When amateur genealogist Judith Berlowitz learned she had a relative who fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, she knew she wanted to know as much as possible about her. The result is a meticulously researched historical novel that introduces readers to Klara Philipsborn.
A nurse by training, Klara, of German descent, began working as a laboratory assistant at the Faculty of Medicine in Madrid in 1936. She also joined the Communist Party and when war broke out she quickly registered as a volunteer in the Communist-led Fifth Regiment. popular militias. There, her medical training and fluency in languages - she not only spoke German and Spanish, but was almost fluent in English, French, Italian and Romanian – led her to frequent document translator and interpersonal interpreter. She loved everything about both roles. Nevertheless, Klara does not tell anyone that she is Jewish, keeping her origins a secret. For the most part, this omission does not bother her; after all, neither she nor her family were particularly religious, and a favorite uncle now lived as a Catholic and was fully accepted by the family. At the same time, when she meets other Jewish volunteers, she gravitates around them, finding an almost instantaneous connection, an ease of association she never knew she needed.
But home so far is much more than finding your cultural anchor. Furthermore, it exposes the sexism of the time and the ways in which politically progressive women pushed boundaries and restrictions; relates the divisions that existed between socialist, anarchist and communist anti-fascists who came to Spain from all over the world; and serves as a dramatic testament to the often fleeting personal bonds that formed between hospital workers as they moved from one emergency room to another.
Moreover, the brutality of the Spanish fascists – whose military campaigns began to intensify before similar campaigns in Germany, Austria and Poland – adds nuance to the story. Likewise, Berlowitz’s focus on the different ways in which members of the Philipsborn family handled Hitler’s rise gives readers insight into the day-to-day reality of the time. For example, Klara’s Berlin-based industrial father refuses to believe he is in danger and continues to run his business, seemingly unaware of overt – and growing – anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Klara’s sister flees to Palestine and her brother and his family head to Denmark before emigrating to the United States.
Berlowitz captures the confusion and terror of the era extremely well and while the story is obviously dark, the sweeping narrative is periodically sweetened with dollops of romance and includes several explicit sex scenes. Suffice it to say that dating is not just a contemporary phenomenon!
In fact, Klara’s belief in love and her optimism, humanism, feminism, and general sass make her an easy protagonist to root for. And while the narrative periodically bogs down in detail about the divisions between socialists, communists and anarchists, divisions that seem both frustrating and pathetic 85 years later, this is a small critique in an otherwise fascinating and absorbing.
In effect, home so far, written as diary entries spanning 13 years, from 1925 to 1938, gives readers insight into the Spanish Civil War and the idealism that brought people together around the world to fight for democratic governance and rights. of man. Berlowitz is clearly impressed by their commitment and that of her cousin Klara, a woman she has never met.
His evocation of Klara is however far from being hagiographic. On the one hand, Klara is presented as creative, fiery, daring and open to adventure. On the other hand, she is overly trusting and easily manipulated by charismatic male leaders. These factors make Klara totally real and totally recognizable.
The illustrations – photos of the real Klara Philipsborn and her extended family, reprints of press clippings and graphics created by left-wing factions during the war – give home so far add weight and offer a shrewd and moving look at the anti-fascist resistance leading up to World War II. All told, it’s an inspiring, insightful, and evocative read.
Home So Far Away, by Judith Berlowitz, She Writes Press, 2022, 352 pages, $16.95, release date: June 21, 2022. Available for pre-order.