Jonathan Mirsky on Nancy Kohner’s new book
What could be more poignant than this? ‘You know nothing of what is happening here, and I can’t explain it to you. Just be glad that you’re as far away as you are. What is happiness? Happiness is what once was, once upon a time when we lived such a beautiful, peaceful time. It’s a good thing that no one can take away our memories.’
In August 1940, Valerie Kohner wrote those words to her family, Jewish Czechs, who had escaped from Czechoslovakia to Britain. Alone in Nazi-occupied Prague, she knew what was coming. Two years later, shaven-headed and naked, the 68-year-old woman was murdered in Treblinka, where 12,000-15,000 Jews were gassed and burned every day. Valerie’s sons, one of whom was Nancy Kohner’s father, who knew nothing of their mother’s death, were still sending her food parcels in 1944.
After her father died, Nancy found boxes of letters, notes, diaries, photographs and bills, the jetsam of a family’s life, reaching back to the 19th century. There were also gloves, pressed flowers and recipes. Crumbling and fragile, the papers were in languages, shorthands, and even codes Nancy couldn’t decipher. With a lot of help, she uncovered this deep, almost microscopic, look into a certain kind of family.
The Kohners were a barely observant Jewish, shop-keeping, German-speaking family in Podersam, a small town between Prague and the German border. Without creating a golden age, it seems to me that Valerie was right and the Kohners were indeed a happy family. Even the poor- quality pictures in this book show that. Anyone acquainted with such Jewish families in London today will recognise the type. In the jumble of papers, Nancy read about ‘raucous’ songs and teasing at mealtimes.