Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2018

Beyond Survival, by Kenneth Arkwright #BookReview

I’ve always been a bit choosey about which memoirs I read, but I’m interested in those which have some form of wisdom to impart.  And while old age isn’t always a guarantee of wisdom, a memoir written by someone who’s had time to reflect on a tumultuous lifetime is usually worthwhile reading.

Beyond Survival is by a man now in his nineties, who has had many years to reflect on his experiences.  My father who died last year, would have been about the same age, and although his life experiences were very different, I cherish his wisdom, which was also about making the best of hardships so that you can still have a satisfying life despite whatever fate may do.  The wisdom of this approach to life is something that we witness every day in an immigrant society like Australia, where many people have come for refuge after enduring unimaginable suffering and horror.  We see these brave souls rebuild their lives to inspire us with their refusal to let the horrific past destroy their future.  Each of their stories is unique, and these are the memoirs that I prefer to read.

Kenneth Arkwright’s memoir is truly remarkable for its lack of bitterness.  His story of survival as a Jew in Nazi Germany is notable for his capacity to comment on his fortune in surviving, on the goodness of people when he encountered it, and on his own determination to transcend the shocking experiences of his childhood and adolescence.

It is surprising to read that anything of value could come from surviving concentration camps and slave labour, but Arkwright’s Opa Isidor Aufrichtig often quoted Goethe to the boy:

“To have character means to have the ability to discover good in everything and in every human being”.

Arkwright took this maxim to heart, despite his dreadful experiences.  He writes in his chapter ‘The Camps’:

In this camp, my bedfellows were a rather mixed lot.  A surgeon, an engineer specialising in the construction of catchment retaining walls, an opera singer, a butcher and there was I, not even a schoolboy, as school had been prohibited for me.  And yet, we had a lot in common.  We all owned nothing, except our working clothes and a shovel.  We shared the fact that our expert knowledge or the lack thereof and our status in life had become totally irrelevant. All that mattered was that we could dig anti-tank trenches all day long.  But in one way we differed.  Most of us supported one another, but there were a very few who were ready to steal the last piece of bread from their fellow inmates to increase their own chance of survival.  In this way camp life highlighted the difference between those who had remained a human being and those who had deteriorated into merely being a human animal. This experience has remained deeply ingrained in my psyche to this very day.  Whenever I meet people, I ask myself the question: “If all they own, know and stand for would be taken away from them, would they then be reduced to a human being or a human animal?”  The Holocaust teaches that we need to develop this elusive quality which determines good or evil in our actions and thereby gives hope to future generations. (p.110)

In the same chapter he writes about escaping, in the chaos of the collapsing Third Reich, to relations in Halberstadt who were living in a privileged mixed marriage. (There were some exemptions from deportation for some Jews in mixed marriages if that marriage had occurred before the Nuremburg laws prohibited it).  Realising that both he and they knew that his presence endangered their lives and that he could not expect to be sheltered in their home for any length of time, he left the next day, because he felt that he had no right to inflict [his] fate upon them. 

We parted with mixed feelings of affection, fear and disappointment, and on my part, gratitude for the few hours of respite from my life as a fugitive.  (p.117)

It is hard to imagine this sixteen -year-old boy sent on his way by members of his family, into a Nazi-held city being bombed by the allies… but the lesson of this book is that if he does not judge or blame, neither should we.

After the war, when he is back in Erfurt (in the Soviet Zone, which became the Soviet  GDR) with his parents, who – miraculously – also survived, he has to make decisions about how to rebuild his life.

At the time, I was sixteen-and-a-half years old; my schooling had stopped when I was thirteen.  I needed to pass my normal German Abitur (final high school examination) for entrance into university studies, including the “Latinum” and “Graecum” (high standard in Latin and Greek) that was required for the study of medicine.  I had eighteen months to achieve that objective to pass the Abitur at the appropriate age.  The time in labour and concentration camps had taught me how to manage with only five hours sleep per night and how to dispense with the luxury of weekends and holiday breaks.  The only diversion from my studies were violin lessons at the Thuringian State Conservatorium and acting as relief cantor for synagogue services.  (p.156)

Passing this Abitur was, he says, one of the biggest battles in life but he succeeded, and began medical studies at university, only to have to leave with his degree unfinished because of the emerging Cold War.  His family had left it too late to leave Germany, and he was not going to make the same mistake twice as the Wall went up.  Penniless, he went to Paris and waited for his chance to come.  And it did, and he made it here to Australia and since his medical studies were not accepted, made a new life as an accountant.

The memoir is illustrated with B&W photographs throughout, but the one that readers will be pleased to see is the one with his Australian family: his wife Judith, and sons Peter and Kevin.  It’s a  testament to hope.

Author: Ken Arkwright, OA
Title: Beyond Survival
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2018, 194pp
ISBN: 9781925272949
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Fishpond Beyond Survival: A Holocaust memoir or direct from Hybrid $27.50


Responses

  1. Thank you, Lisa, for getting this review out so quickly. Ken and Judith are in Melbourne this week for the launch, as you know, and he’ll be thrilled to read this.

    Louis and I have driven three times to Bayswater and back today to look for more of our stock. We filled the car each time, as today was the last chance, but we still haven’t found everything. Very disheartening to see so many books that will get pulped. Regards Anna

    Anna Rosner Blay Managing Editor HYBRID PUBLISHERS PO Box 52 Ormond VIC 3204 Australia

    Tel: (03) 9504 3462 See our website at: https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au https://www.facebook.com/HybridPublishers/

    >

    • Oh Anna, I wish I’d known, I could have come and helped today!

  2. How sad and shocking to realise that someone named Kenneth Arkwright is actually Jewish and German, and that he – like so many others – had to Anglicise both his names in order to be accepted into Australian society. I wonder what his original name was.

    • Yes, I think there must be a story behind the anglicisation of his name, but he doesn’t say anything about it in the book. However, his certificate from school, which is reproduced in the book shows that his name was Klaus Aufrichtig.
      It’s possible of course that he chose to shed an identity which pained him rather than to gain acceptance here, and he may just have become fed up with always having to spell it, an irritation we see happening all the time now that parents choose to spell their children’s names in … um… non-standard ways such as those so effectively mocked in Kath and Kim. I taught a boy once with the name Jhonathon – a spelling which I suspected was unintentionally different and which irritated the child intensely.
      But in general I think we are much better about naming now. I’ve taught hundreds of kids from all over the world and with very few exceptions, they’ve got the names they arrive with.

  3. I was only looking at the ad for this book yesterday on line. I also love the stories that older immigrants have brought into Australia. This sounds like such an uplifting story. People often amaze me, especially the stories of immigrants. 🤠🐧

    • Yes, it’s astonishing what some people go through and yet remain positive about life.

  4. This quote:
    ‘Whenever I meet people, I ask myself the question: “If all they own, know and stand for would be taken away from them, would they then be reduced to a human being or a human animal?”’
    So profound. Thanks Lisa.

    • Yes, it’s unforgettable.
      I really do recommend this book for its insights…

  5. IT LOOKS VERY INTERESTING LISA, CHINA


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