bruno and tried to interpret events from his point of view. Then go to the film and admire how its makers have faithfully captured the book’s essence.

The fact is that children to this day are still witnesses to horror, and still subjected to inexcusable acts of cruelty. As the Universal House of Justice observed in the year 2000, “It grieves our hearts to realize that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimization too numerous to mention.”

It grieves my heart, having been reminded by seeing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, to know that today in Iran, propaganda is being bandied about which similarly denigrates Bahá’ís as “not really people at all”. Recently a Bahá’í child was sitting in her classroom and forced to listen to a presentation by a clergyman who attributed to the Bahá’ís immoral acts so shameful that later the student could not even reveal to her mother what he had said. He concluded his foul remarks by stating “Their leader is a naked American lady.” As adults we can recognise such comments as ludicrous. But what is a child to make of such a statement from someone who is believed to be wise and reliable in his judgement?

When I think of the bright young girls I had dinner with the other night, trying to understand the respective roles of the sovereign and the Prime Minister, it is hard to conceive that just a few thousand miles away, their counterparts are having to make sense of the daily experience of slander, lies and irrational prejudice.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a grim reminder of where such blind hatred can lead us.

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2 Responses to “Suffer the little children”

  1. A very prescient post..I think the position of the Baha’is in Iran is very precarious at the moment.

  2. 2 laylimay

    Ah this is a really good post rob! I may just have to read the book too! Beautifully links from small life details to the film to history to current happenings with the bahais in iran.

    Also i wish that the producers of the film and the publishers of the book would decide on a common spelling of the word pyjamas. not pajamas.


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