Tag Archives: War crimes

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

Opening Blurb: Grandfather Kemal is found in a vat used to color the kilim rugs he sells, meaning he literally “dyed”.

Orhan’s Inheritance is the perfect title for Aline Ohanesian’s premiere novel about a young man, Orhan Turkoglu, who inherits the family business when his DeDe dies. His bequest is unusual since a father usually passes his property to his son, not his grandson, but the 1990’s are modern times even in Turkey. Yet traditions remain strong and Mustafa threatens to take Orhan to court and challenge what he considers a bogus will. It’s not that the father wants to run the family business, he’s never earned an honest days work, it’s just the principle. Orhan fears his father will either neglect the business or sell it and waste the money, negating all his efforts to create a successful company.

However, that is not the gist of the story. The most unusual aspect of the will is that the deed to their family home is to be transferred to 87 year old Seda Melkonian, an unfamiliar name belonging to an elderly women living in an Armenian Nursing Home in Los Angeles, leaving him, his father, and his aunt without their beloved residence. Seda is the key to Orhan’s true inheritance and he travels across the ocean, his grandfather’s sketch book in hand, to have this stranger sign papers so he can keep his childhood home in the family as well as discover the mysteries of his Dede’s past.

Bopping back and forth between present and past, the reader is exposed to the genocide perpetuated against the Armenians living in Turkey during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, when the Turks sided with Germany in World War I. The Armenian Death March, where able bodied men were murdered or imprisoned and women, children, and the elderly were forced to leave their homes and walk to the Syrian dessert, is prescient to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. Similar to the attitudes towards those of the Jewish faith, the Turkish people resented the affluence of their Armenian neighbors – angry at the fees they charged when lending money, angry that they were Christian instead of Muslim, angry that the women were seen in public without covering their bodies (wearing a bonnet was not enough), angry that their success make them feel somehow lesser. So when the Turkish Army took action, the populace remained mum, even though it was their former friends who were taken away and shot as traitors. They blamed it on the war where casualties are to be expected, but there is a difference between war and genocide, a fact that needs to be acknowledged when a population of 1.7 million is reduced to 300,000.

Based on the memories of the author’s grandmother, Orhan’s Inheritance gives us a glimpse into the mind set of those who live in Turkey, a modernized Middle Eastern country with one foot still in the past.

A thank you to Algonquin Books and Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. 4 stars.

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The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck is another World War II story, but this one comes from a different angle, exploring the mayhem in Germany after the Allies storm Berlin and the Fuhrer is dead. In the small villages throughout Germany, the common people supported Hitler and are secretly angry at the Americans who have taken over. Necessities are scarce, not only food and clothing, but fuel needed for the coming winter months. They refuse to believe the atrocities described on the radio and the films depicting emaciated prisoners being released from the concentration camps are in their minds a hoax (or much worse, really German prisoners who have been mistreated by the true enemy). Although deep down they know the truth, they refuse to take any blame or even acknowledge a crime against humanity has been committed by their beloved country. In this case, pretended ignorance is bliss. Yet, even accepting guilt won’t change the past. Despicable behaviors were too often forced upon them in order to survive. In a way, they too were victims.

Yet not all Germans were culpable. Many were appalled by the Hitler regime and a small group, the German Resisters, set out to destroy the Fuhrer before he could do further damage. Unfortunately they failed in their attempt and were hanged for their efforts. Left behind were their wives and children and this is where our story takes us, to an old-fashioned Bavarian castle without modern amenities where three women and their young ones band together to survive the post war period.

Marianne von Lingenfels, married to Professor Albrecht, an aristocratic descendent of famed German Generals, played an active role in dissent, but, being a woman, is left behind to pick up the pieces when her husband and his compatriots are sentenced to death. Her childhood companion Conrad (Connie) Flederman has extracted a promise from her to look after his wife and son, and so she diligently seeks out Benita and their sensitive child Martin, and also tracks down fellow widow Ania Grabanek and her two reticent sons, Anselm and Wolfgang, rescuing them all from the deplorable conditions common in the aftermath of war. Together, along with Marianne’s own three children, Fritz, Elizabeth, and Katherine, they live in the Von Lingenfels’ ancestral Castle, working as a team to raise their newly formed family, surviving as best they can during the reconstruction of Germany.

The tale meanders back and forth between 1938, 1945, 1950, and 1991, presenting varying points of view as each of the characters explores their particular circumstances during those time periods revealing hidden truths through their introspections. While the modern day ending should be one of hope for those who survived such trauma, I found it eerily unnerving, even depressing, as the “family” has difficulty moving forward and discovering happiness. Even success is tinged with a sense of sorrow, as if the yolk of war crimes is a millstone which can never be set down.

This is a novel with a lot to say giving the reader a somewhat different perspective of the war, requiring some reassessing of the truths we learned about Hitler’s Third Reich. Jessica Shattuck’s mother was born in Germany in 1943 and after her death, the author spent time with her Grandmother trying to find out more about her mother’s childhood. This plus all the other research is evident and I can see why it took seven plus years to complete. While her personal family history inspired this book, it is a work of fiction and not strictly biographical, although the viewpoints of her grandmother, an unabashed Nazi, are definitely reflected in the tone of the novel. If you find yourself drawing some parallels between this story and the current political climate in the United States, then consider that a bonus. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

A Death In Vienna by Daniel Silva

The option for Daniel Silvia’s book series featuring Gabriel Allon has recently been picked up by MGM. These espionage novels should easily translate into an exciting visualization highlighting Silva’s fast acting plots. Unfortunately, as a novel there is just a little something missing which detracts from the whole. Yes, A Death in Vienna, the third of a collection of books involving the retired multilingual Mossad Agent and his search for the truth about the Holocaust, is a quick read on a subject which remains front and center seven plus decades after this catastrophic historical event (the book was published in 2005). However, there were so many names to distinguish plus continual movement from one locale to another, that I was confused on more than one occasion. Despite a story which spanned over four hundred pages, there seemed to be a few gaps, especially in regards to the development of the numerous characters involved in this Nazi intrigue. The book reminded me of a television series which focuses on each week’s plot with a little bit about the main players at the beginning and the end of each episode so the viewer can develop a loyalty towards the show. Unfortunately, Silva’s approach makes it difficult to relate to the various personas, especially the enigmatic protagonist Gabriel.

When an old friend is involved in a bombing in Vienna, Gabriel Allon must leave his Venice home where he works as an art restorer, and travel to Italy to discover the identity of the perpetrators behind this seemingly random event. The fact the incident occurs at the Wartime Crimes and Inquiry Office is a major clue, but the question remains: What details from Nazi Germany have been uncovered and who exactly is feeling threatened? Unfortunately, Allon is on Vienna’s “you’re not welcome here” list due to a conflict from a previous book, and he is none too gently escorted out of the country, but not before he unearths some information about a possible Nazi survivor. Allons treacherous exploration to uncover the facts in this case leads him to locales such as the Vatican, Argentina, the United States, Israel, Germany, and Czechoslovakia where distinguishing friend from foe is a matter of life or death. Then once the truth is ascertained and verified, justice must be served.

My favorite parts of the novel is the backstory involving Allon’s wife and son who were caught in a car bombing, his mother who survived life in a Nazi Concentration Camp and the Death March from Birkenau, and a partner who has his back in more ways than one. I also appreciated learning some new information about the Holocaust (or Shoah) including the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church, Austria, and even the United States who assisted “helpful” Nazis in avoiding prosecution for war crimes. The existence of an archive in Israel containing the narratives of the victims who survived the Concentration Camps as well as the story of Aktion 1005 – a group of German soldiers who did their best to destroy evidence of the mass murders committed in the name of the Final Solution, are well researched details which provide a realistic basis for this book. Historical novels such as these are important vehicles to remind readers that anti semitism still exists and nationalists are biding their time until their cause can rise again. I still hear rumors that Hitler escaped to Argentina and a Fourth Reich is just waiting to happen.

While authors such as Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum do a better job in this genre, Silva is a credible author with a strong following. Three and a half stars.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

The devastation of war leaves behind many victims consigned to clean up the mess that was once their life. Homeless, both literally and figuratively, they huddle together as refugees in their new countries trying to come to terms with an altered sense of self, brushing aside those clinging memories which must be left in the past if they are to survive in the future.

The title The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien refers to the 11,541 red chairs placed in the center of the capital of Bosnia in 2012, representing each person who died during the 1992-1995 Siege of Sarajevo, small chairs (643) indicating the life of a child. Such a visualization can’t help but move the reader before a single page is even turned. O’Brien’s intent is to haunt us as the story unfolds.

A charismatic stranger, Dr Vladimir Dragan, enters a small town in Ireland, intriguing the locals as he worms his way into the community, setting up shop as an alternative healer. Using his knowledgable background, he mesmerizes the townspeople, gaining their trust, even taking their children out to the countryside to teach them about the natural habitat. Vlad’s expertise in literature and poetry endears him to the members of the book club, gaining him further acceptance. One lonely woman, Fidelma, in a frigid marriage to an older man, desperately wants a child and convinces Vlad to oblige her desires. He reluctantly agrees and during their brief affair he also introduces her to the romance she craves. Verifying her condition, she is left wondering how to explain her predicament to her husband when her lover, afraid of discovery, disappears. Several weeks pass and he reappears, rumpled and mangy, for a previously arranged poetry outing. On the bus filled with townspeople, he is arrested as a master war criminal to the horror of the entire village, but especially to the pregnant Fidelma. Vlad has been on the run for almost twenty years avoiding an arrest for the atrocities he ordered during the Bosnian War, especially during the Siege of Sarajevo. Responsible for the death of thousands in an attempt at ethnic cleansing to remove all the Muslims in Yugoslavia, this man is hated the world over.

Realizing she is carrying this monster’s child, Fidelma wonders how to rid herself of this affliction, but matters are taken out of her hands when she is kidnapped and brutalized for revenge by Vlad’s bodyguards who are livid that they couldn’t claim the huge reward for their former boss’s capture. Just barely escaping death, Fidelma is rejected by her husband and seeks refuge from the nuns at the nearby convent who help her escape to London where she becomes one of the homeless and disenfranchised.

Now a refugee from her own homeland where she no longer feels welcome she must find a new life which includes meeting and hearing the stories of others who also have heartbreaking tales to confess, a string of seemingly unrelated anecdotes sharing a common bond of crimes against humanity. Fidelma meanders through various jobs drifting from one location to another, finally seeing closure by going to The Hague to attend Vlad’s trial and confront her former lover who is unable to admit any responsibility for his actions. Hearing his blame game, she must accept her own guilt in this matter so she can move forward. In a way, she is another war victim of this man. Eventually Fidelma finds some sort of peace with the help of her “new kin”.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this story which is full of literary references and an underlying message. There are many parallels with the author’s life. Edna O’Brien was a poet from a young age who felt a deep connection to literature and ran off with a writer to spite her parents and escape their disapproval, just as Fidelma left her parents to find a better life with an older, wealthier husband. O’Brien, who focuses on the truth, refusing to sugar coat her findings, has habitually found her books banned in Ireland due to the power and control of a church which prefers to deny the foibles of the average man prone to sin. O’Brien believes literature provides a means of escape and uses literary illusions as a parallel to Fidelma’s hardships, with references to classics such as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, The Heart of Darkness by William Conrad, The Aeneid by Virgil, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. Including subtle underlying caveats, such as the name Fidelmas which means faithfulness and Vud (Vlad’s nickname) which means wolf, O’Brien’s true genius is in her vignettes revealing that each person has a tale to tell, no matter how reluctant the storyteller.

Carefully researched to bring an authenticity to her writing, O’Brien even attended the trial at The Hague of Radovan Karadzic, the true villain behind the ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War who received a sentence of forty years about a year ago.

This seemingly straightforward book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. While I would have preferred a bit more expository transitions between events, The Little Red Chairs is a poignant narrative reminding us of the evil which still exists in our world manifested, but all too often ignored, in the mantra “Never Forget”.

Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.