The incredible bravey of forgotten refugees: a review of “All that I am” by Anna Funder

all that i amI read “All that I am” by Australian author Anna Funder purely on word-of-mouth.

I’d been told and heard that this book was very good, but knew nothing at all about the subject matter, plot or characters.

The cover of the version I read shows a  woman in a red coat walking past what looks like the Reichstag in Berlin, her reflection a red blur on the wet pavement.

The story, as it unfolds inside the cover, is about a group of German refugees (all but one  are Jews) who are forced to flee their homeland when Hitler rises to power  in Germany in the early 1930s.

Not only are they Jewish intellectuals, but left-wing leaning and socialist – in complete opposition to all that the National Socialists (the Nazis) stand for.

They all manage to obtain refugee visas in London, where despite the constant and very real risk of deportation, they continue to do what they can to plant stories in the British press about Hitler’s plans for  rearmament and his viscious policies towards the Jews and others he deems undesirable.

The central plot of the novel is what happens to four characters, namely: Ruth Wesseman, a bohemian Jewess and intellectual married to non-jewish journalist Hans, Ruth’s cousin Dora, a firebrand, fearless pursuer of justice and freedom (the heroine of the novel) and Dora’s lover, the celebrated left-wing German playwright and agitator, Ernst Toller

There are two narrators: Ruth, now a frail old women in her nineties, but with all her mental faculties intact, who tells the story of her life in Berlin, London and Shanghai before immigrating to Australia in 1947 while recovering from a fall in a Sydney hospital; and the playwright Ernst Toller, living an agoraphobic, reclusive life in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York in 1939 who tells of his relationship with Dora Fabian, his one true love.

The novel moves effortlessly back and forth across timelines from the cake shops along Bondi Road to the Bohemian nightclubs of Berlin to an attic apartment in Bloomsbury in Central London and a terrace house in Hampstead.

They are all real people and Funder’s genius is to breathe life into their characters, relationships and pysches and like a detective piece together the story of what happened to them.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the book is its exploration of the lives of German refugees forging an existence in London.

This is the book’s central canvas – the secret, untold stories of people who lived under the very tenuous, conditional protection of the British government, a government not yet aware or perhaps not yet convinced of Hitler’s evil intentions and hoping  that appeasement might prevent war.

It is the brave acts of these refugees, who risk their own safety to connect with those still trapped in Europe and get their stories into the newspapers and public consciousness, which ultimately convinces Britain that war is the only route to peace.

What’s most shocking is how easily refugees fleeing persecution – despite the horrible fate that awaited them – could be sent back to Germany if British bureaucrats got word of political activities, in some cases colluding with Nazi operatives.

Such a fate befalls one of the colleagues of the four protagonists. A former German policeman, he is expelled from Britain for speaking out at a trade union convention, and his mistake is being heard by the wrong people.

Once the expulsion order is granted, an immigration agent is assigned to watch him until he is deported. His fate, severe beatings and a first-class ticket to the concentration camps, where he gets to clean the toilets.

The book also recounts the fate of Jews aboard the MS St Louis, a refugee boat that sailed from Germany to seek asylum in Canada and the USA in 1939. It’s fate is told through the eyes of Clara, a jewish refugee and secretary to Ernst Toller while in exile in New York. Her brother is aboard the ship as it remains moored just outside Havana.

Clara is transcribing Toller’s life story (and what will become his memoir), while he urges her not to give up hope as the fate of the MS St Louis remains uncertain. Eventually it is sent back to Europe, where a quarter of those onboard would later die in the concentration camps.

The refugee’s tale, as told by Funder, should resonate with readers in Australia or anyone fortunate to be living in a free country.

The debate about refugees, particularly those that arrive by boat, is such a political hot potato here, that most forget that these are real people’s lives we talk so glibly about and discuss as if they were not human at all – objects to be “processed” or “turned back”.

Upon reading ‘All that I am’ I did some background reading about all the characters in the book, especially the central character of Dr Ruth Blatt (Ruth Wesseman).

Funder was a friend of Ruth Blatt and was no doubt inspired to write about her life through the incredible story she told her.

Searching online, I came across Funder’s interview with Ruth Blatt for a radio broadcast on the ABC.

After you’ve read this gripping, moving story about heroism, bravery and what it means to be all that you can be, listen to the radio broadcast to hear Ruth Blatt tell her story in her own words.

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