Peacetime survivor peace

THE WAR AFTER by Anne Karpf Heinemann pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
This is a vibrantly live memoir about growing up in the leaden penumbra of a Holocaust home. Survivors of the Holocaust are all, to some degree, emotional dinosaurs: for the Jews whose early lives were touched by World War II, nothing that came afterwards could ever compare, in fear and degradation, with what they had suffered. "Depressed, what's depressed?" Anne Karpf's father would demand if one of her friends was feeling low. "Her life isn't endangered, she has enough to eat."

Karpf's father, a Polish Jew, had escaped from a camp on the Volga River; her mother, a concert pianist and soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic when she was just 18, was a survivor of camps at Auschwitz and at Plaszow where Commandant Amon Goeth - immortalised in Schindler's List - summoned her to play at his birthday party and then commuted her death sentence. They came to Britain as young marrieds in 1947.

Psychiatric studies on the emotional problems of children adjusting after the war were published in scientific journals in Britain, Germany and the US as early as 1945. But it wasn't until the last decade that the children of Holocaust survivors began actively to seek each other out and exchange experiences. Through four decades they had felt a block on giving vent to emotion, since they were made to feel that, if they had ready meals and warm clothing, they were protected against all possible suffering. This emotional silence was imposed by a mixture of embarrassment on the part of outsiders and self-censorship by the Jews themselves.

The slightest shred of anger or implied criticism was, in the Karpf home, completely illegitimate. Karpf and her sister were raised on "stories of the fractures in our parents' lives", and their own baby psyches became cracked and anxious as a result. By the time she was a teenager, Anne's repertoire of emotions had become so minimal that when, much later, she went into therapy, she had to ask the therapist, "What is a feeling?"

Making something alive out of that blockage is the journey Karpf describes, with a depth matched only by the clarity with which she expresses messy emotions, and the talent of her writing. But Karpf's sublimation of her deepest feelings is not only about protecting her parents. One of the most disturbing chapters is about the attitude prevalent in Britain even after the war, when the worst of what the Nazis had done was public knowledge. The Britain in which the Karpfs found themselves did not want to hear about their experiences, or seem to care.

A more-or-less loudly voiced fear of anti-Semitism was one of the principal motives behind Britain's restrictive immigration policy for Jews from a Germany that was becoming ever more dangerous in the 1930s. Even many educated Britons felt that the Jews were responsible for anti-Semitism, and the more of them that were allowed into the country, the worse it would get. Only 11,000 Jewish refugees were permitted to enter Britain in the five years before Kristallnacht, in 1938, and then mostly on a temporary basis. Those who were allowed to stay were advised to keep their heads down, and, as a helpful little booklet suggested at the time, "Do not criticise any government regulation or the way things are done over here". Small wonder that the Karpf children sat on their feelings.

Anne Karpf's need to protect her parents took precedence over almost all other impulses, stunting her development until finally her skin began to articulate some of her buried anger and distress, and the eczema she had suffered as a baby returned in her mid-thirties. With the help of long-term psychoanalysis she began to explore her experiences. She met the children of other Holocaust survivors, and eventually, with the birth of her own child, grew proud of her heritage. At times brutally sad, The War After is also a rich and funny exploration of the struggle between a child and her parents.