A CAUTIONARY TALE

Today I heard a story on CBC radio about a Canadian shocked to find Nazi war memorabilia for sale in a shop in this country.
It reminded me of an incident at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1981. That year at Macmillan we had just published a fine non-fiction book by John Melady about German P.O.W.s in Canada in the Second World War. The title of this well-researched book was ESCAPE FROM CANADA.
I have many German friends, and once spent a high-school month in Hamburg, so decided that in my role as Publisher I should become a salesman, selling the German Rights to this book.
To do the job properly, I decided to get out of the usual English-language Frankfurt Hall (crowded with Canadian, British, American, and the other Publishers from around the world who liked to deal with major books translated from English). Instead, worriedly trying to recall my rusty German, I stepped into the very large Hall for German publishers.
I roamed around, looking for the sort of publisher who specialized in military books, like John Melady’s. In about the 40th Aisle, I found one. and when I stumbled into my introduction, the German Publisher manning the busy booth swept me into a conversation in fluent English,. He courteously agreed to consider our book, and gave me his card.
“But”, he exclaimed, with great enthusiasm, “we have a book for you! And it is being translated into English already!”
He produced a large hardcover book that was full of text and illustrations, and handed it to me.
Then he was called away to look after another urgent matter, leaving me gaping at the book in my hands. It was called the German equivalent of “The S.S.– A Celebration”
I leafed through it, shuddering, to make sure that I was not missing a shrewd satire. But no, it was an admiring look at the SS forces who had played a decisive role in the war. Instead of “decisive”, some citizens in a dozen European countries that had endured Nazi Occupation would use words like “ruthless” and “shameful”. Or given the cheerful approach of the German publisher, perhaps the correct word is “shameless”.
I remember vividly one photo from The Russian Front. A visibly terrified old woman was holding a large pitcher of milk, preparing to pour it out for five or six laughing young blond members of the Master Race; as they lined up they still had their rifles on their shoulders and broad smiles on their faces. The caption — and the gorge rises as I recall it — was, in German, “Once a mother…’
My command of the language was not up to the situation. Nor was my command of my own temper: this man really thought that I would want to publish this book, and that my fellow-Canadians would want to buy it.
My protest was mute. Instead of politely returning the loathsome book, I simply dropped it, BANG, on the floor in the middle of the booth. Then I walked away.

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8 comments on “A CAUTIONARY TALE

  1. Louise Ells says:

    Dear Mr. Gibson,

    Thank you so much for writing and posting this – and thank you for doing so today. If only one person who was not going to bother voting in Ontario votes after reading your words, or if one person who was going to vote for one person changes his or her mind and votes for another . . .

    Thank you so much.

    All best wishes,

    Louise Ells

    p.s. I was fortunate enough to meet you at the Alice Munro conference held in Ottawa some years ago (2014? maybe?) although I was too star-struck to say much more than hello. I am pleased to announce that my short story collection, Notes Towards Recovery, is forthcoming from Latitude 46 Publishing in April 2019. These are the stories I wrote whilst exploring Munro’s narrative strategies in Dear Life for my doctoral dissertation, and I am quite sure they are much the stronger for that influence – which means, of course, that they are the stronger because of all your work as well. So another thank you, too, for this.

    ________________________________

    • Douglas Gibson says:

      Dear Louise,
      Thank you for this. Today is indeed an important day in our lives, and I hope that my (tiny) influence might be for the good.
      I’m delighted to hear that Alice not only inspired your PH.D., but also next spring’s book of short stories. I wish you great success with it.
      Doug

  2. Martin Dowding says:

    Doug,

    A dreadful situation, but you should try living in Waterloo where many Germans (and others) celebrate Helmuth Oberlander, an SS Death Squad “interpreter.” He has more than once been stripped of his Canadian citizenship for lying about his role in WWII when he entered Canada in the 1950s. But it never seems to stick. Nazi material has until recently been sold in a local “antiques” market. And I know stories of ex-Nazis living among us. Most are dead now. But the stories are revolting and involve Hitler’s birthday “parties” at German clubs in town and other “proud” moments. They’re diminishing as the old Nazis die off.

    Your story hit a nerve as I contemplate my vote today.

    Regards to Jane.

    Martin Dowding, PhD Wilfrid Laurier University Waterloo, Ontario ________________________________

    • Douglas Gibson says:

      Always good to hear from you, Martin, although these Waterloo stories are discouraging. From the 1914 days when Berlin was becoming Kitchener, John English told me that the Kaiser’s statue was torn down and thrown in the Lake. Everyone knows that part of the story.
      John was able to add his secret information that some gung-ho local military types, fearful that the Kaiser might be restored at some point in the future, dredged up the metal statue. Then they cut off the head, melted it down, and ………..created very unusual napkin rings from them! Doug

  3. Jane Berges says:

    3 Bags Full of hisself, Gibson ….

  4. Dorothy Colby says:

    Hi Doug, I found this interesting. I understand why you dropped the book. I was a small girl but I clearly remember WW II. I lived in Battle Creek, Michigan and there was an army induction camp, Fort Custer, and an army hospital for amputees, Percy Jones. The young men who fought in the war were real people. Mother rented two rooms to wives who came to Battle Creek to work and to families who came to visit the wounded men. One Christmas dinner we had man who lost a leg and an arm and his other leg and arm were in casts and his girl friend for dinner. My dad carries the man in the house from the car and his girl friend fed him. We became acquainted with them because my grandmother had written to my dad that a friend of a friend’s son was a patient at Percy Jones. I also had a cousin who is 18 who was taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines who never came home. My aunt and uncle were so excited when Corregidor was evacuated. Lee was never found. The Japanese has sealed themselves and their prisoners in the caves before the U. S. reached them I read Unbroken, the story of a Japanese prisoner of war and cried for Lee and my Uncle Elmer and Aunt Mal. Never to know what happened to their son. My uncle was a lumberman in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin and my aunt was the cook. They raised five children in lumber camps and were happy Lee would have a career. Was is horror. Dorothy

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