Lost world recovered

18th August 1995 at 01:00
KONIN: A QUEST by Theo Richmond Jonathan Cape Pounds 18.99. - 0 224 03890 7

Konin in 1939 was a small Polish market town with a well established Jewish population. Today only one person of Jewish origin lives there.

Theo Richmond went in search of what the Holocaust erased. He tracked down survivors in America, Israel and Britain, and asked questions. He entered their lives, watched, listened, made tape recordings of their memories. He wanted to know as much as possible about the life of this vanished community, about its religious customs, schools, libraries, even its lavatories.

The result is a highly original book that steadily recreates a lost world, the many characters within it and a particular way of life. Try dipping into this book and it will take over your life; even when put aside its many voices haunt the mind. What the author thought would take him six months took seven years to write.

Much of his documentary material was not found in official archives but in people's homes; in the course of conversation ephemera was produced including a battered photograph that had once been hidden in a mouth. Richmond was helped by lists of names, human links and unexpected coincidences but there were also missed opportunities and disappointments. One character voices the remark that the author came 25 years too late.

Though there is a reluctance among Holocaust survivors to burden their children with the pain of the past, one admits: "We who knew it have never forgotten." This book is an act of remembrance. By reconstructing the context surrounding these lives before and after the Holocaust it puts the horror in proportion, for the people Richmond meets have new lives as well as many memories. They become for the reader much more than victims.

He himself is descended from a Konin family, and there are moments when his research crosses the paths of his own forebears. But the stature of this unforgettable book grows from quiet virtues: the author's patience and persistence; his light descriptive touch that refuses to underline any emotion; above all, the quality of attention which allows every detail its full resonance. He admires the religious faith that some have retained, yet recognises that for others Auschwitz terminated belief in a divine plan. Like the hand on the jacket cradling in its palm the remnant of a family photograph, this book becomes an offering, focusing remembrance.

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