Why a booktrail?
Inspired by the real life but little known period of history – the story of Europe’s gypsies during WW2
Story in a nutshell
Austria, 1944. Jakob, a gypsy boy – half Roma, half Yenish – runs and runs as he has been told to do. With bloody feet, a stone in one hand and a box in the other, he runs towards hope for there is nowhere else to go.
Ever since he was born, his parents have taught him how to read the land and the sky and to see the colours of everything around him, the colour of the trees and the flowers but also the colour of good in the midst of so much evil.
“Run if you can, always if you can
For to run is to live”
From one world war to another, this is the story of those forgotten by history – the Romany gypsies and their stories at the hands of the Nazis
Place and setting
Locations – Austria, England and Switzerland (with places in Poland significant to the history)
The novel spans a period from the 1920s to the 1940s and is based mostly in war torn Austria and Vienna in particular. But the story of one family is traced back to their roots back to Switzerland and England.
The horror of the situation slowly unfolds although the Background section at the back of the book puts the historical context into stark contrast –
“The Porrajmos is the Gypsy Holocaust. It means the Devouring”
The unfolding horrors of the Nazi genocide on the Romany population takes place here. The towns of Chelmo, Lackenbach and Lodz tell of their horrors of their place in history.
But Jakob’s story transcends this to explain how the real horrors were not revealed or known to the general population until it was too late. Jacob’s world is a vague one but a carefully crafted one to minimise the hurt for a young child and his parents’ wish to protect him.
At a days journey from the German border-
They move across a field, keeping to the shadows and a dip in the eastern hedges. They stumble down a slope to the broken-tiled roof of a small, low farmhouse, the land long since taken from it on a day when soldiers had arrived and claimed it as their own”
The origins of the word Yenish ( a word of Swiss origin meaning traveller) and the organisations set up to support children from these communities – Pro Juventute – are also referred to in this story to show background and historical accuracy. In a Swiss hospital, Lor meets Yavy, the gypsy who becomes Jakob’s father.
England, Somerset Valley
Lor, Jacob’s mother is from here and we go back to England of 1929 in order to see how she and Yavy meet.
This is not a landscape that you can image colour to exist in but Jacob’s father, despite the horror and the brutality of their reality has always painted a picture of the world full of colour.
“Don’t be afraid Jacob, his father has told him. See the colours, my boy”
Jakob’s journey in search of survival is a long and difficult journey
Run if you can. Always if you can
For to run is to live
This is a story of a group of people who were caught up in war and in a situation they had trouble in understanding. They had no means of escape and so to tell Jacob to run has an overriding sense of heartbreaking finality to it. for he is running for his life away from the Nazi genocide slaughtering his people.
Brutal yet poetic. A glimpse into a past not widely documented in literature.
The author is a well known travel writer who herself has lived and worked in several countries far and wide writing about them for her newspaper columns – An Englishwoman Abroad for the Independent or ‘Have Kids Will travel’ for the Sunday Times. I think this is how you can really appreciate the language she uses and the ways she paints a picture quite literally with her words. Apt in the circumstances.
A dream like quality pervades this book and the character of Jacob is one which was both poignant to read about and intriguing to learn of his world of colour.
A fascinating journey told in five parts in three voices – Jacobs story, his father and his mother and all coming together as one. The chapters ‘ Before’ Long Before’ and ‘This day’ helped to shape the novel and the experiences of what was to come.
A real think about read and one I’m pleased to have the honour to have read. And the shame I knew so little about the historical background. The stunning cover says so much with its vibrancy and poignant meaning.
Moving and poignant despite the sad and tragic background. Humbling.