RADIO : Family misfortunes

A Childhood Apart / R4 What I Remember / R3

It's hard for radio to compete with television as a medium for depicting horror. I'm thinking here of the horror of the Holocaust, although the same is true of fictional horror. Radio can't offer anything to compare with the images of Auschwitz and Belsen that have been made familiar through television; the best it can do is to conjure up memories of those images.

Perhaps an awareness of this junior status lies behind programmes like Lost Childhoods, a Canadian documentary reviewed here a few weeks ago, and A Childhood Apart (Radio 4, Tuesday). Both programmes skirted around the Holocaust itself, concentrating instead on the smaller, more personal tragedies of Jewish children who had escaped that atrocity, but whose lives were still shaped by it. Of the two, A Childhood Apart was by far the more affecting, partly because of the pervading irony that this was, ostensibly, a very happy story.

Lost Childhoods was about a childhood lived on the run in occupied Brussels, and the long-term effect of a life of constant fear and duplicity. By contrast, Joan Salter's Polish parents got her out of France and she spent the war in a prosperous American household, adored by her foster parents, before being reunited with both her natural parents. By this time, though, she had become a thoroughly American, pampered child (her name was originally Fanny, changed to Joan by her foster parents); by all accounts, she was a model child, good at her school work and loved by all who met her. She found herself suddenly transported to the East End of London to live with two comparative strangers, both of them deeply disturbed by the destruction of their families in the war, whose language she could no longer speak; unsurprisingly, she became a fairly disturbed child. When she made it back to Boston she had lost much of her charm for her previously adoring foster mother, and that relationship crumbled into acrimony.

The story gained emotional weight from the direct, wry narrative style of the adult Joan, any hint of her unsettled youth buried beneath a stoical manner and a London accent. There was no sense that she was trying to make herself the heroine of the tragedy, something that contrasted startlingly with her foster mother's sentimentally manipulative letters. (A typical specimen, sent to Joan's real parents after the war, claimed that when the subject of returning to Europe was broached, Joan cried "Let's pretend I'll always be with you, always, yes? Shall we, Mommy?") There was no horror here, no real shock; but the domestic scale of the traumas made it personally affecting in a way that horror rarely can be.

You got something of this sense of personal involvement, too, from listening to What I Remember (Radio 3, Monday and Wednesday to Friday), the unpublished memoirs of the late Kuba Wistreich, read in four parts by Lee Montague. Wistreich was a Jewish doctor in Poland who fled to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis and ended up a prisoner of the NKVD in Kazakhstan instead. In Montague's uninflected reading, it came across as an unusually pure narrative, a marshalling of the facts rather than an attempt to tell a story; even Kuba's conversations with his absent brother and dead father during his time in prison were reported as everyday matters, not as something special. The effect was not simply to make this a gripping yarn; but to make you feel, keenly, that this was someone you would have liked to have known.

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