The Black Life
Writing The Black Life was such an arduous experience that I find it difficult to talk about even after six months have passed. It’s hard to put a finger on why you choose specific subjects for books. With me, the decision is often linked to a sense of place. As always, Mavros finds himself in a different location in each book, in this case the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. I’ve stayed there several times, without realising the depth of its history. My main interest was the period of occupation by the Axis forces during the Second World War, especially after the Italian surrender which left the Nazis in full control. As Mark Mazower and other historians have pointed out, Thessaloniki’s Jews were its the largest religious and social group until the influx of Greek refugees from Asia Minor during the exchange of populations with the Turks in the early 1920s.
Ironically, the Jews – mainly Sephardic people who themselves had been refugees from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century – had co-existed peacefully with the large Moslem population until the city was conquered by the Greeks in 1912. With the arrival of poor Christian Greeks, tensions between the population groups increased in the years leading up to the Second World War. There’s no getting away from the basic facts: over 50,000 Jews were sent to the concentration camps – mainly Auschwitz-Birkenau – in the last two years of the war. Only a few thousand survived to return.
The genesis of The Black Life really lies in contemporary Greece, where an extreme far-right populist party, Golden Dawn, has come to the fore. Many view them as neo-Nazis, although they now deny their past open allegiance to Hitler and his cronies. As ever in Greece, history is the key. Thessaloniki has a dark secret, one which, in the novel, I used to explain present-day extremism. During the war Greek collaborators bought up Jewish property and goods at low prices, via an agency set up by the Germans and administered by local officials. It seemed to me not unlikely that the grandchildren of at least some collaborators would have far-right tendencies.
So, Mavros goes to Thessaloniki to find a Jew who supposedly died in Auschwitz, but – out of the blue - has been seen on the street. This man, Aron Samuel, turns out to have an extremely chequered past, and is still involved in activities that have attracted the attention of several security organizations. Asked to track Aron down by his nephew and accompanied by his great-niece Rachel, Mavros finds himself in an increasingly dangerous position. He also discovers exactly what some Jews were forced to do in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, and what a few of the survivors were driven to after the war was over.
And all of this has a terrible effect on Mavros’s own loved ones…