A family traced back with tears

By Michelene Wandor, July 24, 2008

Nancy Kohner's memoir My Father's Roses (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) was completed in touching and distressing circumstances. Kohner's daughter, Bridget McGing, describes in a prologue her mother's death from cancer in 2006, a week after finishing the manuscript.

Although the book follows the trajectory of a post-Holocaust story, it is more than that. Kohner organised a vast jumble of family letters, diaries and papers, which took months to translate. Her additional research involved returning to Prague 40 years after her family's departure.

From this has come an evocative story of three generations, a portrait of a lost age, and a loving tribute to her father and her grandparents, Heinrich and Valerie. Their voices come through letters to their children: rebellious Franz; talented Berta, who struggled for independence against her father; and Rudi, Nancy's father, who was a good student and took over the family clothing and haberdashery shop before coming to Bradford in 1939.

Kohner's talents were those of a novelist as well as a genealogist and historian. She weaves parts of her own life into moments of history, connecting generations - Franz is wounded by a grenade in the First World War, Nancy breaks her leg at school.

At two particularly heart-wrenching moments, where there is no documentation, she "invents" on the basis of her knowledge. There are no letters between Berta and her parents. Berta killed herself after marriage to a non-Jewish man. Nancy imagines her unhappiness, making use of a painful fragment from Berta's daughter's diary, as well as that of Valerie, alone in Prague, refusing to leave for England with the rest of the family, packing for her last journey, to Treblinka.

Kohner movingly conveys the power of past generations over the new.

Last updated: 1:59pm, July 24 2008