Amemory​ of my father spreading a map on the warm bonnet of the car, catching at its flapping corners in awkward gusts of Welsh wind. We are on a camping holiday, we are lost, and he is trying to tame the map so we don’t get loster. The high, solid hedgerows obscure the view and are not marked on the map. Nor are the wild raspberries that grow in the hedgerows. Nor is the weather. Nor is the man spreading a map on the warm bonnet of the car, catching at its flapping corners in awkward gusts of Welsh wind.

My father was very fond of maps. He took great care to respect the original creases when folding them and arranged them next to his impressive run of National Geographic, whose bright yellow spines I liked. I think he believed in maps at a very literal level, not simply as a reliable guide for getting from here to there, but as a set of agreed principles that give meaning to the world and describe it to us. That this faith survived his youth, which was nothing if not a lesson in the treachery of maps, is a miracle – a case of believing is seeing, rather than the other way around.

His faith was sometimes tested by discrepancies between the map and the territory, though it wasn’t clear to me whether he believed the ground or the map to be at fault (that it might be the map-reader never entered the calculation). On one occasion, driving in Somerset to a church he wanted to see, with me at the wheel and him holding the map, he became increasingly peeved that our destination was further away than he had expected. ‘It’s not where it should be,’ he kept saying. We eventually found the church, which had a Norman nave and was therefore unlikely to have moved since the Ordnance Survey landed its symbol on the Landranger map.

Thinking back on this, I wonder whether my father was already in the early stages of dementia. He was only in his mid-fifties, and it was a couple of years after that before it became plain to me that something was wrong. (This was when he left three identical messages on my answering machine, one after the other, informing me that his fax number had changed. I understood what this meant, and I sat down and burst into tears. It wasn’t grief, as such, or even a rehearsal of grief; it was fear of the effort required to meet the situation. You have three new messages … I deleted them immediately.) On that drive in Somerset, I had been surprised that he was so agitated: it was odd, disproportionate, but not enough to suggest that his cognitive function was already compromised. It was as if, out of the corner of my eye, I had seen a few tiles blown off a roof (more awkward gusts of wind). I didn’t recognise this as a warning that his brain was on the verge of collapse.

Itis said that the first lie of a map is that it tells the truth. The only true map would be on a scale of 1:1, a map that shows every single detail, including the map of the map of the map. Even supposing that such infinite regress could be shown (it can’t), the map still wouldn’t be truly true because the territory itself can never be fixed – the map would have to be constantly altered, in real time, to include the fallen oak, the river that burst its banks, the ooze of tarmac on the newly surfaced road. A map is a memory: it’s a representation, a re-presenting of something that has been. It may look good on paper – and that’s already a fiddle, a projection of a sphere onto a plane – but it’s always a botched job and mapmakers know it. Cartographic language is loaded with confessions of omission and commission: map silences, map fictions, map errors, distortion formulae (generalisation, adjustment, displacement, collapse), terra incognita. Every map is a fiction, a legend. It is no more the territory than memory is the past.

Such considerations would not have been mentioned to the pupils of the primary school in Câmpina which my father, Donald Slomnicki, then seven and speaking only a smattering of Romanian, attended from the autumn of 1938. Behind every teacher in every classroom in every school loomed a portrait of the king and a map of Greater Romania, the perfect circle within which, according to the curriculum and the powers that be, everybody lived happily doing various things in various sorts of traditional dress.

In the sitting room at home, the man on the radio who screeches on and on from Berlin doesn’t like the map, and wants to change it so that he has more room. That’s why Austria doesn’t exist any more and Czechoslovakia has got smaller. Czechoslovakia has a border with Romania and everybody is worried that the man on the radio is going to cross it with his Panzer tanks so he can continue eastwards to make one really big, joined-up ‘living space’. In Vienna, they say, many shops are displaying three maps showing what this will look like: the first map is titled THE GERMANY WHICH WAS’, the second, THE GERMANY WHICH IS’, and the third, THE GERMANY WHICH WILL BE’.

Bulgaria, Hungary and Soviet Russia also want to change the map. They claim that Romania stole chunks of their countries and should give them back. This can be done by redrawing a few red lines on the map, after which the Bulgarians, Hungarians and Russians will have returned home without actually moving. ‘Revisionism’, the adults call it, though not in front of the children, because how do you explain the undoing of geography without mentioning that people like us could find ourselves living in the wrong part of the map, the part where the bodies pile up?

Much better to concentrate their minds on the exciting futuristic constructions that are popping up in border zones everywhere, especially the Maginot Line in France, ‘the greatest defensive system ever devised’. Donald’s father, Joe, has a subscription to the Illustrated London News – his collection of back issues dating to the 1910s are handsomely bound in red leather volumes – and it has photographs and artists’ impressions of France’s fortifications along its eastern border with Germany. Donald and his brother, Peter, are not yet proficient enough in English to understand the text, so Joe translates it into German:

The essential points of the French system, which was carried out on a gigantic scale, are as follows: a line of fortified casemates giving each other mutual protection by crossfire, and interconnected by underground galleries safe from bombardment. All the key positions, normally vulnerable to aerial and other attack, are buried underground, such as living-quarters, magazines, stores, power-stations and control posts.

‘Nous sommes imprenables.’ Nobody shall pass. The line is ‘unassailable’, ‘invulnerable’, ‘formidable’, ‘impregnable’. It ‘has set a fashion followed all over Europe, by Belgium, Russia, Switzerland and Poland. But the greatest imitator of all is Germany, which has now tried to checkmate the Maginot Line by fortifications on the German side.’ This is the Westwall, known in English as the Siegfried Line. It was started by Hitler under cover of an archaeological excavation of the Roman limes, but it’s no longer a secret and appears regularly in Nazi propaganda films carefully edited to obscure the fact that it is not as complete as it seems to be.

King Carol II, the Great and the Good, Father of Culture, Father of his People, is also busy organising a system of defence to match his pledge that ‘not one foot of Romanian territory shall pass into the hands of our enemies.’ He has been touring the country, making speeches to rally his subjects to the task of building a great moat, 36 feet deep, on the border with Soviet Russia. Running parallel with the River Dniester, and stretching from the Carpathians to the Black Sea, once oil is pumped into it and ignited, this dyke will become ‘a wall of liquid fire’. Soon, the Carol Line will form an unbroken chain of fortifications, ‘a living wall against aggression’.

‘“rivers of fire” to guard rOmania: canals to be filled with oil, concrete and barbed wire,’ reads the headline to the story in the Illustrated London News on ‘Romania’s Own Maginot Line’. The photographs are less convincing than the king’s pronouncements. One shows the reinforcement of the Bessarabian frontier with the Soviet Union: ‘horizon-wide plains’ are dissected by (rather thin) ‘belts of barbed wire, which are also mined’. Another shows a ‘section of a concrete wall’ – two slabs (are there more?) – ‘joined with iron barriers which in case of need can be electrified’; in another, a handful of men, barefoot and with their trousers rolled up, use shovels to widen a canal, passing the mud back along the line to be piled up into a berm that looks like a landslip in waiting.

The Imaginot Line, people call it, under their breath. In the cafés of Bucharest, waiters bring ball-shaped chocolate cakes pimpled over like naval mines (Siegfrieds, or Maginots, depending on the waiter’s best guess at the nationality of his clients).

Ittook 24 hours to take Austria off the map. German troops crossed the border on 12 March 1938, and the next day, the occupation of Hitler’s country of birth was complete. Hitler rode into Vienna in an open Mercedes, lifting and lowering his right arm while his left hand ‘held tight to his belt buckle’, as Gregor von Rezzori wrote in Cain, ‘as though he were afraid that his pants might fall down’. This being the age of balcony politics, Hitler appeared on one to announce the Anschluss, the ‘joining’ of Austria to the Fatherland, a process speedily confirmed by a plebiscite in which the great majority of Austrians voted away the independence of their country.

When corresponding with friends and relatives in Vienna, say, or Salzburg, Donald’s mother, Elena, now had to address her letters to Germany. As the Austrian postal service no longer existed, letters posted from the new territory of Ostmark (‘Eastern March’) had to use German stamps, and there now being no Austrian currency, these had to be purchased in German Reichspfennige. The stamp issued in April 1938 to celebrate the Anschluss pictured two men in fraternal embrace waving a swastika flag, themselves embraced by the script ‘Ein Volk – Ein Reich – Ein Führer’. There were to be no more Austrian stamps until November 1945.

It’s impossible to know whether Donald understood the reason for the sudden disappearance of stamps from the country previously known as Österreich. (I’m sure he noticed: he had a good collection of Austrian stamps, and every stamp collector has a greedy eye for what is not there.) As Elena was ethnically German, she may have had some difficulty explaining this development to herself, let alone her small boys. Never mind her previous or current nationality, nothing could obscure the fact that, in Hitler’s estimation, she belonged by blood to Greater Germany.

Blut und Boden, ‘blood and soil’, the doctrine of racial belonging in which nature is suborned to the claims of unreality, so that there can be such a thing as German blood, German soil. Other nations were to take up this nonsense with more or less murderous results, but none as industriously as Nazi Germany. Here was the alibi for Hitler’s policy of Lebensraum, or ‘living space’. As to how tens of millions of ethnic Germans living in Central and Eastern Europe would be reunited with the Vaterland, he favoured the principle of returning an omelette to an egg. This would involve the unmixing of peoples and the careful removal of any elements not fit for inclusion – Jews, Poles, homosexuals, communists, socialists, Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Slavs, Roman Catholics, Pacifists, Freemasons, Esperantists. To achieve this, every territory containing blood Germans, even if they had been there for centuries and didn’t speak a word of German, needed to be occupied and annexed to the Reich.

At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Queen Marie of Romania had ‘shuddered’ to think of the possible repercussions of the ‘ghastly’ peace terms being forced on Germany. ‘I thought of the hideous suffering which would follow, of the seething hatred which would make many million hearts fester with an undying desire of future revenge … I could not help feeling that it was unwise to go so far – too far.’ She did not extend the insight to her own country, whose greatness had been gifted by that same peace. Dying on 18 July 1938, shortly after the Anschluss, she was spared the sight of Greater Romania vomiting up its gains.

Her state funeral in Bucharest drew a quarter of a million people. The coffin, draped in mauve and covered with her standard, was carried out of the royal palace and placed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses. A salute of 75 guns was fired, aeroplanes roared overhead, church bells tolled as the cortège made its way through the packed boulevards to Mogosoaia station, from where the coffin was transported to the cathedral of Curtea de Arges, north-west of Bucharest. With thousands of people holding candles lining the railway track, it took the train six hours to make a two-hour journey. Marie was interred that evening next to her husband, who had died in 1927. Her heart, as she had desired, was taken to her summer home at Balcic on the Black Sea, and installed in the chapel there.

TheAnschluss and, soon after, the ‘reoccupation’ of the Sudetenland to ‘liberate’ the ‘poor, persecuted, oppressed German minority’, announced the era of smash-and-grab. (Felicitations: Hitler’s Czechoslovakian smash-and-grab yielded the Skoda works at Pilsen, the largest armament works in the world.) It follows that this was also the era of hiding things, of sewing jewels and currency into the seams of coats, of stowing belongings under floorboards or digging them into the earth, of concealing the colour of your hair (self-Aryanisation by peroxide), of burying your feelings lest they betray you.

Donald’s best friend, Roy Redgrave, discovered that his father kept a loaded .45 service revolver hidden under his bedside table. Roy knew his father as ‘a happy-go-lucky man’, so why did he feel threatened in his own home? Roy, now 13, was at boarding school in England, travelling back and forth on his own on the Orient Express, which used to be fun but wasn’t any more. Officials were no longer polite or friendly; border guards appeared in different uniforms at every frontier crossing, demanding passengers’ documents and searching their baggage. When the train stopped at Vienna, men in black uniforms and jackboots, with a skull and crossbones badge on their caps, stalked the compartments and took some people off the train. Jews, it was murmured. The fear had always been that the Orient Express, this civilised conveyance of European values, was under threat from the barbarians and brigands of the uncivilised East. Now, it was the reverse.

Also travelling to Vienna on the Orient Express at this time was a great-great-uncle on my mother’s side. While searching the archive of the Times for news of the Anschluss, I found a letter to the editor, dated 2 April 1938, from the Hon. Edward Stonor. Improbable as it sounds, he was hoping for some game shooting in Austria, and saw no reason for German field artillery to deflect his plan. ‘At Buchs, on the Swiss-Austrian frontier,’ he writes:

We were invaded by six or seven very young Nazi officials, who took stock of our money and pored over our passports … I was bringing with me for a friend two English sporting guns, and these caused much speculation among the Nazi officials, who wanted to know the military value of such guns. I assured them that over 100 yards they were of no military value, and were intended solely for game destruction.

This seemed to satisfy the Nazis, and Edward, along with only five other passengers, was allowed to proceed through a landscape ‘dotted with the long red streamers of Nazidom’ (at St Anton, he noticed, even the station dog was wearing a swastika). The train finally arrived in Vienna, where troops marched down the Ringstrasse as German planes flew in formation overhead. Hitler’s portrait was displayed in all the shop windows on Kärntnerstrasse, ‘the Bond Street of Vienna’, and ‘every other house’ displayed ‘the letters NSBO (National Sozialistische Betriebs Organisazion – National Socialist Enterprise Organisation)’, which meant that it had been ‘cleansed of the Jewish taint’ and was now run by Aryans.

Edward arrived at the Bristol, where he had stayed many times before, to find that it, too, was NSBO and its ‘genial manager [had] been superseded’. He went to the Rothschild Bank in Renngasse (currency restrictions having left him short of cash), but its doors were closed and ‘the head of the house and its chief cashier in prison’. The most startling sight, he reported, was ‘the vast crowd struggling to get into the British Consulate in the Wallnerstrasse’, filling the staircase and overflowing into the street. Jews, desperately trying to get visas. ‘Poor, demented folk, they had little chance of success,’ Edward correctly predicted. ‘One wonders what the future holds in store for [them], except starvation.’ There was one sure way out. An ‘epidemic’ of suicide had swept the city: ‘In an unconsecrated corner near the great Central Cemetery I saw the newly dug graves of many Lebensmüde, who by their own hands had sought that rest which was denied to them in life.’

The British were not yet minded to save Jews, although they would take a small number of them as servants. One enterprising man (the purged manager of the Bristol?) opened a butlers’ school on the Praterstrasse, where Jewish bankers and intellectuals were taught how to wait on the British. ‘I once went there with Minka, and we laughed our heads off,’ says the antisemitic narrator of von Rezzori’s short story ‘Troth’. ‘Old stockbrokers were waddling around with aprons about their hips, balancing trays and opening bottles of champagne.’


11 May 1938: ‘Young, well-educated Viennese Nursery Governess, pleasant appearance, desires post: mother tongue German, good command of English; experienced in kindergarten and domestic work, plain cooking, first-class references – Write to Lisel Braun, Arenbergring 10, Vienna III.’

23 May 1938: ‘Housekeeper or Companion-Help. Austrian lady, age 40, good birth and education, seeks post: good cook, needlewoman, fluent English, French; pianist; willing to care for children; highest credentials. Write Box 4435, Frost-Smith Advertising, London EC2.’

27 May 1938: ‘Young Austrian lady (Jewish) seeks position Governess; experienced; good references; teaches German, French, Italian; would accept modest salary; good family. Write Box T.1653, The Times, EC4.’

6 June 1938: ‘Mechanic, 23, Jew, one year off diploma, seeks job as Constructor – Armin Freudmann, Vienna, IX Glasergasse 19.’

20 June 1938: ‘Well-educated young Austrian (25 years), smart appearance, of excellent Jewish family, seeks post as Chauffeur, Gentleman Servant, &c.: well informed in automechanics – Franz Leeb, Vienna XIV, Pillergasse 5.’

4 July 1938: ‘Very efficient Viennese Cook (non-Aryan) of good family seeks position as Housekeeper; 17-year-old daughter seeks position as Nursemaid; both experienced in all household duties. Friedlander, 44 Weissegarberlinde, Vienna III.’

4 July 1938: ‘Correspondent for English, German, French, and Italian – Austrian lawyer, Jew, perfect typist, wants a position – Dr Robert Fischer, Deutschmesiterplatz 2, Vienna I.’

28 July 1938: ‘Young Jewess, opera and concert singer, music teacher, Vienna Music Academy with honours, besides well-trained doctor’s assistant, speaking French, Italian, German, perfect household duties, wants any occupation. Apply under “Aged 28”, care of Advertising Office, Emil Hirsch, 12 Kartnerring, Vienna I.’

28 July 1938: ‘Despairing Austrian couple with two children (boy aged 8, girl aged 1½ year) obliged to leave Vienna, seek work in England, Colonies, or Dominions; without resources or relatives abroad; husband bookkeeper, managing director of Viennese Fair, speaks English fluently; wife excellent housekeeper and splendid cook; content with smallest post enabling them to keep their children from starving – Kindly write to Mrs E Stossl, Vienna II, Ferdinandstrasse 22, Germany.’

What happened to you, Lisel Braun? Mrs E. Stossl, with your husband and two children? Mrs Friedlander? Franz Leeb? Did you manage to get out?

Armin Freudmann, were you the Israel Armin Freudmann, born 1915, of ‘no profession’, who was deported from Vienna to Belgium, and taken from there, as prisoner number 547 on Transport 13, 10 October 1942, to Auschwitz, where you were murdered? Or was this another Armin Freudmann from Vienna exactly the same age?

Dr Robert Fischer, did you make it to England with your typewriter? Or was it you who was deported from Vienna to Buchenwald, to be murdered there on 18 July 1940?

Or were you the Robert Fischer who was deported from Vienna on 26 February 1941, Transport 3, prisoner number 3, to Opole Lubelskie, Lublin, Poland, to be murdered there?

Or the Robert Fischer deported on 19 October 1941 from Vienna on Transport 7, Train 5, prisoner number 372, to the Lodz ghetto, to be murdered there?

Or was it you who was deported from Vienna on 16 June 1942 to Izbica in Poland, and then to Treblinka, to be murdered there?

Or were you the Robert Fischer deported from Vienna to Auschwitz, 12 October 1942, to be murdered there?

Or the Robert Fischer deported on Transport 24, Train 205, prisoner number 821, from Vienna to Minsk, 2 June 1942, to be murdered at Maly Trostenets Camp?

Or the Robert Fischer deported from Vienna a week later, 9 June 1942, on Transport 26, Train 206, prisoner number 701, to Minsk, to be murdered at Maly Trostenets Camp on 15 June 1942?

Or the Robert Fischer deported from Vienna on 17 July 1942, Transport 32, Train 69, prisoner number 616, to Auschwitz, to be murdered there?

Or were you the Robert Fischer deported from Vienna on 20 August 1942, Transport 37, Train 504, prisoner number 806, to Theresienstadt ghetto, to be murdered there on 6 June 1944?

Hitler,​ who liked to be photographed studying maps, understood that the physical and human world can be mapped according to almost any principle. His chosen cartographic method was to go back in order to go forward: to explain the lie of the land (and it was a lie) by promoting a vision of the way it used to be; and then to encourage the belief that this historical ‘reality’ could be reinstated. Hence the maps that Edward Stonor saw displayed after the Anschluss, with their three separate but contiguous views of the ‘Germany that was’, the ‘Germany that is’, and the ‘Germany that will be’.

Hitler’s retrospective gaze was Homerically expansive, even taking in the claim, as the anthropologist Bettina Arnold describes it, that the ancient Greeks were actually Germans ‘who had survived a northern natural catastrophe and evolved a highly developed culture in southern contexts’ – a preposterous fantasy, but worth pursuing for archaeologists who coveted tenure in the now generously funded subject of ‘Germanic prehistory’. In support of this project, the entire intellectual vocabulary of German archaeology was changed. In 1935, the prehistoric and early historic chronologies were officially renamed: the Bronze and pre-Roman Iron Ages became the ‘Early Germanic period’, the Roman Iron Age the ‘Climax Germanic period’, the Migration period the ‘Late Germanic period,’ and everything from the Carolingians to the 13th century the ‘German Middle Ages’.

Heinrich Himmler, who was obsessed with Germanic runes (the double lightning bolt, symbol of the SS, was adapted from one), took charge of surveying this supranational past, and soon maps showing Neolithic culture in Europe spreading from a Germanic homeland began to proliferate in popular magazines and films. Poland, for example, was shown as part of ‘The German Ostmark, Home Territory of the Germans’. Once it had been established, on the (fraudulent) basis of the distribution of archaeological remains, that there had been an original Lebensraum, restoring it to its rightful owners was axiomatic. Centuries of indignity, culminating in the Treaty of Versailles, could now be ‘rectified’ by removing the peoples – Slavic, Jewish, or any other biological faux pas – who occupied what had once been Germanic territory. It would fall to Germany to inherit the earth; everybody else was squatting.

Hitler knew that the Greeks-were-really-Germans story was bunk. ‘Why do we call the whole world’s attention to the fact that we have no past?’ he once complained to Albert Speer.

It’s bad enough that the Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were still living in mud huts; now Himmler is starting to dig up these villages of mud huts and enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds. All we prove by that is that we were still throwing stone hatchets and crouching around open fires when Greece and Rome had already reached the highest stage of culture.

Himmler, the Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of Germandom, didn’t believe it either, but that wasn’t the point. As he explained it, ‘the one and only thing that matters to us … is to have ideas of history that strengthen our people in their necessary national pride. We are only interested in one thing – to project into the dim and distant past the picture of our nation as we envisage it for the future.’

The Germany that will be: geography overlaid with geomancy. When the world is mapped as a predictive phenomenon, every location, every boundary, is a potential zone of change. If every place can be re-placed, or displaced, then no place is safe.

Itwas still possible, in the summer of 1939, to imagine that everything would blow over. Not because events supported this hope, but because reality, once it becomes unreal, provides for all sorts of illusions. ‘Intense wish fantasy’, Freud would call it, even as he failed to recognise as such his own belief that he could continue to live in Vienna after the Anschluss, even as the Nazis draped a swastika over the entrance of his office and home.

As Roy Redgrave recalled it, that ‘last summer’ was memorable for its flight from reality. The Redgraves stayed in a wealthy friend’s villa at the Black Sea resort of Constanţa. The house, complete with minaret, sat beside the golden sands of Mamaia beach, overlooking Ovid’s Island, where the poet was said to have spun out his poems and letters of exile two thousand years earlier. ‘My father made sure we never had a dull moment,’ Roy wrote in Balkan Blue, the memoir he published decades later. ‘The tension building up in Europe was forgotten and I do not believe he or any of the many friends who visited us listened to the radio or read a newspaper during those last three idyllic weeks of August 1939.’

My grandparents Joe and Elena and the children were among those who visited. Perhaps they all strolled over to watch the Navy Day celebrations on 15 August, attended by King Carol, suntanned in his white uniform after sailing the Mediterranean on his yacht; and perhaps they drifted away for an ice cream just as he warned that those who loved peace should know that frontiers once drawn cannot be changed without danger of a world cataclysm.

Cataclysm came the day after the summer holiday ended, just before dawn on 1 September, when German tanks crunched into Poland from the north, south and west. Two days later, the Redgrave family stood in silence around the tall mahogany radio in the sitting room at Doftana to hear Neville Chamberlain’s declaration on the BBC that Great Britain and Germany were at war. A week later, Roy and his sisters, leaning on their Opel bicycles, watched a seemingly endless tide of human wreckage as it streamed along the main road outside Câmpina:

They were Polish refugees, exhausted old men, women and children, pushing prams, handcarts and bicycles, leading a cow or a goat, riding on farm carts piled high with bundles of bedding and household effects. There were motorcars with battered sides, broken headlights and mattresses tied to the roofs, all crammed with grey faces. There were smart carriages with huddled figures in fur coats drawn by tired horses whose heads hung low and a few Polish soldiers who trudged past in mud-stained uniforms, conspicuous in their distinctive diamond-shaped caps.

It was ‘a shattering sight’, and the Redgrave children were unable to speak to each other. When they got home, their father told them that Bucharest airfield was lined with battered Polish warplanes.

Roy was no longer treated as a child by his parents (or by Florica, a housemaid who had introduced him to fornication just short of his 12th birthday). Five years older than my father, Donald, he was now 14, and had become Donald’s intermediary to the world at large – a role that continued, in some degree, for the span of their lifelong friendship. He brought news on subjects ranging from the full English breakfast to the London trains that ran under the ground, and no doubt it was he, rather than Joe or Elena, who kept Donald informed about what was happening in Poland.

Initially, Romania attempted to limit the number of Polish refugees entering the country, especially the Jews of Galicia. But on 21 September, following Stalin’s invasion of Poland from the east, Russian tanks reached the border town of Zaleszczyki, on the Dniester, just as it was being bombed by the Germans, and with a huge mass of desperate people gathering on the bridge, Romanian border guards removed all passport controls and lifted the barrier. Nobody ran, there were too many people. They just shuffled across. Behind them, and benefiting from a radiantly clear day, German planes swooped low to strafe the twenty-mile bottleneck of refugees.

Those who made it into Romania plugged doggedly along, chivvied by local police who had no idea in which direction to send them. Many had not eaten for days and would fall out of the straggling line to eat the seeds of sunflowers in nearby fields. Bewildered locals came out to watch the sorry procession, took pity, offered food and water, a place to rest. Most of the refugees headed south, away from the border.

Going in the other direction were tens of thousands of conscripted Romanians, surging up to reinforce the frontier. Most of them were peasants, still in the clothes they had been wearing in the fields when the summons came. ‘No enemy will ever be able to trample what is sacredly and eternally Romanian,’ the king had told them, mystically. So off they went.

Roy had hoped the crisis would prevent his return to Sherborne, so he was bitterly disappointed to be told that he would be leaving on the Simplon-Orient Express, via Yugoslavia and Italy (Mussolini had yet to enter the war on Hitler’s side). There was a tearful farewell on the platform, his mother slipped a small icon into his pocket, his father hugged him, his sisters wailed, the train drew off, and, after endless delays, a week later Roy arrived in London. There, a family friend gave him half a crown, a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit, before sending him off to catch a train to Sherborne from Waterloo. That night in the dormitory, he felt under his pillow for the icon and cried himself to sleep. He would not see any of his family again for six years.

If Roy’s departure had been delayed by even one day, he might have avoided this wrenching separation and the estrangement that followed. As it was, his train had already left Romanian territory when the king declared a national emergency and ordered that the frontier be closed. Telephone lines went dead, cavalry and infantry armed with machine guns were drafted into Bucharest and larger towns, while armed police set up roadblocks.

This was on 21 September 1939. That afternoon, the Romanian prime minister, Armand Călinescu, had been assassinated in Bucharest. As his official car approached the Elefterie bridge, a group of Iron Guardists, a fascist militia also known as the Greenshirts, came out from their hiding place under a timber cart and opened fire. Călinescu took 17 bullets and died on the spot, as did his bodyguard. His assassins then stormed the national radio station, where they announced their heroic action, unaware that nobody could hear them because transmission had been interrupted by radio staff. When the police arrived twenty minutes later, they gave themselves up and were taken to police headquarters for interrogation, which, as all parties knew, would involve a well-honed pattern of escalating torture.

By the time they were driven back to the scene of the crime the following evening, the assassins could barely stand. Under the glare of powerful arc lights installed for the purpose and a placard that read ‘Traitors to the country!’ they were propped up and machine-gunned in front of a large crowd. Their bodies were left on the pavement for 24 hours, surrounded by reservists whose job it was to control the thousands of people who arrived to take in the sight.

The corpses were then taken to Ploieşti and hung from lamp posts, again drawing spectators, this time organised into a queue. Any Iron Guardist who could be found in the town was hunted down, shot and dumped in a prominent location. The purge was pursued in similar fashion all over the country, until hundreds had been put to death. ‘Exemplary punishment’, ‘irrevocable measures’: these were the methods the king used – he was Prussian, after all – to ‘wipe out the remnants of the Iron Guard’. With the bodies still swaying from lamp posts, an official communiqué stated that ‘there is now perfect order in the country.’

Order, of a kind never experienced before, was also coming to Poland. By 6 October 1939, Polish resistance had collapsed, leaving Hitler and Stalin to annex their spoils. Under the terms of the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty, they snapped the country in half like a biscuit. The Soviet portion was incorporated into what is now Belarus and Ukraine, while the German portion was absorbed into the Reich as the ‘Eingegliederte Ostgebiete’, or Incorporated Eastern Territories, whose soil and people were to be immediately Germanised. Place names were changed, new maps printed. The country known as Poland had ceased to exist.

‘Not a word of the disturbing events taking place in Romania and elsewhere was ever discussed by my parents in my presence,’ Roy later recalled. ‘Not in front of the children’ was a refrain I heard often in my own childhood, and it always struck me as odd, a way of confirming that something was wrong while trying to conceal it. But in late 1930s Romania, to hide the truth from children (or the bits of it that could be known) was to reduce the risk of their blurting out some indiscretion. This was now a suspicious and dangerous place, especially for foreigners. The secret police were everywhere, animated conversations at work or even at home (especially if you had servants) were replaced by coded, muffled exchanges. At the Athénée Palace in Bucharest, the word ‘espionage’ was hissed throughout the hotel. In its rooms and suites, guests locked up their papers and searched along the picture railings for the wire of a Dictaphone. Practically every employee was on the payroll of Carol’s secret police, or of German secret agents, or Italian, American, British or French agents, or all of these. The Newsweek reporter R.G. Waldeck, residing at the Athénée, concluded that the ‘apple-cheeked’ page boys were the best placed for the job of surveillance.

They had only to turn their heads with the little monkey caps to the right and they could watch the revolving door, the entrance hall, and the desk. Turning the monkey caps to the left they could see the lobby, part of the bar, and most of the green salon beyond it. Before their noses were the stairs, the two elevators, and the telephone booths … These spies told the police what people ate and for how much and with whom, who came to see them and how long they stayed, what they said … If there was nothing to tell, they made it up.

Gone were the days when politics could be argued over loudly in cafés and restaurants, or at the Redgraves’ cocktail parties. Visitors to the house dwindled to a small cadre, mostly people from the oilfields. I look at their names in the guestbook and I want to shout, Get out of there. Go. Now. I am sitting in the crow’s nest of history and I can see what’s hurtling towards them.

My father’s house​ in Wiltshire backed onto the Kennet and Avon canal, which used to connect Bath and Reading, but fell into disuse after the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1841. When we walked along the towpath in the 1970s, it was neglected and overgrown, perfect conditions for huge, juicy blackberries. Close to a humpback road bridge that spanned the canal, there was a small pillbox, an ugly concrete hexagon with tiny openings in its thick walls. It had a doorway without a door, but immediately you entered there was an L-shaped blast wall, so you had to make a tight right and follow the wall in almost total darkness for four or five nervous paces before arriving in the interior.

The temperature immediately dropped, the walls were green with damp and the floor scattered with cigarette butts and condoms. The embrasures were too high for me to see out of and were much narrower inside than outside. Here and there was graffiti: a repeat motif was a heart with an arrow through it, with initials on either end, but there were also forbidden words like ‘piss’ and ‘fuck’, which no doubt described the principal activities conducted in this dismal, airless space. I hated it, and only went inside a couple of times, probably dared by my brother, Alexander. Daddy always walked straight past it. A bit further on, next to a lock, there was an even smaller pillbox, but I never got beyond putting my foot in the doorway.

When we asked Daddy what these pillboxes were for, he said they had been put there during the war in case the Germans invaded, but this had never happened and they were just left there. How odd, I thought, that anybody had ever taken seriously the possibility of sending an army down the Kennet and Avon canal. How would they squeeze along this ribbon of water with its locks that took for ever to open? On a narrowboat?

There were other bits of the war lying around – an abandoned aerodrome with acres of cracked concrete where Daddy took us to ‘drive’ his Volvo estate (Alexander and I taking it in turns to sit on his knee and hold the wheel while Daddy accelerated to a stately crawl); an air-raid siren that was stored in the ‘big house’ in the village and dragged out onto the lawn for testing once a year – but the war itself, as opposed to its random leftovers, never insisted its way into my childhood imagination. Only now do I wonder what my father might have been thinking when we watched Dad’s Army, our favourite television series, with its opening sequence of swastika arrows spreading across France towards the English Channel, prodding, probing, before shrinking back to the tune of ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?’ Alexander and I thought it was very funny.

Inthe window of the German propaganda bureau in Bucharest was a large map of Grossdeutschland. It was an interactive map, eyecatching and, in its sorry way, informative. Few people walked past without gazing in the window, in much the same way they checked out the displays in the Lafayette department store just up the boulevard. It worked like this: whenever Germany made a move on its ancient Heimat – Austria, Sudetenland, the rest of Czechoslovakia, Poland – cardboard arrows were placed on the map to signal the implacable advance and, when the deed had been accomplished, the arrows were replaced with cardboard swastikas. Geography as board game.

In short order, it became necessary to introduce other maps, because Grossdeutschland didn’t quite capture the scope of Hitler’s ambitions. The British information office, which was directly opposite, took up the game, with generally poor results. Olivia Manning, loosely disguised as Harriet in The Balkan Trilogy, provides this commentary:

She walked … across the square into the Calea Victoriei and, passing through the parrot-land of the Gypsy flower-sellers, reached the British Propaganda Bureau. No one was looking at the pictures of British cruisers that curled and yellowed in the sun, but there was a crowd round the German Bureau opposite. Curiosity propelled her across the road.

The window was filled with a map of Scandinavia. Arrows, three-inches wide, cut from red cardboard, pointed the direction of the German attack. In the crowd no one spoke. People stood awed by the arrogant swagger of the display.

This was 9 April 1940, and the arrows announced the invasion of Denmark and Norway. During the following week, the arrows thrust the Norwegians back and back. The British information office, meanwhile, had replaced faded holiday cruise posters with its own map, on which the loss of the German destroyers at Narvik was ‘restrainedly marked in blue’. ‘Every morning the passers-by, lured by these first remote moves in the war, crossed the road to compare window with window; but it was the blatant menace of the giant red arrows that held the crowd.’

On 10 April, the red arrows on Denmark were replaced by a swastika (the campaign was over in six hours). Over the following weeks, the red arrows on Norway were also retired in favour of swastikas. The map was then removed, and the window remained empty: ‘No one was much impressed. The move had not, after all, been the beginning of events. It seemed a step into a cul-de-sac. The audience waited for more spectacular entertainment.’

On 10 May, Harriet and her friend Clarence notice a press of people in front of the German bureau:

Harriet said: ‘There’s a new map in the window.’ Without speaking, Clarence stopped the car and got out. Rising tall and lean above the heads of the Romanians, he stood for some moments and gazed into the window, then turned in a business-like way and opened the car door. ‘Well, it’s begun,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’ Harriet asked.

‘Germany has invaded the Lowlands. They’ve overrun Luxembourg. They’re already inside Holland and Belgium. They claim they’re advancing rapidly.’

On 11 May, Liege was blotted out by a swastika; Rotterdam followed, then Antwerp. More arrows, to signal the German advance through the Belgian Ardennes. (Not shown on the map: France’s Grande Armée falling back before it could get its boots on; roads congested with fleeing soldiers and civilians who were bombed and machine-gunned for days by the Luftwaffe.) On 15 May, arrows showed the direction of the final push towards Paris and the English Channel. By 25 May there was a swastika sitting on Boulogne; less than a week later, on Dunkirk.

By now, it should have been clear to everyone who looked in the German window that the arrows could only ever advance, else what would be the point? In the window opposite, the British arrows were going backwards, across the Channel from the beaches of Dunkirk, which had been modelled as a sandbox with little ships standing in a sea of blue wax – a pitiful piece of propaganda, though not as pitiful as the truth.

On 12 June, the arrows indicated that the German army was twenty miles from Paris. (Not on the map, David and Wallis Windsor leaving France in a convoy of cars loaded with their luggage.) Harriet and Clarence

saw that the illuminations had been switched off in the Cismigiu. The park, where people walked in summer until all hours, was now silent and deserted, a map of darkness in the heart of the subdued city.

Clarence said: ‘“The Paris of the East” mourning her opposite number.’

In contrast, the German Bureau window was brilliant with white neon, and still drew its audience. They saw, as they passed, the red arrows, open-jawed like pincers, almost encircling the site of Paris.

On 14 June, nine months after France and Britain had declared war on Germany, the arrows surrounding Paris were removed and the city was swatted by the swastika. (Not on the map: a German military band playing the Hohenfriedberg March in front of Notre-Dame.)

During the first months of the war, the high point of French propaganda had been a huge world map, posted everywhere, portraying the Allied countries with their colonies in glowing red, spread across five continents, with Germany drawn as a tiny black spot in the centre of Europe. The caption read: ‘Nous vaincrons parce que nous sommes les plus forts’ (‘We shall win because we are the strongest’). The French were now tenants in their own country. The irony is that the Maginot Line never fell: in a reverse compliment, the Germans simply skirted around it, attacking through the undefended Ardennes.

Rightup to the fall of France, the Times could be purchased at a newspaper booth on the Calea Victoriei every day at two in the afternoon – the same edition that had appeared in London that morning. Like the Orient Express, the long reach of the Times announced the epic destiny of a borderless world. When neither arrived in Bucharest any more – the ‘Magic Carpet’ had stopped running at the end of 1939 – it served as confirmation not only that Romania had been cut off from Western Europe, but that Western Europe itself had been taken out of service.

Trapped in the Balkans: this had long been a theme of Orient Express novels, most of them written by Westerners who associated Eastern Europe with low-hanging fog and assassinations, and were grateful to be sealed behind glass and steel in ‘a sort of tinned Occident’, as Vesna Goldsworthy put it. There were Easterners, too, who shared this uneasy view; Easterners who never thought of themselves as Easterners, such as my grandmother, Elena, whose horizon was filled with the West, with Vienna, Paris, London, all of which were so agreeable, so civilised. These were the places she felt most at home in.

For her children, Donald and Peter, these were the places postcards came from, bearing news of their parents’ travels and previously unseen stamps to be soaked off. These places were not home, because home is the place you come back to, where you unpack your suitcase and give out the presents you’ve brought back, put your clothes back in the drawers and the suitcases back in the cupboard. Most children are instinctively conservative: for them, there is no place like home. So how do you begin to explain that home might have to be found somewhere else?

A few years ago, I was flicking through one of my father’s books when a contact sheet of photographs fell out. They show his child self posing for a studio camera. He’s about eight or nine. He looks straight at the lens, serious, cowed (these ones I threw away), except in the last few shots, where he seems to be responding to someone or something out of frame – his expression changes, there is the trace of a suppressed giggle, and then, as if prompted to let it out, he does. A sweet little boy who has escaped from whatever made him look so tense just a few seconds earlier.

There were about twenty shots on the sheet. Two were marked in ink with a small ‘x’, and were among the ones I discarded because Donald looked so uncomfortable and they reminded me of a certain atmosphere (sky falling on head). I now see this must have been a sitting for a passport photo, most likely in late June 1940, when every British subject in Romania was required by the British Legation in Bucharest to get transit visas for all neighbouring countries, against a possible evacuation.

France had just fallen, Hitler bestrode the continent of Europe, from the Arctic Circle to Bordeaux, from the North Sea to the Vistula. Save for the Baltic States, Spain, Switzerland and the Balkans, the Nazis had battered or menaced all of Europe’s sovereign nations out of existence. Romania’s frontiers now faced Soviet Russia and German-occupied Poland in the north and north-east, pro-German Hungary in the north-west and west, Yugoslavia and traditionally unfriendly Bulgaria to the south. The perfect circle, encircled.

Within, the country was struggling with the revenant fascist Iron Guard and the Nazi fifth column that was funding and training it. There were also tens of thousands of Polish refugees (those who had survived the winter), as well as innumerable peasant women and children who, having lost their breadwinners to conscription, were now reduced to beggary. They, too, had died in great numbers during the winter. In Bucharest, their bodies, many of them frozen together in huddles, were collected every morning by a cart and thrown into a communal grave.

Many of the British community, unpersuaded by Carol’s assurance that the Balkans would not disintegrate, that Romania would hold its position, had left after the Călinescu assassination and the purge that followed. Most of the Americans had also gone, including those thrilling Texan oilmen who shot their revolvers at jerry cans. It was now illegal for foreigners to own or carry arms. Joe had a 16-bore shotgun, which he hid, just as Robin Redgrave hid his .45 revolver, a shotgun and two sporting rifles (before going back to boarding school, Roy had smothered them in grease, wrapped them in sacking and stashed them in the long, overhanging eaves of the Doftana house, where they might still be). There were other restrictions: foreigners could only move from one locality to another with special police visas; all permis de séjour had to be renewed monthly; everybody, including children, was required to report to the police station for identity checks. The British Legation insisted they fill in a form giving religion, next of kin, and whom to notify in the event of death.

Despite all this, my grandparents stayed, as did the Redgraves. I don’t know if the Redgraves spoke German – certainly, that was the language spoken in the Slomnicki household – but by the summer of 1940, it was sensible to speak German if you could. There was now a swastika falling three storeys down to the porch of the Athénée Palace (it had previously put out a Union Jack), and its English Bar had been symbolically occupied by the Germans – journalists, businessmen and members of the huge embassy retinue, most of whom were spies or Gestapo.

Why not leave, when they had British passports and a homeland in reserve? Why linger, when every exit door was slamming shut? Unlike most of their expatriate colleagues and friends, the Slomnickis and the Redgraves were not merely stationed in Romania, to return at some point to their homes in Surrey or Yorkshire where they might be persuaded to give a talk to the local Rotary Club about their adventures in the edgelands of civilisation; for Elena and Joe, Robin and Micheline, everything they had was in Romania, and everything is always too much to lose.

On 26 June 1940, three days after the French surrender, the Soviet government issued an ultimatum: Romania must give up all of Bessarabia (‘robbed’) and northern Bukovina (‘compensation’) within two days. For 48 hours, the king and his ministers temporised. True to their word, the Soviets landed planes in both provinces on 28 June. Romania acceded, and begged for more time to organise an evacuation. They were given a few hours, and then Soviet troops were sent over the border.

The king commanded his officers to retreat, chests out and heads held high. This is not what happened. Pell-mell they fled, officers first, followed by bewildered regulars and reservists, some of them so slow off the mark they had already been disarmed by the enemy. Left to their own devices were three and a half million civilians – ethnic Germans, Poles, Jews, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Romanians; the baronial rich with their Aubusson carpets and silver chandeliers; black-gowned, bearded Jews with the keys to their synagogues; peasants with little more than their rancid sheepskin jackets.

Territorial revisionism, the tragic muddle of the unmixing of people. The border change set in motion a double stream of fugitives: ethnic Romanians, Austro-Hungarian landowners and the wealthier Jews poured out of Bessarabia, while crowds of poorer Romanian Jews headed in, hoping to find in Soviet Russia a refuge from a regime which was fast becoming violently antisemitic. The contraflow of refugees traversing the same roads and bridges was further congested by changes of mind, people turning around and going back. But where was the border? Attached to the ultimatum was a small map on which the ceded territories were roughly marked by a line drawn in red pencil. The thickness of the line, covering a seven-mile band on the ground, made it impossible for the Soviets to know with certainty the limits of their new possession. It wasn’t a question of standing on the line, but in it.

Within a week, the Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Bukovina was complete. Romania had lost 12,000 square miles and been pushed back to its pre-Versailles border, where rusty barbed wire entanglements from the Great War still straggled the countryside. In Bucharest, the flags were at half-mast and the songs played in the cafés were old laments of oppression and foreign masters.

Next to pounce was Bulgaria, with a demand for a slice of the southern province of Dobruja, historically a disposable counter in Balkan politics. The king and his ministers caved in, and by 21 August, Bulgarian troops were massed at the border, ready to march across as soon as the final agreement was signed. Then it was Hungary’s turn (I seem to be rushing this, the death of Greater Romania in a few paragraphs, but if this were a map it would be to scale). It had been set on a relentless revisionist policy since 1919, and was sticking to it. On 1 September, Romanians learned that the north-western half of Transylvania was to be ceded to Hungary within 48 hours.

That which is sacredly and eternally Romanian: in less than two months, Romania had lost nearly half its territory and population. Its borders, having been shoved inwards, left most of the Carol Line on the wrong side.

What to take​ ? Hannah Arendt took her mother. They passed through the front door of a house in Germany and left by the back door, which was in Czechoslovakia. Freud took his couch. Einstein took his violin. Brecht left Finland through ‘a small door’ high up in Lapland, with his wife, his mistress, his children and 26 suitcases. Alma Mahler Werfel, who escaped France across the Pyrenees to Spain, set out with 17 pieces of luggage. It was all essential, she insisted, because the suitcases included music scores by Gustav Mahler, her dead husband, and the manuscript of Bruckner’s Third Symphony. There was also cash and her large collection of jewellery, though I doubt she mentioned this to the people smugglers who guided her over the mountains. She eventually succeeded in bringing it all – and herself, undiminished – to the United States.

Béla Zsolt, fleeing Budapest for Paris a day before the outbreak of war, took nine suitcases containing ‘all my possessions, my clothes and my wife’s clothes and all the necessities and small luxuries we had collected in our lives: the objects, the fetishes’. A bad decision: the obsession with the suitcases took them in the wrong direction. During the course of the war, the nine suitcases became a knapsack, the knapsack became a shoebox, and the shoebox became a box of biscuits given to him by an acquaintance. Once he had eaten the biscuits, Zsolt had no more luggage.

Marcel Duchamp took his Boîte-en-valise, a box within a suitcase which contained miniature replicas of 69 pieces of his work, including the infamous urinal. Disguised as a cheese merchant, Duchamp made three trips across Nazi checkpoints between Paris and Sanary-sur-Mer with a large suitcase containing the material for his portable museum. Once everything had been ferried to the Mediterranean coast (‘My whole life’s work fits into one suitcase’), he shipped it, and himself, to New York.

Arriving in neutral Portugal after the fall of Paris with as much stuff as they could fit into a convoy of cars, David and Wallis Windsor immediately turned their attention to getting the rest of their belongings forwarded to them by the occupying Germans, who were happy to oblige. Working from an inventory specific down to the table napkins – who better than the Nazis to handle an inventory? – officers of the Third Reich loaded up the trucks and sent them on their way to Lisbon.

King Carol, soon to join his Windsor cousin in the ranks of the regally unemployed, could not depend on such co-operation from the Third Reich or its stooges in Romania. The chief stooge was Ion Antonescu, a career general who forced the king to abdicate in favour of 18-year-old Michael on the evening of 5 September 1940. The coup granted Carol Hohenzollern the distinction of being the only European sovereign to lose his throne twice to his son. ‘King Carol Goes Again’ was the headline in the Times.

He left on a train before dawn the following day with his Pompadour, Madame Lupescu, their pets and servants, and nine carriages piled high with treasures, including his priceless stamp collection. Their departure wasn’t immediately spotted and the pursuing cars of Iron Guardists narrowly failed to halt the train as it crossed the border into Hungary at Temesvár, which had been Timişoara only a week before. They machine-gunned the train, but the driver put on speed and got away (according to one account, Carol ducked into a bathtub for shelter; another held that he flung himself on Lupescu to protect her). The train, with drawn blinds, passed through Yugoslavia (whose king, Peter, Carol’s nephew, would soon follow him into exile) and arrived at Lugano on 8 September. Eventually, Carol and Lupescu made it to Portugal, with all of their loot intact.

Thereis a Balkan prayer that asks for God’s protection against glory, important visitors and major events. Keep us safe from history: we choose normality, unbroken days of small repeated gestures, like the train that goes round and round in the window of the department store.

Normality took its leave of the Slomnicki household in stages. After the Anschluss, the Austrian nannies and maids had been repatriated to the Reich, and after Romania lost its large chunk of Hungary, so too was the Hungarian cook, leaving Elena, who couldn’t boil an egg or iron a napkin, in the hands of Romanian servants who had strange habits and got a bit too close, and who was to say they weren’t informers for the Iron Guard? The children’s au pair, Missie Weldon, had gone back to England before the last land route closed, arriving in time for the Blitz. Joe was away for days at a time, mostly at the Steaua Romana headquarters in Ploieşti. That left Elena to go with the children to the local police station for identity checks, sitting for hours on hard chairs in a corridor while the police pretended to be busy with other matters; to pass on her own the wild-eyed Iron Guardists who had set up checkpoints all over the town and were ever eager to beat someone up; to be alone during the sudden blackouts, the telephone gone dead, the random shots in the night.

The new normal. Maybe you can get used to anything once it’s happened. For Elena and Joe, and those few British nationals who remained in Romania, the thing that happened was such a long time coming that it was like a non-thing, a negative space waiting to be filled.

During​ the summer of 1939 – when the Redgraves and the Slomnickis, along with much of the rest of Europe, were on their holiday from the truth – British intelligence officers had been quietly inserted into Romania, tasked with sabotaging the country’s oil infrastructure. Since Hitler had an interest in Romanian oil – six million tons per year would come in handy should he open a campaign against the Soviet Union – it followed that Britain and, before it fell, France wanted to stop him from getting it.

The object was to disrupt or destroy oil wells, pumping stations and refineries, and to block supply routes to Germany by rail or along the Danube. A plan was drawn up to blow up the cliffs at the Iron Gates, where the Danube narrows and cuts through the Carpathians in a series of turbulent rapids, whirlpools and submerged rocks. As Kim Philby coolly remarked, ‘I had seen the Iron Gates and was duly impressed by the nerve of colleagues who spoke of “blowing them up”, as if it were a question of destroying the pintle of a lock-gate in the Regent’s Canal.’ The operation, as Philby predicted, was a miserable failure, and its protagonists were immediately expelled.

Worse was to come. Shortly after the fall of Paris in June 1940, the Germans intercepted a train carrying the French general staff just as it was pulling out of Bordeaux for Spain. On board was a cache of intelligence documents that clearly showed the extent of the Allied sabotage networks in the Ploieşti oil region – proof, Hitler claimed, that London and Paris had intended ‘to burn the Balkans’. Fifty British and French engineers and their families were swiftly expelled, among them Pierre Angot, identified in the captured documents as a member of the co-ordinating ‘general staff’ of the Deuxième Bureau (the equivalent of MI6), which was working alongside British intelligence.

Angot was the technical director of Steaua Romana, and worked closely with its chief geologist, Joe Slomnicki. Joe was under constant surveillance by German intelligence agents, and was possibly also harassed by the Iron Guard, and yet they let him stay in the country. There are two explanations that I can think of: one, that the Germans needed his knowledge of oil deposits; two, that he was involved in the sabotage conspiracy but had yet to be exposed. Either way, he was a hot target for the German Sicherheitsdienst (security service) which was now firmly embedded in Romania.

The whole Ploieşti oil region was fast being militarised by German ‘technical advisers’, and SS men in uniform were everywhere. Astonishingly, given the risks, Robin Redgrave still had a 12mm revolver in his house. When it was discovered by the local police he bribed his way out of trouble, immediately closed up the house in Doftana – taking great care to hide the visitors’ book – and drove with Micheline and their two daughters to a flat near the British Legation in Bucharest. Everybody was taking precautions. John Treacy, the owner of an oil-well supply business, and his wife, Esther, had moved bedrooms after an incendiary bomb was thrown through their window, and slept with a loaded service revolver on the bedside table. Percy Clark had taken a room at the Athénée Palace, reasoning – wrongly – that he was safer in plain sight. The Slomnickis remained in Câmpina, perhaps believing there was some protection in having their family around them: Elena’s widowed mother had moved into the top floor of their house, and close by were Elena’s brother and sister with their spouses and offspring and in-laws, all of them Romanian nationals.

Had Joe and Robin been in Constanţa for the whole of August 1939, as Roy remembered? Or did they slip back to Ploieşti for secret meetings with agents of the Special Operations Executive, created by Churchill in July 1940 with a brief to ‘set Europe ablaze’? According to one SOE operative, Geoffrey Household, the sabotage plans were worked up in collaboration with a team of men from the oilfields: ‘They were the salt of the earth,’ Household recalled, ‘keen, daring, ingenious and refusing to be beaten by any technical problem. All the essential work was done by them. We merely co-ordinated it.’

Looking through the Redgraves’ visitors’ book, I find the signatures of several SOE officers, including Household, and alongside them the signatures of many of the oilmen implicated in the plot: Jock Anderson, John Treacy, Reginald Young, Charles Brasier, Alexander Miller, Percy Clark. All visited Doftana at or around the same time. The only signature missing is that of Joe Slomnicki.

The first to be taken was Jock Anderson, who disappeared from Ploieşti on 24 September. The following night, John and Esther Treacy disappeared, as did Reginald Young, a refinery engineer, and Charles Brasier, both of Romano Americana, and Mr E. Bowden, the drilling superintendent of the Unirea company. Their whereabouts were a mystery for 48 hours, after which they were delivered to the headquarters of the Siguranţa (state security) in Bucharest, at which belated point the British consul was informed. His request for immediate access to the prisoners, now formally accused of being part of a spy network, was denied: the ‘interrogation’ that had begun in some obscure Iron Guard barracks had yet to be ‘completed’.

It was a week before the consul was finally given permission to visit the detainees, and only then for a few minutes. All had been subjected to ‘highly irregular procedures’ and ‘third-degree methods’: they could barely stand properly (blowlamps had been applied to their feet) or use their arms, which had been wrenched from their sockets after they had been hung on a wall with their elbows tied behind them. They had been given nothing to eat or drink and could only speak in whispers. Esther Treacy, who was held on her own in a three foot by three foot cell, had been pistol-whipped and repeatedly punched in the face. Her husband, John, aged 56, had been tortured so badly that he later needed several operations. It was soon evident that the arrests and interrogations had been carried out by the Iron Guard under the supervision of the Gestapo.

In London, the Foreign Office decided to compile a list of ‘suitable Romanians in this country for possible arrest as a retaliatory measure’, but MI5 couldn’t produce any names because their card index of Romanians had been destroyed in the Blitz. New Scotland Yard helpfully stepped in with a list of 11 candidates, but cautioned that numbers 1 and 11 were unsuitable because they had fought with the Romanian army when Romania was ‘on our side in the last war’; two others had left the country, and three seemed to be anti-Nazi. That left numbers 3, 5, 8 and 10, all of whom ‘should be eliminated at once since their names appear unmistakably Jewish’. Surely, one of the only instances in history in which a sentence coupling the words ‘eliminate’ and ‘Jewish’ signalled good news.

Meanwhile, Alexander Miller, the administrator of the Astra Romana refinery, had been snatched from the company’s sports club at Snagov, near Bucharest. He was taken to his office, then to his flat, and finally to the Siguranţa, by which time his face had been repeatedly slashed with a blade. He was then subjected to further torture. When a legation official managed to get access several days later, Miller looked ‘pitifully dejected’. So did Percy Clark, whose kidnappers, three men with revolvers, had broken into his room at the Athénée Palace, where they gave the sixty-year-old a thorough going over and ransacked his room before leading him out of the hotel through the lobby. He was taken, as the others had been, to a black hole maintained by the Iron Guard, where he was ‘starved, punched and beaten, his arms and wrists cruelly twisted and rendered practically useless’.

If my father, now nine, had started the new academic year at his school in Câmpina, this was surely the time to take him out. If wives could be kidnapped and pistol-whipped, what was to say the children wouldn’t be next? The situation for British nationals was so dangerous they had formed themselves into groups, with members contacting one another every four hours to prevent a long period from elapsing between someone’s disappearance and the beginning of consular inquiries. Joe calling Elena; Elena calling Micheline Redgrave; Micheline calling Robin; Robin calling the designated contact at the legation, and so on, night and day, normal time put off its course, the house in Câmpina returning the metallic echo of the telephone, voices murmuring on the other side of the wall, Donald and Peter left to their own devices amid many unexplained things.

‘We now seem to have reached the point where the Romanian government are likely to arrest a British subject a day,’ the legation warned the Foreign Office. The FO agreed, warning that ‘it seems possible that M. Galpin, British manager of Steaua Romana, may be the next victim.’ Michael Galpin, Joe’s boss, was immediately given a minor post in the legation, bringing the protection of diplomatic status. The British authorities could protest all they liked about the outrageous treatment of the arrested oil workers, but, as they well knew, every one of them (with the exception of Percy Clark) was guilty as charged.

John Treacy was the point man for SOE, which is why he was singled out by his torturers, who worked on him non-stop with the object of forcing him to reveal the identity of the men working under him. He had recruited his fellow oil workers to the conspiracy, Galpin included; he had directed their activities in the marshalling yards and railway stations between Ploieşti and Brasov – cutting brake couplings, filling oil boxes with sulphuric acid and putting abrasives into engines. He later gave details of his torture in a report submitted to SOE. He had been shackled, beaten on the soles of his feet, kicked in the ribs, repeatedly lifted high off the floor to be dropped down ‘as a dead weight’ onto his back so that the heaviest of his tormenters could walk on his chest, then dragged up onto a chair and punched in the face while they ‘read out the names of every Englishman and American in the Prahova district [wanting] to know if I knew them and who else worked with me’. Not surprisingly, after 14 hours of this, he cracked: he confessed his role in the sabotage and acknowledged that Charles Brasier ‘had doctored some tank wagons’ and Reginald Young had ‘also done some work’, at which point both men were dragged out of their cells and into the interrogation room, where they were ‘severely fist-punched’ in front of Treacy.

The British attempt to deny Hitler Romania’s black gold was a humiliating failure. By the time German troops were setting up their Bockwurst and beer stalls in Ploieşti, SOE operatives were desperately getting rid of unused explosives, most of which were dropped in a lake. With the SOE in retreat, its salt of the earth collaborators were left ‘naked’ – intelligence jargon for exposed, without back-up – and trailing a lit fuse of evidence leading straight to the sabotage plot: documents, photographs, large quantities of pipe bombs, switches and other materials that the Romanian police had seized from their houses and offices. Awaiting them was a military tribunal, the outcome of which promised to be a long stay in a prison camp.

As for Joe’s role in all this, every bit of information I find is evidence of other information that is missing. And even if I were to spend a lifetime sleuthing for the facts they still wouldn’t give me the whole truth. If my grandfather was indeed a saboteur, what would I make of it? Would it make him important, rather than just an ordinary man doing his best to keep his head down and save his future – family, home, life with a pickaxe amid the majestic slopes of the Carpathians?

Slowly,​ dimly, the contours of a memory start to form. A scrap of newspaper, brown with age, is being carefully unfolded in the palm of someone’s hand. Who? Where are we? A room with windows to our backs, an open door ahead, beyond that a wall with a long diagonal crack in the plaster. My father is here, and my brother Alexander, but this is not our house. Somebody is handing the scrap to my father. They are talking about it, I don’t know what it says. Something to do with his father? A bad thing. I am distracted, someone is holding a glass of white wine but when it’s turned upside down the wine doesn’t fall out.

Perhaps this is not a memory at all, but the sediment of a dream. I can’t shake it off, spend hours rifling through all the stuff I have accumulated – books, articles, photographs, letters, emails – but there’s nothing that connects to this image, now stubbornly present, of a tiny newspaper cutting. I call my uncle Peter.

‘Do you think your father might have been involved in sabotaging the oilfields?’

‘I don’t know. If he was, he certainly wouldn’t have told me. What would be the point? I was only six. And when I was older, he didn’t talk about the war at all.’

‘Do you remember a newspaper cutting that might have mentioned him?’

‘No, I don’t. Perhaps you’ll find it in the suitcase?’

‘Would it be all right if I came over this weekend?’

‘Of course,’ he answers. ‘We’d be delighted to see you.’

The suitcase​ has changed since I first set eyes on it. After lunch at Peter’s house, I ask him if we can have a look. In a small scullery next to the kitchen, he uses a long hook to pull a folding ladder down from a hatch. He slides the sections of ladder down and climbs the thin treads. I follow. The attic is smaller than I expected, and he explains that there are other attic spaces in the house, but this is the one where the suitcase is. I look around and notice a dented silver teapot, a guitar case, cardboard boxes full of the kind of stuff that oozes its stuffing.

There is the unmistakeable, settled smell of attic. I can’t see the suitcase, even when Peter points to it, because it’s completely different from the one I remember. He notices my confusion. ‘It’s definitely this one,’ he says, slightly defensive, as he drags it out of the eaves. I step forward to look. This suitcase is brown, synthetic leather, with two long, ugly prongs that look like rusty surgical instruments leading into the catches. On one side is a triangular sticker with my father’s name on it, D.R. Saunders, in his hand, and the address of his house in Wiltshire, which he bought in the mid-1970s, though this doesn’t help me date the suitcase – he could have had it for years before that. Next to the handle there is a tiny remnant of a British Airways sticker.

I am now in full perceptual lurch, like when the station moves and not the train. This is the wrong suitcase.

‘Is it possible,’ I ask Peter, ‘that you decanted the contents of the original suitcase into this one?’

‘No, I don’t remember doing that,’ he answers. ‘And why would there be another suitcase of Donald’s in the house?’

I describe the suitcase I remember: warped wooden struts, chalk-coloured, weather-blotched, probably made of pressed cardboard, round latches, bigger.

‘Well, I think we had a sort of small trunk like that, but I haven’t seen it for years. But why would I have taken what’s in here out of a different suitcase in order to put it into this one? It doesn’t make sense.’ The slightest intimation of doubt has crept into Peter’s voice – my confusion has spread to him – and I let it drop.

How could I have remembered the suitcase so differently? Have I completely invented this visual memory, or transposed another entirely irrelevant suitcase onto this one? Are there two suitcases? Does it even matter? In Günter Grass’s memoir, Peeling the Onion, a key detail of the bedroom in the hostelry where he assists a bride and groom to consummate their union is remembered by deliberate misremembering: ‘On the wall at the head of the marriage bed hung an oil painting, depicting either two beautiful swans, a couple, or a stag belling.’ Use your imagination, he’s saying, it’s just as true as the truth.

Bending down to release the catches, Peter says: ‘Shall we open it?’ I say no, and take a step back, but he has already lifted the lid. It’s as if he has opened a coffin. I see a layer of folders and the edges of a few documents spilling out of them. On the cover of the top folder, the only one that is fully visible, my father has written, in mortuary capitals, TO KEEP. Peter reaches a hand in to lift it out but I stage a serious inspection of my watch and tell him I haven’t got time now I’m going out for supper this evening and there are roadworks on the motorway you know just after High Wycombe – or something like that – which is easier than saying I feel like I have fallen up the rabbit hole. I am completely disoriented, because if my memory of the suitcase is wrong then what’s to say everything else I remember isn’t wrong too? Peter looks disappointed, and reluctantly closes the suitcase. We reverse down the ladder, he manoeuvres it back up effortlessly with his 86-year-old arms and shuts the hatch with the hook. ‘Shit,’ he says, ‘I’ve left the light on.’ Down comes the ladder again and up he shimmies on his 86-year-old legs to turn it off. And there the suitcase sits, as much in the dark as I am.

When I get home, I call my brother Hugo and ask how he remembers the suitcase. ‘What suitcase?’ he says. My heart sinks.

‘The one you gave me in the car park in the pouring rain after the Redgraves’ memorial service. We had to heave it into my car.’

‘Um, yeah, I vaguely remember doing that, but I don’t know what it looked like.’

‘Try,’ I say, testily. (Am I the only one who gives a damn about this suitcase?)

‘Uh, shabby, I think.’ Pause. ‘Old.’ Pause. ‘Dark colour?’ Then, phlegmatic to the point of sanity: ‘Is this for the Dead Daddy book?’

I call my mother. ‘Oh dear, I only remember it as a suitcase. Rather tattered. It was very heavy, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes, it was.’

Once again, I’m left with a dismal sense of futility.

Onthe morning of Saturday, 12 October 1940, fifty Messerschmitts and 13 Henkel bombers roared in formation over Bucharest. At the Athénée Palace, every room on the second and third floors was hurriedly evacuated for some eighty Wehrmacht officers, most of them wearing the Iron Cross first-class beneath their red-lacquered collars. This marked the de facto occupation of Romania, a bloodless victory that included the arrival of twenty thousand German troops by road, rail and the Danube, bringing with them motorised forces, tanks, anti-aircraft batteries, anti-tank guns and aviation units. The operation was described by both sides as military co-operation: these were German ‘instructors’, ‘specialists’, technicians’, whose mission was the defence of the oilfields and the training and reorganisation of the Romanian army.

Five minutes’ walk from the Athénée Palace, at the British Legation in Strada Jules Michelet, they were feeding their files into the incinerator. By Monday, all hands were to the telephones in an effort to notify the last remaining British subjects of evacuation plans: they were to leave Romanian territory the next evening by a chartered ship from Constanţa; anybody driving there should understand that most of the roads were controlled by ‘military elements’; it was wiser, if possible, to travel in larger groups by train from Bucharest; all other alternative routes out of the country were extremely ill-advised following reports of arrests at the frontiers; finally, and with regrets, the baggage allowance was one suitcase per passenger.

I don’t know what Donald took in his suitcase, except for a couple of stamp albums. Peter tells me he has no memory of these last few hours at home, but given the choice, he would have asked to take his favourite toys: his Halma set – ‘a large circular wooden board with holes drilled all over on which I created patterns with multicoloured marbles’ – and a clockwork-driven tank with sparks coming out of the end of the gun barrel as it rolled forward (‘What a present for a boy on the eve of World War Two!’). I suppose Elena took her jewellery, including the gold bracelet that had been given to her as barter when she fled the German advance in 1916. What else? They must have made lists. Cash (sterling, not lei, which had been so devalued that in Bucharest it littered the streets). Winter clothes. Underwear. Shoes. Toiletries. Medication. Documents, already carefully assembled: birth certificates, naturalisation certificates, employment details, passports with transit visas for countries that were now impassable or didn’t exist.

Joe took his camera, though not with the same expectations he’d had at the start of the journeys he and Elena had freely undertaken in the 15 years of their marriage, to England, Greece, Holland, Belgium, France, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey and Syria, journeys unhindered by the low politics of nationalism. Now, with all of continental Europe a huge mantrap, an ever decreasing zone of possibility, the direction of travel was determined by whatever escape hatch was still open.

Joe and Elena, Donald and Peter, reached Constanţa on the evening of Tuesday, 15 October 1940, each carrying a single suitcase and wearing as many layers of clothes as possible. There were about a hundred other British nationals assembled on the dock, but no sign of the Redgraves. It was without them that the Slomnickis, under the cold stare of Romanian police and steel-helmeted German soldiers, followed their fellow passengers up the slimy treads of the gangway.

There was nothing, as the weeping mooring ropes were hauled into the ship, to connect this place to last summer’s holiday on the white beaches, the high-backed wicker sunchairs that left their pattern on your thighs, the umbrellas under which picnic baskets were opened, the villa with its airy rooms and the minaret overlooking Ovid’s Island. There was no sign, as the ship picked its way through the newly laid minefield protecting the port, of the brightly lit river boats that had carried tourists along the Danube to Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna, the heart of Europe – but that was upstream, and this ship was heading the wrong way. There was only darkness and fear as it stole out of port and made for the open water of the Black Sea, in whose depths German submarines were prowling. As soon as the ship reached the swell, it began to roll. Elena was immediately violently sick.

The third and final part of ‘The Suitcase’ will follow in the next issue.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 42 No. 18 · 24 September 2020

Frances Stonor Saunders writes that in September 1940 King Carol of Romania ‘crossed the border into Hungary at Temesvár, which had been Timișoara only a week before’ (LRB, 13 August). In fact, then as now, my mother’s home town remained Timișoara. Hitler awarded only the northern Banat to Hungary, where towns indeed switched from Romanian to Hungarian names. My own Arad also remained Romanian, to my great good fortune, since genocide was systematic among the Hungarians.

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences