The Language of Silence: talk for Archway book festival

I am going to start by talking about myself and how I came to call my semi-autobiographical novel: ‘The Language of Silence’.
I am the child of parents who fled Nazism in 1933, my father on the night of the Reichstag fire. My father had been a leading anti-Nazi. He told me about his hair-raising escape from the clutches of the Gestapo. A past to be proud of -but that was all I was told about my parents’ pasts. I knew nothing of any of my grandparents or wider kin. I knew nothing of my parents in Berlin. Questions were very much forbidden. Silenced by secrets, I grew up feeling that I was living with ghosts.
I only started to unearth some of my parents’ history in my late 50s. It was after an Irish academic I’d never heard of wrote asking me if I was the daughter of Lotte (my mother), Lotte who had married Brian in the USSR in 1936. Could I help? I replied indignantly that my mother had married my father in 1932, so this wasn’t possible! But my curiosity was piqued! After I’d made a lot of fuss, I finally was given access to two astonishingly thick MI5 files. Sitting in the Public Records office in Kew, reading the files, I started to feel very faint.

Amongst many surprises, I discovered that, yes, my mother did follow her lover, Brian, to Moscow in 1936 though it is unclear whether or not she married him there. Having fled for her life from Germany in 1933, she fled a second time, three years later, from Moscow. 1936 was not a good time to be a foreigner and quite an outspoken one at that. Her lover, Brian Gould Verschoyles was not so lucky. Lotte continued to contact Brian who was –in part as a consequence-was murdered in the gulag some years later. Back in Britain, my mother was imprisoned as a possible Russian spy after a Russian double agent fingered her to MI5.

The second source of information about my parents came a bit later. After my father had died and my mother had to be moved into Care homes, I finally gained access to the papers my parents had secreted away. Amongst much else, I found 2 envelopes stuffed with fragile musty sheets of tissue-thin paper, often covered with tiny almost unintelligible writing, in German. These were letters from my mother and father’s families written between 1936 and 1942. I had ‘found’ my grandparents. I discovered that at least according to the Nazi’s shifting eugenicist definition of Jewishness, they were Jewish.

The letters were heart-breaking and I started to write down what I was going through. Slowly I started to write a novel. Most of what I’ve so far talked about is described in ‘The Language of Silence’.

I’m going to read an extract. The novel is written in the first person, so the ‘I’ is Anna, the main character in the novel. Anna is sorting out the mounds of stuff she has to clear from her parents’ home.

‘I consider the photo albums. I sit cross-legged on the floor, my family piled on my lap. Other people have the photos of their nearest and dearest presented on mantelpieces, sideboards, TV. Entering Val’s house is like entering a family gallery; on one side of the hall are her father and his parents, and her mother and her parents; on the other side, a more patchy selection of her husband’s family. In her front room are pictures of herself at the age we first met. She looks so young. Her two children, at different stages of their young lives, smile out, getting married, and then with their own children, a gallery of belonging. They keep the images near them, holding onto their souls.
I grew up without pictures. Photos, my father had informed me when I was little, are an irrelevance. Families are what you make them. Relations are not more important than any other group of people, and are often less. Families, it was intimated, are for the weak-minded.
Yet at some point, a photo did appear in my parents’ London home. It sat on the old gas fireplace in the living room. It showed two elderly strangers. I never asked about it. My mother once broke her usual silence and asked me:
‘Have you seen the picture of my parents?’
‘Don’t know what you mean,’ I’d replied, pretending that it was not there.
I’ve adorned my house with photos of Sam [Anna’s son]. Every year of his being is celebrated.
Most of the photo albums on my lap had belonged to my father. I recognise his writing on the leaves. A photo appears of an ‘old’ woman. She is in three-quarters profile, sitting stern and stiff-backed in a chintz chair, her hair in a tight roll at the nape of her neck, steel-rimmed glasses shielding her from our vision. His mother, he had told me, died when he was a young boy. He remembered virtually nothing of her. I look at this picture of a woman in middle-age and am afraid, afraid that my father’s mother also died at the hands of the Nazis.
A locket falls out of an album on to the floor and springs open. Horrified, I look down at the two tiny photos which have fallen out. I cannot pick them up. They look at me and I ask them who they are. But they will not tell me. ‘How will you save us?’ say the faces in the photo. ‘How could you leave us, forgotten? How could you let us die? You are responsible for us now.’

‘The Language of Silence’ is a story of how Anna is shaped by having parents who were refugees, about her sense of otherness and her struggle to know who she is. It is a story told over four generations: not just about Anna’s relationship with her parents, but her unbearable search for her grandparents and how her relationship with her son, Sam, is affected by events that occurred 50 years before his birth.

At the beginning, I played with the idea of writing an autobiography. But reasons why I chose a novel:

Fiction is able to touch the ‘truth’ or capture the essence of what I was trying to say better than any autobiography could. A novel allows the imagination to flow and get to the heart of what I wanted to say. Creates authenticity without the constraints of so called reality.

An autobiography has to pretend to stick to what are called facts. But I didn’t know the ‘facts’. A novel allowed me to imagine what Anna’s grandparents were like, how they lived and thought.

I also did not want this just to be about me, but to raise more universal themes about how the experiences of refugees and how this has an unintended but profound impact on the generations that follow.

Wanted to protect my cousin, my one living relative, at least in the UK, who never wanted it known that she wasn’t simply a good Middle England wife – but also myself. The novel format offered me some protection.

I found this novel v difficult to write. One difficulty which took years to sort out: how to use my grandparents’ and others’ agonising letters as fiction without trivialising them. Much of the material was deeply upsetting. Some of what I was discovering was just too painful to think about, never mind write about.
I’m going to return to talk specifically about ‘The Language of Silence at the end of this talk. But first I want to link my novel to my later book: ‘Breaking the Silence’. When ‘The Language of Silence’ was published, so many second generation people- that is the children of refugees who were born in Britain- wanted to talk to me. ‘Nobody has ever told my story before’, I kept on being told. Then they told me their stories. Thus ‘Breaking the Silence’ was born, so called because almost everybody I interviewed told me they had never talked to anybody as they talked to me. Without my ever planning it, these interviews became the heart of a fairly academic ethnographic study. Some people who have read both prefer the novel: the novel gets to the very heart of the issue, Tessa emailed me.

What I discovered –much to my surprise- was how typical the experiences I wrote about in The Language of Silence were. What is distinctive about the children of refugees from Nazism is the absence of memory. As in ‘The Language of Silence’, the people I talked to had been told almost nothing by their parents about what had happened to grandparents and wider family. Even when parents did tell the children something, they did so in the broadest strokes. How to speak of such things? Safer not to.
Again, as in ‘The Language of Silence’, the 2G interviewees knew not to ask, knew not to try to break their parents’ silences and hearts. The people I interviewed learnt quickly how asking questions led to their parents getting very upset and very angry. Relationship between parents and children suffered. Many of the children felt their parents to be distant and unapproachable.

What emerges from both ‘The Language of Silence’ and ‘Breaking the Silence’ is that the second generation are deeply burdened by the absence of a past and what they sensed about the deaths of their grandparents. My books reveal how the losses of these unknown kin leaves the second generation with a deep sense of dispossession and a sense of loss, grief, or pain. Our emotional inheritance is that of emotional and physical insecurity, We live with the ghosts of history.

Like so many others in my second generation, it was not till late in life that I tried to ‘construct’ memories. Like me- and Anna in ‘The Language of Silence’, many of the people I interviewed had set of on emotionally perilous journeys to find what records remained of grandparents, when they were already in their 50s and 60s. They had never known their grandparents and usually knew little about them. Archives repeatedly proved very upsetting. Bruno?

Writing both books was in part my way of trying to construct my past. Did it help the way I felt? No, it didn’t. Am I glad I wrote them? It was heart breaking but yes I am.

In one way, my parents were unusual. They were far more political and my mother got herself into far hotter political waters than any of the interviewees’ parents. My parents were rebels, revolutionaries and this did give me one great advantage. Unlike many in the second generation, my inheritance was not one of seeing myself as a victim. I may have breathed in grief and pain but what I also absorbed was the importance of opposing and organising against oppression, racism eg islamophobia and xenophobia. All too relevant today. And that is what I hope my books will also inspire.
In a Europe facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, both ‘The Language of Silence’ and ‘Breaking the Silence’ are poignantly topical. There are of course differences amongst refugees. Unlike many of today’s refugees, who often state how much they want to go back home, almost none of the refugees from Nazism or their children wanted to return to the country of origin- for what was there to go back to. This was especially acute for people whose family were Germans- except for the Communists who wanted to return to rebuild Germany as socialist.
I do hope that enough of today’s refugees’ families eg from Syria remain alive that their children and grandchildren are not denied a sense of place, of belonging and can hear the stories of the houses and streets where their grandparents grew up, off the food they liked the best and of their favourite aunts and uncles. I- and so many other members of the second generation- never heard such stories, never became rooted in a family’s past and the feeling of security that goes with it.
I’m going to end by reading the last v brief chapter of ‘The Language of Silence’. Sam has….

‘Sam has survived. I am surprised by the profundity of my relief. That Sam was born at all had been a miracle. He had to shoot the rapids of history just to get conceived. The Nazis did not succeed in wiping us out after all. The sun embraces me in its warmth and light. I love the promise of the new spring. Now Sam, in full voice, carries on the struggle. And the time has come for me too, to cut the umbilical cord. It’s time for me to make my own story. The silence is past.’