High Quality Children's Books: A blog about The Missing by Michael Rosen
When I was growing up, my father would sometimes say that he had two French uncles: ‘They were in France before the war but by the end, they weren’t there.’
If I asked him where they went or what happened to them, he said that they probably ‘ended up in the camps’. If then, I asked him what the ‘camps’ were he would briefly say that there were these terrible places where people were killed. Later I got to understand that this had something to do with us because we were Jews. Even later, I got to understand that the Nazi regime created a network of camps in Germany and in the countries they occupied, used variously as transit camps to other camps, or as hard labour work, or as factories, or most notoriously for the mass extermination of Jews, the people identified at the time as ‘Gypsies’, people deemed to be unfit to live on account of mental illness, and a cluster of victims who were killed on account of their sexuality (gay and lesbian) and people of colour who were living in Germany or the countries the Nazis invaded. This is of course the Holocaust - so called because it marks the fact that many of these victims were gassed and cremated.
About thirty years ago, I started to try to find out what happened to the two French uncles my father spoke about. A bit of family folklore told me their names: Oscar and Martin, that they fought on opposite sides in the First World War, that one of them was a dentist and the other was a clock-maker, that they lived in several towns on the east side of France. For several years I talked to relatives in the US who added on a few snippets. I even spoke to a random person at an airport who came from one of the towns mentioned in the family as a home of one of the uncles!
I drew a blank for years until my second cousin in the US, Teddy, wrote to me saying that some letters had come to light in the papers belonging to a relative who had just died. There were four: two from Oscar, two from my father’s aunt and uncle in Poland. By the by, I knew of them because they put their only son on a train to Russia and after many years in the Polish ‘Free Army’ and a ‘Displaced Persons’ camp, he arrived in Britain and was alive and well in Stanmore.
Back to the letters: the two from Oscar came from an address in western France (not the east!). Bit by bit, using his address and looking up French books that document the history of Jews during WW2, I pieced together that Oscar (also known as Jeschie) had a wife, Rachel, and they had perished in Auschwitz, next door to the Polish town where he was born. With the help of others, I also found out that Oscar and Rachel escaped the net closing on them in western France to a place where Jews were for a while safe from the Nazis - Nice. An Italian philanthropist had requisitioned boats to ferry Jewish refugees to North Africa, but tragically, they never left port as the Nazis invaded Nice and rounded up many of the refugees and deported them.
I also pieced together the story of Martin who was picked up in a village also in western France. He was arrested by the French police, on orders that came from the Nazis, passed down the line to the French administration and on to the gendarmes. He too perished in Auschwitz.
I tell the story of how I found these things out in ‘The Missing’. I hope very much that it is both interesting in itself, but also that it encourages people of any age to find out more of where they come from. How did we arrive at this place? Where are my relatives now? Where did our relatives live one, two or three generations back?
This is a kind of research, where we mix looking at bits of paper that have survived in families, old photos, letters, birth certificates. Some of these things can be found online - the archives of the area in France called the Vendée were able to tell me a lot about Martin. Sometimes museums, libraries and archives can tell us a lot. I discovered that Oscar, Rachel and Martin have their names engraved on the Wall of Names at the Shoah Memorial in Paris.
If we choose to write about the stories we find, we can do this in many different ways: we can write it up in prose paragraphs, we can create lists of places or people, we can do drawings and reproduce old photos. We can, if we choose, write poems about our feelings as we look at documents or photos. We can even write things from the point of view of the person we are researching. We can also write more polemically about what we might think of as injustices, or unfairnesses, or regrets that our relatives were involved in things that we might disapprove of!
The Romantic poets gave us the idea that writing is about inspiration. No bad thing. It’s lovely when we are inspired by something we see or hear or imagine. But there are other kinds of writing that start from exploring, asking questions, recording what other people say, looking at old photos and documents. I’ve found that a good shape or pattern for these kinds of thoughts are poems but others might find other forms.
Finally, fascinating moments come when we share these stories and start to get a sense of who we are in the world, different but similar, living lives with a mix of fun, tragedy, hope, despair and much more besides.
The Missing is new to the 2020-21 CLPE course programme, it features on our our Planning the curriculum around a quality text in Years 5 and 6 course.. Find out more about the course here.