She’s baaaaaaaaack. Helen Demidenko speaks up to re-claim her controversial book.
Twenty years after Ukrainian World War II novel The Hand That Signed The Paper won the Vogel award for best unpublished manuscript, went onto critical acclaim, fierce criticism, and the revelation that its author was British, not Ukrainian, Helen Demidenko (or Dale, as she now is) has emerged from her Edinburgh eyrie. Dale had claimed to be a Ukrainian author by the name of Helen Demidenko, but she turned out to be Australian-born Helen Darville (she is now married and has the surname Dale). Unsurprisingly, she’s reclaiming the book, not as a shonky attempt to give an average novel a boost with the hint that it was based on true events, but was a, gasp, proud challenge to identity politics. Says The Australian:
“The way she sees it, if she had not assumed a Ukrainian identity, her book would not have been taken seriously and would not have been published.
“‘I did literature at university in my first degree and I did have it suggested to me in one tutorial that Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country was an illegitimate book about the black experience because it’s written by a white person,’ Dale says.”
More on that later, but most interesting is Dale’s revival of the story that her real inspiration for the book — after her story of it being family history was unmasked — came from one of those wise elders kids come across:
“But the little-known backstory of The Hand that Signed the Paper is that of an unnamed, one-time officer of the armed wing of the Nazi party, the Waffen-SS, who when Dale was a teenager was living quietly in the suburbs of Brisbane. Dale, who grew up in Logan, south of Brisbane, came across him as he was clipping a hedge. He had a Waffen-SS tattoo in his armpit, and Dale questioned him about it.”
Nice story. Because ex-Waffen SS members were always outing themselves in the 1980, when war crimes trials were still going on. Also odd, given that Dale wrote a story for her school magazine, “Demjanjuk vs The State of Israel”, which discussed the trial of a Ukrainian-American auto worker, said to be a death camp guard, who was kept in a glass case throughout his trial in Israel. It read like lonely girl fiction with an unusual central image, and it’s certainly inconvenient to Dale’s story. She met this obergruppenfuhrer when — age 13? Then wrote the Demjanjuk story? Or by an incredible coincidence met this bloke after she wrote the story? Or is the more likely answer that she saw Demjanjuk on TV, poured her adolescent angst into the figure, and kept going all the way to Kiev?
The Oz doesn’t care, despite, or maybe because Dale has punk’d them before — getting sacked from The Courier-Mail (editor: C. Mitchell) for filling a column she’d been given with plagiarised material (she was sacked from the UQ student paper or the same reason). But passing on naked SS man as gospel, and without challenge — or failing to record that Dale was challenged about this at the time — is pretty gullible of Natasha Robinson, the interviewer.
Dale presents matters as if the only problem was her masquerade. It wasn’t. The problem was that the historical background was a manifestly false anti-Semitic travesty of Ukraine in the ’30s — in which Ukrainian Holocaust collaboration was portrayed as revenge for the engineered famines of the 1930s by an allegedly Jewish-dominated Communist Party.
The background was embarrassingly bad and full of elementary errors, as documented by numerous commentators, including a book-length treatment by Robert Manne. Some of it was To Kill a Mockingbird goes East (a park sign saying “no dogs or Ukrainians allowed”), some of it is pure YA, “The Outsiders in Auschwitz”, all of it points away from the truth — that there were deep and violent anti-Semitic strains in Ukrainian culture long before the Bolshies (thoroughly Russianised by the 1930s) came along.
Dale’s rendering of Ukrainian-national and Jewish conflict was of its time, couched in an Oprahesque abuse-begets-abuse manner of the ’90s. It was chilling without being dispassionate, in the way that Primo Levi is dispassionate. Dale is immensely solicitous to the wounded selfhoods of the Ukrainians, while tending to suggest that the Jews were substantially to blame for their own persecution. Standard hard-Right stuff, but the line-up of Demidenko/Dale’s defenders was a real mix. Many on the Right loved the anti-communism and were willing and eager to ignore the anti-Semitism — as so often happens among those for whom the mildest criticism of Israel puts you up there with Der Sturmer, pre-war attacks on pre-Israel Jewish life being acceptable.
When Helen Demidenko was revealed to be Helen Darville — initially of Scunthorpe, then of Paddington — the polarities switched. The postmodern Left rushed in to defend her, while the Right melted away. By that time Left-pomo had got so confused that it couldn’t find ground to say any course was “truer” than another, something that extended all the way to science, which was mere social construction allegedly. Then 9/11 and global warming put paid to that. Suddenly the Left was the place where discourse could be tested against reality (for some of us it always had been), while the Right went off on their irrationalist, anti-science journey. Kids making shoes in China or wearing suicide vests in Iraq reminded everyone that history happened, and it was important — for self-interest if no other reason — to get it right. I don’t for a second believe that they would defend the book in the same terms today.
Given that Dale has carved out a new identity, linking herself with the old one seems a little foolish and a touch suggestible. The aim seemed to be to sell a lot of books and get famous, hence the ethnic waitress costume, and all the vodka slamming, family mythology, etc. Fine, it’s funnier in memory than it was at the time, but it’s still a balalaika dance on a mass grave — and more likely to be seen a such now than in the post-historical ’90s. Unless she’s got Martin Bormann stashed in a Fortitude Valley studio flat, Dale should take her unquestioned talents to fresh meadows.