In My Good Books: ‘Other People’s Houses’ by Lore Segal

Other People’s Houses recounts the foster care of Lore Segal as she flees Nazi persecution. Having read Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I was compelled to further explore the vast memoirs from survivors of Nazi oppression. However, while Morris’ account of Lale Sokolov depicts harrowing torture and murder, Lore Segal rather presents an innocent child’s standpoint for whom the terror of war means the difficult navigation of each new foster family. This unique narrative voice explores the alienation of Jewish refugees and the everyday battle of Lore, as she is forced to adapt to her tainted childhood.

The novel begins by exploring the cosy family dynamics of the family in Vienna, as Nazi rule gradually becomes omnipresent. As segregation seeps into school life, Lore finds herself unable to ignore the growing familial, and global, crisis. In December 1938, Lore is signed up to a revolutionary act of rescue: the Kindertransport, in which thousands of Jewish children are transported to foster homes in Britain. Lore is reduced to ‘Number 152’, as she heartbreakingly boards the train without knowing when, or if, she will see her parents again. The playground dynamics are quickly established on the train as childhood alliances are developed. In the midst of global turmoil, 10 year Lore is rather all consumed by the embarrassing smell of her sausage and her right to a seat on the train. This naïve concern epitomises the innocence of the refugee children in the middle of a precarious and dangerous operation.

As Lore arrives in England, her temporary accommodation appears as more of a summer camp for the children, rather than a port for the thousands of Jewish refugees. Lore must navigate both the older children and the committee ladies as each child tries to woo their way to a safe home. The novel progresses through each new home of Lore as she is constantly passed between houses. The constant confusion, misunderstanding and cultural distinction is mutual between Lore and her various foster families, as she simply tries to progress at school and communicate with her parents. On the arrival of her parents in England, the previously wealthy and esteemed parents are condemned to a life of domestic work, as the British do their utmost to accommodate these foreign “aliens”.

In the recent years the headlines have been flooded with images of infant refugees in desperate need of aid. However, the voice of the young refugees is rarely heard. Lore Segal’s account of being torn from her home as her childhood is uprooted is still powerful and pertinent for the reader in 2018, despite being written in 1964.

The novel is written in a matter-of-fact and childish tone. However, the trauma of each Jewish refugee underpins the novel,  as the battlefield of Europe in 1938 acts as a confusing playground for Lore as she fights her own battle of growing up. I found this particularly important in the light of the refugee crisis of the 21st century. Lore experiences the terrorisation, persecution, and segregation that still saturate communities worldwide. Hence while Lore’s confident personality propels her through the turmoil of her foster homes, she remains simply ‘Number 152’ as she is transported around the country. Yet, amidst the chaos, the concern of the British charities and committees presents a benevolent and humane view of the treatment of refugees, an act of kindness that should continue to be echoed in 2018.

~ Harriet Hansford

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