Leo Baeck 1


Feb 2011 Journal

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Hidden lives (review)

This is a highly unusual work of fiction which is at the same time a thinly disguised and compelling autobiographical novel.

The novel is set at the beginning of the present century. The narrator, Anna, sets out to uncover the hidden lives of her German refugee parents, the essentials of which had remained entirely closed to her throughout her late father’s lifetime and most of that of her surviving elderly mother. Events that took place some 60 years before only begin to reveal themselves to her through the letters and other items she discovers when her mother leaves the family home. Anna’s researches, supplemented by coincidental enquiries from an American researcher and, crucially, the released MI5 file on her mother, lead her into deeply shocking territory. Among other things, they uncover the fates of previously unheard of family members caught up in the Holocaust, as well as the past involvement of her political parents, previously unsuspected, in some of the greatest ideologies and upheavals of the twentieth century.

Merilyn Moos, whose first novel this is, is the only daughter of the late economist Siegfried Moos and the poet and playwright Lotte Moos. Both parents, committed anti-fascists, were former Communists, Marxists who became disillusioned with Stalinism but remained dedicated to left-wing causes and activities. Siegfried and Lotte Moos were compelled to leave Germany as early as 1933, seeking refuge in Britain as political exiles. In 1936, however, Lotte left Britain for the Soviet Union to join the Irish Communist and NKVD courier Brian Goold-Verschoyle, contravening Party orders in so doing. Consequently, although Lotte Moos herself was eventually permitted to leave the Soviet Union, Goold-Verschoyle was condemned as a Trotskyite and died in the Gulag.

The fact that Moos’s parents never spoke to their daughter, who was meanwhile growing up in post-war Durham, of these terrible events is probably not surprising. Their decision to keep silent is, of course, directly reflected in the decision of their fictional counterparts, the Weilheimers, who do likewise. But the Mooses/Weilheimers go further than this in the totality of their silence: Anna’s Jewish roots are concealed from her, as are the very names of her dead grandparents and aunt. Everything that might have linked her to her German-Jewish family and identity is kept secret, even the existence of some surviving cousins. The past is so painful that it must be completely suppressed. And the silence, once it has become the family’s habitual modus operandi, encompasses other potentially less threatening areas too, such as Louise Weilheimer’s creative writings: when Anna finally penetrates her mother’s bedroom, previously off-limits to her, she finds, in her words, ‘a lifetime’s work’ that she ‘knew nothing of’.

As Anna, throughout the course of the novel, painfully seeks to make sense of her family’s past, the interrelationships between the individual family members - both alive and dead - become redrawn and redefined. Even her relationship with her difficult mother, the latter demented and near the end of life, can be revisited. ‘We have never had a conversation like this before,’ says Anna when, almost at the end of the novel, she finds herself able to discuss, or at least refer to, the most taboo subject of all: her mother’s sojourn in the Soviet Union with Dennis Fitzgerald, the fictional equivalent of Brian Goold-Verschoyle. In addition, through the series of moving family letters and photographs that her father had kept concealed over the years in a large brown envelope, Anna develops a close if imaginary relationship with those dead grandparents of whom she had previously never heard. And finally there is Anna’s relationship with her beloved son Sam, not an untroubled relationship, certainly, but a hopeful one, there being no place here for the silence that stifled the family relationships of previous generations.

This is, in short, an extraordinary book that traces the interrelationships between four generations of a refugee family in Britain, merging both fictional and non-fictional perspectives. It is an important book that deserves to be read.

Charmian Brinson

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