Departure and its aftermath

Three new books delineate the perspective of an adult in Britain looking back at childhood connections to German or Austrian Jewish parents

By Amanda Hopkinson, November 30, 2011
'Staircase: the letter' by Barbara Loftus, the daughter of a German-Jewish refugee, from her book of artworks, Sigismund's Watch (Philip Wilson, £25)

'Staircase: the letter' by Barbara Loftus, the daughter of a German-Jewish refugee, from her book of artworks, Sigismund's Watch (Philip Wilson, £25)

The Language of silence
By Merilyn Moos
Writersword, £11.99

By Sue Eckstein
Myriad Editions, £8.99

My Mother was Viennese
By Peter Flatter
Words By Design, £10

We have been warned against visiting the sins of the fathers upon their sons. But what of another inheritance, equally unwilled? These three books look at the trauma that is the legacy of the next generation of Holocaust survivors. Not those who suffered the guilt of being the ones that "shouldn't" - in some overwhelmingly irrational sense - have got away, but those whose arrival here bears its own burdens.

The Language of Silence by Merilyn Moos, is a first-person account of growing up in North London as the daughter of two German refugees whose socialist principles had put them at equal risk from both the Nazis and (as it turned out) Soviet Communists and their agents abroad. "Anna", whose autobiography this is, inherits her parents' politics and academic abilities but grows up puzzled by their habitual silences alternating with angry repression in their relationship with their only daughter.

Gradually comprehending, Anna finds her own synthesis of socialist and personal values, and of her German home and British education. She becomes a working single mother, deeply devoted to her son, who grows up with a second-generation version of radicalism (ie gets arrested for campaigning on climate change) and whose global embrace is even more ample than was hers for international socialism.

Interpreters by Sue Eckstein (the one professional author of the trio) is written as a novel, like her previous, successful Cloths of Heaven. A mother-and-daughter tale, it reprises the parental silence and filial incomprehension at the trauma that remains too fierce ever to be spoken of. Split in time between the former's coming of age as Germany goes to war and the latter's return voyage to her suburban youth to search for clues, it includes the further complication of a running commentary of her psychotherapy sessions.

Strongly written as it is, the centre cannot hold. The material is ambitious enough; its form ultimately bewildering where it should be elucidating.

Initially perhaps the least auspicious of the three emerges a winner. The full title of Peter Flatter's My Mother was Viennese: An Early Life remembered, a mother's sacrifice, and her struggle for survival sounds like a Victorian homily on maternal virtue and filial piety.

In fact, in refusing to conform to type, being neither fiction nor autobiography nor (as other two under review) lightly fictionalised autobiography, it contains some of the most original material.

The silhouette of a brave but abandoned mother emerges from the dark, in the cumulative presentation of her letters to the 13-year-old-son she sent "on ahead" to safety in England and those from her close, Austrian friend, who fruitlessly attempted to secrete her in the Sud-Tirol while soliciting a passport; further miscellaneous notes and correspondence, including from the conductor Willem Van Hoogstraten, and the contents of the diary Eva Flatter-Haas entrusted to him, for her son once the war was over, assuming they would never meet up again.

They never did, and it became Peter Flatter's inheritance, along with the immense burden of guilt at having been powerless to save her from deportation to Auschwitz.

In reality, it was his father who lamentably failed the wife (from whom he was separated) and his young son by failing to pursue the exit permits he might have used his position in the West to obtain.

Peter Flatter is now in his 80s; Merilyn Moos in her 60s. Like Sue Eckstein - and like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner - they each have their tale to unburden. They are all contributions to a growing library and legacy of the Holocaust, as written not by the survivors but by their descendants.

And each demonstrates that trauma is the most powerful inheritance of all.

Amanda Hopkinson is Professor of Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia

    Last updated: 10:59am, November 30 2011