Title: The Writing on the Wall
Author: Juliet Rieden
Published: August 27th 2019
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Genres: Non Fiction, Biography, Memoir, History, World War II
Rating: 4 stars
‘Memoirs such as this will ensure we do not lose the struggle against “forgetting” – that sly accomplice of tyranny’ Magda Szubanski
In 1939, as Hitler’s troops march on Prague, a Jewish couple makes a heartbreaking decision that will save their eight-year-old son’s life but change their family forever.
Australian journalist Juliet Rieden grew up in England in the 1960s and 70s always sensing that her family was different in some way. She longed to have relatives and knew precious little about her Czech father’s childhood as a refugee.
On the night before Juliet’s father died, in 2006, Juliet’s father suddenly looked up and said: ‘The plane is in the hangar.’ In the years after his death, Juliet comes to truly understand the significance of these words.
On a trip to Prague she is shocked to see the Rieden name written many times over on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue memorial. These names become the catalyst for a life-changing journey that uncovers a personal Holocaust tragedy of epic proportions.
Juliet traces the grim fate of her father’s cousins, aunts and uncles on visits to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps and learns about the extremes of cruelty, courage and kindness.
Then in a locked box in Britain’s National Archives, she discovers a stash of documents including letters from her father that reveal intimate details of his struggle.
Meticulously researched and beautifully told, this is the moving story of a woman’s quest to piece together the hidden parts of her father’s life and the unimaginable losses he was determined to protect his children from.
With a touching forward from Magda Szubanski, The Writing on the Wall by Juliet Rieden is a moving memoir of family, history, tragedy and the Holocaust.
‘Many of Juliet’s family did not survive. This deeply moving account reminds us that even those who did not perish in the flames were severely burned by their cruel heat.’
The Writing on the Wall is Juliet Rieden’s penetrative investigation into the life of her father and his extended family. John Rieden was a young boy who was ‘saved’ by the tyranny of the Nazi regime. However, he found further despair and displacement as a refugee in England in the years that followed. This memoir is also a raw account of the lives and scope of Rieden family tree. The descendants of Juliet’s father all faced the flames of the Holocaust. Compassionate, informative, emotional and factual, The Writing on the Wall is a trail into a past we never want to bear witness to again.
The Writing on the Wall is penned by Australian journalist Juliet Rieden. Rieden is a woman who lived in the shadow of her father’s haunted past. As a young boy, John Rieden was transported to live in the UK, and he had to leave his parents behind in order to preserve his young life. Juliet’s father was rarely forthcoming with information about his past, or his family. However, on the night he passes away, his last words send Juliet on a mission to uncover meaning of the phrase, ‘The Plane is in the hangar.’ An expansive and exhaustive investigation that takes place over an eighteenth month period begins. It will send Juliet far and wide. It will also see the determined journalist travel to lands afar physically and send her through the ringer emotionally. The process of compiling The Writing on the Wall involves Juliet visiting Prague, Auschwitz, and the UK. During this investigation, Juliet learns of the tragic fate of her relatives and their mark on the world. Many of her family’s final moments will leave a deep impression on this woman’s mind. Although Juliet traces an incredibly dark chapter in her family’s history, she is surprised to encounter acts of kindness, compassion and bravery. Along this journey, Juliet learns more about her father than she ever would have thought possible. Juliet sees John Rieden in a whole new light, following the conclusion of her investigative efforts.
Juliet Rieden, the author of The Writing on the Wall, is a veteran journalist with over thirty years of experience in the field. Rieden has also worked as an editor, a royal correspondent and she has released the book, The Royals in Australia. However, nothing could prepare her for the emotional undertaking of The Writing on the Wall, which is a memoir exposing the story behind her father’s roots and the huge loss of his family during the Holocaust. Delicately told and backed up with a heavy amount of first hand research, The Writing on the Wall is a must read.
It is hard to imagine just how Juliet Rieden would have felt when her father uttered those final, but puzzling last words that sent on her such a journey of self-discovery. John Rieden’s parting words were so affecting that his daughter knew she had to uncover the meaning behind what he had revealed. What followed was an eighteen month quest, involving archival research, first hand visits to key European locales, plenty of dead ends, surprises and much more. In the process, Juliet is overcome by moments of great sadness, anger, shock and understanding.
Juliet Rieden’s strong journalistic background compliments this memoir, providing the ideal framework for this Holocaust and family based account. Juliet Rieden’s approach to this book is measured and informed. She is able to balance the awful horrors of what happened to her descendants, with informed fact and emotion. However, I felt every blow for Juliet, as the stories of relative after relative all ended in cruel loss. It reminds us of the true horrors and inhumanity of the Nazi mindset. The Writing on the Wall acts as a permanent warning that we should never walk in the dark footsteps of this horrific regime.
Interspersed between Juliet Rieden’s investigations into her father’s past are letters, family trees, magazine extracts, inscriptions, documentary notes, statements, reports and testimonies. Supporting these supplementary articles is an informative resources page. The acknowledgements section also provides further insight into the hard work and dedication that the author has put into this memoir. Finally, a sixteen page photo spread located in the centre of the book, provides a strong visual record of this incredible family history investigation.
As always with memoirs of this nature, it is hard to say that The Writing on the Wall was enjoyable. I will say that Juliet Rieden’s account is a meaningful and essential undertaking, that has being lovingly compiled by the author as a way of better understanding her father’s tragic lineage.
The Writing on the Wall by Juliet Rieden was published on 27th August 2019 by Pan Macmillan. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Writing on the Wall, Juliet Rieden, visit here.
*I wish to thank Pan Macmillan for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Writing on the Wall is book #122 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge