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The Making of an Englishman by Fred Uhlman

Updated: May 5, 2022

1960, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London

French version title: Il Fait Beau a Paris Aujourd'hui, 1985

Jo lent me this autobiography of the naturalized British writer and painter, Fred Uhlman (1901-1985). Uhlman was born in Germany to non-religious Jewish parents; he portrays his father as too strict and narrow-minded, his mother silly and ineffectual, and their marriage as constant bickering and a failure.

As Hitler's influence increased, Uhlman became involved in politics; this put him in danger and led to his escape from Germany in 1938. He ended up in England where he married Diana Croft against the wishes of her wealthy, right-wing father, Henry Croft. Uhlman wanted to bring his family to England, but his parents refused to leave Germany, and his sister, not seeing the real extent of the danger, and possibly being even sillier than her mother, refused to come unless she could bring all her furniture with her; this was impossible for financial and other reasons.

Trained as a German lawyer and therefore unable to practice his profession in England, Uhlman decided to try his hand at painting. Surprisingly talented, he not only was able to make a living, but dared dream of becoming a great painter. Captivity is a series of twenty-four drawings he created to reflect his experience in an English internment camp, where, in spite of having an English wife who was pregnant, he spent part of WWII.

The Studio, painting by Fred Uhlman, 1944

Uhlman's writing style is direct, unsentimental, and even humourous, leading us to imagine his life as happy and successful, in spite of the circumstances. So, it comes as a sad shock at the end of his autobiography when he reveals his sense of failure at never becoming a "great” painter, his feelings of guilt that his parents and sister perished in a concentration camp, and his constant fight against depressive thoughts.

Fred Uhlman is best known as the author of Reunion (l'Ami retrouvé), an extraordinary novella I highly recommend. It's the story of a young Jewish boy's friendship with a classmate from an anti-semitic family. The friend joins the Nazis but after the war some unexpected information surfaces. This is required middle school reading in some French schools, but also excellent reading for adults. In 1989, Reunion was made into a film; Harry Pinter wrote the screenplay.

By the same author:

No Coward Soul and No Resurrection, Please are considered sequels to Reunion. Although originally published in England, it appears much easier to find the French version, entitled La Lettre de Conrad; Pas de Résurrection s'il vous plaît.

If anyone knows where to find the English version, let me know.

addendum: The above-mentioned works are not as interesting as Reunion. No Coward Soul, repeats many of the same events from Reunion, but from the perspective of Conrad, the friend who became a Nazi. It was repetitive, maybe since I'd just reread Reunion. The powerful No Resurrection presents the Jewish narrator's point of view, as his former classmates, the war now long over, attempt to justify their inexcusable actions. This book reveals the unbridgeable divide between the Uhlman and his former country and people, and his inner hopelessness.

If you only read one of these three works, read Reunion.

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