Tony Bernard – The Ghost Tattoo

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2022
Cover design by Mika Tabata
Cover photos the author’s collection

In telling his father’s story of his Holocaust experiences as a Polish Jew, stories of Tomaszów,  Treblinka and Auschwitz, Tony Bernard has not only created a memoir and provided a deeper view of this bigger story, but he has also crafted a deeply affecting account of his quest to know and understand  his father.

Barbie spoke to Tony Bernard about The Ghost Tattoo

His father Henry was a GP in Sydney’s Northern beaches area during Tony’s childhood and youth. Some aspects of this childhood were typical of the times and place, but other things presented as a mystery.

While Tony was aware of his father’s Polish origins, he only gradually learnt the full and horrific stories of deaths, mass extermination, anti-Semitism and impossible choices that was his father’s life.

Accompanying his father on a number of trips to Poland, Tony gleaned information and some understanding of what had occurred there during the war years, but it was only when his father was in his eighties that Henry decided to tell his complete story. With a remarkable clarity of memory, he told of events he had witnessed and experienced during the Holocaust.

It was seeing Spielberg’s Schindler’s List that finally prompted Henry to speak in public and to acknowledge the guilt he had carried for some of the actions, a guilt that had marked his whole life since in Australia.

He recorded an interview with Spielberg’s team but then went on to produce something much more personal and less limited by someone else’s questions – some nine hours of video, which he made with Tony’s help.

This book, which arose from that video history, is a gruelling read, as you can imagine, with many and detailed accounts of atrocities. However, there is never a time when the reader feels tempted to put it away.

Tony Bernard is a skilled and assured chronicler and we feel for him in this role. His determination to give his father (and hence those who did not survive) a public voice is deeply affecting.

This history is important and the airing of it in book form was a particular imperative for Tony. He felt this was the only way it would be widely promulgated. The Ghost Tattoo thus fulfils the role of history telling from the point of view of those who have been there, the ‘victims’ story’ as it were,  and is also a way for Tony to connect with his father as a man, and in that much more personal way as his own father, in fact.

We are all in retrospective time in search of knowing our parents, I think – their stories which, to some extent, are always going to be hidden from us. In this book, Tony has provided factual and thoroughly researched information about Henry, the Polish WW2 story and the broad sweep of Nazism in Europe in that period, and at the same time a subtler view of himself.

Tony is very much present in this book, as he was in Henry’s life. Henry’s story has become Tony’s story and it is told with facility and compassion, with clarity and heart. In 2022, there is no better time to remind ourselves of this monumental and disturbing history.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Tony for such an interesting conversation about this book and the issues it raises.