Born in England of Polish-Jewish parents (Ryczke was their name), the young Theo Richmond heard a word ringing through his childhood: Konin, the word for home. It is a small town now roughly in the centre of Poland, but after 1918 only a few dozen kilometres from the German border. Inhabitants of the region had, over the centuries, grown used to waves of hostility and annexation as their home territory was incorporated into this or that national entity. When in 1939 the massed ranks of the German army poured across the border into Poland, Konin was only a day or so away. It was one of the first towns to experience the policy of Judenrein, to be cleared of Jews.
From a flourishing, long-established shtetl complete with its fine synagogue, proud library, schools and markets, Konin became a town without a single Jewish inhabitant. Theo Richmond, whose father had crept out of his family home one day in 1912, leaving a note saying he was on his way to London, grew obsessed with the history of this vanished world, this murdered population. His quest to find Konin again - not so much to remember as to remake its reality - is this book, and, like all such intensely personal projects, it is often tortuous, sometimes infuriating, disquieting in the urgency of its obsession, but always astonishing.
Richmond's researches took him through Britain, to America and to Israel. He mapped the pre-war Jewish Koniners with meticulous attention, charting every family and their elaborate interrelationships, their occupations, ways of life, even their personalities. He gleaned and gathered, corresponded and questioned, deduced and devined. It took years; but he came to know hundreds of dead and dispersed people better than most of us know our own close families. Their dwellings were marked on his map. In his persistence, he struck extraordinary riches, and we readers strike them too: it is a book of anecdote piled on anecdote, sometimes haphazardly, stories and voices tumbling over each other, interspersed by Richmond's own.
There is Zalman Bayrach, born in Konin during the First World War, now an Israeli, whose childhood memories include the exact recipe for pickling cucumbers in barrels, and precisely how his mother made the Saturday challah. We hear of grinding poverty; of punishing religious observance; of the tightness of a community determined on self-preservation. There's the teenage boy who did the laundry for his widowed mother, so exhausted was she after her 14-hour working day, but who did it late at night so that the neighbours wouldn't know. There is Henry Kaplan, now living behind net curtains in suburban Harrow, who began life as one of Konin's few wealthy Jews - very unusually (since Jews were forbidden by law to own land) from a family who possessed a large estate and were accepted by their Polish neighbours.
Layer upon layer, haphazardly, these testimonies build up to a vivid picture of the community. And, as if worried that he might leave some gaps, Richmond sets himself little topics: lavatory arrangements, for instance, or the exact methods of teaching in the boys' cheder (religious school). Here, sometimes, I wanted more comparison with the contemporary non-Jewish population - was it only Jews who went to the loo like this, or (as we suppose) everyone of the same economic level?
All this is the archaeology of pre-war life. But of course, every one of Richmond's interviewees has another, more dreadful story to tell; each is a survivor of the Holocaust, remnant of a lost world. Although Richmond carefullly documents the progress of the Nazis across the Konin area, the successive deportations, selections, lootings and murders, the full train of the horror, he weaves the individual testimonies of the Shoah in and out of his travels and researches, bundles them up with quotidien reminiscences. Perhaps this is the only way he could bear to write it; it is almost certainly the only way we could read it. These are stories that can't be retold here, without diminshing them. For in these stories of horror, torture, endurance beyond credibility, cruelty beyond imagining is summed up the whole of the Holocaust, the worst monstrosity that humankind has ever devised.
Richmond's huge achievement, in this peculiar and triumphant book, is that he just lets people speak. There is no undue sentimentality; we are the ones who cry. He is sharp-eyed about the "survivor syndrome", about obsession and denial, about the effect on families. He is level-headed about Jewish absurdities and foibles. When at last he actually visits Konin, it is almost an anti-climax, but the empty spaces where such teeming life once was are by now as eloquent to us as to him. One Koniner, now British, who decided not to make a similar visit, said:
"I would not go back ... it is too sad to return to the grave. Where is the grave? Was it where my father went to the gas chamber? Or the forest where my brother was killed fighting for Poland, for freedom?" He has two grown-up daughters; they scarcely know the name of the place.
! 'Konin: A Quest' is published by Jonathan Cape at £18.99.Reuse content