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Primo Levi and other survivors


Further education: the trial of Ivan the Terrible
Philip Roth Writer
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My education was deepened many years later by being in Israel sometime in the, I'd say '80s, and visiting in Israel and going to the trial of John Demjanjuk – the Ukrainian guard at Sobibor and Treblinka, who was called by the inmates of Sobibor, 'Ivan the Terrible'. I... I stumbled upon that trial. I happened to be in... in Israel and saw in the papers that it was going on and so I went there every day and I sat there three or four hours a day while it lasted, and got to know Demjanjuk's lawyers. I was interested in them, one of them was an Israeli, an Israeli lawyer. He got plenty of death threats, he was the defence lawyer. I also talked to other people who were around the case. I didn't get a chance to speak to any of the survivors, partly… – who had testified against Demjanjuk – partly because they didn't speak any English, they spoke either Polish or Yiddish or Russian or in Hebrew. But their testimony was pretty, pretty powerful.

And I couldn't get it out of my mind either and so I wrote Operation Shylock. I used the real Demjanjuk case in the book. So, the holocaust has made its way into two of my books – not as the main subject of the book – but made its way into the books, and also into a third book, which would be The Ghost Writer, in which the character of Anne Frank is summoned up. She's not there, but she's summoned up. And so... so partly it was a self-education, and partly I read all the books that other people read – that we've all read. I've seen Shoah, the Lanzsmann movie documentary.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Israel, Sobibor, Treblinka, Ivan the Terrible, The Ghost Writer, Shoah, John Demjanjuk, Claude Lanzmann

Duration: 2 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013