By Kim Sherwood
When painter Joseph Silk dies, the world pays tribute. For John, the son he didn’t love, and Eva Butler, the granddaughter he did, there is little agreement about who Joseph Silk was.
Between Silk’s death and his funeral, Eva wanders through his “Blue Room,” a combination studio and library of the color of blue. Beaten in a German labor camp, Silk became partially color blind; blue was the color he saw best. The room is filled with postcards of seas and ice fields, soccer shirts, torn Levis, milk of magnesia bottles, peacock feathers, tea tins and amethyst crystals — all shades of blue.
Among the artifacts, she finds a thick, formal envelope from Dr. Felix Gerschel of the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin. Silk had told her to throw it away unopened when it arrived. She opened it anyway and read it out loud to him.
The museum had found in its collection the transcript of a 360-question interview that Silk — then József Zyyad — had given to the National Relief Committee for Deportees in Hungary in 1945.
Silk feigned ignorance and told her to rip up the request. For Silk, life began in 1945 when he came to England. He had survived the war and that was all anyone needed to know.
On impulse, Eva arranges with Gerschel to see the testament. When she reads the English translation, it rattles her understanding of her grandfather. She knows immediately he would never want its contents public.
Gerschel, who coincidentally is an art historian who did his dissertation on Silk, assures her they will not use the testament without her permission. However, the exhibition will proceed and will include Silk and some of his paintings on loan from another museum.
Gerschel gently warns her that she only has limited control over how Silk is presented in public. He tells her he’s heard that at least one unauthorized biography that is being planned about Silk and his notorious affairs.
After the funeral, Eva begins a journey to learn more about Silk’s life before 1945 and the great-grandparents and great-aunt she had never known about.
She visits the Holocaust Documentation Centre in Budapest. She attends a commemorative event that takes her to the apartment building where her great-grandparents, Silk, László and their sister Alma had once lived. She passes the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, commemorating those shot at the edge of the Danube by the Hungarian Arrow Cross. This is the most likely fate of Alma.
Károly Farkas, a staff member at the Holocaust Documentation Centre in Budapest, urges her to give the testament to the Centre because Silk was Hungarian.
“You can trust us with his words, his voice,” Farkas tells her. Not something easy to assume in a country where the government and some historians are blurring the accountability for what happened to Hungarian Jews by saying that all Hungarians were victims of the Nazis.
Eva tells him that he’s “dramatically overestimating the importance of an English painter in the 21st century.” He replies, “‘And I think you’re drastically underestimating the importance of a Hungarian Jewish survivor with a voice in the 21st century.'”
Even as Eva struggles over who has the right to own Silk’s history, vandals smear a swastika over his gravestone. She discovers that Silk had been more than silent; he had been deceptive in ways that turned her own understanding of her family and history a lie.
This is a lyrical book, with vivid metaphors from the world of art. (Silk is an artist who can’t see color; Eva is an aspiring documentary filmmaker trying to capture what isn’t there — loss, absence.) Sections of the book are divided by lists of questions asked by the relief committee helping refugees after the Holocaust.
The story moves forward and backward through time. This gives the reader the chance to see what actually happened in ways historical records and documents don’t allow. There’s a great deal of research here, but it complements rather than overwhelms the personal stories. Sherwood also never lets the personal mask the magnitude of the events taking place during the war.
In an interview, Sherwood said that Silk was convinced “that being allowed to construct one’s own identity through curating what we remember and what we forget is a matter of survival.” It’s not the only path to survival, Sherwood makes clear. As Eva learns after her grandfather’s death, history unfolds even as we examine the process of remembering and forgetting.
The questions Sherwood asks — Can one be silent about atrocities even when one is the victim? What is the value of remembering? Who owns history? How do we define who we are? — are not easily answered.
The questions are vital ones today as those who directly experienced the Shoah pass on.
About the Author: Kim Sherwood (1989 – )
Kim Sherwood was inspired to write TESTAMENT (2018), her first novel, after her grandfather, actor George Baker, passed away in 2011 and her grandmother began to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor for the first time.
She is currently writing a new trilogy of James bond novels for the Ian Fleming estate, expanding its cast of characters with 00 agents for the 21st century. The first of the series, DOUBLE OR NOTHING, is due out in September 2022.
Her novel, A WILD AND TRUE RELATION, is expected in the spring of 2023.
Sherwood was born in Camden and now lives in Bath. She earned a master of arts in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She then taught there and at the University of Sussex. Currently she is a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England and teaches prisoners. She is a columnist for The Jewish Quarterly, based in London.