This extraordinarily honest and funny story of growing up as a child of survivors of the Holocaust reads a bit like the traditional family game of ‘Consequences’.
Mittel Europa met Middle England; in Moscow under Stalin’s purges and in North Britain during the Cold War; Father said, ‘Don’t you realise how you could damage my reputation?’; Mother said – nothing (until 50 years later she got Alzheimer’s).
Neither told their only daughter that they were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany; the world said, ‘Yer talk funny’; and the consequence was, she joined the International Socialists, had an activist son full of teenage backchat, and tried to unpick the hidden history of her family.
It would be a pity if The Language of Silence was seen wholly as a Holocaust survivor story, because it also has much in common with recent memoirs from English literary women such as Xandra Bingley and Diana Athill, where painful histories are told with stoic wit. The whole book has that ‘deceptive simplicity’ of a highly crafted childlike voice. It is entirely without self pity.
I felt numberless jolts of recognition as Merilyn Moos and her central character (this is a novel, after all, though I was often reading it as life) go on with the tough work of finding out what parents don’t want their children to know.
How clearly I identified the temptation to draw back, the dark mystery pushing you on, the brutality of forcing out the truth and then the effort to piece all the fragments together, unearthing so much fear and horror along the way. And then, oh yes: getting into bed until you feel better.
Freudian insights, both about the way survivors are likely to behave and the kinds of people who join revolutionary movements, are worn lightly here. Above all the book reminded me of words I heard from the late Paul Foot, echoing Shelley, in telling us how much braver we are when we act together than we are alone.