Author(s): Leah Kaminsky
Berlin, 1938. The eve of war. Ernst Schafer, a young, ambitious zoologist, keen hunter and devoted husband of the beautiful Herta, has come to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who invites him to lead a group of SS scientists to the frozen mountains of Tibet. Their secret mission - to search for the origins of the Aryan race.
For Schafer, the personal consequences of failure are unthinkable, yet little does he know this outlandish expedition will become a prelude to the unimaginable horror soon to overrun Europe.
Using material discovered in field diaries, letters, films, photographs, and secret documents, the novel tells the story behind the flawed scientist Ernst Schafer, through the eyes of his ill-fated lover, Herta. Nazism proved a convenient short-cut to personal glory for Schafer who, accompanied by a group of SS scientists, would trek across inhospitable, treacherous terrain, on a mission to conduct experiments to prove their Nordic heritage.
In 1939, the team was flown out of India on Himmler's flying boats. Schafer was an instant celebrity on his return to Berlin and at just twenty-eight, he had become one of the most celebrated men in Hitler's Reich. But his world was about to change, as science was enlisted for racial murder and Himmler sent Schafer to Dachau to observe and film medical experiments.
The Hollow Bones explores how quickly human relationships and an affinity with nature can be buried under cold ambition.
Leah Kaminsky talking about The Hollow Bones at a Bookshop at Queenscliff author event at the Uniting Church, Queenscliff, on Tuesday, 12 March 2019
Mathew Jose, The Bookshop at Queenscliff: Tonight we are delighted to welcome Leah Kaminsky to Queenscliff. Leah is a medical doctor and a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her debut novel The Waiting Room won the 2016 Voss Literary Prize.The judges described that novel as “emotionally powerful, complex and thought-provoking”. Similarly powerful, complex and thought-provoking is Leah’s second novel – The Hollow Bones – published this month by Penguin Random House. Please join me in welcoming Leah to Queenscliff.
Mathew: The Hollow Bones is set in Germany in the 1930s and tells a story about a bizarre SS-led expedition to Tibet to find the mythical origins of the Aryan race. It also tells a story about the relationship between the leader of the expedition, scientist and SS officer Ernst Schafer and his childhood sweetheart Herta. The first thing to say about the story is that – remarkably – it’s based on real events and real people. Leah, perhaps we could begin with a reading.
[Leah Kaminsky, author, read from the prologue of The Hollow Bones.]
Mathew: Thanks very much Leah. That passage gives you a sense of the beauty of the writing in this book. That’s a piece spoken to Ernst as he dies in Bavaria in 1992. Ernst was real. How did you come across his story, and why did you want to re-tell it?
Leah: There is a long version and a short version. I’ll give you the middle version. [laughter] My previous novel The Waiting Room involved a lot of research. Part of it was set in World War Two so I had to face topics I never really wanted to read about – the atrocities of the war, and in particular, the victims. I’m a GP, and I had met a really amazing psychiatrist a few years earlier called Robert Lifton, a professor of psychiatry in New York. He had, after the war, been asked to interview former Nazi doctors. He wrote the seminal text The Nazi Doctors, and for me it was a horrific read. I’m a doctor. I felt morally obliged to look at where these people went wrong. These were educated, intelligent, human beings, trained in the art of healing, who had turned into murderers. I was horrified to learn they weren’t just co-opted. They volunteered. They were very much the lynchpin of the Third Reich. So while I was researching The Waiting Room I came across a lot of scientists who were also part of the Third Reich. It wasn’t just doctors. There were scientists and engineers, people from all the sciences. While artists were gravitating towards Italy and France, many scientists were coming to pre-war Germany. It was a place of intelligence and research, so they were gravitating there. I thought this is interesting. I want to look at the morality of science in the pre-war period. What happens when science gets into bed with politics? Every time I opened up the internet or picked up a book, this man appeared – Ernst Schafer – and I had never heard of him. He is a little known character. He was a Tibetan ornithologist, a lover of birds. He was a young man. He had been on two previous expeditions to Tibet with a joint American team which came out of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. I was on a book tour in the US when The Waiting Room, my first novel, came out. I was in Philadelphia doing a gig and thought I’d pop into this National Sciences Museum and see if there are any letters or other traces of this guy having been there. I couldn’t believe what I found. The librarian there was really helpful and brought out boxes and boxes of photos and letters. There were letters from Theodore Roosevelt. I came across some drawings of a panda bear. This is relevant! It said he was the second Western man to have shot and killed a panda in Tibet and brought it back for display in America. Theodore Roosevelt was the first. I said to the librarian, this is fascinating, I wonder what happened to that panda, and she looked at me like I’m some sort of idiot. She goes, it’s across the corridor. I walked out of the library, and there was a diorama with my panda. The four-month-old panda Ernst Shafer had shot, brought back and taxidermied. He was a crack hunter and had brought a lot of specimens to the museum. He was an ornithologist but his background was in zoology. So that was the start of it. I sat down on the floor in front of panda – you’re all going to think I’m mad now – and I just wept. I probably sat there for about an hour communing with little panda. I then went down to the basement and the curator showed me the other specimens Schafer had brought back. That was the start of it.
Mathew: We’re going to talk a little more about the SS-led expedition to Tibet. Perhaps you could now show us your photographs of Schafer and his expedition.
[Leah displayed photographs of Schafer and his team in Tibet during their 18 month-long expedition]
Mathew: You did a lot of research and you were able to find out quite a bit about Schafer. Much of that was primary research using his own field reports, diaries and letters. You have shown us pictures from his expedition. It’s significant for a couple of reasons. One is that he voluntarily returned from America, from Philadelphia, where he had been working, in order to lead this expedition at the request of Himmler.
Leah: Voluntary is a loose term. He received a telegram in Philadelphia in 1936 from Himmler, who was the head of the SS, saying ‘return to Germany requested’. Schafer had joined the SS in ’33. His father had joined him up on one his visits back to Germany because thought it would be expedient. The SS in those days didn’t carry the same weight as it eventually did. It was an expedient political move for a young boy in those days.
Mathew: In 1936, when he went back, he got a job leading an SS expedition to Tibet. He also got a promotion in the SS. The other reason the expedition is significant is because it was part of a bigger part of the Nazi story. It was an attempt to confirm the superiority of the Aryan race. Part of the story is something completely wacky called the World Ice Theory. It’s important to the book and it’s important to the expedition. Could you tell us a little bit about this pseudo-science?
Leah: What drew me into this was the story itself. It was riveting. I saw myself as a sort of Indiana Jones. Dan Brown maybe. [laughter] What the Third Reich had done is jettison Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. We know that Einstein left Germany fairly early on. They had also jettisoned the theory of the atom as the building block of the universe. The most popular scientific idea of the day in the 30s in Germany was something called Welteislehre which means World Ice Theory. This was wildly popular. There would be lectures and books and movies. Hitler and Himmler both believed in it. I’ll cut it short, but basically, the building block of the universe, we all know, is the ice crystal – right? So if the ice crystal is the building block of the universe, and not the atom, the moon is made of ice and that’s why it’s white. All those little twinkly things in the night sky, they are not stars. There is only one star and that’s our sun. Those little twinkly things are just reflections off the glaciers on earth. You look at me and think that’s crazy, but they believed it. It was kind of a flat earth theory. A steam engine engineer postulated this theory back in 1910. His name was Hanns Horbiger and he had no scientific background whatsoever. It came to him in a dream. He popularised it. He said calculations don’t matter, it’s what people believe that matters. The theory goes that there was more than one icy moon that orbited the earth – there were lots. In ancient days one of those icy moons plummeted into the Himalayas unlodging the city of Atlantis. It gets better – these were fake facts but they were believed. The ubermenschen – the superior beings from Atlantis – the true origins of the Aryan Nordic race – came up from underground and bred with the local Tibetans. So Himmler sent this expedition off to Tibet to find the true origins of the Aryan Nordic race amongst the Tibetan people. The racial anthropologist Bruno Beger was taking all sorts of anthropological measurements. Himmler even asked him to verify that Tibetan aristocratic women had hidden gems in their vaginas, and he obliged. It was just crazy, but believed. For me, I thought pseudo-science, gosh, it’s just as real today as it was then. A lot of these scientists went along with it even though they knew it was absolute bunkum.
Mathew: As you present it in the book, Ernst was one of those. Ernst was asked to lead the expedition. He was going to be paid some more money, it was going to give him a privileged position in Germany because he was taking forward one of Himmler’s pet projects. But he thought it was nonsense. He was prepared to say this to his girlfriend, later wife, Herta. Even to the other members of the expedition he was prepared to say this was complete nonsense. But he wanted to return to Tibet, so this expedition served his own interests. You talk about the role scientists played in promulgating this nonsense. Did self-interest prevail over reason in all cases?
Leah: I can’t really answer that. In Ernst Schafer’s case, the one book that he carried everywhere in his pocket was Goethe’s Faust. In Goethe’s Faust, which is a classic text, Goethe falls from grace when he encounters Mephistopheles, the devil, and sells his soul. He wants the devil to help him win the woman of his dreams, and there is a fall from grace. The irony struck me as a novelist. This guy is carrying this book with him everywhere, yet he is a Faustian figure himself. Can’t he see that? Everything in this book is based on true stories, on research, on real characters. The one character that I couldn’t find anything about – who was literally wiped out of history – was his first wife, a woman called Herta Volz. Herta means ‘from the earth’. Ernst Schafer means ‘earnest shepherd’. I played with these names in the book. I don’t know who Herta was. They were married quite young. It was only when this novel was going to the typesetter that my husband, who dabbles in amateur genealogy (my children call it talking to the dead), came running out of his study and said ‘look what I have found’. He had found Herta Volz’s death certificate. It’s about the only thing I could find about her. I found a couple of things about her family but that was it. As a novelist that was a gift. I could make her whatever I wanted her to be. For all I know she was a good little Nazi bride. I wanted to explore what if she wasn’t. I wanted to cast her as Ernst Schafer’s moral conscience – someone who spoke for the voiceless, those who did resist, or at least tried. Even if she didn’t act it out, she wasn’t going to be a bystander, but an upstander. For me that was far more interesting that casting her as a good little fraulein.
Mathew: Herta is the moral conscience of the book.
Leah: She is one of them.
Mathew: Herta and the panda. We’ll get to the panda. In the book Herta is not blind to what is happening in Germany in the 1930s. She notices the Jewish professors disappearing from the universities, she notices the purge of music by Jewish composers at the conservatorium she attends, she despairs at the burning of books in her home village, and she recoils at the virulent anti-Semitism in Mein Kampf. She also refuses to accept the disappearance of her sister who is disabled. Is Herta an anomaly? Did Germans know in the 1930s – the period in which this book is set – more than many of them wanted us to believe after the war?
Leah: I don’t know. I have done a lot of reading about it. My immediate answer is that I think the majority were bystanders. But then, I’m sitting here sipping my mineral water and there are people on Manus Island. And how many genocides have happened in my life that I have done nothing much about except read the newspaper and say ‘how horrific’. I’m a good Jewish girl. My mother is a Holocaust survivor who sent me to MLC. I remember the scriptures: ‘he who casts the first stone’. What I wanted to explore in this book is not blame. I didn’t want to say ‘they were evil’. My mother was 21 when she came out of Bergen-Belsen and had no family left. You would think she would be a very bitter woman. She actually taught me that there is no such thing as good and evil. That good and evil resides in each one of us and we have a choice. Sometimes it’s a life-threatening choice. What I wanted to explore in this book is where Ernst Schafer went wrong. He grew up as a nature-loving little boy in the forests of Thuringia collecting snails and shells and bird feathers. He grew up with Herta who was a dear friend of his. I couldn’t find a point where he just suddenly became evil. They were small steps he took. Perhaps he wasn’t even aware of the compromises he was making as he descended down the slippery slope. That’s what I wanted to explore in the pages of this book and explore within myself as a doctor. I hold power in my hands. I also hold ethical responsibility. People come to me in their most vulnerable moments and expose their most intimate details. What do I do with that, and what stops me from becoming an Ernst Schafer? That was the chilling thing I wanted to explore, especially in light of what my profession did during World War Two, and subsequent to that.
Mathew: Let’s stay with the role of doctors and scientists in the Nazi regime because they are central to the book. Ernst was an educated man and he made choices about how he used that education. Scientists weren’t just a cog in the Nazi machine. They helped build the machine itself. Ernst in your story – like Ernst in real life – helped build this fake Nazi ideology about the supremacy of the Aryan race. At one stage in the book Ernst tells Herta “I’m not one of them, I’m just a scientist”. I wonder how many doctors and scientists, and railway workers, and people that fitted equipment in camps, used words like that to exculpate themselves from responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of those actions?
Leah: I think many did. Robert Lifton in his book The Nazi Doctors talks about how these people did it. He talks about a phenomenon called doubling where you can go and perform atrocities during the day and go home and kiss your kids good night and read them a bedtime story and have your dinner and love your wife. So there is a split: ‘I’m not an evil person, this is my job’. I’m painting this as a really dark book, but there is a lot of light, a lot of nature and beauty in it! I think the most horrific part of the book for me is the Afterword. I don’t think it’s a spoiler for me to say all of these guys got off scot-free, pretty much, and they were just a drop in the ocean. America, after the war, took many, many German scientists across to work on all sorts of programmes. A lot of them ended up back in academia. Many of them spent their final days in nursing homes and died peacefully. I think, for me, that is the most horrific part. They got off pretty much scot-free.
Mathew: For me as a reader, that was a chilling part of the book. I enjoyed the book. It was engrossing and absorbing and in parts very beautiful. It’s not a dark, dire book, but it finished in a dark place in the Afterword which departs from fiction and describes the absolution of these men and a woman – who also appears in the book – who played a critical role in the regime. The book isn’t sent in the midst of the Second World War, it’s set in the six or seven years in the lead up to 1939.
Leah: The woman you are referring to is Gertrud Scholtz-Klink. She was the head of the Nazi Women’s League. In order to marry an SS officer you had to go back through church records to the 1750s to prove that your ancestry was pure and Aryan – there were no Jews, no Romani, no one with a serious physical or mental disability in your family. These rules were drawn up by racial anthropologists. You also had to attend Nazi bride school. Now, as a 14 year old I went to Elly Lukas school of deportment – as you can tell! But these were actual bride schools. You could not marry the man that you loved – if he was an SS officer – if you didn’t pay for the privilege of going to a Nazi bride school. There were lots of them, but the prime one was one this woman ran on the outskirts of Berlin. The mansion still exists there. You would do a six week course with 20 women on cooking and mothercraft and cleaning. You needed to learn how to clean your SS husband’s boots and dagger. You needed to learn how to make cocktail party conversation with the likes of Himmler and Goering should you be ‘lucky’ enough to meet them. You also had to learn the nine commandments for a German woman. In this book I wanted to explore what German women were doing pre-war. They weren’t allowed to have any professions. They were not allowed to do medicine, dentistry or law. They were to pick up the dustpan and broom and breed for the Fatherland to provide cannon fodder. You actually got medals for the number of children you had. Eight got you the gold medal. There were financial rewards to get married and have lots of children. This was ingrained in everyday society. So I put my Herta into this bride school.
Mathew: Let’s return to Schafer for a moment and read from the Afterword in your book. We can contrast his words with a photograph you have brought to show us. Schafer was imprisoned by the Allied forces after the war and tried at Nuremburg. He wrote this while in gaol: “I am a completely unpolitical man who waged a never-ending struggle directed against the Nazi system in the course of which I protected Jews, Poles, Russians and the German persecutes within the realm of my institute. I faced a choice between emigration and devoting my exertions to the common cause of humanity.” Let’s have a look at the photo and see how he did that.
Leah: I don’t want you to think I’m judging my main character. But I’m judging my main character.
[Leah displayed a photograph of a smiling Ernst Schafer and Heinrich Himmler taken in 1939 upon the return of Schafer’s expedition from Tibet]
Mathew: In 1949 Schafer was exonerated. He was handed a certificate of de-nazification, paid a fine of 25 Deutschmark, and walked free. He went on to lead a successful professional life.
Leah: He re-married and went to Venezuela to set up the Caracas botanical gardens. As you do.
Mathew: As you do. We’re getting towards the end of our conversation. I want to ask about something you alluded to earlier. As you noted, we’re sitting here in comfort while people are on Manus and Nauru. The world said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust. But in the last couple of years the President of the United States has described white supremacists as “fine people”, and leaders in the West, including here in Australia, have turned their backs on people fleeing persecution. Do you think the lessons of the 30s and 40s have been forgotten?
Leah: I was just coming up on the train from Melbourne and I read on Twitter what Mark Latham said about Indigenous people ‘rorting’ the system. He wants to bring in a DNA test to ensure people are at least 25 per cent Indigenous before they can claim certain payments. I just have no words. This book lives. I would like to say never again. My mother certainly said never again. I’m not a vocal activist. I don’t go out with placards. And I berate myself for that. If you come from a background like mine it galvanises you to see it and abhor it. My writing is my small voice. My small cry. Not only for human beings but for sentient beings. That’s where we come to panda.
Mathew: I do want to talk about panda. I think elsewhere you have described panda as the “beating heart of the book”. Although the book is inspired by real people and real events, it is a work of fiction. The stuffed panda in the book is real, but the voice of the panda is you at work as a writer. Can you tell us why panda is an important part of the book?
Leah: Panda is the stuffed panda in the diorama I mentioned earlier. When I sat there and Iooked at him I just wept. I was at Varuna the Writer’s House on a fellowship, and thought, ok, I’m going to sit down and write this swashbuckling story, and the first thing that came out was panda’s little voice. I thought ‘what are you doing?’. ‘No, no, no, not a talking animal!’. When my editor Meredith Curnow first read it she goes ‘oh, a talking panda’. [laughter] But she said ‘let’s leave him there and see what happens to him’. She believed in him from the beginning. I love animals. It was also about the bloody history of zoology. This man, as much as he was a zoologist and a lover of animals, he cut a swathe through all the fauna of Tibet. Thousands and thousands of specimens were shipped back. He almost depleted a rare sheep he discovered in Tibet. Later on in his life he approached the Tibetan government to see if he could set up a research centre for these sheep and they told him to get stuffed. For me, panda is the beauty and naivete and the innocence of victims, I guess. I later found out panda was female, but panda is a ‘he’ in the book. It was a writer’s gambit but I think, for me, it was important. It is a novel. It could have been a non-fiction book about the German Tibetan expedition but I wanted to look at morality, including the way we interact with nature. That also is very contemporary. A lot of the issues I grapple with in the book are still as relevant – if not more relevant – today. I just want to quickly mention the play on words in the title. Research for this book was wonderful because I could research birds and animals. That was the light for me in the darkness. I found out that, anatomically, birds that fly the highest have the hollowest bones so they can trap air. I thought that’s really interesting. Bones are your foundation. Your skeleton is what we hang everything on. So I thought, who really has hollow bones in this book?
Mathew: Thank you very much Leah. The Hollow Bones is an extraordinary work of fiction. It’s powerful, humane and compelling. It was a privilege to read it. Thank you for talking to us today.