Insights of a child running from the Nazis

By Miriam Halahmy, May 16, 2008

Child of all nations
By Irmgard Keun (Translated by Michael Hofman)
Penguin Classics, £14.99

Holding my breath
By Sidura Ludwig
Tindal Street Press, £8.99

It is 1936, and nine-year-old Kully and her parents are on the run from Nazi Germany. Her father, a well-known author, has published his opposition to the regime. Penniless, they join the mêlée of émigrés swilling around the capitals of Europe, scrounging for every meal.

Child of All Nations, their story, is narrated in Kully’s incisive voice. She has her own, mature views on politics — “The Germans were just helping themselves to Austria but in Nice it was carnival” — and death — “I wonder if it would be better if people weren’t born any more.” Kully has no concept of homesickness, they have wandered so much, but she knows how to roll a cigarette and can pick up the essentials of a language in a day.

Sidura Ludwig: feminist themes

Kully understands that they are welcome nowhere but, in a poignant remark from which parallels with contemporary asylum seekers spring irresistibly, she concludes: “We’re not at all harmful and in fact just like other people.” Her clear, precise observations ring out above the surrounding chaos of a world gone mad.

Michael Hofman’s excellent Afterword reveals the background to this unusual writer. Irmgard Keun was born in Berlin in 1905 and, publishing between the wars, became the voice of “The Modern Young Woman”. She was blacklisted by the Nazis and went into exile from 1936 to 1938, returning to Germany to live under an assumed name.

This novel, first published in 1938, reflects her own wanderings through Europe with the celebrated Austrian-Jewish author of The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth, and is an important reminder that non-compliant Germans also suffered in the Nazi era.

By contrast, Beth Levy, in the award-winning Sidura Ludwig’s first novel, is born into post-war Winnipeg, where the Jewish community has settled comfortably, virtually forgetting the Old Country. Beth grows up in the wake of the strong-willed women who surround her. There is Goldie, her mother, who regards herself as the keeper of family values; Aunt Carrie, unmarried, who carries a secret for Beth to unravel; and wild teenager, Aunt Sara, who wants to live in the real world and not continue to lament their dead brother, Phil, the War Hero. Beth, though, enthusiastically takes up Phil’s interest in astronomy.

Holding my Breath charts the development of the feminist era in the 1950s and ‘60s, and its impact on Jewish women. Beth has to steer a path between the temptations laid before her by Aunt Sara and the rigid rules set by her mother. She has to struggle to convince her mother that she must make her own way in life.

Beth weighs up her options against the unravelling secrets not only of Carrie’s life, but also of Phil’s. Ultimately, her choice is underpinned by the growing opportunities for women.

Miriam Halahmy is an author and freelance writer

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011