At the end of World War II, the composer Richard Strauss, whose final work was an opera titled ‘Capriccio’, wrote: ‘The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.’Strauss described the government sanctioned anti-semitism as ‘the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.’ Assia Gutmann, whose father was Jewish, was one of the many victims of this period in history. At age six, she and her family were driven out of Berlin by the anti-semitic policies of the Third Reich. Mercifully, their exile saved their lives, but Dr Gutmann’s family perished.
Why did Ted Hughes call one of his poems in the Capriccio sequence ‘Shibboleth’? Perhaps the title is a comment on Assia’s upper-crust British accent, which failed to gain her acceptance Into London’s society. A shibboleth, in biblical times, was a linguistic marker to distinguish the outsider. The last line of Hughes’ poem ‘Shibboleth’ reads ‘lick of the tar brush?’ In my chapter ‘Shibboleth’ Assia’s German accent (Hochdeutch) betrays her origins, leading to an anti-Semitic attack on her by the innkeeper’s wife. In another chapter, Assia muses ‘my differences will never go away’. Image of Assia Wevill from www. Pinterest..com
Note: This chapter comes half way through the novel. Assia has returned from a clandestine trip to Spain with her lover, Ted Hughes. She and her husband are on a holiday in Germany, when Assia discovers she’s pregnant. Chapter 13. SHIBBOLETH Germany, October 1962 The countryside in autumn was beautiful; in the forest, russet and gold leaves quivered on the great pine trees, standing tall and straight like sentinels. After picnicking in the shaded woods on dark pumpernickel bread, and cream cheese with paprika, their walk had slowed. It was getting dark, and both of them were weary. Towards nightfall they reached a pretty little township, straight out of Hansel and Gretel. Assia felt at home in this rural village, as if she’d returned to the enchanted life of her early childhood, when she was protected by her mother, adored by her father, and cossetted by her German grandparents. She felt faint, and in spite of her fears, protective of the tiny life that might be growing inside her. Her body craved rest. She imagined sinking into clean white sheets under an eiderdown filled with soft goose feathers. ‘Let’s stay here tonight, darling. I’m worn out, and that little gasthaus we passed just now looks so welcoming. Not nearly as dilapidated as some of the houses here. I remember those little inns, like our bed-and-breakfast cottages in England. Vati and Mutti used to take me and Cissy to little gasthausen […]