Personal Responses 

Here are some responses to the book and the material we present in it. Some of them are from friends and colleagues and some from members of our families. In addition there are pieces we have written ourselves in response to the stories we tell in the book and the characters who people them. 

If you would like to add a response of your own, please click here.

Comments from Victor Sage, a friend of Carol and Jenny's

Yes, I finally read the book and loved it. It is very courageous from the two of you; your concerns and backgrounds are very different and yet ... read more

Review from Anita Rogers, a friend of Carol's

This extraordinary account by two well known Death Studies scholars is part memoir, part history, part social and psychological commentary. 

 

Reflections from Mala Tribich MBE, Belsen survivor and friend of Carol's father, Jim

I was very interested to read this book – knowing some of the story. I am someone who survived Belsen – and in 1991 two months before Jim died, Carol asked me to visit him at his home in Staffordshire.

Reflections from Ros Billington, a friend of Jenny's

I found the theoretical chapter very interesting but perhaps more important I liked the ‘stories’ – yours and Carol’s.  Read more ... 

 

Reflections from Pam Davies, a friend of Jenny's 

I think that Carol and Jenny have written a remarkable book.  They write with warmth and compassion and their understanding, gained through many years of study, shows in the depth and wisdom of their reflection on their experiences.  

Extract from comments by Val Palfreyman, a friend of Jenny's 

Thanks you so much for your wonderful book.  It is so thought-provoking. It applies to everyone because of the knock-on effect of war. 

Poem from Jenny addressed to Bert, her grandfather. It references the photo of him training with the Topsham Territorial Force and another, portrait photo of him in army uniform.

From Carol:

Letter to Dad, August 2, 2018

Hi Dad,

 I’ve been thinking about you a lot recently. I’ve finished a book, written jointly with a close colleague, that tries to capture your story as well as that of her family.

Reflections from Carol, after completing the writing process.  

I have found comfort and consolation in music, friendship and animals. Those who have read the book will understand the significance of animals – especially cats.

Comments from Douglas Davies, a longstanding friend and colleague.

Douglas has been an invaluable member of the Death Studies academic community and is currently Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Durham. 

 

PERSONAL RESPONSES IN FULL

Comments from Victor Sage, a friend of Carol and Jenny's

Yes, I finally read the book and loved it. It is very courageous from the two of you; your concerns and backgrounds are very different and yet the work of blending and making a narrative out of that blending is completely heartening and shows real originality, adding to and enriching your subject-matter. I have lent it to to a friend who is writing a book about his Grandfather's War (WWI) and I am about to discuss it with him. 

 

 

Review from Anita Rogers, a friend of Carol's

This extraordinary account by two well known Death Studies scholars is part memoir, part history, part social and psychological commentary.  It makes uniquely accessible the larger context of the second world war and its aftermath. However, its power is found in the intensely personal detail and breath-taking honesty that discloses the writers’ origins within that historical, cultural and psychological context.

It is a cautionary tale, a philosophical commentary on the links between global atrocity and intimate family dysfunction, in particular on the role of silence.  One comment alludes to this interplay:’ more striking is the way that silence played a role, so that what was not spoken remained unacknowledged.’ (p.211).

‘In contrast to the silence, these accounts are a form of speaking out, in order to make sense of and make public, the impact of war on ordinary lives such as ours’.

It is this comment which sums up the formidable and inspiring contribution of this work. In the end, it is not about death but about life and how it should be lived.   These authors exemplify the strength, integrity, perseverance, courage, vision that it takes, to break from the past to live their lives fully. It is a tale of hope.

 

 

 

Reflections from Mala Tribich MBE, Belsen survivor and friend of Carol's father, Jim.

I was very interested to read this book – knowing some of the story. I am someone who survived Belsen – and in 1991 two months before Jim died, Carol asked me to visit him at his home in Staffordshire. It was important to Carol that he should meet a survivor because she believed that it might ease the emotional pain he was experiencing about witnessing Belsen.  As a soldier of the British forces, he provided supplies to Belsen after its liberation. The profoundness of the horrors of war that he had witnessed seemed to be more prominent at the end of his life. At least he was able to talk to Carol about it and explain how he was haunted constantly by the image of what he saw in Belsen.

     Carol’s husband, Peter, had contacted The Board of Deputies of British Jews in an effort to find a Belsen survivor.   It was through my brother Ben Helfgott, who was a member of the Board of Deputies, that we met at The Imperial War Museum when the permanent exhibition of Belsen was launched on Wednesday 17th April 1991.

     Carol and I subsequently corresponded and tried to think of ways to help but it wasn’t until October 1991 that my husband Maurice and I visited Carol and Peter at their home and after lunch they took us to meet Jim at his home in Staffordshire where he lived with his wife Nell.

     We were very warmly received and there was an immediate rapport between Jim and me.   I did not talk about my experiences in the camp, I didn’t need to; there was a kind of understanding that we had both seen something that the ordinary person in the street could not begin to imagine or understand.  I had, in any case, written a very long letter to Jim before my visit and even that was not about my experiences in the camp. It was a very positive letter telling him what I have been doing and how I have lived my life since the war.

     On leaving I thanked Jim for his valiant war service, along with the British Forces, which truly saved a lot of lives.   Carol told me afterwards that he was surprised to be thanked as he felt he had not done nearly enough. Indeed, he carried a lot of guilt that he could not do more and was especially upset that he could not take anyone with him despite the pleas of those survivors he met at Belsen. 

     Afterwards Jim dictated a letter to Nell, which she sent me, telling me how important it had been for him to meet me.

     I might mention that Bergen Belsen was liberated in an unusual way.   It was actually surrendered to the liberating forces because apart from all the existing infectious diseases Typhus had broken out and if a battle had to be fought the prisoners would escape and the whole of the surrounding area would become contaminated.  

     Carol is a very sensitive, loving and caring person but the love for her father knew no bounds.   We have corresponded over all the years that we have known one another, that is about twenty eight years and in that time I got a good idea of how much Carol loved her father.   The following extract from one of her letters to me will give you a glimpse of that love:-

     “It is going to be very hard for me (as well as everyone else) because I adore him.   He really is the kindest and most gentle man I have ever known and he has been a wonderful grandfather to mine and my sister’s children.   He was always my hero as a child and we were called ‘inseparables’.   My life revolved around him.   It seems so terrible that someone who is not at all ready should have to die.   I really hoped he would have a long and happy retirement, something he really deserved to have.   It’s difficult for me to make any sense of it, although my experience in Nursing has shown me that there is little sense to be made of who lives and who dies".

     Anyway I will let you know what happens of course.   I ask you to think of us at this time, because I think that the thoughts of friends do convey a strength.   I hope I am strong enough to bear a pain which at times I find almost unbearable.   This is the loss I have always dreaded most”.

     The book has much to say about family, especially the relationships Carol and Jenny had with their fathers. I know from what I saw and what Carol has told me, how much her father has meant to her. Carol is acutely aware of what it means to have lost that very close bond. My mother and younger sister were killed under horrific circumstances in 1942 and my father was killed in 1945, near the end of the war trying to escape from  a “death” march between camps.

     Carol and Jenny visited me recently and I was delighted to see them and have this opportunity to discuss the book.  Part of what we talked about was the legacy of war. For me it has been about doing everything I can to educate people in an attempt to prevent it happening again.    I travel the length and breadth of the country to speak to schools, colleges, universities, government departments and some very large business concerns and I do it because I feel passionate about the world learning some lessons from the Holocaust.  

     I tell them my life story and share my own experiences, however hard it is to talk about them. I believe that people of all ages and all backgrounds who haven’t gone through the experience have the capacity to hear, to feel and to learn. I receive hundreds of letters from students every year that tell me what they have gained from listening to my story. These are extracts from just a few that I have recently received:

     “Thank you for sharing your story with us. It must have been a very hard thing to talk about but also extremely emotional to listen to. We will never forget.”

     “Thank you for sharing such a great story. It is very inspiring and moving. It must have been ever so hard to tell. Making it all more meaningful.”

     “I think we should remember the Holocaust as a warning of the evil mankind can do and try and prevent anything like this in the future or at least try and help the victims instead of just pretending nothing is happening.”

     “The world needs to think about the Holocaust as something to learn from and the world can get better from it.”

     “Something should be done so that the Holocaust is never forgotten because if we forget they will have got away with it.”

     “I simply cannot express in words how much your story has changed my life but I thank you to the ends of the earth; your story has changed my view of life and path forever.”

 

 

 

Reflections from Ros Billington, a friend of Jenny's

 

I found the theoretical chapter very interesting but perhaps more important I liked the ‘stories’ – yours and Carol’s.  Read more ... So much depth of feeling and connections to be made. Your family's house in Bristol was just round the corner from where my sister went to secondary school (Hengrove) in Knowle.  And I was really with your Dad when he went on the bus to Avonmouth and then walked back through Coombe Dingle, where several friends of mine lived when I went to secondary school in Shirehampton, and then to Westbury, where Louis and I lived when we first married!  I like too the details of how you and Carol put together the information on your families.  It seems to me that the book has a much wider appeal than its hardback price implies!        

Reflections from Pam Davies, a friend of Jenny's 

I think that Carol and Jenny have written a remarkable book.  They write with warmth and compassion and their understanding, gained through many years of study, shows in the depth and wisdom of their reflection on their experiences.   Like Carol and Jenny I also grew up in the shadow of war and I quickly engaged with the stories they were telling of family life at the time. 

     The book led me to reflect more on the impact of war on people in my own family.  My parents were married just before the second world war and were living on the outskirts of London when war broke out.  My father was in both a reserved occupation and in the Home Guard, manning the anti-aircraft guns by night and clearing and assessing bomb damage in London by day.  Whilst he did not directly experience front line combat his experiences clearly had a profound effect on him.  Like many men he was reluctant to talk of them.  When I was about ten I remember him speaking of the terrifying loudness of the guns as they were fired; he looked at me very intently saying ‘even grown men wet themselves’.   His look and that fragment of conversation were enough to convey the horror of his experience.

     There had been no deaths in my close family but the war has still left a legacy .  After the war my father did not continue his architectural studies and, like men returning from the trenches, his experiences had changed him.  He continued to work all his life but he did not settle to study again. 

During the war my father had often needed to snatch a few hours sleep at the barracks between a night shift at the gun emplacements and his daytime job, and as a consequence my brother and I had seen little of him. When the war ended he was at home much more – but home life had changed too.  During the war years one of my mother’s brothers had been staying with us as it had made travel to work easier for him.   My uncle had become like a father to me and my brother.   I do not know how it ended – I remember my mother in tears for days, or so it seemed, hardly talking, and not willing to tell me what was wrong.  I did not see my uncle again for what seemed like years and he was not spoken about.  He had not died but the same silence surrounded him as though he had.

     Although there was no death of a close member of my family there were losses for all of us through the agency of war; for my father,  my mother and for them together, for my uncle, and for my brother and I.  I know that experiences like this can happen to people in families now outside the context of war,  but I am left with a more personal and heightened sense of the overwhelming power of war to change so many people’s lives in a short period of time, and to create a legacy which impacts on generations to come.  A powerful book!

 

 

 

 

Extract from comments by Val Palfreyman, a friend of Jenny's 

Thanks you so much for your wonderful book.  It is so thought-provoking. It applies to everyone because of the knock-on effect of war.  I learnt such a lot about the futility and how people blindly follow the most powerful. Also, how family dynamics make people behave in a way that even they do not understand. It made me think of all my own relations going back to my great aunts and uncles whom I remember quite well.  

Poem from Jenny addressed to Bert, her grandfather. It references the photo of him training with the Topsham Territorial Force and another, portrait photo of him in army uniform.

 

Snapshot

 

Younger than I am now by thirty years,

among your pals, your cap pushed back.

Not as I thought, away on the Western Front,

just camped in a Devon field, toying with guns.

 

Three tents pitched behind six uniformed lads,

another four in watch chains and waistcoats,

some old chap with a pickaxe, one small boy —

all stuck on my album’s opening page

 

under another photo of you, the one

where you’ve set your buttons to rights, laid

a five-pocket bandolier cross-wise on your chest.

Over your cheekbones, flawless skin.

 

Is it that history’s tipped me off, shown me

your Villers-Bretonneux grave? Or had sadness

already weighed on your glorious moustache,

caused it to weep on stopped-up lips?

 

Could dread so infect your eyes?

I would ease the serge from your back,

lay leather and Enfield aside — ask in a voice

I once had if you’ll play a game for a while.

Carol Komaromy

Letter to Dad, August 2, 2018

Hi Dad,

 I’ve been thinking about you a lot recently. I’ve finished a book, written jointly with a close colleague, that tries to capture your story as well as that of her family. It’s about the impact of war on families and I followed your route from D-Day by retracing your steps in Europe – and I’ve described how it might have felt to have you with me on that journey - and being able to ask you to fill in more details of what it was all really like. You had shown us all glimpses of the war and shared funny moments and terrifying ones. Of course, it wasn’t until you were dying that we really talked about Belsen and I saw for the first time how much of a burden it had been to you. How the experience of a few hours could have such a traumatic effect.

     The jolt into writing was being given a diagnosis of cancer, first grade 3 breast cancer and then grade 3 melanoma - and facing my own premature death. I’m not sure that death at 70 can be premature – but it feels like it – and I know it was too soon for you. I’ve lived through the moment where my world changed – where I was redefined as someone with cancer. I remember so many things about your final 14 months. From the time of your diagnosis to those very final hours.

     Breaking the news was so shocking.  The consultant asked to talk to mom and I before he talked to you –  and he was clear that you had to be told that your diagnosis was terminal.  We sat opposite him on the other side of a huge desk and he said, ‘I’ve never seen such a spread of cancer before – as if someone scattered grains across his whole abdomen – and a large growth in the liver. There’s no way we can treat him. Do you want me to tell him or will you?’

     I know if you were here you would have a vivid memory of the moment we told you. Mom and I walked into the ward – and I went to get a chair rehearsing what words I could use, but when I got back to the bedside mom had told you – with just a shake of her head and you were already distressed. Did you cry? I don’t think so but somehow your pain was clearly visible. And the expression on your face was as if a light had been switched off inside.  When the consultant came to see you shortly afterwards, you asked if he could do something, “Is there anything you can do?’ I remember how, in response, he sat on the bed and said, “I’m really sorry!’  – I saw it as an act of compassion, but I recognised that it cut no ice with you. For you, he did not think you were worth saving.

     I remember how angry Pauline was that the doctors did not offer you any active treatment because of the extent of the spread. And more so, how furious she was that we had told you. She thought that without hope you would give up and die. When I started nursing, we kept bad news from patients – it was seen as a form of protection and now they have to strike a balance.  The medical profession is not supposed to remove hope – but they’re also committed to being truthful. When the news is really bad – then it’s hard to get it right. I still don’t know if we could have made it any better for you.

     It’s not just disclosure but other things that have changed and I’m fairly certain that if you had been diagnosed now, you would have been offered the full panoply of treatments – surgery, chemo, radiotherapy and possibly immunotherapy. Cancer is not the death sentence that it was, even 20 years ago, but for some, even if cure isn’t possible, the period of dying has been extended.

     It seems those of us with cancer have a duty to try everything on offer. So while I’m grateful that I have been actively treated – at times almost to the point of the treatment killing me – I’m not sure about how long I might want to continue to ‘fight’. I’m told things are changing all the time with Melanoma treatment – and even when it’s spread – like mine – there is a lot on offer. So while I feel relatively okay, I want to live as long as possible, if it all makes me feel ill – either the cancer or the treatment, then I hope I’ll find the courage to say ‘no’ and exit this world with some dignity.

     If you were here, I’m not sure you would cope with me being so ill. I guess you’ve been spared that. You might even be horrified that I know everything there is to know. You always tried to protect me, didn’t you?

     But it’s not all bad, and a death sentence gives us time to get things in order. I know that you and mom had a lot to say to each other in the time you had left. You told me that she had become your best friend and how the awful news had brought you closer together.

     I know that your emotional pain was great – and I so wanted to help to relieve that. Part of doing that was in hearing your story of entering Belsen first hand and arranging for Mala, a survivor of the nursery there, to visit you and show you that not only is it possible to survive the camp but also to be able to recover and lead a good life.

     Because of writing this memoir, I have been to see George a couple of times in Northern Ireland to tell me about your childhood, and how you joined the RAF. It helped with writing the book. He clearly adored you - and I remember what good friends you were and how much you both giggled when together. I really enjoyed seeing you together and felt envious of your love for each other as brothers. He’s really well at just over 90. We went to see Gladys but she could not speak after a big stroke and it seems, I’d left it too late to talk to her about you. George is very active and seems to be happy and contented. He lives in a small one-bedroomed bungalow in Coleraine and is thinking of marrying again! Can you imagine it – ‘yes’ I hear you say.

     Talking of big birthdays, I’ve celebrated my 70th here in Gower. I brought my Irish luck to the party – and we had arctic temperatures – but lots of friends and family attended. Peter arranged for an opera singer to serenade us and one of the pieces I chose was ‘We’ll gather Lilacs’ as it always reminds me of you. And it was also your birthday – or so we think! Well, it was the day on which you celebrated. And you would have been 97, so its highly unlikely you would have lived so long – but despite having died 27 years ago, you remain a very significant presence in my life. And I found a way of imagining you there.

     So many aspects of what you were and what you taught me I carry within me. People often eulogise those who have died – they tend not to talk ill of them. Rarely do we get the full picture of what they were like. But, I know that you were adored. It’s difficult to imagine anyone more special. Of course you never saw that you were special but you were.

     So, at this point in my life at an age that carries such significance – I’ve managed to write your story of the war in the way I wanted to – with someone who’s story contrasts with and compliments mine – so that people know what and who you were. One of the themes of the book is legacy and the it will serve as part of your legacy. 

     Talking of legacy, my cancer and your death, taught me not to postpone things. So, I’ve tried not to. When I asked you if you had any regrets, you said that you had worked too hard. I don’t share that because I’ve had jobs that I’ve loved. Indeed, work has been therapeutic to me and got me through many traumas, including being able to carry on when you died.  However, I have retired and at 70 I am living in a part of the world, Gower, that I love and one you introduced to me with a souvenir of Mumbles – and your talk of its beauty. Of course, we visited here together and holidayed here several times with the children – Debbie and Nick. Do you remember all those times together?

     It’s a little bit like Ireland here. We’re in a small community and the lane we live in is very friendly – everyone knows each other – and it’s the type of hospitality I remember from you and your family. And something I’ve inherited from you is that everyone who comes has to be fed and watered – I call it the Irish in me. Peter thinks it’s quite unnecessary to feed everyone and always have food in – just in case – I’m not sure it’s something they did in North London.

     I’ve also kept my own car – and I know how important a car was to you. Do you remember driving my first new car to mom’s sister Lisla when I came to visit you early on in your illness? You recognised it was a mistake – being on a syringe driver delivering Morphine – and when we got there you said, ‘You’d better drive home, Carol.’

     I also hear you saying, ‘Aren’t you going to clean that car, Carol? It would come up lovely with a wash and polish!’

     You would love it here. We are just a few yards from a view of the sea. There’s a shop at the end of the lane where you could walk to get your paper. We live with two cats – Daphne, a fierce independent hunter who swings in, demands food and goes off again without a backward glance, and Alice, a very timid and adoring young cat. Although she is very fussy and runs away from most strangers – or possibly because she is so fussy, I feel sure she would accept you. 

     I think if you were here now, you’d be surprised by your four grandchildren. I don’t think my children will become parents. Graham is an artist and has two children who I know you would adore. Debbie and Nick still work in the NHS and live in London – while Anthony works in education. I’m sure you would be proud of them.

     Part of writing the book was as a legacy – and you were a key character in the story. It mentions all the people who have died. Mom lived quite a long time after you – and died aged 84 in a care home. I did my best to stay in touch and tried to arrange a good send off for her. She is buried in the same grave as you. Pauline’s death – although anticipated – was sudden when it came. She told me she wasn’t afraid and was comforted by the idea that you were waiting for her.

     I could go on to list all the family members who have died but in this imagined letter I really wanted to tell you about the book and why I wrote it. I also wanted to thank you for teaching me about essential qualities of justice and compassion – and about humour all of which comprise the essential parts of life.

Bye for now, dad.

 

 

 

 

Reflections from Carol, after completing the writing process. 

1. Introducing Alice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have found comfort and consolation in music, friendship and animals. Those who have read the book will understand the significance of animals – especially cats. The decision to live by the sea when I was given a life-limiting diagnosis was a significant part of making the most of the time I have left. My Bengal cat Hari, was killed some months before the move and this was a very traumatic loss. I decided that it was really unfair to have another Bengal, knowing I might not be able to look after it long-term – but having fallen in love with the breed I decided to get a Bengal cross. This is how Alice came into my life. Hari’s (Kumar) companion, Daphne (named after Daphne Manners in the Jewel in the Crown) just pops in occasionally for food and shelter if extremely bad weather. Alice, a Bengal and Maine Coon cross is nothing like Hari – she is extremely shy and wary of all strangers and all traffic. Despite her hero worshipping of Daphne and all attempts to become friends – Daphne wants nothing to do with her. Daphne is a very ruthless and proficient hunter and gifts the odd mouse or vole to Alice – who is delighted but not quite sure what to do with it. 

     The most important thing is that Alice and I are friends and Alice brings joy and laughter to the home. It is essential that she should appear on this website.

2. Breaking Bad News

When I read the story of the death of Jenny’s grandmother, Ella Manning, widowed in the first World War and how she died in 1943 just after her son, Arthur, I felt upset. It has taken me some time to understand my emotional reaction. On some levels, my reaction is about the tragic loss of a child – killed in the carnage that is war and adding to the terrible loss of life of a generation of young men. 

     But my emotional reaction was, and still is, about much more than this. What really hurts is having to contemplate the idea of not knowing – of Ella being very ill with flu and not knowing that her eldest son had been killed. But why is that so awful? In part, it is that this strong and resilient woman was being protected from the news – one assumes in any case that Jenny’s father, David, her younger son, withheld the news as an act of kindness; being what might be called paternalistic. 

     I have witnessed many deaths as a nurse – and have noted how some people can hang on to life when there is unfinished business. Well, this is how those of us who have cared for dying people interpret what is happening – and it might be a romanticised notion – a way of adding some solace to a death. I’ve written about how death-bed scenes at the end of a long life and in care homes can perform the task of adding significance to a life when its significance might have been lost. The poignancy of the last few hours of life, does take on a special significance. People close to someone who has died mostly want to know about how they were and what they said at the end, as if squeezing something highly meaningful out of that time. 

     So, perhaps I am struggling to invest in Ella a need to know about the fate of her son, news that would have come just in time before her own death. Perhaps, I am projecting onto her my own terror of being protected from the truth and making an assumption that not only did she need to know but she deserved to know. I don’t believe that ends justify means – and I’m troubled by the way that small acts of withholding the truth, and grand acts of war can be excused. 

     But even if I hold to the notion that means are ends in themselves, truth-telling and not withholding information, take an exalted position in the moral order. And I’m remembering how my Dad told me weeks away from the end of his life that he felt he was conned, ’A land fit for heroes!’ was his bitter comment after watching the Remembrance Service with me. 

     The bitter coincidence of Arthur’s death in Italy shortly before his mother’s death, the timely and untimely deaths so closely linked, echo in me, my Dad’s bitterness and Ella’s right to know that her son had been killed. There is no softening of that blow.

Comments from Douglas Davies, a longstanding friend and colleague. He has been an invaluable member of the Death Studies academic community and is currently Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Durham. 

This is a book I love, not just because of Jenny and Carol’s honesty in explaining why they became engaged in death-focused studies in the first place, nor because it establishes a deeply reflexive academic genre all of its own, but because it shows the creative outcome of long-term friendships in life, scholarly thought, and feeling, framed through real hindsight wisdom. Read more ... Its entangled accounts of family histories prompted this post-war baby to ponder afresh just how twentieth century wars pervasively marred lives and relationships in my own family. And how different it is to think of oneself as a post-war baby rather than as a baby-boomer! Sociological labels have a lot to answer for! - but not in this networked biography where individualism dissolves into mutuality through the researched emotional identities of kin and friendship to engender a volume that stands alone in Death Studies.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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