HELEN LEWIS’ carefully wrought account of the European Jewish experience from the mid-1930s through to the late ’40s is so much more than mere memoir. In A Time To Speak, and with a quite astonishing dispassion, Miss Lewis has laid out a chronology of her life that reads like nothing less than a descent into hell.
The initial dread came slowly and the clouds took their time in gathering, but by early 1939 Prague had fallen and everything was in disarray. Little by little, restrictions were put in place.
Jews were limited in their freedom of movement and had to obey a strict curfew. Radios were outlawed, items of value confiscated. Family pets, dogs, cats, hamsters, caged birds were taken. The wearing of yellow stars was implemented.
In steps so carefully measured that they came to seem acceptable, even logical, the Nazi war machine pushed the Holocaust through its first cautious gears. And it was just the beginning.
Those who could fled. The rest held fast. The British declared war and few doubted that the Allied forces would again sweep Europe clean, and in double-quick time.
But days became months, then years, and atrocities followed. Internment first, then worse. Miss Lewis, who’d been nurturing a promising career as a dancer, was forced to endure the ghetto of Terezin before being herded onto a cattle train bound for Auschwitz and finally Stutthof in the north of Poland, close to the Baltic.
Along the way, she lost her mother and her husband, Paul, battled disease, endured beatings and squalor and somehow, either by chance or by some convolution of small miracles, survived.
In all things, the author eschews hysteria, understanding that there is no need for embellishment because these words speak for themselves. She conjures her scenes in quick, delicate phrases, phrases that almost invariably break your heart even as they set your stomach to churning. In describing Auschwitz:
“Here nature had died, alongside the people. The birds had flown from the all-pervading black smoke of the crematoria and their departure had left a silence that was like a scream.”
If this were fiction, it might fall into the category of magical realism, such crisp, understated prose recounting surely impossible acts of horror with a stately calm bordering on the detached. But no fiction could imagine a world worse than this.
This is horror distilled to its very essence, full of fear, suffering, death, murder. Monsters lurk in these pages, the shadow of evil is everywhere. And yet, incredibly, chinks of light penetrate this terrible story too, occasional and often fleeting, but innately merciful. Her survival is a matter of chance, perhaps a series of small miracles.
Religion hardly enters the equation; what this book concerns itself with is humanity, in the best and worst senses of the word.
In 117 staggering pages, A Time To Speak is everything a book can and should hope to be. If you buy this book, and you should, read it through. Then, once you have finished, take a few moments to consider the cover, the photograph depicting a small group of men and women smiling open-eyed for the camera. Consider their faces and then take note of the yellow stars stitched in place over their hearts.
Those yellow stars inform us that the worst has already begun and that these ordinary looking people have, for no other reason than their creed, their ethnicity, been marked out for death.
Yet somehow, for a camera’s lens, they can raise a smile. One of those smiles survived to tell this story.