18 February 2021, The Tablet

Unbelonging


 

How to Be a Refugee: One Family’s Story of Exile and Belonging
SIMON MAY
(PICADOR, 320 PP, £20)
Tablet bookshop price £18 • tel 020 7799 4064

There is a certain irony in a professor of philosophy being haunted by the problem of his identity. Yet this account by Simon May, visiting professor at King’s College London, of his mother’s and aunts’ survival in Nazi Germany, and his own cultural journey, is no dry philosophical saga. It is a gripping story, bursting with astonishing anecdote and moving resilience.

May was born in the German émigré heartlands of north London yet, although he was Jewish, he was never allowed to feel it. His mother and her two sisters had expunged their own Jewishness to become Catholic, and May himself was baptised and circumcised in the same week. The trauma of this “act of ­unbelonging” on the part of his mother’s family eventually forced him to return to their roots and, in the process, resolve his own identity.

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