Kate Chisholm

The lives of others | 14 May 2015

Plus: on the trail of the Anglo-Indians who’ve lived all their lives on the subcontinent but still feel British and what’s it like inside Grayson Perry’s head?

The lives of others | 14 May 2015
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‘I call Zelma Cacik who may be living in London,’ says the announcer, in the clipped RP accent of the BBC in the 1940s. ‘I call her on behalf of her 16-year-old cousin...’ The voice betrays no emotion, no feeling, it’s so matter-of-fact, but the script spares no punches as it tells the cousin’s story in blunt statements of fact. She was born in Poland, separated from her family when she was 12 and made to work in a munitions factory while her parents, her sisters and brother were sent to Treblinka extermination camp.

Twelve names in all are called out on the archive radio programme from 1946, one of several that were made on behalf of children who had been Nazi captives and were waiting in displaced persons camps on the continent with nowhere to go, nothing left, no family, no home, no possessions. Would the contact named by the announcer come forward to rescue them? A 15-year-old boy survived the ghetto at Riga and five concentration camps. A 16-year-old girl watched her two brothers and her aunt being cremated and then lost her mother and her father. Listen again to the announcer and you can hear a bitter anger barely disguised beneath that cool restraint.

Alex Last came across the archive and was haunted by the bleak outlines of those stories. How did the children become separated from their families, and were they ever rescued? On Lost Children of the Holocaust on the World Service (Thursday), we joined Last on his quest to find out. He meets with Gary (formerly Gunther) Wolff, who at 13 was rounded up and sent with his parents to the ghetto at Lodz. His parents could not cope. ‘The fear factor is something you can’t transmit into words. You have to feel it,’ he explained. ‘All of a sudden I became their eyes and ears and their brain. They couldn’t think quickly enough.’ When the ghetto was liquidated by the SS in 1944 they were all sent to Auschwitz but Wolff never saw his mother again. His father died within a week. ‘To be honest I was relieved,’ Wolff told us. He knew that having to care for his father made him vulnerable. ‘It was a matter of life and death.’

His relative, a cousin of his father, did make contact (Wolff’s parents had urged him to memorise the name) but when they met at Waterloo station, Wolff was told, ‘Your father and I never got on.’ Of the 11 children Last managed to trace, most had to make new lives on their own, either because no one came forward or because if they did they were unwilling to take them on.

Teatime at Peggy’s, on Radio 4 (Friday), also took us right inside the lives of others. Peggy has lived in Jhansi all her life, one of 30 Anglo-Indian families still remaining in this railway town in India (the inspiration for John Masters’s novel Bhowani Junction). Clare Jenkins has been taking tea with her for 20 years, feeling each time that she is ‘falling down a rabbit hole’ because of the strange people she encounters there, such as Captain Roy Abbott, born and bred in India ‘but as British as you come’. You could almost hear his handlebar moustache in his big, booming voice flecked with the up-and-down lilt of Hindi.

They’re dying out, the Anglo-Indians, those whose mother tongue is English and one of whose parents was of European descent but who have lived in India all their lives. They teach their cooks to make plum cake and toad-in-the-hole, but also eat pilaus and curry. ‘What does it mean to be Anglo-Indian?’ Jenkins asked Peggy’s friend Gwendoline whose father was from Berkshire. ‘If you ask me in my heart I feel Britain’s my home’ — and yet she’s never left India.

Radio 4’s new series The Thought Chamber was another pure listening experience, not an image to be seen except in the imagination. Sian Williams’s guests are invited to sit down, make themselves comfortable. The heavy door is shut and the light switched off. They’re now sealed off in an anechoic chamber, somewhere in central London, with no noise from outside, not a single speck of light, a complete absence of stimuli. A conveniently placed microphone ensures that we can eavesdrop on their thoughts as they talk through what they’re experiencing, minute by minute.

Grayson Perry, the artist and potter, is anxious: ‘It’s just me accompanied by my dawn chorus of tinnitus... It’s dominating my thoughts. I can’t take my ears off it.’ Philip Selway (of Radiohead) felt it was like waking up at 3 a.m. when it’s dark but your mind lights up and ‘it’s very difficult to find the dimmer switch’. Irvine Welsh could not hold on to any coherent thought. Only the scientist, Sky at Night presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, took us on a journey into her imagination — to the far reaches of the cosmos, down beneath the deepest sea, and inside her body, travelling through her veins and arteries. ‘My eyes are generating colours,’ she said. ‘A swathe of colour. Pinks and purples. Almost like the Milky Way.’