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Jerzy Feliks Urman, known as Jerzyk, aged eight (©Anthony Rudolf)

Anthony Rudolf has produced a small jewel of a book. He tells a compelling, tragic story that brings the reader close not only to the realities of the Holocaust but also to its impact on the survivors and their children over many years. He sheds light too on the effects of the Holocaust on Jews whose families, like his, had left Eastern Europe generations before and experienced the Shoah at one remove, from the relative safety of London. Rudolf was born in England during the war, and went to City of London School at a time when pupils still searched for relics amid nearby rubble from the Blitz. He had a long, close relationship with his grandfather, who had immigrated to London around 1903 from the Galician town of Stanislawow, now called Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. Stanislawow was some 60 miles from the scene in 1944 in Drohobycz of the core event recounted in Jerzyk.

Before coming to the work itself, it is worth describing the author’s unusual, distinguished professional background. Rudolf had an undemanding day job at the BBC World Service to top up his freelance income. At the time, it was a polyglot centre for a group of intellectuals to whom the shift work gave exceptional freedom to pursue interests which they would have been less able to follow from a university base. It is said that one continuity announcer used the time between his quarter-hourly contributions to translate a 22,795-verse Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala. Rudolf founded a small press, Menard, edited European Judaism, and forged close contacts and friendships with poets, writers, scientists and artists, especially in Israel, the US and France, as well as the UK. They included the already celebrated, the soon to be famous, and the obscure. To some, his translations offered the first access to English-speaking readers. The Menard Press published the first English translation of the poetry of Primo Levi; it provided a forum for the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, Lord Zuckerman, to express his disquiet about nuclear weapons policy. In the early 2000s, Rudolf published work by Dan Plesch bringing to public notice concerns about the 2003 attack on Saddam Hussein which were only later to become accepted among experts.

In his search for authenticity and his willingness to publish literary and political materials by writers which might not be considered commercially viable, Rudolf has been an important innovator and pioneer. This quest has affected his oeuvre in at least two ways: his abiding interest in the art of translation (he has translated works from French, Hebrew, Russian and other languages) and his literary study of the subject of memory. This topic has been followed more avidly in France by critics such as Philippe Lejeune than in the UK. In a previous autobiographical work on his north-west London childhood, The Arithmetic of Memory, Rudolf carefully recorded his re-collection of events and went on to check whether these memories were accurate only after doing this first.

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