The Hollow Bones review: casting new light on history’s horrors

FICTION
The Hollow Bones
Leah Kaminsky
Vintage, $32.99

Leah Kaminsky’s novel is based on one of the strangest events of the Nazi regime.Credit:Sahlan Hayes

I have, like many Jewish people, a dreadful fascination with the Holocaust and its cruelties because, I suppose, they were inflicted on people just like me, for no more rhyme or reason than that they were just like me. But even I, who had a father who was a refugee from Germany in the late '30s, have recently been suffering some Holocaust fatigue. So Leah Kaminsky's excellently researched novel, based on a true story and casting a new light on the full-blown madness of the Germans of that era, came as a jolt.

Illustrating (and so reiterating and reinforcing) the collective psychosis, it's the outlandish story of Ernst Schafer, a "zoologist gone wrong", as Kaminsky has described him. Seen from Schafer and his wife's removed Aryan perspectives, the cruelties to Jews, noticed in passing, almost incidental, become even more cruel. The racial cruelties, as cruelties often do, go hand-in-hand with those perpetrated on animals and Kaminsky's contemporary sensibility around sustainability also hauls the past painfully into the present.

The Hollow Bones by Leah Kaminsky.

At the behest of Heinrich Himmler, Ernst is sent to Tibet as Untersturmfuhrer (the book is full of words that send a chill down the spine), leader of a group of SS scientists in search of the origins of the Aryan race, the herrenvolk, looking also for more lebensraum. Schafer is tasked with bringing back evidence to prove that "our pure German blood comes from an ancient warrior super-race born in the foothills of the Tibetan Himalayas" and Himmler says the imperative is "to reclaim the territory that has been ours from time immemorial". Having spent time in Tibet, thrilled by hunting since childhood and obsessed with preserving rare Tibetan birds as specimens, Schafer is the perfect man for the job.

The Nazis and mad old Himmler (a short, balding man who believed he was the reincarnation of a 10th-century Saxon king) apparently believed in World Ice theory or Welteislehre – that ice crystals are the true building blocks of the universe, superseding Einstein's Jewish atom and "Jewish pseudoscience". Schafer and his team are to head into "the bowels of the earth where Fire and Ice went to war and the ancestors of the German Volk emerged triumphant as Sonnenmenschen. Perfect beings, as radiant as the sun."

For context: they set out from a vividly detailed Berlin in which captured people – skinny African children – are in a zoo in front of straw huts, on display alongside captured animals, and where SS officers and their prospective brides must provide family trees going back to 1800, to check no-one is defective and weed out genetic faults or ill or infertile partners. And Schafer's intended bride has to go to Reich bride school for a Mutterschulungskurs to learn to be a fitting German mother and create a "wholesome German home".

Her Reichbrauterschule is run by Frau Scholtz-Klink, who was head of the Nazi Women's League. Debussy's music is banned, regarded as "degenerate" because he married a Jew. The animal imagery is almost unbearable – a Berlin with performing bears, their muzzles bound with leather straps, tightly leashed as they padded round on hind legs.

There's an alternate narrative running through, related in italics by one of Schafer's specimens, a panda he killed, from behind glass 80 years later in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The tone is pathetically reminiscent of Emma Donoghue's Room, except that the panda has clay feet and a heart-shaped hole in his chest.

He lives close to Glass, behind Guard in the Glasslands and waits for Bamboo Replacement Day: "When I was a cub, I used to gaze over treetops that were shrouded in fog, wondering what was out there beyond Wild, but I never imagined I would end up here beside Exit." But it is better than being stuck in Basement in the Land of Temporary Storage, where he is eventually moved because he is not yet extinct and must make way for "The Endlings – A Room of Extinct Species" who are being promoted to Glasslands after years below. The panda knows that it may not be long before he's back, because of the way "my type is destined anyway".

Leah Kaminsky's mother was a survivor of Bergen Belsen concentration camp and instilled in her, she says, a "moral imperative" to learn from the past. She's doing her best to pass that on to others.

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