By Jake Wallis Simons
Jake Wallis Simons's 2005 first novel The Exiled Times of a Tibetan Jew was well received. His new one, chronicling Rosa Klein's Berlin childhood in Nazi Germany and her escape to England on a Kindertransport, is an ambitious, courageous book.
Ambitious in the way Simons's subject matter - history to him but within living memory for some of us - has a touch of the surreal. Rosa riding her bicycle from early childhood through adolescence into adulthood becomes a symbol of physical as well as metaphysical release. Courageous because its ground has been covered many times before.
In his afterword, in which he makes generous acknowledgment to his background reading and the many people who advised him, Simons says that he did not want to stand accused of "bumming a ride on the Holocaust."
The novel's factual foundations are enhanced by the inclusion of real-life characters as background to the Klein family. These include Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi; Rabbi Malvin Warschauer (whom I remember preaching in the Neue Synagogue during the 1930s); Wilhelm Krutzfeld, the German police lieutenant who saved the Neue Synagogue from being burnt down during Kristallnacht (Simons has him and his wife befriend the Klein family); Norbert Wollheim, who played a key role in organising the Kindertransports, which he often accompanied; Baron Rothschild, the French-born philanthropist who did much to help Jews during the war (in the novel, young Rosa appeals to him for help to get her parents to England); and Clare Alexander, matron of the London Hospital, where Rosa fulfils her ambition of becoming a qualified nurse.
Rosa's childhood is blighted by the virulent antisemitism of Hitler's Germany. Her doctor father is stripped of his professional status; he and his son are sent to Sachsenhausen. On their release, the quest to get out of the country grows more hectic. With great reluctance, 15-year-old Rosa allows her name to be put down for a place on a Kindertransport. To her astonishment, just before the train leaves she sees a baby asleep in its basket being shoved into the carriage. That baby plays a crucial part at the end of the novel and greater detail about what happened to the child between 1939 and the end of the war would have been welcome.
Rosa receives a lukewarm welcome from her Kremer cousins in London, though their adolescent son Samuel is immediately drawn to her. Their turbulent love story, set against Rosa's growing realisation that she will not see her family again, unfolds as bombs shatter London.
When Rosa applies to the London hospital, the matron asks why she wants to become a nurse. Rosa answers: "I wish to find peace." In a story full of pathos, that wish is never entirely fulfilled.