BOOK REVIEW / Dispatches from a war zone: The Journey - by Ida Fink, Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99: Children and fools by Erich Fried, Serpent's Tail pounds 6.99

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The Independent Culture
IDA FINK's novel is the gripping account of how two teenage girls escape from the Jewish ghetto in a small Polish town in 1942 and spend the rest of the war on the run. Using forged papers and false Aryan identities, the girls work in labour camps and on farms, moving on when it becomes dangerous. They hide their dark hair and their intelligence not only from the occupying Germans but also from their fellow countrymen, who see them as a source of money (blackmail, reward or simple theft) and who believe that Hitler is a criminal 'but at least he has freed us from the Jews'. Although some of their experiences involve hard labour and hunger, most of their suffering comes from the cruelty and spite of others and from the constant fear of exposure and death.

This, the blurb tells us, is Fink's own story. She tells it as a series of recollections, an unreeling of memories which from time to time breaks down ('I find I cannot remember how . . .') or pauses to focus clearly ('I can see this all as if on film . . .'). The mainly first-person narrative adds drama, shape, suspense and a cinematic,

adventure-story power.

But the reader cannot help but see this as more than just a personal Second World War story: the middle European wanderings, halts at railways stations, unnamed towns with crowded squares and grey roads leading to the forest - all evoke a familiar 20th-century nightmare.

Erich Fried was a survivor too. In 1938, at 17, he escaped from Austria to England, where he remained writing poetry and criticism until his death in 1988. Fried's approach to the experience of war is oblique and literary. Over half the stories in Children and Fools are short philosophical allegories or political fables in the manner of Borges (to whom he pays homage). There is a story involving a society of speaking dolphins, a contemplation of an early English chamber-pot with a statuette of Napoleon in its bowl, and a fantasy about being able to overpower your enemies with a running jump.

Occasionally, Fried's playful logic-chopping is applied to the facts of the Holocaust: a tale about well-intentioned liberals who spend so long perfecting their plans to release Jewish prisoners that they fail in their mission; and an exercise in irony, a chillingly detached linguistic analysis of the last words flung at the guards by those entering the gas-chambers: 'Our smoke will suffocate you.'

Fried can appear sly, as if he always had one over us. But the stories in which he revisits his childhood give us simple pictures of a family under threat and of his refugee years in London. In 'Green Suite' he traces his family's decline through the fortunes of an ornate drawing-room chair, once the symbol of bourgeois comfort, left to grow shabby in an attic. Two final stories look back from England and safety on some of his dead relations and take bitter comfort from the thought that they would have been dead by now anyway. 'My Doll in Auschwitz' tells of a visit to Poland in 1967. 'I had expected the mountain of shoes,' he says, but what pierces his detachment is seeing in a museum, among the property taken from the camp inmates, a toy on wheels exactly like the one he had when he was four.

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