Sharply de­fined

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment - RE­VIEWED BY MADELEINE KINGS­LEY ‘Life’ is ‘a ter­mi­nal ill­ness’ JOHN NATHAN

Man­sion Field, £24.95

IN THE chaotic af­ter­math of the Sec­ond World War, the late Rabbi Dr Solomon Schon­feld, the mar­vel­lous hero of Bar­bara Bar­nett’s story of post-shoah re­demp­tion, trawled Slo­vakia for young sur­vivors: or­phans, slave labour­ers and those hid­den away by right­eous gen­tiles. The dy­namic Schon­feld had al­ready saved thou­sands of chil­dren be­fore and dur­ing the war, orig­i­nally un­der the aus­pices of the Chief Rabbi’s Re­li­gious Emer­gency Coun­cil. His ex­tra­or­di­nary post-war mis­sion was to of­fer young Slo­vak sur­vivors a heal­ing year in the Ir­ish coun­try­side.

Bar­nett’s ac­count is schol­arly yet grip­ping, fleshed out with ar­chive let­ters, doc­u­ments and pho­to­graphs. Schon­feld leaps out as a mav­er­ick force whose vi­sion of restor­ing her­itage, health and in­no­cence to these trau­ma­tised young­sters brooked no bar­ri­ers.

No money? No mat­ter: among his North London con­gre­gants and fur­ther afield, Schon­feld cam­paigned for £1,000 in £1 pledges and pre­vailed upon wed­ding and bar­mitz­vah guests to part with cash. A Manch­ester businessman and phi­lan­thropist Yankel Levy was per­suaded to spend £30,000 buy­ing Clonyn Cas­tle, set in 1,600 acres near Dublin. Here, in 1948, 100 mis­trust­ful and mal­nour­ished chil­dren aged be­tween six and 17 ar­rived for a life­trans­form­ing idyll be­fore re­join­ing their strug- gling fam­i­lies, or start­ing new lives in Eng­land, Amer­ica or Is­rael.

Most of these chil­dren — whose deeply af­fect­ing mem­oirs Bar­nett gath­ered nearly half-a-cen­tury on — had suf­fered ap­pallingly be­fore set­ting out on this (at first to­tally be­wil­der­ing) ru­ral ad­ven­ture. “Our per­son­al­i­ties and de­meanour re­flected the va­garies of an ut­terly con­fused past and a lost child­hood. We wore our mis­ery on our faces”, the then teenage Al­fred Le­icht re­calls.

Some of the group were alarmed by dor­mi­to­ries with iron bed­steads req­ui­si­tioned from Ir­ish army sup­plies. Sev­eral screamed at the sight of a po­lice­man. Many spir­ited food from the meal ta­ble, un­sure if more would fol­low. And yet their story un­folds as a triumph of re­silience and nor­mal­ity re­stored. “It was like par­adise”, re­mem­bers Dezider Rosen­feld, then 10.

Olga Gross­man, aged 10 and an Auschwitz sur­vivor, was ini­tially fright­ened by games of hide-and-seek. “We as­so­ci­ated hid­ing with fear…”

It’s heart­en­ing to read how shat­tered lives blos­somed into suc­cess­ful ca­reers and the cre­ation of new homes and fam­i­lies. Their bene­fac­tor, Levy, sadly be­came bank­rupt through buy­ing the cas­tle. But he’d made his mark: Clonyn door-frames still bear the im­print of mezuzahs, long since re­moved.

Madeleine Kings­ley is a free­lance writer

THOSE WHO know the writ­ings of critic Rhoda Koenig will be fa­mil­iar with a voice that is fre­quently harsh, rarely gen­er­ous, of­ten with­er­ing in its piti­less as­sess­ment of an artist’s of­fer­ings — and al­most al­ways right.

Koenig once com­plained of not be­ing al­lowed to give fewer stars in her re­views than the usual min­i­mum of one. I doubt that she has ever asked her ed­i­tors for a higher max­i­mum than the tra­di­tional five.

All of which makes the New York­born Lon­doner well qual­i­fied to fol­low in the foot­steps of pro­fes­sional Amer­i­can cynic Am­brose Bierce, whose orig­i­nal The Devil’s Dic­tionary, first pub­lished in 1911, of­fered satir­i­cal, some might say more ac­cu­rate, def­i­ni­tions of English words than those in the Ox­ford ver­sion. An early ex­am­ple is: “Lawyer: One skilled in cir­cum­ven­tion of the law”.

Koenig’s up-to-date ver­sion, The New Devil’s Dic­tionary (Lyons Press, £12.50) is no less cut­ting — or damn­ing. An “An­ti­semite” is one “who dis­likes Jews and Arabs” but, as “hos­til­ity al­ways trumps ac­cu­racy”, the an­ti­semite “only dis­likes Jews”. This use­fully ex­plains why Arabs are some­times fully paid up mem­bers of a club that was founded to ex­clude them.

The “Vul­ner­a­ble” are “too frag­ile to be ap­praised of fault”, while “Life” is a “ter­mi­nal ill­ness”. By con­trast, “Youth” (which comes af­ter “Yid­dish”: a lan­guage that en­ables Jews to de­liver in­sults with­out ret­ri­bu­tion) is “in­fin­itely ex­tend­able by surgery, celebrity im­ma­tu­rity or per­sonal com­par­i­son”.

I give the book five stars.

PHOTO: GER­MAN FED­ERAL AR­CHIVE

Jewish refugee chil­dren ar­rive at the Port of London in Fe­bru­ary 1939. Schon­feld kept the flow go­ing for a decade

Schon­feld: a mar­vel­lous hero

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