In­sights of a child run­ning from the Nazis

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS & BOOKS -

IREVIEWED BY MIRIAM HALAHMY T IS 1936, and nine-year-old Kully and her par­ents are on the run from Nazi Ger­many. Her fa­ther, a well­known au­thor, has pub­lished his op­po­si­tion to the regime. Pen­ni­less, they join the mêlée of émi­grés swill­ing around the cap­i­tals of Europe, scroung­ing for ev­ery meal.

Child of All Na­tions, their story, is nar­rated in Kully’s in­ci­sive voice. She has her own, ma­ture views on pol­i­tics — “The Ger­mans were just help­ing them­selves to Aus­tria but in Nice it was car­ni­val” — and death — “I won­der if it would be bet­ter if peo­ple weren’t born any more.” Kully has no con­cept of home­sick­ness, they have wan­dered so much, but she knows how to roll a cig­a­rette and can pick up the es­sen­tials of a lan­guage in a day.

Kully un­der­stands that they are wel­come nowhere but, in a poignant re­mark from which par­al­lels with con­tem­po­rary asy­lum seek­ers spring ir­re­sistibly, she con­cludes: “We’re not at all harm­ful and in fact just like other peo­ple.” Her clear, pre­cise ob­ser­va­tions ring out above the sur­round­ing chaos of a world gone mad.

Michael Hof­man’s ex­cel­lent Af­ter­word re­veals the back­ground to this un­usual writer. Ir­m­gard Keun was born in Ber­lin in 1905 and, pub­lish­ing be­tween the wars, be­came the voice of “The Mod­ern Young Wo­man”. She was black­listed by the Nazis and went into ex­ile from 1936 to 1938, re­turn­ing to Ger­many to live un­der an as­sumed name.

This novel, first pub­lished in 1938, re­flects her own wan­der­ings through Europe with the cel­e­brated Aus­tri­anJewish au­thor of The Radet­zky March, Joseph Roth, and is an im­por­tant re- min­der that non-com­pli­ant Ger­mans also suf­fered in the Nazi era.

By con­trast, Beth Levy, in the award­win­ning Sidura Lud­wig’s first novel, is born into post-war Win­nipeg, where the Jewish com­mu­nity has set­tled com­fort­ably, vir­tu­ally for­get­ting the Old Coun­try. Beth grows up in the wake of the strong-willed women who sur­round her. There is Goldie, her mother, who re­gards her­self as the keeper of fam­ily val­ues; Aunt Car­rie, un­mar­ried, who car­ries a se­cret for Beth to un­ravel; and wild teenager, Aunt Sara, who wants to live in the real world and not con­tinue to lament their dead brother, Phil, the War Hero. Beth, though, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally takes up Phil’s in­ter­est in as­tron­omy.

Hold­ing my Breath charts the de­vel­op­ment of the fem­i­nist era in the 1950s and ‘60s, and its im­pact on Jewish women. Beth has to steer a path be­tween the temp­ta­tions laid be­fore her by Aunt Sara and the rigid rules set by her mother. She has to strug­gle to con­vince her mother that she must make her own way in life.

Beth weighs up her op­tions against the un­rav­el­ling se­crets not only of Car­rie’s life, but also of Phil’s. Ul­ti­mately, her choice is un­der­pinned by the grow­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for women. Miriam Halahmy is an au­thor and free­lance writer

Sidura Lud­wig: fem­i­nist themes

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