Bye bye Daddy

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Letters to Barbara By Leo Meter Translated by Joel Agee Overlook Press Pounds 10.99

Do you remember the first time you realised that people who lived before you were born also had feelings, just like you? For GCSE history, it's called empathy.

For many people that realisation dawned on reading the Diary of Anne Frank. Her slightly whimsical but sharply earthy blend of observation and reflection makes one think: "Gosh! Just like me!" But personally, it was only on reading the preface to another World War Two diary that I realised that for those who had lost loved ones in the Holocaust the loss was just as keen, decades later, as any other bereavement. The personal was not subsumed in the historical.

Now, in this charming book of the letters of a young German resistance fighter to his infant daughter, that personal immediacy can be tasted by junior school children. Leo Meter's letters, well illustrated, a little in the manner of Edward Lear, speak simply and vividly of the enjoyable details of everyday life which children and adults share: tasty food, animals in the park, household routines.

But they also sketch in a soldier's life - Meter was finally forced to go to the Ukraine with the German army - and counter the kind of prolonged fantasies with which nice daddies entertain their daughters. "There was this goldfish . . . I'd just eaten a lot of solid bean soup . . . a little boy rides a horse in the road." But of course, this is different. Barbara doesn't get to see her daddy again. He dies. And, in some way, the most important part of the book is the afterword by his (now grown-up) daughter.He was a "bad soldier". He refused to fire at the enemy and fired in the air. For that he was shot. All that time ago, a little girl lost her daddy - and he was such a nice daddy, too. That's history; that's empathy.

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