#aww2021 · 2021 Reviews · memoir · non-fiction

Book Review: The Freedom Circus by Sue Smethurst

Title: The Freedom Circus

Author: Sue Smethurst

Published: November 3rd 2020

Publisher: Penguin Books Australia

Pages: 320

Genres: Non Fiction, Memoir

RRP: $34.99

Rating: 4 stars

A remarkable true story of one family’s daring escape from Poland during the Second World War.

‘A story of extraordinary bravery, resilience and love that needed to be told.’ Heather Morris, author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Written by award-winning author and journalist Sue Smethurst, whose husband is Mindla and Michael’s grandson, The Freedom Circus is an epic story of courage, hope, humanity, survival and, ultimately, love.

When Sue Smethurst first sat down with her grandmother-in-law and asked how she survived the Holocaust, she was shooed away. By that time Mindla was in a Melbourne Jewish nursing home with other survivors, her body ageing but mind still razor sharp.

‘Why do you want to know?’ she’d ask. ‘My story is nothing special.’

As death began approaching Sue became a little more pushy. She knew Mindla’s life had to be recorded and they were running out of time. Each week she’d bring cake from her favourite shop in St Kilda, a bottle of the brightest nail polish she could find, a handful of old pictures and her tape recorder. They’d chat and paint Mindla’s nails, and with each ‘chat’ her story unfolded. It was beyond anything Sue could have imagined.

The tale of how Mindla and her husband Michael Horowitz, a circus performer for the famous Staniewski Brothers, escaped from Poland with their young son and embarked on a terrifying journey through the USSR and Middle East to Africa and ultimately to safety in Australia, is nothing short of extraordinary.

Review:

‘You must tell their story,’ Marika insisted. ‘Every story must be told.’

A miraculous act of courage helped one family defy the odds and make a getaway from the Nazis to the freedom of Australia’s shores. Drawn delicately from first hand interviews and a great deal of research, The Freedom Circus is journalist Sue Smethurst’s tribute to her grandmother in law’s life story.

Initially meeting stiff resistance from her grandmother in law, Sue Smethurst persisted in asking this much-loved family member to share her experiences of the war. Despite the passage of time and the sheer level of trauma experienced by Mindla, Sue Smethurst’s grandmother in law did not duffer from memory loss. Eventually, Mindla began to slowly reveal her secret life story to Sue, which Sue carefully documented. The Freedom Circus is a direct product of these interviews, along with a high level of research. What emerges from these interviews and research is the courageous story of how a circus performer, his wife and son managed to undertake a perilous journey through a number of dangerous countries in the heat of the war, to eventually reside permanently in Australia. How this family managed to survive and find safety truly begs belief.

Sue Smethurst is a non-fiction based writer and I have come to trust her storytelling abilities thanks to three books I have read previously by Smethurst. Now a senior writer with the Australian Women’s Weekly, Sue Smethurst draws on the experiences of her husband’s family to form the basis of her latest release. The Freedom Circus is an honest, emotional, surprising and respectful set piece. I was amazed by this daring escape tale from the opening to the close of The Freedom Circus.

The Freedom Circus begins with a hooking prologue, that serves to pull the reader right in to this strong family history tale. Following the intriguing opening piece there are thirty-five chapters, told over three separate parts The Freedom Circus is supported by an epilogue, acknowledgments, bibliography and photograph spread. Over three hundred pages, the reader learns of the devastating but remarkable story of how Mindla and her circus performing husband Kubush managed to break away from the clutches of the Nazi rule in Poland, to the safety of Australia. We follow the early days of this couple’s courtship, marriage, the impact of war on their relationship, their brave escape from occupied Poland, their cross country trek to safety and their eventual migration to Australia. The interesting spin on this particular war tale is the viewpoint taken of the travelling circus, which was Mindla’s husband’s occupation during their time in Poland. Having only read a fictional wartime tale based round a circus during this tumultuous era, these real-life experiences were quite the eye opener.

Sue Smethurst has worked hard to fill in the gaps of her grandmother in law’s story and although Mindla’s memory was incredibly sharp, there were still spaces to cover in this intriguing family history story. As a result, Sue Smethurst embarked upon a large amount of research gathering, which also included translating documents and conducting first hand visits to places of significance to piece together this family jigsaw. Although Sue met resistance on Mindla’s part to retell her story, what has emerged from Mindla’s brave testimony and Sue’s persistence is a story that must be told.

The Freedom Circus by Sue Smethurst was published on 3rd November 2020 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of The Freedom Circus, Sue Smethurst, visit here.

The Freedom Circus is book #15 of the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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