BOOK REVIEW / Semolina with fear: A Square of sky - Janina David: Eland; pounds 8.99

Related Topics
UNTIL she was nine, Janina David lived in a small Polish town. Summers were spent in a remote village surrounded by woods, where the children who gathered for their holidays picked mushrooms and berries and told each other stories, sitting in the branches of trees. An only child, and thought to be delicate, Janina was forced to eat large bowls of semolina, and the torment of keeping it down was the only jarring note in an otherwise cosy, loving family life. But Janina's ninth summer fell in 1939, and that was the year her life came apart.

Stories of survivors have made many remarkable books, not least because there is something compelling about personal dramas told against the background of horrendous but historically familiar events which at every moment threaten to engulf the teller. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the Russian Revolution and the Great Leap Forward in China have all thrown up exceptional tales of endurance and memory.

And so, of course, has the Nazi Holocaust. A Square of Sky, Janina David's account of her life between the summer of 1939 and that of 1945 was first written and published in the Sixties as two separate books. Another of this publisher's reliably impressive discoveries, it has now been reissued in a single volume, under the title of the original first part. It is more than 400 pages long, and impossible to put down.

Wrenched from summer village life at the outbreak of war, Janina found herself transported to Warsaw, which was thought to be a safer and more anonymous place for the Polish Jewish population, who - even without the Nazis - rightly felt themselves to be in danger. Survival in the ghetto, during the first years of war, was primarily a question of not starving to death. During the daily forages for food in the streets of the ghetto, Janina watched the refugees from distant parts of Poland losing the fight, growing a little thinner and more desperate every day.

Staying alive on so little food soon made hunger the most pressing sensation, but survival ultimately rested on avoiding deportation to the concentration camps. As a volunteer policeman in the ghetto, Janina's father lasted longer than most, but in the end he, too, succumbed, and eventually Janina had to be smuggled out of the ghetto to a Polish woman, her German husband, and their two young sons. She was passed off to inquisitive callers as a child from the German's earlier marriage. For the 12-year-old Janina, this involved suppressing her Jewishness in favour of the family's Catholicism.

When even this arrangement became hazardous, Janina was moved on, first into the care of a courageous Mother Superior in a convent and then, as the Nazis approached, to a second and safer convent school. With these Polish Catholic children, most of them orphans, Janina managed to reach 1945 alive.

That she survived at all was remarkable, given that nearly every relation and friend from the first nine years of her life failed to do so. That she was able, in her early thirties, to relive those terrible times and convey so forcefully the hourly menace that came in the wake of the days of unconscious childhood contentment, is a great achievement.

Janina David tells her story simply, as through the eyes of the child she had once been, with all the emotional directness of childhood. The daily assaults are recounted freshly, with no hindsight and no judgement. This lack of guile and self-pity makes the relentless succession of appalling events all the more immediate.

Warsaw was, of course, the worst place for a Jewish family to take refuge. Had the Davids remained in their summer village they would most probably all have escaped the Nazi massacres. Even this bitter fact is told with acceptance, with the cool eye of a child.

Her story closes in the orchards of her childhood. In the following years Janina emigrated to Australia, then came to Britain to become a social worker. The final twist needs telling: A Square of Sky has been translated into German and turned into a successful television film. Today Janina David, absurdly little known in this country, is a cult figure in Germany.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform