An extended Jewish family of “refijees” from Austria arrives in London during WWII. They are not totally welcome and don’t understand British ways but they get by and go on. Barely. Most of them.
I suspect this is a semi-autobiographical tale because Jagendorf immigrated to London from Austria during WWII (just before the arrival of the Nazis) and later in life moved to Israel. He knows this story from close up.
Wolfy, the protagonist, is a young boy, born just before the emigration, who grows up in this family. Even if they aren’t in Austria, they have troubles of all sorts from anti-Semitism to normal growing up pains to family deaths and finding love.
Each chapter is a bit different so it’s more a collection of stories interwoven by the characters as they go through about 40 years of life and changes in fewer than 200 pages. The final 2 or 3 chapters move rather quickly.
In the first chapter one of them dies en route and this haunts Wolfy when he finds out. The story really starts in Chapter 2 when two very different brothers of the extended family arrive with their wives and children and although sometimes suspected of being spies, land in a work camp. The family makes some progress with jobs and school but it’s quite difficult. When mom dies Wolfie has to do Kaddish while the death is hidden from his mother’s parents who are now in Palestine/Israel. This is a sadly funny and touching part.
In 1951 Wolfy is a very lovable kid – honest, hard-working and loving but basically alone after his mother dies and he is sent to live with the Onkl Mendl and Tantie Rosa while his father is still grieving. His cousin Bernard ditches school and comes to ditch Judaism and God as well. They and Wolfy’s father are sketched with very lightly.
The subject matter is pretty grim as Wolfy goes about trying to fit in with whichever family he’s living with but the writing is gorgeous and there is a light dose of very sly, gently loving humor going on underneath – occasionally this escalates to some laugh-out-loud lines. I sense a very Jewish spirit here.
Theme: (?) “You have to know who you are,’ said Wolfie’s father.” (p. 48) That’s what Wolfy is looking for – an identity. And since he’s only a baby when the book starts and ends when he’s grown he does find out to an extent –