The Hand That Signed the Paper – Helen Demidenko

I picked up this book second hand knowing the controversy behind it, knowing Helen Demidenko is really Helen Darville and knowing she had tried to pass this book off as family history rather than a fictionalised account of interviews with Ukrainian witnesses. I’ll take the description from the back of the book:

The Hand that Signed the Paper tells the story of Vitaly, a Ukrainian peasant, who endures the destruction of his village and family by Stalin’s communism. He welcomes the Nazi invasion in 1941 and willingly enlists in the SS Death Squads to take a horrifying revenge against those he perceives to be his persecutors.

The story is horrific and I feel partly tries to absolve certain people from their actions. I’m not here to comment on whether this is good or bad as I’m not unbiased, I am very fortunate as almost all of my family were living in Melbourne since before WWII but this doesn’t make me unbiased. I’m going to try and comment on the book and the writing.

Some of the writing is very good, I often look at a phrase or a paragraph and note how nicely it is written. I did find there was a lot left out, a lot that I was interested in or felt would have added to the story but was just omitted. I agree it’s a big story and challenging to get it all into only 157 pages. I found it challenging to recall which person was speaking as they all seemed to have the same way of speaking and there wasn’t much difference between when one finished and another started. The only time it was clear cut was when they changed hemispheres and all of a sudden the niece/daughter in Australia was speaking, it was easier to note the difference as there were references to the Australian landscape.

There was a lot missing and a lot I didn’t find believable. Back in June I reviewed a memoir written by a Lithuanian now living in Melbourne and I found myself comparing the two books. I also found myself comparing it with the books written by Arnold Zable, Café Scheherazade – Arnold Zable and Jewels and Ashes. I did try to be careful with my comparisons, Liubinas is not a professional writer, Darville/Demidenko is a journalist and Zable is an accomplished author who has run many writing workshops. Out of the three Zable was obviously the best crafted, Liubinas was very touching and as it was an honest memoir was easily believable, Darville, while well written just didn’t have that air of honesty.

One of the problems the first chapter brings to light is the way war criminals can move countries and settle into a new life. Melbourne is home to a great many Holocaust survivors, I believe there are more here than anywhere else, and among those survivors there must be some whose war record is dubious. One of the issues this book shows us is what to do with these war criminals. They are now old men and women, in so many regular crimes in Australia there is a statute of limitations where if it’s been too long since the crime was committed then the person can’t be prosecuted, has it been too long since the Holocaust and should those old men and women not be prosecuted? I don’t have the answer to that and I’m not going to express an opinion, just stating it’s brought to light by this book. Again, I’m biased so I’m only trying to comment on the book. It’s an interesting discussion and one that should be discussed on a different type of blog by someone else.

Could I even recommend it? That seriously depends on the reader. If you identify with the Jews in the Holocaust then I suggest you don’t as you’ll be really upset as it details atrocities and how people tried very hard to ignore them while profiting from them. If you are able to stay unbiased and treat it as historical fiction you’ll probably get a lot out of it. I won’t say you’ll enjoy it as enjoyment is not something you get from books like this.

My dilemma now is what to do with the book. I don’t want to keep it on my shelf, it’s been hard enough having it here so long. I don’t fancy selling it as it makes me uncomfortable. Should I just return it to the op shop? Maybe that’s what I’ll do.