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From death camps to David Bowie

PUBLISHED: 20:00 17 April 2019

George Szirtes  Picture: Clarissa Upchurch

George Szirtes Picture: Clarissa Upchurch

Clarissa Upchurch

The extraordinary story of poet George Szirtes' mother swims into focus from a few salvaged photographs

The Photographer at Sixteen by George SzirtesThe Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes

George Szirtes begins the story of his mother with her death.

His journey back in time to uncover her history takes him through her arrival in England as a refugee and back into the horror of Nazi concentration camps.

It is a story told in photographs as well as words – beginning with a snapshot of his mother, on the edge of a picture, gazing at George's baby son, her grandson. In the final portrait she is a toddler, standing alongside her brother. In between is a haunting story George discovered only after his mother, a professional photographer, died.

“I knew nothing then of her past, of anything that had happened to her and all she had survived,” he writes. “Nor did I know much about my father and his close brushes with death. I had no sense of them as heroes or powers or even as people in their own right. They were my parents.”

George and his family arrived in Britain as refugees in 1956. He was eight years old, and grew up to become a teacher and writer. He set up the creative writing course at the Norwich University of the Arts and also taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia. He has won many prizes for poetry and translation but this is his first prose book.

In it he performs an extraordinary alchemy, bringing his photographer mother swimming into sharp focus as if he was developing pictures of her life-story in an old-fashioned dark room. And much of it is a dark story.

There are tragically few photographs of a life disrupted by ghettoes, internment, invasion, escape and illness. The few pictures which exist of her early life were carried by George, as the family fled their native Hungary as a brief uprising against Soviet rule was brutally crushed. They stumbled across the border into Austria on his eighth birthday.

Three days later they were flown to England and as his parents worked to establish new lives, the past was rarely mentioned. Now George, who lives in Wymondham with his artist wife Clarissa, has uncovered the tragedy which lay behind his mother's bright, brittle character. But although he tracks her back into the horrors the Holocaust, and finds her, tortured and close to starvation, as a concentration camp is liberated, this is not a misery memoir. It is a love story to the woman who emerges from the few facts and photographs he once had. Magda, his mother, who died four decades ago on the way to hospital after the last in a series of attempts to kill herself, is restored to George and his readers.

His journey into her past is a clever, compelling book, gradually revealing a far more complete picture of Magda, and the shadows which crowd beyond the edges of each photograph.

Along the way there are secrets, surprises, shocks – and the fabulously unexpected line that a young David Bowie was once, briefly, the family's cleaner.

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes, is published in hardback by MacLehose Press for £14.99.

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