The war was over, but the nightmares were just beginning

Beryl Bainbridge, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 1946
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The Independent Culture
WE WERE never taught about the war at school. Because my father's business friends in Liverpool were mostly Jewish, I actually believed that the war was being fought to save the Jews. I couldn't have been more wrong.

When the war was over we went to the Philharmonic in Liverpool. We got out of the train at Exchange station, then walked in a crocodile to the Philharmonic Hall in Hope Street and saw the films the troops had taken when they entered Belsen.

It was the most extraordinary, numbing experience - those little mummified skeletons which were just being pushed up by a machine, to be carted into pits ... I had nightmares for a long time afterwards.

At 14 I was thrown out of school for writing rude rhymes, and went away to ballet school at Tring. Every time my parents came down in the car for the weekend there were rows between them. Before that, my brother and I had taken it in turns to stay in rather than leave them on their own, to try and stop the shouting - no physical violence, but verbal horrors ...

Because of the way my parents were, I had to sleep with my mother, my brother slept with my father.

Two things used to annoy my mother tremendously: I had a cough, a psychological cough, and I had nightmares, and she'd get cross. I'd be moaning and rolling about, and she'd say, "For God's sake Beryl, keep still".

I think - and talk - about death a lot, and I encourage my children to talk about death. That must have something to do with all those years ago, with seeing the Belsen films.

As far as my writing went, I was always just making sense of everything. That was the reason I started writing: to make sense of what was happening in my own home. So I fixed the first six novels more or less around my own childhood. One or two of them have got Italian prisoners in them, or German prisoners. None of them refers to the Holocaust or the Jews.

I've been in some terrible arguments with people about those years, talking about the horror of the whole thing and how people could do it and why. My argument was - still is - that it's so much easier to blame one man. It wasn't just one person but thousands who joined in.

Had I come from a happy, jolly home, maybe I'd have been able to come home and say, "Hullo, isn't it awful and sad?" But like any trauma - and in my case I'm sure it was a trauma - I began to merge my own background into the Holocaust, to use my past instead of writing about the Holocaust. It was my own particular nightmare: the voices in the night, the banging and shouting, and then the silence.

It seemed to me that those films were like some image from nowhere, because nobody afterwards, or in the following years, ever said: "Wasn't it terrible what the Germans did?" It was all shuffled aside. Nobody went on and on about it. It all began to fade into the background, except for those white skeletons being piled up, the bodies.

Anything that you live through in your own time, at an impressionable age, becomes part of you. If you happen to turn into a writer, those are the themes you hit on, so that you will always be writing about conflict and oppression. It doesn't have to be torture, or killing people, but it has to have death in it, that's important. It goes very deep, so deep that you're not so aware of it. You turn, in the end, more towards subjects that are to do with death.

My first book had a death in it, and the second one. The third or fourth had a hostage situation in it. Young Adolf was pointing out what might make people behave oddly.

Two years ago I went by train with my editor, Alice Thomas Ellis, to Poland to do some lectures, and we ended up in Cracow, which is half an hour from Auschwitz. I never got there: they wouldn't let me go, they thought it would upset me. I was desperate to go there. I'm furious I never insisted.

Cracow is untouched. The Germans were about to blow it up, but the Americans got there quicker, so it's medieval, with sloping roofs ... We got off the train and felt this terrible weight - of something terribly wrong. The camps were 12 or 15 miles away, so that the ashes, the smoke, must have stuck to the roofs of all those houses.

I don't read Jewish literature any more. I haven't read camp literature for years. I had many books on the camps, and about Adolf and the rise of fascism, and I read them and read them until I had children of my own. After that I found myself unable to open a book on it.

I'm now published in Germany, and I went to Frankfurt Book Fair last year, but I'm uneasy about Germans because of my generation. Every time I gave a reading of the last book, Every Man For Himself, somebody - young, old or middle-aged - would get up and say, apropos of my book, Young Adolf, "What do you think about the Germans?" They're all terribly anxious to talk about it. But I used to look at elderly ladies in the cafes, with grandchildren ...

One doesn't grow away from the influence of those Belsen films, because it never stops. You might have a period in your life, perhaps when you're bringing up children, when you're occupied solely with that. It's only afterwards, when you give some thought to the rest of the world, that you realise that in spite of the heart transplants, longer life and the so-called poor having washing machines and cars and trainer shoes, what people do to each other has not progressed in the slightest: we're just getting better at doing it, at pressing buttons and doing it - and that's a terrifying thought.