Review: Berlin to London

Saraga tells the story not only of who was left behind in Berlin, but also of what, says David Herman


Berlin to London by Esther Saraga (Vallentine Mitchell, £14.99)

In 1984, Esther Saraga’s mother died, leaving boxes and envelopes full of papers and photographs. “They were in sideboards and cupboards,” writes Saraga, “in the loft and in the garage. Some were simply stuffed at the back of drawers.” The letters and documents told the story of how her parents had escaped from Nazi Germany.

Both of Esther’s parents were born in Berlin and had come to Britain as Jewish refugees — her father Wolja in May 1938 and her mother Lotte four months later. But Berlin to London is not just a personal story. Saraga uses her research to put her parents’ story in a larger historical context.

The book is full of fascinating insights and details. There is the importance of luck in her parents’ story. Esther’s father owed his escape to the kindness of strangers, many of them non-Jews. Establishment scientists in Germany and Britain, including von Laue in Berlin and William Bragg in Britain, were prepared to use their networks of friends and colleagues to help an unknown but promising young Jewish scientist.

Britain was not the only country to which they tried to escape. Her father had hoped to get to Switzerland and then America but in both cases was thwarted by the immigration authorities. The Swiss refused him a visa in 1935 and in 1937 he was turned down by the USA because he had poor eyesight in one eye, “and the probability that you will become a burden on the state.”

Esther’s grandmother escaped to Palestine and the book movingly documents their efforts to help Wolja’s parents escape to Britain. His mother died in Romania during the war and his father finally made it to Britain in 1947, only to die months after.

Saraga tells the story not only of who was left behind but also of what.In a chapter called All Their Worldly Possessions, she describes her parents’ desperate attempts to have their belongings shipped to Britain.

And, in a letter listing Wolja’s books — “all the classics, the Gundolf edition of Shakespeare; very many philosophy books; Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel et al. … Roman history, Jewish history, Graetz” — is the vanished world of the German-Jewish Enlightenment.

This is not a rose-tinted story. There are no happy ever afters. Saraga describes her mother’s anxiety and depression, her father’s experience of internment, the difficulties of rebuilding a career. This is a deeply moving book, brought to life by Saraga’s painstaking research.

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer.

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