Joe's War: my father decoded, by Annette Kobak

A war-time mystery of heroism and betrayal
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The Independent Culture

Few children question their parents' lives: they are too busy making sense of their own. But it is hard to achieve self-knowledge if the parental canvas is wholly blank. Why did Annette Kobak's father never mention his family or past? Why were there no photographs, why did he sleep with a hammer under his pillow? Joe's War records her cathartic voyage of discovery and self-discovery as she follows her father, literally and figuratively, from Czechoslovakia, where he was born, to the Polish-Ukrainian border, where he spent his teens, and across Europe as he fled the invading Russians and the Germans to England, where he joined General Anders's Polish army.

Trained in electrical engineering, Joe was assigned to signals. He spent his time eavesdropping on the Russians, not for the British, whose official ally Stalin was, but for the Poles, whose bitter enemy Stalin remained. This confused conflict had vast consequences for Poland: its complexities form the core of Kobak's discoveries.

Joe's War is framed by Kobak's journey to her father's old home, and by his own account of the missing years, finally taped over many sessions in Australia, where he now lives. In between, she and we come to realise what was going on behind the scenes: the political and military manoeuvrings, the historical tides and monstrous betrayals that shaped his life and washed him up in a south London suburb.

The result is a kaleidoscope of stories, personal and historical, unified and fuelled by the author's need to know. Why, when she visited Poland and Ukraine, were people on the Polish side still so bitter and the Ukrainians, though poorer, so much cheerier? Why were the Poles, who fought so valiantly and whose contribution to the Allied victory was so effective, excluded from the victory parades of 1945? Why was Czechoslovakia between the wars such a haven of civilisation, and Britain so uncaring about its fate? What really happened to General Sikorski? Why, above all, was Joe so resolutely mute for so many years?

"You solve one mystery only to hit upon another," Kobak remarks, as yet another chance encounter lights up an unexamined corner. Here, perhaps, lies the key to her book's achievement. This super-eclectic mix of travelogue, oral testimony, autobiography and historical documents might easily have become unmanageable. But Kobak's thrilling race to discovery carries the reader along. Like her, we can't wait to know what happened next, and why; like her we are filled with hopeless fury as politicians abolish lives and nations to ingratiate themselves with other politicians. We applaud breathlessly as Joe slips one trap after another, and stand fascinated as chance meetings lead to serendipitous revelations.

It will soon be 60 years since those Pole-less VE Day celebrations. Voices like Joe's are falling silent. Fortunately, his was recorded in time. Annette Kobak both reveals a Europe we never knew, and points up the importance of knowing it.

The reviewer's 'People's Chef: Alexis Soyer' is published soon by Wiley