Living with Shadows: How refugees fleeing the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism pass down their angst to future generations

Powerful book is a timely reminder of the trauma of the present day Ukrainian invasion could affect generations to come

Merilyn Moos, the author, and her dog Rama. Pic credit: Carey

By a curious freak of timing as millions flee the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine a remarkable memoir of earlier horrors of the last century – the rise of the Nazis and Stalinists and their effect on the refugees who fled Germany and Russia – has just been published.

The author Merilyn Moos is the daughter of two refugees who fled the Nazis in Germany to live in the UK and this short book describes in a thematic way her childhood here and how extraordinarily she only found out the full story about her parents’ past after they died.

Her father, Siegi ,was a lapsed Jewish Communist theoretician and director of an agit-prop theatre group performing plays by Brecht and a workers opera in Berlin. He went underground on the night of the Reichstag fire and fled Berlin minutes before the Gestapo raided his flat and walked over 1000 kilometres from Berlin to the Saarland to escape, only catching a train to cross the French border at Saarbrucken.

Lotte , her mother, met Siegi in Berlin and also escaped to the UK. But in 1936 she decided to go alone to Russia to visit a lover and friend , Brian Gould-Verschoyle, just at the time Stalin ordered show trials of Trotskyists. Both were put under house arrest and Brian was sent to Spain to work as an engineer to help the Spanish Communist Party. They were supposed never to communicate again but Lotte ignored this sending him a postcard praising a political group to the left of the Communist Party. This was intercepted by Stalin’s agents, he was kidnapped and put on trial as a Trotskyist and sent to a gulag where he died. She blamed herself for his death, fled the USSR coming back thoroughly disillusioned to the UK only to arrested as a suspected spy.

A rich history denied to their daughter

You would think with such a rich history her parents would tell Merilyn about their past. But as the main point of this memoir reveals, the opposite was true. So traumatic was their past they pretended to her that it never happened. Her parents were overprotective of her and paranoid. She never knew that she was from Jewish heritage until she was a young adult. Her father denied he was a Communist and pretended his family was Swiss. His mother never discussed her relationship with Brian.

As Merilyn says in the book: ” No family photos adorned our walls or mantelpieces. It was as if the three of us had been dropped onto earth by a stork, unencumbered by the ties and rituals of family life.”

She had an unhappy childhood, going to bed early until she was a teen and hardly ever allowed out alone from the house except to go to school. Her parents also did not want to her to become involved with boys and effectively pressurised her to break up up her first serious relationship with a boy after she got to Oxford University. No wonder she hardly spoke or visited them for 20 years.

The fascinating part of this book is that despite all of this Merilyn rebelled and followed in her parents footsteps becoming an active trade unionist campaigner and supporter of left wing causes. She is obviously now proud of their hidden past. She also is an accomplished sculptor and I have included one of them in this blog. Her son Josh, is a campaigner on climate change.

Sculpture of a pregnant women by Merilyn Moos

She and her son have been moved by the discovery of her parents real past. One of the most poignant moments in her memoir is how she and Josh traced their history back to Berlin and smuggled their ashes into Germany finding the apartment blocks where they had lived together and scattering the ashes around flower beds and bushes in the courtyard. As she said ” I had brought my parents home.”

This book has real insight into the trials and tribulations of refugees driven out of their country by hostile regimes and the dilemmas they face. Published at the same time as Europe faces its biggest war since the time the Nazis invaded the rest of mainland Europe, one wonders how many Ukrainians feel about their lives as they are driven from their homeland. It is also an intensely personal and honest account of a child of a refugee’s life in the UK and all the better for it.

Living with Shadows by Merilyn Moos. Available from Amazon £8.25

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