By Doreen Wachmann
MICHAEL Dean’s The White Crucifixion does not sound like a book of Jewish interest.
But both the book — which is to be published by Holland Park Press next month — and its author could not be more Jewish.
The novel is so-called because it is based on the life of Jewish painter Marc Chagall, whose 1938 work, The White Crucifixion, portrayed Jesus wearing a tallit, surrounded by Jews suffering from Nazi persecution.
Author Michael, whose Ukrainian family name was originally Dywien, is the son of a Chingford Synagogue secretary and nephew of its relief chazan.
Michael told me: “My parents kept an Orthodox Jewish home. We had mezzuzot on the door and kept kashrut.”
But growing up, Michael rebelled against the outer forms of Judaism, finding them restrictive.
He told me: “I am not observant at all, but I remain passionately involved. My level of Jewish consciousness never disappeared.
“I never lost interest in Judaism and what happened to the Jews.
“Although I rejected the forms of the religion, I remained, every day, passionately proud of the Jewish contribution to culture and civilisation and passionately proud of an identification of myself with that contribution.
“Every day I was, and am still, angry at the discrepancy between the Jewish contribution and what had happened to the Jews through fascism in the 20th century.
“I never lost that passionate identification with Judaism. I never lost interest in Judaism. I never stopped membershipping myself as Jewish.”
Michael read history at Oxford University.
He said: “I didn’t work very hard at my history degree, but one thing I worked really hard on was the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. I’ve been reading about it ever since.”
After leaving university, Michael was at a loose end, not sure where life would take him, but with a vague idea that he wanted to travel.
Ironically, life took him to Germany where he gained a job in a Ludwigsburg language school. Putting his passion for the history of Nazism aside, it was in Germany that found personal happiness, meeting his Birmingham-born non-Jewish wife, Judith, who was also teaching in the German city.
He said: “My parents freaked out when I decided to work in Germany.
“But I was in a mess when I left for there and looking for an identity. I found that in Germany because I was happy there.
“I went back to Germany, working in their state school system and spent a total of five years there.
“The personal side of wanting to be happy overcame any feelings of rejection of Germany as a society. My wife made me happy. I put the history of Nazism to one side emotionally.”
Michael was so emotionally disconnected from Nazi history that he found himself able to calmly listen to old Nazi teaching colleagues in an Essen technical college talking about their unchanged views.
He said: “When I lived in Germany I was like a sponge. I taught Nazis. I absorbed what they told me and used it later in my novels.
“What they said gave me an understanding of the mentality behind Nazism. They said things like ‘a leader wants as much influence and space (Lebensraum) as possible’. I just sat there, absorbed it and stored it all up.”
After returning to the UK and settling in Colchester, Michael continued to teach English as a foreign language until retiring to write novels full-time.
That was when all the information Michael had stored on the Nazis came to the fore.
Magic City is his most autobiographical novel, about a young man marrying out in Germany, while paradoxically finding his Jewish identity, as the characters in the book confront their Nazi past.
Before the Darkness deals with the 1922 assassination by fascists of Germany’s first Jewish Foreign Minister, Walther Rathenau. The action in the novel The Crooked Cross, which is to be republished by Endeavour Press in May, takes place between 1931 and 1933 and describes Hitler’s murder of his half-niece Geli Raubal, of whom he had made nude drawings.
The novel will be accompanied by two essays by Michael, Hitler as an Artist and Did Hitler Kill Geli Raubal?
The Enemy Within deals with the Dutch Resistance in 1941 and 1942 and Hour Zero takes place in 1946 in Ludwigsburg, where Michael taught. The book deals with bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.
Michael’s interest in art was not only expressed in his latest novel on the life of Chagall and in Before the Darkness about Hitler as an artist, but also in I, Hogarth about the British artist.
Familiar with Chagall’s paintings, when Michael started researching the Jewish artist’s life, he realised it was “a gold mine, a tremendous life to dramatise”.
Chagall was born in 1887 in Vitebsk, which is modern-day Belarus. The son of a chassidic herring schlepper, Chagall studied in a local art school before moving to Paris to pursue his calling.
On a visit back to Vitebsk in 1914, he and his wife became stuck there for the duration of the First World War.
Chagall later had to deal with the effects of the Russian Revolution, which at first seemed a godsend to the Jews, but very soon became a nightmare as synagogues were destroyed and individualistic artistic expression was banned.
Although Chagall later stopped practising Judaism, most of his work contains Jewish objects and themes.
Michael sees several similarities between his own life and that of Chagall.
He told me: “We were both born into observant Jewish life and, in some sense, we never left it.
“Chagall wasn’t a practising Jew. He also rejected the idea of establishing a specifically Jewish art. But his paintings are absolutely full of Jewish images.
“He was strongly culturally Jewish and so am I. He painted Jewish themes. I write about Jewish subjects.
“We are both strongly culturally Jewish and absolutely identify with Judaism on a deep subconscious level.
“I am everyday conscious of being Jewish. It is as much part of me as being five foot eight and a half and having brown eyes.”
There were other biographical similarities. Chagall’s mother, who ran a little shop, was the driving force of the family.
Michael said: “That is more or less what happened to me. My father was a clerk in an import export office, but we would never have had enough money without my mother’s little shop.
“She was the driving force, the energy. My father was a dreamy man like Chagall’s father.”
In his novel, like Chagall in his paintings, Michael has included a mystical, magical element.
Using the device of the Prophet Elijah appearing to the young artist, in the novel Chagall foresees what would happen during the Holocaust, and the destruction of the Vitebsk Ghetto, to his many previous neighbours who appeared in his paintings.
Michael said: “I used Vitebsk as a microcosm of what happened to the Jews under Communism and Nazism. Chagall once said that the only way to keep the Jews safe is to put them on canvas. It did not keep them safe, but it kept their memory safe.”