An enthralling tale of survival against the odds

  • The Freedom Circus, by Sue Smethurst. Ebury. $34.99.

The Freedom Circus tells the story of Mindla Horowitz, the grandmother of the author's husband.

It is a remarkable story of survival during the massacre of millions of Jews, and a very long journey that ended in Australia.

Written almost like a novel, the book records Mindla and her husband and eldest son's escape from Warsaw, as the Nazis victimise the Jews, and eventually engage in systematic murder.

Fleeing east, Mindla enters the Soviet Union and secures work. After a time, she tries to reenter Poland. Arrested as a German spy, and is imprisoned.

And here her husband's profession is the eventual means of her release.

Kubush Horowitz was a clown in Poland's best circus, and a Soviet official had seen him perform.

This secures Mindla's release, and the family's relocation to Moscow and relatively luxurious circumstances.

The book is full of many extraordinary moments for the reader will discover, but this is surely the most memorable.

The way the story is told makes for gripping reading, and readers will find themselves totally caught up in the fate of Mindla and her family.

The author writes that "this is not a historical text and does not profess to be an academic document of the Holocaust", but she has obviously undertaken much research to give added weight to the family story.

The presentation of the book, with direct speech and the gradual building of tension, will perhaps appeal to a wider readership from just those who would study a more traditional historical text.

Smethurst recounts the full details of the family's journey from Poland, to various parts of the USSR, to Persia, to Uganda and eventually Australia.

In Africa, they reconnect with a fellow circus performer, Favel, who has dwarfism, and who also managed to escape the Nazis by fleeing to the USSR, where he was sent to work on a gulag.

Circus skills come into the book once more when the family has long been in Australia. Readers will discover how and when for themselves, but there is a real sense of joy about this development.

It is notable that Mindla did not want to talk too much about her experiences, as she sees her story of survival as no more remarkable than those of the other elderly men and women in the Jewish nursing home where she lived.

One can only hope that the stories of these other survivors have also been recorded. The Freedom Circus is an enthralling read.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier
This story An enthralling tale of survival against the odds first appeared on The Canberra Times.