Brazilian writer Michel Laub and British writer Thomas Harding (pictured above, photo by Hector Leris) have each been named winners of the 2015 JQ-Wingate Literary Prize; Laub in the fiction category, for Diary of the Fall, and Harding in the non-fiction category, for Hanns and Rudolf. It’s the first time in years that the award has been split into these 2 categories, recognising the phenomenal number of memoirs that the judges received this year.
At a ceremony at London’s JW3, Laub and Harding beat competitors from 4 continents to share the £4,000 prize, the only one in the UK to recognise writing that explores Jewish themes.
One of four judges, Devorah Baum, said the way Laub explored the concept of Auschwitz in Diary of the Fall was “extraordinary… knowledge is played with in this book, and the way in which Auschwitz has become a literary conceit, a literary cliché. It is about the globalisation of the Holocaust and that history.”
Fellow judge, George Szirtes, said of Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf that “the book is about actions: actions born out of circumstance. It is not a literary book where style becomes meaning; it is a thriller.”
Harding, on accepting his award, said “Over the course of the 6 years of writing Hanns and Rudolf there were many moments in which I believed that the book would never be published. To be recognised by the judges of the Wingate Prize is that much more extraordinary. It is humbling.” Harding’s tale is a story of 2 opposing but parallel lives: his great uncle Hanns, a German Jewish Nazi hunter, and Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz.
Vying for the prestigious prize were bestselling Israeli author Zeruya Shalev and satirist Gary Shteyngart. Completing the nominees were Antony Polonsky’s three-volume study on co-existence, titled Jews in Poland and Russia, Hannah Krall’s best-selling Auschwitz memoir Chasing the King of Hearts, and Dror Burstein’s Netanya, about a cosmological meditation on an Israeli beach.
Extract of Diary of the Fall, by Michael Laub, translated from Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa
I often dreamed about the moment of the fall, a silence that lasted a second, possibly two, a room full of sixty people and no one making a sound, as if everyone were waiting for my classmate to cry out, or even just grunt, but he lay on the ground with his eyes closed until someone told everyone else to move away because he might be injured, a scene that stayed with me until he came back to school and crept along the corridors, wearing his orthopaedic corset underneath his uniform in the cold, the heat, the sun and the rain.
If, at the time, someone had asked me what affected me most deeply, seeing what happened to my classmate or the fact that my grandfather had been imprisoned in Auschwitz, and by ‘affect’ I mean to experience something intensely as palpable and ever present, a memory that doesn’t even need to be evoked to appear, I would have had no hesitation in giving my answer.
Extract of Hanns and Rudolf, by Thomas Harding
ALEXANDER. Howard Harvey, lovingly known as Hanns, passed away quickly and peacefully on Friday, 23rd December. Cremation on Thursday, 28th December, 2.30 p.m. at Hoop Lane, Golders Green Crematorium, West Chapel. No flowers please. Donations, if desired, to North London Hospice.
Daily Telegraph, 28 December 2006
Hanns Alexander’s funeral was held on a cold and rainy afternoon three days after Christmas. Considering the weather, and the timing, the turnout was impressive. More than three hundred people packed into the chapel. The congregation arrived early, and in full force, grabbing all the seats. Fifteen people from Hanns’ old bank, Warburg’s, were in attendance, including the former and current CEO. His close friends were there, as was the extended family. Hanns’ wife of sixty years, Ann, sat in the front row, along with the couple’s two daughters, Jackie and Annette.
The synagogue’s cantor recited Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. He then paused. Looking down upon Ann and her two daughters, he delivered a short sermon, saying how sorry he was for their loss and how Hanns would be missed by the entire community. When he had finished, two of Hanns’ nephews stood to give a joint eulogy.
Much was familiar: Hanns growing up in Berlin. The Alexanders fleeing the Nazis and moving to England. Hanns fighting with the British Army. His career as a low-level banker. His commitment to the family and his half-century of schlepping for the synagogue.
But there was one detail that caught nearly everyone off guard: that at the war’s end Hanns had tracked down the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss.
This piqued my interest. For Hanns Alexander was my grandmother’s brother, my great-uncle. Growing up we had been cautioned not to ask questions about the war. Now I learned that Hanns may have been a Nazi hunter.
The idea that this nice but unremarkable man had been a Second World War hero seemed unlikely. Presumably, this was just another of Hanns’ tales. For he was a bit of a rogue and a prankster, much respected for sure, but also a man who liked to play tricks on his elders and tell dirty jokes to us youngsters, and who, if truth be told, was prone to exaggeration. After all, if he had really been a Nazi hunter, wouldn’t it have been mentioned in his obituary?
I decided to find out if it was true.
The Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize is an annual literary prize inaugurated in 1977, named after the prize’s founder Harold Hyam Wingate. It is the only UK award to recognise writing by Jewish and non-Jewish writers that explores themes of Jewish concern in any of its possible forms. The winner receives £4,000.