When Michael Rosen was young, he heard stories about “The War”. There was the one about the bomb that had fallen in the local park. His father told him tales about his time in Berlin in 1945, with the US Army. Nothing frightening; his father was never in a battle. But, somewhere in his family’s past, there was more, or rather, gaps where more should have been.
His father’s father was a man called Morris, who was originally from Poland. Morris had moved to America before WW2, married, and later seperated from Rosen’s grandmother, Rose. Morris stayed in America; Rose came to England. Morris had had lots of siblings – four brothers and three sisters – but besides Morris, only one of them had gone to America. Four of the siblings had stayed in Poland, and two of the brothers – Oscar and Martin – had moved to France. Rosen writes:
“One of them was a clock-mender,” Dad said, “and the other one was a dentist.”
“What happened to them all – the brothers and sisters in Poland and France?” I asked.
Dad shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “They were there at the beginning of the war, and they had gone by the end. I suppose they died in the camps.”
In the camps? I thought. What camps?
It made me think of school holidays: we used to go camping and it nearly always rained…
But Dad didn’t mean camps like that.
Michael Rosen is very well known in the UK as an author of children’s poetry and stories. His books were part of my childhood; I can vividly remember being read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt for the first time. In The Missing: The True Story of My Family in World War II (2020), he tells the story of his search for information about those missing great aunts and uncles, in a manner approachable to children aged ten and older.
Rosen recounts childhood visits to his mother’s parents – he called them Bubbe and Zeyde. When you’re a child, talking to old people can seem like speaking with visitors from another time: they know your language, but something gets lost in the age gap. Zeyde always asked Rosen him to save the hole in his bagel for him, but when the ring of bread was gone, Zeyde would quip “So? You couldn’t save me the hole?” Rosen’s poem on this routine, to which this is the final line, captures the puzzlement that I remember from these sorts of intergenerational games: playing along, yet not quite getting the joke.
He’s very good at capturing the flavour of these moments of experience. Later in the book, he describes another vivid moment: the arrival of a long-searched-for French book which might just hold tantalising clues about the fates of his great-uncle Oscar and his wife Rachel, delivered as Rosen is in the midst of moving house:
We were leaving a house I had lived in for 25 years. Surrounded by big boxes, I ripped open the package and turned straight to the index. There I saw that the name “Rosen” was mentioned on fourteen different pages.
There’s the thrill of discovery, while the rest of the family wait in the car. There’s the sense that a little key is being turned in a lock, and that history is somehow playing out as the pages are thumbed and the references found. But this is always tempered by the ending being known, by the inevitability of it all, by the reality that each new discovery brings an image into better focus that one can’t bear to see.
Through a trail of books and conversations with surviving relatives, Rosen was able to piece together something of the wartime lives and fates of the brothers in France, Oscar and Martin. Bits of the puzzle were out there, in indexes and lists, but Rosen’s challenge was finding his way to the next one; knowing the right address, for instance, to find out more about where they had lived.
Rosen evokes this piecing together of fragments of information very effectively for his younger readers, most of whom are likely some years away from asking these sorts of questions about relatives whose names or photographs might have been heard or seen, but who remain distant concepts. He also captures the polite frustration of trying to mine living relatives for information, who turn out to be more forgetful or reticent than we’d like.
The details that emerge fill in some of the broad strokes of the final years of the lives of Oscar and Martin, the “French” Rosens. Oscar tried to flee France, but like so many Jews trying to outrun the advancing shadow of Nazi occupation, the door to freedom shut and the light vanished. Martin hid but was discovered. They were both deported to Nazi occupied Poland, to the death camp in the town of Oscar’s birth, Oświęcim, which, after the Nazi invasion of 1939, was referred to by the Germanised name of Auschwitz.
A great treasure trove of photographs emerges, as they often do, from the effects of a recently departed relative, and within are pictures of people whose faces were once thought lost. Stella, one of the great-aunts who stayed and perished in Poland, is in one of the photographs. She had tried to get her teenage son Michael out of the country when the Germans invaded, but to no avail. Michael had in fact escaped deportation by the Nazis and, and the War’s end, turned up in London. Rosen is able to show his cousin the photograph, only the second known to survive of Michael’s mother Stella. The report of Michael’s stunned fascination with the image is one of most moving moments in the book.
The book concludes with a useful reading list of age-appropriate titles for younger readers to explore. But there’s also an important connection made, at the end, between the refugees of the past and those of the present. Rosen sees himself and his family in the faces of those modern refugees, all victims simply of circumstance. “One of my great-uncles was a clock-mender and another was a jeweler,” writes Rosen. “That’s all they did wrong, which is to say, they did nothing wrong. And yet, they died for being who they were.”
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