Shadowy voices from the shtetl

KONIN: A QUEST Theo Richmond Jonathan Cape pounds 18.99; Jan Morris on a moving recreation of a community obliterated by the Holocaust
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The Independent Culture
I took this book with me on a visit to Cornwall, and I was half- way through it when, having walked one morning along the coastal path to Polperro, I saw before me an ancient house emblazoned with a noble name: "The Jew's House".

Who had that Jew been, I wondered? What had brought him to this remote corner of the Christian west? What did he look like? How did he live? Did he wear ringlets and a wide black hat, or was he all but a Cornishman really? Might I once have glimpsed the eight-branched candelabra through those narrow windows? Was a bar mitzvah ever celebrated there? And what became of the Jew of The Jew's House in the end - was he burnt alive by inquisitors, or banished, or did his seed so mingle with the English strain that by now his descendants have forgotten he was ever a Jew at all?

All these questions were given extra meaning for me by Konin, one of the most moving and unforgettable books I have ever reviewed. It is the second work within a month to stimulate my emotions about the Jewish people. Martin Gilbert's The Day The War Ended elevated their role in the Second World War to a plane of transcendental allegory. Konin made me feel, to a degree I have never felt before, that the Jews really have been the innocent scapegoats of history, bearing terrible burdens for us all.

The book is the story of a quest that turned into an obsession. Theo Richmond, an English-born and assimilated Jew living eponymously in Richmond- upon-Thames, developed a passionate curiosity about the small Polish town from where his parents had emigrated long before. There was nothing very special about Konin. It was just another east European market town with a sizeable Jewish population, ruled in various times by Germans, Russians and Poles, a shtetl of the kind which has found its way into so many novels, memoirs and even musicals about Jewish life before the Second World War. By singling it out from among its peers, however, by discovering every single thing he could about the little town and its Jews, by reviving every memory, researching every aspect, pursuing exiled Koniners around the world, Richmond has given it a universal meaning.

There are no Jews in Konin now: as the Nazis decreed, it is Judenrein. Almost all its Jewish inhabitants were taken away and murdered by the Germans, some mercifully fast with a shot in the back of the head, far more by a slow process of cruelty and starvation. Their ordeals hardly bear reading about, and Richmond records them only with grave and sorrowful respect- this is the very opposite of your Holocaust horror-book. In any case, from a literary point of view he is less concerned with the dead than with the living - those few people who can remember Konin as it was before the war, when its Jewish comunity was complete and relatively thriving.

From them, and from the sparse documentation of the place, he has built up for us a meticulous, loving and heart-rending portrait of an utterly lost community. On his street-map of the town, reproduced as an end-paper, he has pencilled all its details: its houses and its shops, family by family, its synagogue and its proud library, the park where, long ago, the Tsarist military band played on summer Sundays, the river bank where the boys fished, the Jewish market place, the homes of aunts and uncles and schoolmasters, rabbis and timber merchants and milliners and ice-cream vendors - gone, all gone, all expunged as though they had never been.

At the end of the book, Richmond fulfils his purpose by going to Konin himself, but it is hardly necessary. By then we feel we know the shtetl perfectly well anyway, from its short cuts and its market-places to the very spot where, on 22 September 1939, the Nazis began the extermination process by shooting two hostages, a Christian and a Jew, against a wall of the Big Square. The author has achieved this vicarious intimacy for us partly by plundering all possible sources of written information, but more vividly by seeking out for himself virtually every living survivor of the shtetl - most of them survivors of the concentration camps too.

It might have been a depressing mission, and of course the tragic past is inescapable wherever the Koniners have settled - in Israel, in England, in the United States. The son of one survivor says that in his father's mind the memory of the Holocaust (or the Shoah, as Richmond prefers to call it) lives on always, "like a low-level hum". But there is a great deal of happiness to the quest too, an inspiriting sense of renewal, and frequent comedy. Richmond is no sentimentalist, no euphemist or apologist either, and he describes these now elderly Jews just as they are.

They are nearly always generous, they are often merry, they are sometimes conceited and irritating. Most of them are Zionists, but some are not, and while many are intensely religious, one at least is an atheist. All too often they are understandably preoccupied still by the infamies of the Shoah, but they are generally touchingly pleased to recall the happiness of their childhoods in Konin. Richmond is very funny about the varieties of fractured English spoken by these scattered elders, and he describes them all (well, nearly all) with the tolerant affection most of us reserve for our own relatives.

But then one of the most striking things about this constantly arresting book is the sense of brotherhood that pervades it.Wherever Richmond goes in his pilgrimage, he is among comrades. The mere mention of Konin, or of his own family name (Ryczke), opens all doors to a flood of hospitality, help and reminiscence. Sometimes the bonhomie is a little too fervent, and one feels that our exhausted author would welcome a quiet night in a motel, or a walk to the station all by himself; but the welcome is sincere and disinterested almost always, and gives a book whose very raison d'etre is tragedy a delightful undercurrent of fun and kindness.

All this heightened my speculative responses, when I stood before The Jew's House in Polperro: and when I came home again to Wales I found myself looking at our own Welsh community through Richmond's eyes. How easy to imagine it, too, obliterated by, bigotry! Gone the little group of veterans, on their bench outside the lifeboat station - dead the pubs, abandoned Siop Newydd the grocer and Medical Hall the chemist's shop on the corner of Stryd Fawr. No longer would our cheerful postman come bustling up Trefan lane, or the old ladies sit in their gossiping rows at the health clinic. The Welsh language would be forever silent, the chapels defaced, and all our dear friends and neighbours would have become, like the Jews of Konin, shadows in the streets of our shtetl.

For by plucking one small and important community from oblivion Richmond makes us realise, perhaps as never before, that the Jews in their suffering were truly representative of humanity at large: and so as the dedicated chronicler of Konin he has become a remembrancer for us all.