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On the run from the Nazis: a Polish family’s protracted ordeal

31 July 2021

9:00 AM

31 July 2021

9:00 AM

The Suitcase: Six Attempts to Cross a Border Frances Stonor Saunders

Jonathan Cape, pp.222, 18.99

Writers of memoirs are often praised for their honesty — but how do we know? I found I did believe Frances Stonor Saunders for readily admitting her ambivalence towards her father, who died in 1997 of Alzheimer’s. She is ‘secretly furious’ with him for ‘not telling his story’. But when his suitcase — almost certainly containing revealing documents — is handed to her in a church car park in 2011, she baulks at opening it and puts it first in her mother’s attic (her parents divorced when she was eight), then in her uncle Peter’s, where it stays for the next ten years. Her mother had warned: ‘If you open that suitcase you’ll never close it again.’

This is an intense, sometimes sad book. The suitcase is a potential treasure trove: ‘My hope is that, if I open it, it may offer a way across a border to meet my father, who in life was unknowable to me.’ Historically, a suitcase was an important item for Jews who might suddenly have to flee. Frances’s father’s original surname was Slomnicki, and the town of that name on the map of Poland in the family’s Wiltshire house was circled in red. Frances discovers that most Slomnickis were deported from there, along with 1,000 other local Jews, to Belzec extermination camp in June 1942. Her grandfather, uncle and father were away at the time, and so escaped this fate, but she can find no trace of her paternal great aunts Madzja and Henja.

Her father, Donald, was born in 1931 in Campina, a small town near Bucharest, and his brother Peter two years later. Their father, Joseph (Polish-Russian-Jewish), had ‘scraped’ a British passport in 1921, which would save his life. He fought for the British in both world wars and converted to Anglicanism in 1932 in Budapest. Years later he changed his surname to Saunders.

While his boys were small, Joe worked as a geologist in Romania at the oil refineries in Ploiesti, subsequently the target of American bombing raids in 1943 and 1944. He and his wife Elena (Austro-Hungarian-German-Swiss) became close friends there of Robin Redgrave, his wife Micheline, a concert pianist, and their son Roy — who provides Frances with much helpful documentary material.

But pleasant family life ended in October 1940 when the Germans occupied Romania. The Slomnickis, carrying a suitcase each, were forced to escape by ship to Istanbul, Cairo, Durban and back to Cairo. Elena (now Helen — the family had stopped speaking German) and her boys finally arrived in Liverpool on 30 November 1944. Donald and Peter were sent to Clifton College in Bristol and Frances estimates that after the age of nine Donald (later a successful economist) spent only a few months of the rest of his childhood with his father, despite Joe living for another 20-odd years.

In 1945, Joe returned to Romania to try to survey the bombed oil installations and resume ‘normal times’. This did not happen. Peter writes poignant letters to his parents — stuck in a now communist country, with Joe under surveillance and accused of fraud:

26 August 1948: Dear Mummy, if Daddy does not get out in the very near future I am going to steal a helicopter and fly there and rescue him!

This is a complex, occasionally frustrating book with fascinating historical nuggets. I was struck by a quotation from Harold Nicolson’s diary when he observes, as a young delegate at Versailles, the random way the new map of Eastern Europe was drawn up after the first world war, shrinking Hungary, enlarging Romania and causing trouble and confusion to so many.

Frances certainly brings home the anguish of war. She also examines memory, its importance and its unpredictability: ‘We are nothing without the past; it’s a form of knowledge, a memorandum of how to survive.’ She wonders why she mostly remembers, perhaps unfairly, the negative aspects of her relationship with her father.

The chronology of Donald’s life can be confusing, and readers like me may be reduced to insomniac rage by what happens to his suitcase. In contrast to the Slomnickis’ displacements, Frances’s maternal family has occupied the same home for 1,000 years. I was intrigued by three titles which Frances selects from her mother’s many files: ‘Exhumation’, ‘Nazis’, ‘Vatican’. Perhaps she will write a book about her next.

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