Roman's Journey by Roman Halter, Portobello Books £16.99 It is a familiar story. One day a 12-year-old boy is living with his family in a stable, sunlit world. A few weeks later he watches several classmates and their families being summarily shot. It is 1939 in the small Polish town of Chodecz. The 12-year-old is a lively, inquisitive boy with a gift for drawing. His name is Roman — and he is a Jew, one of 800 in that small town, living peaceably alongside their Christian neighbours, attending synagogue on Shabbat and eating according to kosher laws, Overnight, this way of life is destroyed for ever.
Roman's father was a successful timber merchant, fluent in Russian, Hebrew, German, Polish and Yiddish.
His mother tried unsuccessfully in 1937 to obtain visas for the family to emigrate; as her son writes: "She saw that a tragedy of unprecedented proportions was about to befall all the Jewish people in Poland."
There were three million of them. Those from Chodecz were deported to the ghetto in Lodz, where those who did not die of diseaie or starvation went on to a terminal destination by cattle truck.
Before he died, Roman's grandfather told him he had to survive in order "to tell the world ... all about our present sufferings".
The boy watched his father die, and then dug his grave. Urged by his mother to escape the death transport, he records: "I understood her fully"; it was her way of saying goodbye. If ever someone could be said to have a "charmed life" it is the author. Unlike others, Halter does not become rapacious or brutalised by the will to live; but neither does he give up the struggle. At every stage in the next few years he evades death by a seeming stroke of good fortune: a chance conversation, a friend, a job (he became a skilled metalworker in the ghetto), the discovery of a secret cache of food, just by being in the right place at the right time.
Working in a munitions factory in Dresden he even survives the allied bombing. Returning to his home town after the war, now aged 17, he discovers he is the only survivor from his immediate family. Taken to an orphanage in Theresienstadt he is given an old penknife, two pencils, a rubber and a sketchbook — "gifts that meant a lot to someone who had absolutely nothing" — and encouraged to draw again. Finally he settles in England, becoming a wellknown architect and, latterly, a stained-glass window maker.
Halter tells his heart-rending tale with simplicity. One senses that he is a guileless man, whose very candour and refusal to judge kept his spirit intact during those horrific years. Whatever the circumstances, he never forgot to recite the Jewish prayers for the dead every night, the prayers he had learnt before his childhood was so cruelly snatched from him.
His friend Martin Gilbert, historian and biographer of Churchill, has written the preface, reminding us that such tales "need to be read in every generation", both as an act of piety and warning,