Innocent honesty inside an Aryan exterior
Let Me Tell You A Story
In 1942, while her father was away with the Polish army, six-year-old Renata Calverley was sent with her mother and grandmother into the Przemysl Ghetto. From there, in an overcrowded room with a bucket in the middle, the child began a hazardous journey that would start with the traumatic loss of all the familiar comforts of childhood and end with a new life in England four years later.
Obvious challenges arise when writing as an adult from the point of view of your six-year-old-self. Not all events and conversations can be recalled and dialogue needs to be written to suit an adult readership. The result here is that the little girl’s speech tends to sound oddly mature. That said, it is impossible not to be moved by the plight of this child, who lost her mother and grandmother and was then smuggled from the ghetto by her beloved nanny and passed straight into hiding with a volatile couple who were obsessed with the cash payments that came with hiding a Jew.
At one point, Calverley ended up in a grim, state orphanage “similar to the one I had imagined Oliver Twist lived in.” She had been born with blonde hair and blue eyes and, for this reason, was considered for adoption from the orphanage by a German family who might have pushed her towards recruitment into the Hitler Youth.
Despite her Aryan appearance, her little girl’s innocent tongue often threatened to betray her origins, as it nearly did when she told the director of the orphanage that her mother had been “taken away in a lorry to a camp”.
A cousin turned up to remove her just in time and members of Calverley’s extended family gave her temporary shelter. It was not until 1946 that she was reunited with her father in London.
As a tale of a young child being hidden and passed around, rather than an adult actively engaged in fleeing peril, this is a tenderly moving rather than an overtly dramatic tale. It would be difficult not to warm to Calverley, honest enough to portray her young self as often wilful and stubborn.
But, for illuminating one way in which a small number of Jewish children managed to survive the horrors of the Second World War in Europe, hers is a worthy addition to the Holocaust memoir genre.
Vanessa Curtis is the author of five children’s novels and two biographies of Virginia Woolf. She is currently writing a novel about the Riga Ghetto