Tuesday 25 June 2019

Schlepping Through the Alps

Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past with its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple is my book 5 for the 2019 European Reading challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader. It covers the country of 'Austria'.

The author of this book is Jewish and comes from New York where he's a journalist. He comes across Austrian, Hans Breuer, giving lectures in New York about shepherding and singing folk songs in Yiddish. It seems he's the only Yiddish speaking shepherd in the Austrian Alps: Sam is fascinated and decides to go to Austria to meet with Hans on his home turf, find out more about his way of life and investigate anti-semitism in the modern country.

With a Jewish father who spent World War 2 in England and a communist mother who worked for the resistance during the war, and was captured and tortured for it, it seems Hans's background is more complicated than Sam had realised. The boy had had a difficult childhood as his mother had told him all the grisly details of the torture and thus, he felt, robbed him of his childhood. Hans left home when a teenager and joined an anarchist organisation called Spartakus, eventually going to live with them in a commune in Provence. They prove difficult to get away from when Hans decides to go, but go he does eventually and thus his shepherding life begins in Austria.

Sam tramps the Alps with Hans discussing Austria's role in WW2 and its anti-semitic past. He learns how to be a shepherd and finds himself very much wanting in the process. But most of all he finds out what makes Hans Breuer tick, how he conducts his rather complicated love life, and what is meant by 'Wandering Jew'.

I was a bit ambivilent about this book. Mostly I found the historical aspect very interesting and learnt a lot about Nazi activities in Austria in WW2. Hans felt that in respect of fascism and anti-semitism Austria actually embraced it much more readily than Germany. Apparently, very few war criminals were ever tried for their crimes in Austria and those that were had their sentences overturned within a few months. Not something I was aware of. Hans was of the opinion that Germany confronted its Nazi war years and came to terms, Austria did not.

I also enjoyed hearing about life in the Austrian Alps, what a wonderful area it is (think 'Heidi' even though that was Switzerland and this is Austria), although it's very much a tough way of life. What I didn't like so much was the author's attitude. A confirmed hypochondriac he seemed far more obsessed with himself rather than his subject. In the end he concludes that maybe he's disappointed with the whole experience because he found modern Austrians to be not quite anti-semitic enough. He wanted them to be violently so and they weren't. I found that an odd attitude to have, especially for a journalist.

So yes, an interesting read, I did in fact learn a lot about Austria and its history, but ultimately, for various reasons, the book did not grip me as it might have done.



Sam said...

Interesting reaction to the book, but I certainly see why. Sometimes an author exposes more about himself and what's really in his heart than he intends to, and this sounds like one of those times. This one might have been better penned by the shepherd himself, sounds like.

DesLily said...

This one sounds like 1/2 and 1/2 ..couldn't not read it all but was glad when it was over. When I get one like that it takes me even longer to read it as it doesn't want me to keep picking it up.

Cath said...

Sam: Yes, I do think that Hans the shepherd might have been the better person to write about his life... especially given it had been so varied and fascinating. But there ya go.

Pat: Yes half and half. I put it to one side several times while I read something else. Still, some of it was very interesting.