I have told his story before – so forgive me if you’ve read or heard it – but it was only when my latest book came out this year that I realised how deeply it resonates within me, on so many levels. And so I’m going to tell it again.
|A Danube Steamer today|
Picture the scene. Vienna 1934, and my father, aged four, was recovering from whooping cough. My grandfather was Czechoslovakian, my grandmother Austrian, and they lived in Vienna. As a treat following my father’s illness, his father took him on a Danube Steamer, where he knelt in his smart clothes looking out at the world passing by, not realising his feet were inching closer to an English lady beside him.
‘Careful with your shoes, Heinzele, you’ll dirty the lady’s dress,’ my grandfather said.
The lady smiled, and replied, ‘No, no, it’s all right,’ in halting German. ‘What a lovely boy,’ she added, pointing to my father, in his ‘pretty’ clothes and golden curls.
|My father as a young boy, with my grandfather|
As they reached the end of the line and discovered their fellow conference members had disembarked at an earlier port, my grandfather offered to show them a little of his city and bring them home to meet his wife and share some traditional cakes and coffee. And so, the Joneses came briefly into my father’s and grandparents’ lives.
The only contact after this was a note, written in stumbling German, which my father still treasures.“My dear Mr. Kessler. We have nothing forgotten. I cannot the German well write but I think often out of you and that so lovely son.” It’s signed Gladys H. Jones and was written on the paper printed with her husband’s dental practice address.
|The original letter from Gladys Jones|
My father had spent the first few years of his life living a happy, innocent existence in a small, Jewish family. In the late 1930s, families like his were no longer welcome in their own country.
Because my grandfather was Czech, they were able to move to Czechoslovakia, which they did in 1938. They were among the lucky ones. Soon, however, my family were once again unwanted Jews living in a Nazi world. Only this time, there was nowhere they could go. That is, nowhere unless they had a mass of signed certificates, permits and papers which would allow them to leave the country.
My grandfather began a long, difficult bureaucratic paper chase until, eventually, he had everything. Everything, that is, except for the final and most crucial item. An affidavit from someone in the country they wanted to go to, taking full financial responsibility for them. Without this legal document, there was no way for a Jewish family to leave the country.
So the trail reached a dead end. My family knew no one overseas. They had nowhere to go, and no one to help get them there. But then one day, my grandfather rediscovered the letter from Gladys Jones. The English couple they had met four years ago! Maybe they would write the letter that would give them their lives back. It was a very, very long shot. This couple had no reason to do such a thing. A day trip around Vienna was hardly a fair exchange for what he was asking. But my grandfather wrote to them anyway. It was the only option he had left.
Within weeks, the affidavit came. Yes! They would do it! Come to England – we will do whatever you need. My family had been saved. They came to England and lived with the Joneses for six months – and were finally free to live the rest of their lives.
But what if they had never met the Joneses? What if my father hadn’t been ill; if his father hadn’t decided he needed cheering up with a boat trip; if he hadn’t knelt on his seat! If the Jones’s hadn’t missed their stop...
At the end of all those ifs is an unthinkable alternative. No one needs reminding what kind of future awaited a Jewish family living under the Nazis.
This tiny chance moment that gave my family a chance of a new life makes my mind tingle. The thought of all those seemingly random decisions we make every day that could change the course of our lives forever absolutely fascinates me. In fact, this idea is at the heart of my latest book.
In A Year Without Autumn, Jenni finds herself transported a year forward in time, and discovers a terrible tragedy has torn her best friend’s world apart. Jenni needs to work out how she got there, and – more importantly – if she can get back and make everyone act differently so that both families face a different fate.
Even though this is my eighth children’s book, there’s something special about it for me. I think it’s because its inspiration lives within me at the deepest level possible. The tiny moment that saved my father’s life, and the fact that without this moment, things could have been so very, very different.
It may not say so in the pages of my book, but in my heart, A Year Without Autumn is dedicated to the many Mr and Mrs Joneses of this world, and the things they do every day without realising that they have just changed another person’s life forever.
A Year Without Autumn is now out in paperback.
Find out more about Liz on her facebook page or her website