I prefer fiction to fact and stories to history, so it was just by chance that I happened to see a documentary showing the reunion of a Dutch woman and the Jewish man, neither a relative nor her lover but merely, in the New Testament sense, her neighbour, whose life she saved during the Second World War. She had constructed a hideout, like a priest’s hole, in her ordinary suburban house where he remained undiscovered despite several searches. Marvelling at her courage, I wondered whether similar circumstances would bring out the inner heroine even in people who are normally pusillanimous; in fact, even in me.
I live in an old and rambling Cornish farmhouse which is well equipped with cubby holes, corners and crannies. Could the floorboards cover a coffin-shaped cavity here or a false wall go undetected there? The house might accommodate a hiding place but I have a nasty feeling that I couldn’t, though in fact, as my parents were Jews (who escaped Germany well before the war), my role in such a story would more likely be that of hunted fugitive than saviour.
It takes a special sort of long-term determination and courage to risk one’s life for someone else’s sake. Would the friends who protected Anne Frank’s family in their secret annexe have embarked on their heroic act of altruism if they had known of the long haul ahead? In her remarkable novel, Night Falls on the City, Sarah Gainham imagines what it must have been like to keep a deadly secret in such circumstances for years.
Julia Homburg is a famous classical actress whose family had been courtiers and Catholics, unassailable members of the Austrian imperial establishment. But Julia’s husband Franz Wedekind is a socialist politician and a Jew. Their story begins in March 1938.
German troops cross the borders of Austria. Franz tries to reach Czechoslovakia but has left it too late. He escapes the Gestapo by jumping out of the train and sneaks back home to Vienna. Neither Jul
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