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John Donoghue: The Death’s Head Chess Club

Winner of the 2016 Waverton Good Read Award

‘A nonlinear masterpiece, carrying the reader back and forth from Auschwitz to the 1962 Amsterdam chess tournament.’ New York Journal of Books

John Donoghue introduces The Death’s Head Chess Club

The Death’s Head Chess Club tells the story of an unlikely relationship between a Jewish Auschwitz survivor and an SS officer. The officer, Paul Meissner, sent to Auschwitz after being badly wounded, is put in charge of SS morale. He starts a chess club, which thrives because of gambling on the games. The survivor, Emil Clément, is a gifted chess player.

In Auschwitz, Emil’s children are sent to the gas chamber and he is forced to become a slave labourer. Each day he endures starvation, indignity and brutality under the constant threat of the gas chamber.

In a chance conversation, Meissner learns that chess is played by the prisoners, and that one of them is said to be unbeatable. The idea of an unbeatable Jew is an affront to SS sensibilities, and a challenge is issued.

At first, Emil refuses to play for the gratification of the SS. Eventually, he agrees to play because, if he wins, a prisoner’s life will be spared from the gas chamber. In the games that follow, Emil’s victories infuriate the SS.

The story moves between 1944 Auschwitz and 1962 Amsterdam, where Emil is participating in an international chess tournament. Here, Emil encounters Meissner, now a Catholic priest, who has terminal cancer. Meissner carries his SS culpability endlessly. He is determined to become reconciled with Emil before he dies.

John Donoghue has worked in mental health for over twenty years and written numerous articles about the treatment of mental illness in a variety of medical journals. He is married and lives in Liverpool.

Events

Hartlepool Central Library, York Road, Hartlepool, TS26 9DE
Friday 10 March, 2pm

Willerby Library, The Institute, Main Street, Willerby, HU10 6BZ
Monday 3 April, 6.30pm

Wakefield Library and Museum, Wakefield One, Burton Street, Wakefield, WF1 2DD
Tuesday 4 April, 11am

Blackburn Central Library, Town Hall Street, Blackburn, BB2 1AG
Wednesday 10 May, 7pm

Berwick Library, Walkergate, Berwick-upon-Tweed, TD15 1DB
Monday 22 May, 2.30pm

Spennymoor Library, 24 Cheapside, Spennymoor, DL16 6DJ
Thursday 8 June, 11am

Penrith Library, St. Andrews Churchyard, Penrith, CA11 7YA
Monday 12 June, 2pm

Advance booking is advisable and all events may be subject to change. See our individual event listings for further information.

View the reading guide

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