Far to Go by Alison Pick
Far to Go by Alison Pick
Far to Go by Alison Pick begins with a list of names – and dates of birth and death – most of the deaths, for the young and the old, are 1942 and 1943 - we know we are reading about the time of the Second World War. I read Far to Go straight through and thought it one of the very best of the new books published this fall.
The novel opens, in the Sudetenland, with a letter from a mother to a woman in London, England, expressing appreciation that she is caring for a child who has been sent away from Europe to safety – the letter ends with a notation that the writer died in Birkenau in 1943. We then meet the narrator, an academic, who is reading the letters of people whose children were evacuated, during the Second World War, to the British Isles – this is both an occupation and an obsession.
We are then introduced to the Bauer family, it is 1938. For generations the Jews of the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia have lived in peace. They are assimilated, integrated into cities and villages – some are factory owners, equal members of society. Many are educated and sophisticated – they live a good life – they fought for their country during the First World War. But, as Hitler rises to power and begins his assault on Europe life changes in the Sudetenland. Some Jews chose to leave for countries where their lives are not restricted – but most cannot believe that things will continue to worsen, they stay, thinking that this madness will pass. We know, of course, that the madness will not pass – it will escalate and change the lives of all Jews, everywhere in the world, forever.
We are now coming to a time when, as the narrators says, “It wasn’t until much later that the stories started to come out. The survivors were aging and it was suddenly understood that if we didn’t hear from them now there would be nothing left to hear.” The narrator is collecting the stories of the children who were sent to safety on the Kindertransport. A great many of these children never saw their parents, grandparents and other family members again. This novel is the story of one family – based on the family stories of this author’s own family – but it is also the story of the Jews of Czechoslovakia and, of course, the Jews of all of Europe. We are sometimes more able to be touched by the Holocaust when we can see it’s effect on one person – one family – than we can when we think in terms of millions.
A few years ago my husband traveled to a small village outside of Prague to attend a gathering of international artists. He spent his days painting and exploring the village. After some weeks there was an exhibit of work in a building in the village – he discovered it had been the synagogue. Nothing remained of the Jews in this village – but the synagogue retained it seats with carved Hebrew lettering, the only indication that there had once been a Jewish population in this town. He later took a tour from Prague, led by an American Rabbi, beginning in the train station – where the trains left for the camps – and in this novel, from where the Kindertransport departed. As the group traveled out of the city – stopping to look at smaller train stations and villages – the Rabbi pointed out where the synagogues and cemeteries had been. Not much remains – and there are now very few Jewish families in Czechoslovakia.
I’m not going to tell you what happens in this novel – you will know before you begin that some will be saved and most will perish. This is a novel that will make you think about prejudice and justice. It was a novel that made me think about assimilation and the fact that it saved no one during the Holocaust. It made me think about the many Jews today who are assimilated – we don’t attend synagogue services, although we may observe some traditions, at home, with our family. We may have Jewish weddings, even if our children marry non-Jews, we observe Jewish funeral rights - but we think of ourselves as secular Jews. We don’t often face blatant anti-Semitism – or perhaps we don’t chose to notice it.
The Holocaust is part of the past for most Jews – there are the missing family members – a few or many. In our family there was the couple – an aunt and uncle - who met after the war in Italy – their spouses and children all murdered in the camps. They were brought to Canada by my husband’s grandfather. Every family has their own stories.
Alison Pick has told the story of, not only her own family, but of the Jewish people of that time – and the way that this terrible time still haunts us all today. Far to Go is an important novel – the story still needs to be told, over and over, in many different ways. Not one of us should ever forget. And – it is a brilliantly written, beautifully paced novel, by a writer who knows how to hold the readers attention – and heart.