in the garden

 

Sep 2004 Journal

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Full circle

LIFESAVING LETTERS: A CHILD'S FLIGHT FROM THE HOLOCAUST
Milena Roth
University of Washington Press, £18.95 (tel 01235 465500); Amazon £11.40

The letters mentioned in the title, apparently unusual in their time-scale, are from the author's mother Anka Roth in Czechoslovakia. They date from 1930 to 1942 and are addressed to Doris Campbell, a friend she had made in England while staying here as a young woman. They were brought together by a common interest in the Girl Guides. The letters are chatty and friendly rather than intimate. The women exchange presents and family news, particularly at Christmas, although Anka makes it clear that she is Jewish. She describes the excitement of her wedding and, later, her delight in the birth of her baby Milena. In a letter dated 1933 the Englishwoman has obviously picked up some hostile vibes but Anka isn't too concerned as yet: 'I don't know about politics', she tells Doris.

When in 1938 the Sudetenland is invaded by the Germans, Anka is aware of the consequences to her extended family but not yet ready to contemplate leaving her country in response to an offer of asylum from Doris. However, the final letters, dated 1939, when she has reluctantly accepted the need to emigrate, are full of enquiries about permits and work opportunities. Practical as ever, only occasionally does she give a hint of the very real anxieties that now beset her. It is a measure of the young parents' desperation that when permits for Anka and her husband for England are delayed, Milena's father finally agrees to let his six-year-old child come to England alone on the Kindertransport. Anka writes with tender concern for the welfare of her child, who, in common with others in this situation, makes a show of being happy in her new home. Like many who hoped to join their children, Milena's parents didn't make it and were deported to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

The rest of the book is about Milena's experiences in England. Her foster parents, the Campbells, are less than ideal, but keeping her mother's letters is one of their few sensitive acts. There is a vivid portrait of Doris, a snobbish middle-class Englishwoman. Of the atmosphere in her large house, Milena writes: 'I could feel no fun or laughter ... it was a house, not a home.' Her foster mother's attitude seems to have been one of disapproval and discouragement. Her foster father has no respect for Judaism. She grows up feeling unwanted and with low self-esteem, too alienated to make contact with other refugees until recent years.

The book is valuable for its account of the rebuilding of a personality and a reminder of the unacknowledged psychological trauma suffered by children removed from their families and everything they knew at such an early age. As Milena puts it: 'Nobody seemed to think that anything happened to me at all. I was alive, wasn't I? I had a substitute family. What impertinence to grieve for anyone else.' This is the experience of many of us who came on the Kindertransport and had to cope with our orphaned state without help or counsel. However, the courage and practical sense shown in her mother's letters have come though to her daughter, so, in a sense, the wheel has come full circle.
Martha Blend

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