Leo Baeck 1


Oct 2001 Journal

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A tale of ‘bloody refijees’

Zvi Jagendorf, Dewi Lewis, 2001.

The refugee experience of World War II is the central theme of this insightful novel, rooted as it is in personal experience. This is not the world of erudite and acculturated German refugees, but of a family of Ostjuden from Vienna who are, as Wolfy observes, not so much refugees as “bloody refijees.”

Wolfy Helfgott finds himself in England on the eve of war with his parents, uncle, aunt and cousin Bernie. The sense of upheaval and chaos prevailing in England is the background to the Helfgott’s odyssey which takes them from a reception camp for refugees on the south coast to a small town in Shropshire, where father Chaim (now known as Harry Halfgo) finds a factory job. Eventually the family progresses on to the austerity of post-war London.

Wolfy is a story of the absurdity and paradox that often accompanies the experience of finding oneself in an alien culture. When Chaim wins a competition at his wartime factory to write a poem for the ‘Sing For Victory’ competition, the resulting piece - which has the opening line “How pleasant to work in the sorting shop” - is constructed as an acrostic making the phrase HELP RUSSIA. Unknown to the work force this is an idea Chaim has based on the structure of the synagogue prayer Ashrei.

Throughout the novel, the unifying thread is the sense of dislocation - spiritual, as well as physical - in the situation of the refugee, which centres around Wolfy’s efforts to make sense of what he sees going on around him. This ranges from the demands of Jewish religious observance in the context of a state grammar school education to the secret affair between two refugee friends of his family, and finds its apotheosis in the devil-may-care pleasure-seeking of his cousin Bernie in the face of his parents’ religious values.

One of the more impressive features of this promising debut novel is the number of fine examples of metaphor. For example, the brilliantly executed opening section where a man (in fact a relative of the Helfgotts) is found dead on arrival at a Viennese tram terminal with empty pockets and nothing whatsoever on his person to identify him - because, as it happens, he was returning from a shabbat visit to his Rebbe. This extraordinary and haunting image succinctly sets the tone for the ensuing story of the fate of the refugee - his journey to unexpected destinations and the accompanying loss of identity.
John Adler

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