Life & Culture

The music that tells the story of a three-year-old refugee girl

Former Guardian journalist Jessica Shepherd is adapting the famous castaway radio format for Holocaust survivors - so which songs would they choose?


When it first aired on Radio 4 in 1942, Roy Plomley would probably not have predicted his Desert Island Discs would still be running today.

But now former Guardian journalist Jessica Shepherd is bringing the castaway story format straight to the heart of Holocaust survivors.

She is recording their testimonies, inviting them to choose the music that has accompanied their lives in the same conversational format as the BBC’s flagship programme. Her first castaway is Joanna Millan, and two more are due to follow shortly.

Reaching out to survivors is an extension of the 20 “Castaway Stories” she has recorded within the Jewish community since 2018, celebrating milestone anniversaries or birthdays.

A huge fan of Desert Island Discs herself, she began by interviewing her mother, Elisabeth, when she was ill with cancer. “There was something incredibly special about us listening to her music tracks and her explaining why they were so important to her.”

Jessica asks each castaway to select six to eight musical choices that are special to them. For rights reasons she does not include the tracks, although they are clearly indicated, nor does she ask the castaways for their luxury item or offer the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

As rolling waves lap the shores of that mythical island, accompanied by the opening theme music, we learn that Joanna Millan was born Bela Rosenthal in Berlin and was sent to Terezin with her mother Elsa as a baby. She was eight months old when her mother died there of TB, and one and a half when her father Siegfried died in Auschwitz.

In August, 1945, aged three and a half, she was one of the six youngest children sent to Windermere, in the Lake District.

At the age of five she was adopted by a couple who changed her name to Joanna and told her never to speak of her past.

She has only snatched memories of the flight that brought her to England and recalls the hostel in Windermere for young refugees as “ a beautiful house with toys and proper food and a garden with a swing” where she played with five other children. The children developed close bonds, and relied on each other “as we had done in the camps”.

We then hear one of Joanna’s most moving revelations: accustomed to finding dead bodies in the camp, the children would wake up during the night to check on each other, making sure they were asleep and not dead. They put their trust in each other.

“We didn’t really like grown-ups,” admits Joanna. But on being adopted she could not even say goodbye to her five little fellow travellers.

Jessica asks how she looks back on the little girl who came to the UK at three. She replies: “I haven’t changed very much. I’m fiercely independent.” When she speaks of her adoptive parents, you get the sense there was little meeting of minds. She grew up without music:

“All they ever played was Music While You Work” — a programme aimed at factory workers first aired in 1940 that was broadcast twice a day.

But Joanna developed a love for music and was given a little wind-up gramophone, buying records with her pocket money. In Paris on an exchange she joined “a very bohemian family”, and began going to concerts. Jessica intervenes, very much in the style of Desert Island Discs host Lauren Laverne.

“It’s time for your first track. What have you chosen and why?” Joanna picks Elvis Presley’s Wooden Heart, to which she was introduced by a friend at her secretarial college who was very much into Elvis.

She met her husband, Harvey Millan at a club in the synagogue and was engaged by 1963. Neither family approved of the marriage. He was seven years older and they were complete — if successful — opposites. She dragged him to concerts and the opera, and “he converted me to Hollywood movies”, which definitely set the tone for her desert island choices.

Although lukewarm on her husband’s musical tastes, she felt attuned to The Sound of Music, sung by Julie Andrews.

Even though “ it was Hollywoodised, the film graphically shows how the Austrians reacted to the Anschluss by simply going along with it”. With no A levels to her name, Joanna took a Master’s in criminal justice at Brunel University, winning a distinction.

At the same time Harvey gained his doctorate at Bradford University in risk management for capital projects. Joanna began volunteering and spent 32 years as a magistrate.

Yet the omertà on her tragic early childhood stopped her from discussing it. “It was the late 1950s and maybe it was a taboo subject. People might be shocked, didn’t want to hear about it. It wasn’t until Schindler’s List [the 1993 film] that people really began talking about the Holocaust.”

She breaks off to choose Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, from Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite, which reminds her of her time as a day girl at St Paul’s.

The Hula Hoop Song by Teresa Brewer recalls Paris, where ice skating and the hula hoop were the current craze.

The first Hollywood film to which her husband introduced her was High Society, starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. She chooses True Love because “I just love Bing Crosby’s voice!” In the same vein she opts for Doris Day’s Secret Love.

The lightness of that music belies Joanna’s need to come to terms with the death of her parents.

“I knew they were murdered because they were Jews.” It was not until she was in her fifties, persuaded by her husband and Sarah Muscovitz, a professor at the University of South California (who asked her to contribute to a book about child survivors), that she began to piece together her family history. “Finding my real family was like finding myself,” she says. But how to tell her three children, then aged 13, 14 and 15?

One day a Holocaust film was shown on TV with actual footage. She sat the children down to watch it. Afterwards she told them as much as she knew of her story.

Daniel felt there had always been a secret because she kept hiding her passport; sensitive Amanda was very upset; practical Wendy took it in her matter-of-fact way. And for Joanna herself, it was a challenge.

“I suppose we all have a suitcase in the loft we don’t want to open, a Pandora’s box. I thought — do I really want to open that now?”

She became a prolific speaker on the Holocaust for some 35 years, giving many talks to schools. In 2019 she was awarded a BEM for her work in Holocaust education. But now she worries that the subject is less popular.

“A lot of schools won’t talk about it. It’s considered fake news. I’m not sure that’s the answer any more.”

She feels the proposed Westminster Memorial to the Holocaust is also definitely not the answer. “Education is important,” she believes, “but not memorialisation”.

She thinks people are more caring about refugees today, if not about Jews. “Never before have millions of people been on the move.

"No one country can deal with it; it’s a global issue.” She hates the tendency to lump all trauma survivors together. “Each one stands alone.

"Even among the survivors, the Kindertransport, which came before the war, the child survivors who came after — each one is valid in their own right.”.

For her seventh disc she chooses The Last Farewell by Roger Whittaker, evoking her husband’s time working in Stavanger, Norway. She was married to Harvey for 37 years until he died in 2003. Finally, asked how she would fare on a desert island, she replies: “Probably very well. I’m always a little island in myself.”

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