How to Be a Refugee

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21 January 2021
320 pages

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 meditation on his own family inheritance and that strange historical entity that was the German Jew – so in love with the fatherland’s cultural forms and ideals that its killing politics grew nigh invisible – Simon May’s memoir is both deeply felt and profoundly thought. It is also beautifully conceived – propelling us from the innocence of childhood when questions are hard to put through to the realities of age. This is a superb book.

Lisa Appignanesi, author of Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love.

A deeply moving and perceptive memoir of a family caught in the jaws of a terrible history, May shows how individual lives and relationships reflect the larger tragedies, the losses, hopes and loves, of oppressive and destructive times. It is a powerful story beautifully told, and at the same time a significant document in the record of the twentieth century.

A. C. Grayling

Gripping . . . May is at his best when he writes about his own experience of loss and displacement . . . a beautifully told story of a second-generation refugee coming to terms with his family's German past.

David Herman, AJR Journal