Childhoods in hell

4th September 1998 at 01:00
BETWEEN TWO SEASONS OF HAPPINESS: a tale of letters, love and separation.
By Irene Dische
Bloomsbury #163;10.99.

HANNAH GOSLAR REMEMBERS: a childhood friend of Anne Frank
By Alison Leslie Gold

WITNESSES TO WAR: eight true-life stories of Nazi persecution
By Michael Leapman

Two years ago an eminent children's librarian told me how she had recently heard childish laughter on a visit to London's Imperial War Museum.

She asked the children what was funny; they replied that it was the old newsreel films they were watching about the concentration camps. They were so clearly fakes - their teacher had told them so.

This is an isolated incident, but a reminder of the particular importance of telling each new generation the truth about recent history when there are other parties set upon spreading lies.

Irene Dische's Between Two Seasons of Happiness is a haunting fable as well as a true story from the Second World War. Separated from his fascinating young father with whom he has lived in Berlin since the death of his mother, six-year-old Peter stays with his stern grandfather back in Hungary. He sorely misses his former cinema visits, tram rides and dinner parties, but there are weekly letters to sustain him as war approaches and life becomes more dangerous for foreign nationals still living in Germany. The years go by, and one day Peter's grandfather dies.

Entering his study for the first time, Peter discovers that all his father's loving letters had been written by this seemingly unfeeling old patriarch. His father had in fact been executed in 1939 for helping Jews secure false passports. Peter survived, and is still alive today. Surprises continue right up to the last page in this unforgettable tale.

Alison Leslie Gold's Hannah Goslar Remembers is another re-told story. As a 12-year-old in Amsterdam, Hannah believed that her best friend Anne Frank had escaped to Switzerland - she had, of course, gone into hiding. Hannah battled on as one of a dwindling number of Jewish pupils until the inevitable happened and her entire family was transported to Belsen. Because, before the Nazis arrived, Hannah's father had been deputy minister of domestic affairs and chief press officer, the family received slightly superior treatment in what was still no better than one of the outer circles of hell.

By a miracle, she found Anne in an adjoining section where she was starving. Hannah smuggled her some ill-spared food before losing touch again. Young readers are spared some of the worst details of the 10-day cattle truck journey still in store, but this story is horrific enough already, although lightened every now and again by descriptions of acts of courage and compassion against all the odds.

After the war, Hannah met Otto Frank, who for a short while acted as her second father. She finally emigrated to Israel, where she now lives surrounded by her grandchildren.

Michael Leapman's Witnesses to War is also about survivors, although some of the children in the eight stories narrated here have come through only at severe emotional cost. Each child's tale is an example of different aspects of Nazi inhumanity. Beate just makes it to Britain but has to leave her parents behind; Alice survives in Occupied France before escaping to Switzerland; and Alexander, a blond Polish boy, is kidnapped and then placed in a German family. He never sees his parents again, and eventually becomes a Catholic priest working with other Poles in exile. There are also harrowing stories of persecution of gypsies and of the Czech child diaspora after the massacre at Lidice, and a shortened account of Anne Frank's last years.

Excellently illustrated by contemporary photographs and with a useful historical introduction, this book should surely be in every school library.

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