“A stunning achievement” – Testament by Kim Sherwood

József Zyyad has no desire to remember the past. A Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor he rebuilds his life on lies. Untruths not even confided to his closest family members and which only come to light after his death. Relocated to London after the war along with his brother, László, and a small group of other survivors, the city has become home for him. He wants to live in the present and when asked where and when he was born, he says, “London, 1945”. Now, a renown artist, he is Joseph Silk, affectionately just called Silk by friends and family. We are told that at some point in the past László urged his brother to talk about his war experiences, but Silk doesn’t see the point.

“László told him he wouldn’t be free until he gave voice to his suffering. Silk shook his head. ‘Who says I’m suffering? I have a right to forget. A right to build myself a new life, a right to be happy. Your insistence that I talk, these calls to remember, they are a threat to my being: the man I am now, the man I have been since 1945.’”

Silk has always enjoyed a close relationship with his granddaughter, Eva. It is Eva who lives with him and looks after him in the last months before he dies. It’s Eva who grieves for Silk the most and who looks after his estate when he is gone. She is estranged from her father, John, Silk’s son, and her mother lives in Australia. While Eva is clearing out Silk’s house and sorting through documents she comes across a letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin asking Silk’s permission to exhibit his witness testament which has been discovered in the Museum’s archives. It seems that the request has gone unanswered and the journey to uncovering the truth about her grandfather’s life begins when Eva calls the number noted at the end of the letter.

Felix Gershel, a young art historian and curator at the Museum invites Eva to Berlin to view her grandfather’s testament and discuss its future. Their meeting is the beginning of a deepening friendship rooted in their shared love of Joseph Silk and his art. Patiently Felix tends Eva’s complex emotions regarding the testament and the decision whether or not it should be shared with the wider public. The desire to discover more about Silk’s experiences, his lost family and possible surviving comrades grows the more Felix and Eva talk and the deeper they delve into the unknowns of Silk’s life. Together they travel to Budapest and Serbia in a quest that at times reads like good crime fiction.

Delicately balanced with the chapters describing the story of Felix and Eva are those which tell of the real horror which lies at the crux of Sherwood’s novel. Alternate chapters follow the young József Zyyad making friends with the Serbian, Dragan Ivanovic, who Silk says saved his life, but without ever going into details. We are told how the men are made to work in mines under desperate conditions. In his witness statement József also remembers:-

“…. walking between twenty-five and fifty-two kilometres a day, half a kilogram of bread, freight cars with a hundred and twenty-two to a hundred and sixty men, inmates dying at the rate of a hundred daily, fourteen cases of spotted fever, one latrine for seventeen thousand people.”

Other chapters, again, tell of László’s experiences, the horrific labour he is forced to undertake, the friends he makes and the distances they, too, have to walk from one camp to another with hardly any food or water. There weren’t many girls among the survivors, but Sherwood makes the point of including one female character in her narrative. Zuzka is a Czech from Prague who comes to play a significant role in the lives of both József and László.

In the summer of 1945 László, Zuzka and a group of others are finally liberated from Theresienstadt. They are told to file onto a bus that takes them to the airport in Prague where Lancaster Bombers wait to take them to England. Their group is a small number of those three hundred brave young teenagers who survived the atrocities of the Holocaust and become known as the ‘Windermere Boys’. Here, in the beautiful Lake District, in abandoned army hostels, they are given a temporary safe haven until the British Government deems them sufficiently recuperated to be able to rebuild their lives without support and hopefully be integrated into society. One newspaper writes:-

“It’s up to Jews and Jewesses to educate their neighbours, so that doors now closed from understandable misgivings would open to these helpless victims. All these people talk about is doors: doors slammed shut, doors kicked open. The world today is suffering from more barriers than ever before: barriers that prevent people from crossing borders, and class boundaries preventing free intercourse between human beings.”

The novel follows Sherwood’s protagonists to London were we see how they reinvent themselves, establish relationships and struggle to come to terms with their new lives and freedom. But the story of the Silk family is not yet over. In the final few pages the author unpicks another surprise which the reader may or may not already have suspected earlier.

In her Acknowledgements, at the end of the book, Kim Sherwood details the extensive research she undertook and the places she visited during the six years it took to complete her debut novel. Its starting point, she says was the death, in 2011, of her own grandfather, the actor George Baker, and the stories her grandmother, also a Holocaust survivor, subsequently told her. The resulting novel is a stunning achievement. Poignant in the telling, by turns gripping and disturbing.

Any Cop?: Arguably the most remarkable debut novel ever written. Prepare for your emotions to be torn to shreds, but it’s so worth it. This book should be read by everyone and studied in all higher education institutions.

 

Carola Huttmann

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