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
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