Header overlay

Belated Reparation

Share this

Rereading the books of one’s youth is always a hazardous business, since a magic once lost can never be regained, so I contemplated a fresh assault on A Square of Sky with pleasure tinged with dread. Not that I was that young when I read it last, back in the early 1970s: I’d turned 30, and was working as London’s most ineffectual literary agent. I much preferred memoirs and autobiographies to biographies or post-Victorian novels, and Janina David’s account of her childhood in wartime Poland struck me as a fine example of the genre.

She was, as I soon discovered, a Jewish girl who had lived in the Warsaw ghetto, and she had only survived the war by being passed off as a Catholic and taking refuge in a series of convents. In 1964 Hutchinson published A Square of Sky, which described her pre-war life and her time in the ghetto, and her convent life was covered two years later in A Touch of Earth. I found both books touching and entirely gripping, and was impressed by the contrast between the luminosity and vitality of her prose and the harrowing events she described. Thirty years later, I’m glad to report that the two books, now rolled into one, have lost none of their allure.

The daughter of wealthy Jewish parents, Janina David was only 9 when the war broke out: like Patrick Leigh Fermor in his masterly account of his pre-war walk across Europe, she appears to have had almost total recall of the events of a lifetime ago. An only child, she longed to be blonde, blue-eyed and, ideally, a Catholic as well, like the children with whom she played in the country. Relations between her parents were strained: her mother was petulant and plaintive, and Janina invariably sided with her father, a feckless charmer who had dissipated the family fortune, was susceptible to the ladies, and had been reduced to working as a sanitary inspector.

Like Victor Klemperer’s magnificent diaries, A Square of Sky shows how, as the

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Rereading the books of one’s youth is always a hazardous business, since a magic once lost can never be regained, so I contemplated a fresh assault on A Square of Sky with pleasure tinged with dread. Not that I was that young when I read it last, back in the early 1970s: I’d turned 30, and was working as London’s most ineffectual literary agent. I much preferred memoirs and autobiographies to biographies or post-Victorian novels, and Janina David’s account of her childhood in wartime Poland struck me as a fine example of the genre.

She was, as I soon discovered, a Jewish girl who had lived in the Warsaw ghetto, and she had only survived the war by being passed off as a Catholic and taking refuge in a series of convents. In 1964 Hutchinson published A Square of Sky, which described her pre-war life and her time in the ghetto, and her convent life was covered two years later in A Touch of Earth. I found both books touching and entirely gripping, and was impressed by the contrast between the luminosity and vitality of her prose and the harrowing events she described. Thirty years later, I’m glad to report that the two books, now rolled into one, have lost none of their allure. The daughter of wealthy Jewish parents, Janina David was only 9 when the war broke out: like Patrick Leigh Fermor in his masterly account of his pre-war walk across Europe, she appears to have had almost total recall of the events of a lifetime ago. An only child, she longed to be blonde, blue-eyed and, ideally, a Catholic as well, like the children with whom she played in the country. Relations between her parents were strained: her mother was petulant and plaintive, and Janina invariably sided with her father, a feckless charmer who had dissipated the family fortune, was susceptible to the ladies, and had been reduced to working as a sanitary inspector. Like Victor Klemperer’s magnificent diaries, A Square of Sky shows how, as the noose tightened, the Jews’ civil liberties, and then their very means of existence, were gradually whittled away. Although, for a time, some of the better-off inhabitants of the ghetto continued to live much as they always had, it wasn’t long before Janina was picking her way past skeletal corpses in the street, crudely covered over with sacking. Forced to spend day after day indoors, gazing up at the ‘square of sky’ above the high courtyard walls, she escaped from the horrors around her into the innocent world of Little Women. Every now and then she was smuggled across to the ‘Other Side’, where the Gentiles lived; there she met her old friend Sophie and, desperate to pretend that nothing had changed, helped the family to decorate their Christmas tree. Eric, Sophie’s father, was a kindly, henpecked hairdresser; Lydia, his blonde and flirtatious wife, had been a constant source of aggravation to the long-suffering Mrs David. The deportation of the Jews from the ghetto to the concentration camps began in the summer of 1942. Every day family and friends would disappear, never to be seen again; the ghetto became increasingly deserted as the dreaded ‘Balts’ – Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians, enlisted by the Nazis – scoured the streets, cracking whips and shooting people at random. As the maze of tunnels that linked its buildings and courtyards were flushed out or blocked up, boltholes grew scarcer and harder to find. In January 1943 Janina and her parents were ordered out of their flat and joined a group of Jews destined for the transports that would take them to their deaths. The streets were brittle with broken glass and smeared with blood; great palls of black smoke hung over the ghetto as they we re marched to the Umschlagplatz, the assembly point for the trains to the concentration camp of Treblinka. By now Janina’s father was working for the Jewish Militia, which attracted both privileges and opprobrium: he could smuggle in pitiful rations of food and supplies from the Other Side, but he was inevitably tainted with the suspicion of collaboration. As a policeman he was expected to stand aside while his family boarded the cattle-truck s , but in the confusion that resulted when another stream of deportees simultaneously surged into the square from another direction, he managed to lead Janina and her mother away to safety. After squatting in various empty flats, they took refuge in a cramped and squalid cellar under an undertaker’s, along with innumerable other families. As rumours circulated of another ‘action’ planned by the Germans, word came through that if Janina could be smuggled out of the ghetto, Eric and Lydia would be waiting for her on the Other Side. With luck, her parents would join her later: but although Janina made her way to safety one frozen, starlit night, her possessions crammed in a tiny bag, she never saw them again. Eric managed to find Janina a place in a convent outside Warsaw, but although her life was saved, her tribulations were far from over. Food was in increasingly short supply; unbaptized and darker than most of her fellow-pupils, she lived with the constant fear of being discovered and denounced, and one nun at least almost certainly knew her secret. Some German soldiers were billeted in the convent, and although they were, for the most part, kindly, middle-aged men, longing to get home and far removed from the SS men who had stormed through the ghetto, their very presence seemed a threat. Though full of missionary zeal thirty years ago, I’m afraid I was of no help whatsoever to Janina David or her literary career. It’s good to be able to make belated reparation now.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © Jeremy Lewis 2004


About the contributor

Jeremy Lewis published memoirs of his own; he has also written biographies of Cyril Connolly and Tobias Smollett, and a life of Allen Lane.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.