As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I was pleased to find a rare book on the neglected subject of the Romany Holocaust. The book also draws attention to the also difficult and little-discussed subjects of the removal of Yenish children from their parents by the Swiss authorities, and psychiatric treatments in the inter-war years. Unfortunately, much of it just isn’t very good. It jumps about too much, parts of it are written in a strange made-up dialect, and some of the storylines seem to belong in a Victorian penny-dreadful rather than a Holocaust novel. However, parts of it are genuinely moving and powerful, and there are just so few books about the Romany Holocaust that I’m still glad to’ve found it.
The eponymous Jakob is an 8-year-old boy, described (repeatedly) as “a half-blood gypsy child of Roma and Yenish”, living in hiding in Austria in 1944. He’s become separated from his parents and two younger siblings, and was on the run when he was taken in by a farmer, who is also hiding two Jewish men. It’s a promising idea for a book, and some of the descriptive narrative is excellent – although some of it is really OTT purple prose – but it’s just not very well put together.
It’s not coherent, for a start: it jumps about confusingly between “the present”, which is written in the present tense, what happened the previous year, Jakob’s mother’s past, and Jakob’s father’s past. On top of that, Yavy, Jakob’s father speaks in an utterly bizarre dialect which sounds like a cross between Cockney gone wrong, Yorkshire gone wrong and West Indian gone wrong. I have no idea what the author was trying to achieve with that – presumably to create some sense of him being an outsider? All the narrative involving him is also in this bizarre dialect, making it quite hard to read.And there are too many bitty storylines, none of which are properly developed – which is a shame, because each of them is quite interesting by itself.
I initially took “of Roma and Yenish” to mean one Roma parent and one Yenish parent, so I got very confused when it turned out that Jakob’s mother, “Lor”, short for “Glorious” (??), was from a well-to-do family in Somerset … except that her parents weren’t as upper-middle-class as they made out. her dad was the son of a butcher from Newcastle (one attempt at Geordie dialect, all wrong!) who’d inherited a huge tobacco firm from a distant cousin. As you do. The book said that the West Country was the centre of the British tobacco industry. I didn’t get that at all … but the author’s based in Bath, so must know Somerset a lot better than I do. Lor’s mum was the daughter of a Polish heiress who’d drowned herself. And presumably a British father. It was all just too complicated for a 300-page book that was supposed to be about something else.
Lor (the name really didn’t work at all)’s mother took her own life. When Lor tried to do the same, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Austria. The accounts of the strange and deeply unpleasant treatments there could have been very interesting, if difficult to read, but they were skipped over in a few pages – before Lor ran off with Yavy, who was working there. Posh woman is sent to an institution abroad and runs off with a gypsy? It sounds like something out of a Victorian penny dreadful.
Yavy, not Jakob, is the one who’s half-Yenish and half-Roma. Yenish on his mother’s side. The Yenish are a traveller group living mainly in Germany and Switzerland. Between the 1920s and the 1970s, and especially in the 1930s, many Swiss Yenish parents were put into institutions and their children taken away. We learn that Jakob’s father was one of those children. We’re also told that his father fought in the First World War – presumably for Austria-Hungary, as he (the father) seems to have grown up in Austria – and that he remembered often seeing him tending war graves. I’m not sure what that had to do with anything. We learn that Yavy was born in Switzerland, but it’s not clear why they were then living in Austria, and then were living in Switzerland when the children were taken away. Maybe it’s just meant to reflect a traveller lifestyle, but the way it comes across as muddled and confusing.
The book scrapes surfaces but doesn’t go deeply into anything – which is such a shame, because, as I’ve said, each of the storylines could have made such a good book. We get a few tantalising glimpses of Yavy’s life as a child taken away from his parents, first sent to an orphanage and then put out to work, first at a farm and then at the hospital where Lor was being treated, but not enough to tell us much. Why the Swiss authorities would have sent him to work at an Austrian hospital makes about as much sense as the rest of the random moving about; but the horrific story of a child being taken away from his parents as part of some sort of cultural re-education programme, like the Lost Generation in Australia, could, like Lor’s time in the psychiatric hospital, could have been very interesting … but we only get a few pages of it.
We also hear little bits about the two men being hidden at the farm, and about the farmer who’s hiding them, but, again, not much. It dips into so many storylines, but doesn’t develop any of them.
It’s only at the end where we see how good the book could have been, where there are very powerful passages telling us that Roma children were killed by the Nazis either by dashing their heads against a tree or by drowning, or by being torn to pieces by dogs. And we learn that Jakob suffocated his baby brother, to save him from a worse death at the hands of the Nazis. We see that he was sent with the adults to face the Einsatzgruppen, told to dig his own grave. We can only assume that his parents both died, but that somehow he escaped from the pile of bodies – there are stories like that, from Babyn Yar and other places where massacres were carried out. I was expecting to hear that his parents had died in a concentration camp, but I’ve often said that more attention needs to be paid to the killings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen. It was a very powerful chapter. It just showed how good this book could have been. But it was just too bitty.
Then it jumps back again, and we find that Lor and Yavy hoped to get their children out of Austria, into Switzerland and on to England. Lor talks about Vimto … which would have been quite touching had she not said that it was fizzy. Vimto is not supposed to be fizzy, and you certainly couldn’t get fizzy Vimto in the 1930s and 1940s. Minor point, OK, but it annoyed me!! But it’s quite a touching section about the idea of a green and pleasant land, and, how, instead of ending up there, four of the five family members ended up being murdered.
Or maybe five, because we don’t know what happened to Jakob. The Nazis came to the farm where he was hiding, and he fled. The reader is left to wonder whether or not he survives, and also what happens to the two Jewish men and the farmer. It’s not a satisfying ending, but it’s a well-written one. Parts of this book are so good. It had a lot of potential, but there were too many bits of too many different things, and so the book as a whole didn’t really work for me.
But, because of the importance of the subject matter, I’m still glad to have read it. No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide … I don’t like to use the word “Porajmos”, because some people find it objectionable. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control. Total estimates of those killed usually vary between 220,000 and 500,000, and some historians put it even higher, maybe even as high as 1,500,000. No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, and no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials. And not much has been written about it – although I’ve read that that’s because Roma and Sinti culture doesn’t place much emphasis on history and memoirs, not because of lack of interest or lack of concern. There doesn’t seem to have been the same persecution of the Yenish people, but there are certainly some documented cases of deportations.
We’re now coming up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and of the other camps. There are still some survivors left, and it was good to see some of them being recognised in the New Year’s Honours List for their work in sharing their stories, but, as time goes on, we’re just going to have to learn their stories from books, be that text books, memoirs or novels. When it comes to the Roma, Sinti and Yenish people, there aren’t many of those written accounts around, so even a fictional one is precious. I just wish this one had been better. It could have been: it had potential, and some bits of it were excellent. But it was just too bitty. Oh well. Still worth reading.