The glamorous girl with the grenades
Two recent biographies have a hidden Jewish identity at the heart
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The Spy Who Loved/ By Clare Mulley/ Macmillan, £18.99// The Summer My Father Died/ By Yudit Kiss (Trans: George Szirtes)/ Telegram. £8.99
Christine Granville was the first woman to work as a special agent for the British during the Second World War and the country’s longest-serving such operative. Some of the stories of Granville’s bravery and quick thinking have become the stuff of legend.
After being parachuted into France to assist French Resistance fighters during 1944, she was halted at the Italian border by two German soldiers and ordered to raise her arms over her head.
This she duly did, revealing a live hand-grenade in each hand. This combination of bravery, physical strength and mental agility marked the rest of Granville’s short life and resulted in her being awarded the Croix de Guerre, the George Cross and the OBE.
A “gentle-looking” girl born to a Jewish banking heiress and an “aristocratic cad”, her beauty and slight frame enhanced rather than detracted from the high levels of physical fitness, determination and intelligence hidden beneath.
She possessed an almost unearthly ability to communicate with all those with whom she came into contact, even demonstrating a calming effect on the Gestapo dogs that were often sent in her pursuit. Such was her power over the men who loved her that, after her death, they joined forces to prevent unauthorised and inaccurate biographies.
Clare Mulley’s biography is not as fast-paced or thrilling as the life and work of her subject but compensates with much new and original research. She describes Granville’s own life against the backdrop of the tragic story of the Poles and the Warsaw Uprising, particularly raw to Granville as her mother perished in Poland at the hands of the Nazis.
Mulley has a novelist’s eye for detail. Her description of Granville’s untimely murder by a spurned lover is as vivid as it is shocking: the weapon, a knife, “penetrated her red silk scarf, her soft black jumper, and her heart”.
The author viewed the crime-scene photographs of Granville’s murdered corpse and was startled by their clarity, for many pictures of Granville taken during her lifetime were grainy or unclear.
Mulley concludes that, despite the detail, “ironically what they showed most clearly was that she had already left.” But in this clear, highly satisfying biography, Mulley fleshes out her subject and brings her back to life.
Yudit Kiss’s memoir begins with a visit to her ailing father in his hospital bed in Budapest. Behind the façade of the genteel, fading old man is a personal history of childhood in Prague, a journey to Budapest after the German invasion, time spent hiding in a foundling hospital while the rest of his wider family were shipped off to death camps and a lifetime trying to dissociate himself from his Jewish ancestry because of an “unconditional service to the Cause”.
Much of the author’s life appears to have been spent trying to emerge from the unswerving beliefs of her father. There is plenty to admire in the rational and unsentimental way in which she describes the struggle. It must have been hard to understand her Jewish father’s view that “the fate of the Jews in the Second World War was a natural product of the murderous capitalist system”.
The Jewish faith, her father asserted, was a “form of atavism”. So Yudit was brought up as a product of “enlightened Communism” and remained unaware that she was Jewish.
At home, she was told: “We are not Jews because Judaism is a religion and we are atheists”. The book dips in and out between past and present, pinning snatches of memory from different decades between the more fixed frame of the story of a father’s gradual death and decline in hospital.
At moments, his daughter’s description of her own journey between home in Geneva and hospital in Budapest could almost be applied to the experience of reading about it, as one tries to keep up with dates and times — “constantly moving between places changed my sense of time: the unremitting flow was broken.” The flow of her book is occasionally broken, too, but it still offers a measured and affecting read.
Vanessa Curtis is the author of a biography of Virginia Woolf and a number of children’s books