In honour of the three women in the photograph

LettersofStone

When you approach this book, you might think “Holocaust biography” and sigh with a sigh replete with a sense of been there, done that; what more could be said about the European Holocaust? But you’d be completely wrong. Steven Robins’s Letters of Stone is a beautifully constructed, imminently thoughtful contemplation of history, persecution and lost souls. Treading gently on well worn histories and narratives, this is an important publication, written by an immensely astute anthropologist, but also a deeply real human being. Not only is it positioned for scholars of the Holocaust, but it also takes on a vast litany of historical and persecution realities and offers a fresh perspective on the understanding of the rents that these multiple acts of genocide through Europe inflicted on individuals and on society.

Beginning with a haunting period photograph of three mysterious women that occupied a space on Robins’s parents’ sideboard when he was a young boy, the text offers an energised and well-written insight into Robins’s foray into the identity and lives of these three women, his grandmother and two aunts. But it’s not just a familial account: citing the thinking of Roland Barthes in his approach, Robins carves out a very rich understanding and representation of what a photograph means to us as human beings, and the traces and echoes of memories and life that this image on light sensitive paper evokes.

Further to that, Robins uses this photograph as a cipher not only to discover the very sad trajectory of the lives of his family members, who his father never spoke about, but he also uses it as a key, with which he accesses family letters as well as a reflection on the German persecution of the Herero community, of the faux science of eugenics, and a very intimately woven reflection on Jewish – or more broadly, xenophobic – persecution in general. Thus, the text is able to remain deeply intimate and personal, but also universal in its reach.

The book is emotionally revealing as it cuts close to the bone, considering Robins’s anthropological education and interests and how so much intersects with his being in South Africa, a country which closed its doors to European refugees, and also one that rendered apartheid a discriminatory tool. Touching on everything from the stolpersteine (the stumbling stones, established as public testament to the Jews removed from their homes) in the streets of Berlin to the journey he undertook to discover the story his father consigned to silence, this is a truly beautiful and tragic read, which is difficult to put down, not only because the prose is thoughtful and well formed, but also because the story is so heart wrenching and human.

Part of the problem with Holocaust testament is the enormity of the phenomenon. Some six million Jews were murdered during this period – and it’s a number impossible to understand. Rather than attempting to cast statistics and well-trodden facts at his reader, Robins broaches the history from within, and the three mesmerising women from his family sideboard become the tragic heroines which lend this book its inimitable texture and wisdom.

  • Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa by Steven Robins is published by Penguin Books, Cape Town (2016).
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