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

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.