Talking Until Nightfall

‘I have confidence in life, which I love. I have confidence in my own body, far more intelligent than us doctors, and Papa still keeps his courage up, while loving all manner of things, yet coveting none.’

My grandfather, Isaac Matarasso, in one of his last letters to his son, in 1957

Today is the 75th anniversary of the capitulation of Germany at the end of the Second World War. My father and my grandparents were in Salonica (Thessaloniki) in Northern Greece, a city that had been starved and bombed during three and a half years of occupation. Between February and July 1943, about 50,000 of its Jewish residents had been shut up in ghettos, before being transported by train to Auschwitz, where almost all of them were murdered. Members of my family were imprisoned, tortured and killed, but the majority, including my father, survived in hiding or in the Greek Resistance. For them, the war ended in late 1944, when German forces withdrew from Salonica. VE Day, a few months later, will have been a moment of joy and relief, but in the midst of destitution, hunger and homelessness for most of the survivors. Isaac Matarasso, my grandfather, was a doctor, and he spent these months organising medical services for the remnants of the Jewish community and the few camp inmates who made their way home. Civil war was a present danger and would soon follow.

The Matarasso family, Salonica 1928. (Isaac sits on the far left, with my father on his knee; my grandmother stands on the right; Aaron, my great-grandfather sits in the centre.).

Anniversaries are cultural constructs, but they help us to understand the past, our place in time, and the consequences of our actions. The public events seek to bring a community together, reinforcing a shared narrative and sense of unity. Personal anniversaries connect us with those we love, and especially with those we have lost and whom we cherish in memory. This one was always going to be important because it is the last moment when we can collectively remember the immense, incalculable suffering of the Second World War and the sacrifice of those who fought to stop a fascist and racist death cult from gaining lasting ascendancy in Europe. The number of those who lived through those events diminishes with each passing day. Before too long, there will be none, and memory will become history. My mother is the last person living who knew my grandfather well, and she is ninety one.

This anniversary is made more poignant by the events we are living through. Today, in my French village, the Maire and his deputies will hold a ceremony at the war memorial, as their predecessors have done every 8th May for 75 years, but this time they will do so alone. No one is permitted to attend, so we will remember separately, in our homes. The use of wartime rhetoric to characterise the Covid-19 pandemic has been misplaced at best but in one respect the parallel holds true. Not since the end of the Second World War have entire societies been mobilised to meet a common threat. The scale of destruction is still, thankfully, of a completely different order, but the recognition of shared endeavour is real, I think, and with it will come a similar expectation of renewal to that which followed the Second World War. Whether it can become something more than a vague yearning for change remains to be seen. For now, I am hopeful.

It is in this context that my mother and I have been preparing a book that gathers our family’s witnessing of the destruction of the Jewish community of Salonica during the war. It includes my grandfather’s account of what happened, originally published in 1948, with some more personal portraits of friends who had been killed at Auschwitz. My mother, who translated all these from the original French, has written a biographical introduction. The book also includes extracts from my father’s writing on his experiences, and a final reflection by me on living with this legacy. It will be published by Bloomsbury in July, under the title, taken from one of my grandfather’s texts, Talking Until Nightfall.

Today, I honour the memory of my family and of all who suffered in the Second World War, with my grandfather’s words, written in 1948:

One day new ‘supermen’ may single out other races as ‘inferior’ and decree their eradication.

We must beware.

Lightning strikes at random.

Disasters give no warning.

Be on your guard.

We all have a part to play in preventing further cataclysms from engulfing mankind. Each one of us has a body that can scream with pain, whatever race or country we belong to.

Dr Isaac Matarasso …And Yet Not All Died… (Athens, 1948)