The Toymaker: scars of the Holocaust in Prague and Melbourne

Photo: Penguin Australia

At the end of 2015 the Australian novelist and essayist Liam Pieper was Prague’s first writer-in-residence through the UNESCO City of Literature programme. His two months in Prague bore fruit. Last year Liam’s powerful and disturbing novel, The Toymaker, was published by Penguin Australia to critical acclaim. It has since been translated into several languages, including Czech. Set in Auschwitz, wartime Prague and Krakow, and contemporary Melbourne, The Toymaker grapples with the legacy of the Holocaust and reminds us of the dangers of keeping silent about the past. Liam Pieper talked to David Vaughan about the book.

Liam Pieper,  photo: David Vaughan
In Central Europe it is no surprise that the Holocaust continues to cast a long shadow, but Liam Pieper’s novel reminds us that this shadow reaches as far as Australia, and that even in today’s Melbourne, wartime scars remain. Liam is currently based in Sydney, and it was from there that he talked to me by Skype. I began by asking him about the role of Prague in the book.

“Only a small part of the novel is set in Prague, but most of it was written there. I was given the opportunity by UNESCO to come and conduct a residency in Prague to research and write this book. So, the vast majority of it was created there. I guess the character of the city influences it on every page, beyond the parts that are explicitly set in the city.”

On the way home they saw the crowd gathering to watch the astronomical clock strike the hour. The clock had stood in the town square for more than five hundred years, with the mechanical astrolabe keeping track of the heavens, four moving rings tracing the path of the sun, the moon, the zodiac. When the hour struck, two windows opened above the tower and little wooden automatons of the Twelve Apostles filed out in procession. Beneath them, four figures flanked the clock tower, each representing the most despised human afflictions. On the right, Death, a skeleton ringing his bell, stood next to a Muslim soldier depicting Lust. Across the clock face, Vanity, a man admiring his own image in a mirror, stood next to a hook-nosed Jew clutching a bag of gold. Greed. Below, on the cobblestones, jostled by the crowd, Jan looked up at the procession, smiled wryly, pointed at Vanity and Greed. ‘I think they’ve captured us rather well, don’t you? ‘Which one are you? Vanity? Or the Greedy Jew? ‘Oh, don’t make me choose, Arkady. Not so late in the day.’ As the clock chimed, Death’s bell rang out, and with each knell the other figures shook their head. It was a sight Arkady never tired of. Apart from Jan, the orloj was his favourite part of Prague.

Tell us a bit about the plot of the book. It’s complicated, because it is set in different times and places. It links Prague, the horrors of the Holocaust and contemporary Melbourne.

“Melbourne, my home town, is a city that has been very much shaped by the Holocaust. It was a city to which a lot of survivors emigrated to start new lives after the war – Czechs, of course, many Poles, Russians – people who came to Australia to start a new life.”

Geographically, Australia is a great distance from what happened in Europe during the war, yet these people must have carried all the memories with them and at the same time this must have had an impact on Melbourne itself.

“Definitely so. I believe that Melbourne per capita has more survivors than anywhere except for New York and Israel, which is quite extraordinary when you look at the demographics of Australia, which at the time were decidedly Anglo and Western European. Those waves had an influence on the city and the way it was shaped and the way our culture developed beyond being a strictly English-speaking culture. And it very much had an influence on me personally, because I grew up in a predominantly Russian-Jewish neighbourhood in Melbourne. As I grew up most of my friends were the grandchildren of survivors.”

Your book deals with the legacy of both the guilt and the suffering – and the strange mixtures between them that are inherited by our generation.

Photo: Penguin Australia
“Absolutely. I wanted to try to explore that in a couple of ways. First of all we owe it to those that didn’t make it to never forget the suffering, because if you forget it, maybe you’re doomed to repeat it. Then there’s the guilt. The trauma that’s passed down through the generations is something that I wanted to explore, but more so I wanted to explore the complicity of those who let it happen, the fact that what today we call the western powers did not move to stop it until it became terminal. If there is one great lesson of the Holocaust it is that too many people looked aside while an almost demonic evil was brewing and was allowed to progress until it was too late.”

Is that the reason why you decided to set much of the story in the present day, to show that what happened then is relevant to our own time?

“Without staking out a particular political bent, I think there’s a propensity among all sides of politics at the moment worldwide to be less tolerant, to be more judgmental and to be more dogmatic in one’s beliefs. That’s an extremely dangerous trend. You’ve seen it manifest in various ways around the world. This will sound as though I’m making it up, but, when I was writing the main character, Adam, who is a kind of benign monster, misogynist, content with his place in the world and very sure of himself, I was drawing on the character of Donald Trump, because he was very much in the news. At the time we would never have been able to predict that he would become president of the free world – at least I didn’t. Now I feel a little guilty about it, because I feel like I made it happen by manifesting it, like a genie.”

Some of the book takes place in Auschwitz itself. It must have been a difficult decision to make – to take your imagination there and to make the presumption that you can write about the Holocaust, about experiences that people who have survived have so often said are something that you just cannot imagine. And you’re writing about some of the very worst things, such as Josef Mengele and his experiments on people, on children even.

“Presumption is the word. It’s a mammoth task to write about the Holocaust, particularly for a goy like me, who wasn’t there, whose immediate relatives weren’t there. It could be seen as a kind of theft of experience. But then, often when I was writing, I would be paralysed by this doubt, this idea that I was touching something that was sacred in a way, that it was something I couldn’t understand. It was so far beyond my experience, so far beyond basic humanity that I would never truly understand it. But I felt I had a duty to try. Every person has a duty to try and understand the horror that mankind is capable of and try to empathise as best they can. This was my attempt.”

And I think, probably, at this stage, when there are ever fewer survivors, we are getting close to the point we have now reached with the First World War, where the next generation does need to continue telling the story.

“That’s an excellent point. It is still within living memory, but I think we have a duty to reiterate these horrors and other horrors around the world, to try and help future generations understand them. Without understanding I think empathy erodes and without empathy you start off on a very dangerous path.”

Tell us something about the plot of the story.

Bubny railway station | Photo: Jana Šustová,  Czech Radio
“The story is very much a story of secrets. It’s about people keeping big secrets from each other and the damage that can do. In a nutshell it’s the story of a guy called Adam Kulakov who is a third generation Australian, whose grandfather was a survivor of Auschwitz and a hero, a man who sacrificed a great deal to save the lives of children in Auschwitz. But he carries a lot of trauma and he carries dark secrets. The plot revolves around Adam Kulakov trying to live up to his grandfather’s legacy – this incredible person, this hero, who survived the unimaginable and moved across the world to a country that, if not actively hostile, was indifferent to his suffering. Australia was quite an anti-Semitic place in the 50s and 60s.”

And the grandfather makes his fortune as a toymaker. He establishes a toy-making empire which also has its roots in Auschwitz.

“It does. The narrative switches back and forth between the present and the past, but a third of the narrative is devoted to Arkady Kulakov. He is a doctor, dragooned into working as a Sonderkommando for Dr Mengele. Mengele is one of the great war criminals of the Holocaust and in my mind one of the worst for the sheer horror of what he did, experimenting on live people without anaesthetic, on children, things that you really would only ever see in a horror movie. So, the character of Arkady Kulakov is a good man dragged into working for an evil man, so that he can survive and lessen the suffering of the other prisoners as much as he can. One of the ways he does this is by crafting toys for the children in the camp. Much later, when he moves to Australia, he uses his toy-making skills to try to bring a little joy to the world. In doing so, he becomes a wealthy industrialist. That is the example that his grandson Adam is trying to live up to, but he’s rather insulated from reality by his wealth, so he has mixed results.”

I’d like to know more about the story’s connection with Prague.

“The parts set in Prague are very much informed by Prague’s role in the events of World War II. That part of the story is a love story, and, without giving too much away, Arkady Kulakov and someone he is in love with – one of them Russian the other Polish – find sanctuary in Nazi-annexed Prague. They try to live out their love story as best they can, while the world burns around them. Being in Prague gave me access to research, to talk to people who had been there and survived it. But in particular I had a moment of revelation, when I visited the Bubny Station memorial. I just found it incredibly moving, this very low-key, understated tribute to those who were arrested and deported from that station. The memorial consists of railway tracks, heading up into the sky.”

Soon the leaves will all be gone, turned to be mush underfoot, where they will rot for a few days before snow will fall and cover everything in crisp, clean white. By then he will already be travelling to Poland, crowded into a train car designed for cattle, onto which he will have been loaded at Bubny Station, while civilian commuters looked on silently, as hundreds of strangers, Jews mostly, and Gypsies, called to them for help half in hope and half in horror, all in vain. Before all that, though, as the door splinters and falls open, and then the blows, and he will be dragged bleeding from his home – he will find himself somehow in two places at once, on the cool, marble staircase of his Prague home, and the polished concrete floor of a barracks in Auschwitz, as boots ring out over stone and hands grab and tear at him, and he will realise that of course Jan was right, always had been, that the leaves are at their most beautiful as they fall.

“The idea that the Jewish population of Prague and the other victims of the Holocaust were rounded up and deported… well, I’m sure there were objectors and people who tried to stop it, but not enough did that it was stopped. That scene was repeated all over annexed Europe, that indifference to other people’s suffering.”

You wrote a lot of the book in Prague, staying in a 1980s concrete housing estate on the edge of the city. It’s an unusual place to find inspiration.

“I’m not so sure about that. There’s this old truism that the best view to write a novel is a brick wall, because you have no way to escape but into your own imagination. So I was afforded a lot of concrete out that way, but I did have a lovely roof-top patio and views of the city, which were wonderful.”

The book, The Toymaker, has been translated into several languages, and it has come out as well in Czech.

“It has, which I’m thrilled about. I don’t know if it’s this way all over the Czech Republic, but I was very smitten in Prague with just how literary people seem. You know, people would read on the trams and there were posters up for the latest book all over town in a way that you just wouldn’t get where I’m from. So the idea that I can contribute in some way to that literary culture and the idea that people might enjoy reading my books in the city where I wrote them and which so inspired me is an incredible thrill.”