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The Colours of My Life

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Success Stories

by Annette Stannett


ISBN 0 954 33164 8
Anna Brown Associates, 2004
152pp, paperback
Retail price £6.99

The memoirs of a Jewish girl born in Germany a few years before the Second World War do not sound like light reading. Annette Stannett was born Annette Jacoby, but was forced by the Nazis to add the name "Sara" to her identification papers, so as to mark her out as a Jew. At this distance in time, the whole idea seems trivial in its eccentricity, but I daresay you wouldn’t exactly be thrilled if you were suddenly told to add "Ermintrude" or "Aloysius" to your name (no disrespect intended to any Ermintrudes or Aloysiuses who may be reading this review).

Despite the threat posed by Hitler’s government, Annette had a relatively carefree childhood in the Lübeck region, and her descriptive passages make far from depressing reading. Here is young Annette, on her first day at school in 1933:

"…I proudly clutched my Tüte – a huge conical cardboard container filled with sweets, fruit, nuts and small items of stationery. This was the custom, a kind of send-off from home as well as a signal to people around and teachers that here was another young fledgling testing her wings."

It makes a welcome change to read about a Jewish German family who did not have to endure the Holocaust. When Mr and Mrs Jacoby emigrated, just before war broke out, they imagined their troubles were over. The parents, however, were almost as naive as their young daughter. They arrived in British colonial Africa to find that they had left the fire for a frying-pan. The small town of Livingstone in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), selected at random because of the "civilised" sound of its name, turned out to be a backwater where the family had to share a single room in a boarding-house with no indoor sanitation. Annette’s father, who had formerly run a department store, had no way of earning a living; her mother, until now a lady of leisure, was forced to hire out her services as a dressmaker.

Surely things could not get any worse? Then war broke out, and the family were quickly recognised by the British government as "enemy aliens", despite having had their German citizenship denied by their own government. Fortunately there are no tales of internment to add to the horrors they had already faced.

With such experiences behind her, it was never likely that Annette would turn out to be average. The problems of getting permission to travel outside the country were overcome by winning scholarships, first to boarding school in Bulawayo, and then to university in Cape Town. By now the serious-minded young woman had dealt with more changes of lifestyle than most people go through in one lifetime, and her analytical, appreciative response to them is faithfully recorded in a way that gives her story the "colours" of the title. There was of course one more big change to come. Annette would travel to the UK, to yet another kind of society, where she would marry and bring up children. Finally the wheel comes full circle, and she returns to Lübeck, only to find that the horrors of her pre-war existence are all but forgotten by the people of modern Germany.

Like so many books from small publishers, The Colours of My Life could have done with more rigorous editing, though the number of actual errors is happily few. One of the things that makes this such an interesting story is the journey from being a victim of racial prejudice to seek integration in a society where inequality was endemic, but based on the colour of a person’s skin rather than the shape of his or her skull. In southern Africa, Annette found that she was not allowed to speak to the servants as though they were her equals. It was taken for granted that the black people of Livingstone would not be served at the same counter as the whites in her father’s new shop.

There is an innocence about the author’s telling of a life story that might have been full of sentimentality and regret, not to mention irony. Perhaps these things are better left unsaid, whether or not her failure to spell them out is intentional. What might have been a bitter story leaves a sweet taste in the mouth. It is one of the most unusual autobiographies I have ever read.

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

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