Chapter 6

Historical polemic

Helen Darville, The Hand that Signed the Paper

The 'Demidenko affair' caused a furore in Australia in the mid-1990s, following the publication of Helen Demidenko's novel The Hand that Signed the Paper (1994). There were two main issues at stake in this critical and cultural scandal. First, Demidenko claimed that her text was 'faction'. This provoked fury among those who were dismayed by her story of Ukrainians goaded by the Jewish-Bolshevikinspired famine of the 1930s into eager participation in Holocaust massacres. Second, in August 1995 Demidenko was unmasked as someone quite other than the Ukrainian persona she had assumed since 1992; The Hand was actually written by Helen Darville, of Anglo-Saxon extraction. Added to these central features of the scandal were related ones concerning the originality of Darville's work, which turned out to be reliant on historical and literary sources; the text's attempt to 'domesticate' or even 'humanize' the actions of Holocaust perpetrators; and the fact that, while she was masquerading as Demidenko, Darville had won no less than three literary prizes for her novel.

The effects of this saga in Australia were profound (the book is still not available in Britain or the US for legal reasons). An editorial by Helen Daniel in the Australian Book Review of March 1996 concluded: 'It seems to me that the cultural aftershocks of the whole affair will continue for some years, undermining our intellectual, moral, racial and cultural assumptions and leaving us collectively shaken.' There was a breakdown in relations between the Jewish and Ukrainian communities in Australia during this time, and the Ukrainians threatened Alan Dershowitz, the Claus von Bulow lawyer, with legal action over a statement he made on the affair while visiting Sydney. 1

As the different stages of the Demidenko saga emerged, all kinds of scholars and celebrities were drawn into the debate, ranging from Dale Spender and Peter Singer to Thomas Keneally. The historian W.D. Rubinstein said he considered that the novel might be actionable under Australian Racial Vilification legislation. Four books on the scandal were published within six months. The literary critic Ivor Indyk observed, 'There is a whole world at work in this controversy: it is called Australia', while another critic, Peter Craven, claimed that 'Helen Demidenko is us'. 2 Antisemitic letters appeared in national newspapers, and a cartoon was published in the Australian depicting the blonde

-141-

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Holocaust Fiction
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - Formal Matters 11
  • Chapter 2 - Documentary Fiction 38
  • Chapter 3 - Autobiographical Fiction 67
  • Chapter 4 - Faction 90
  • Chapter 5 - Melodrama 117
  • Chapter 6 - Historical Polemic 141
  • Conclusion 161
  • Notes 168
  • Bibliography 229
  • Index 233
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