How to Be a Refugee
'A lyrical, fascinating, important book. More than just a family story, it is an essay on belonging, denying, pretending, self-deception and, at least for the main characters, survival.' Literary Review
'Simon May's remarkable How to Be a Refugee is a memoir of family secrets with a ruminative twist, one that's more interested in what we keep from ourselves than the ones we conceal from others.' Irish Times
The most familiar fate of Jews living in Hitler’s Germany is either emigration or deportation to concentration camps. But there was another, much rarer, side to Jewish life at that time: denial of your origin to the point where you manage to erase almost all consciousness of it. You refuse to believe that you are Jewish.
How to Be a Refugee is Simon May’s gripping account of how three sisters – his mother and his two aunts – grappled with what they felt to be a lethal heritage. Their very different trajectories included conversion to Catholicism, marriage into the German aristocracy, securing ‘Aryan’ status with high-ranking help from inside Hitler’s regime, and engagement to a card-carrying Nazi.
Even after his mother fled to London from Nazi Germany and Hitler had been defeated, her instinct for self-concealment didn’t abate. Following the early death of his father, also a German Jewish refugee, May was raised a Catholic and forbidden to identify as Jewish or German or British.
In the face of these banned inheritances, May embarks on a quest to uncover the lives of the three sisters as well as the secrets of a grandfather he never knew. His haunting story forcefully illuminates questions of belonging and home – questions that continue to press in on us today.
A lyrical, fascinating, important book. More than just a family story, it is an essay on belonging, denying, pretending, self-deception and, at least for the main characters, survival.
Julia Neuberger, Literary Review
Simon May's remarkable How to Be a Refugee is a memoir of family secrets with a ruminative twist, one that's more interested in what we keep from ourselves than the ones we conceal from others . . . May's large cast of characters shows with dizzying variety the human ability to live in a state of constant flight from horror, long after the shooting stops. His broad and intriguing book suggests that these survivors were exiled not just from time and place, but also from themselves.
John Phipps, Irish Times Weekend
Simon May was raised in Britain as a Catholic, but was forbidden to identify as British. Neither was he allowed to identify as Jewish or German, despite his family’s origins. After one of his aunts reveals the truth about his father’s death, May embarks on a quest to uncover his family’s true history: a story of steadfast denial of their Jewish heritage through extraordinary means in order to escape the fate of Jewish people living in Hitler’s Germany.
Hannah Beckerman, Observer