Eva Figes Gerda Cohen - Essay

Gerda Cohen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like a primrose which you must hold very near to find a frail, obstinate scent, this little autobiography [Little Eden: A Child at War] repays close reading. Without attention, you might miss its pale tearful charm altogether. After a start of phenomenal confusion, the author reveals that she spent 15 months in Cirencester, evacuated with her family to escape the blitz….

[With the] delicate, gooseflesh misgiving which pervades the prose, the personal narrative has been bulked out by war-time data dug from the local papers. The intrusion is often laughable. War Weapons Week, Knitting for Victory, even Double Summer Time and the Gloucestershire Farmers' Union protest threat—all meander among budding nipples and anguish in the basement lavatory….

Further padding is provided by local history….

True feeling returns in 1941, when Eva became a boarder at Arkenside. Exuding the scent of lime flower and Victorian mildew, this diminutive prep school delighted her…. [The] predictably English prep school squalor did not seem to trouble the fastidious little refugee. Only when her best friend charged her with being a Jew, misery began….

For the Unger parents, totally assimilated, being Jewish was merely the hated reason for exile. They kept it a shameful secret. So that although the grandparents left behind in Berlin, had been "deported," Eva still did not know what that really meant. The word Jew remained "a dark horror at the heart of the family which could not be spoken about." In 1945, as a schoolgirl, she finally learnt. "Go and see for yourself," Eva's mother gave her ninepence and sent her off to the cinema one spring afternoon, to watch the newsreel of Belsen, alone….

This poignant episode, underwritten with exquisite pain, is almost impossible to believe. How could Mrs Unger have done it? How could she send a daughter, alone, to discover the piled Jew corpses of Belsen? Yet there is no hint of reproach. Only a frail, half-hearted perseverance of daughter reaching out for mother. The author is constantly pleading, between the lines, pity my mother. Pity them also, the dull-minded anti-semitic folk of Cirencester. Above all, pity me the author….

By the end, one grows impatient.

Gerda Cohen, "A Double Exile," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, July 9, 1978, p. 22.