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  • This is a moving and inspiring read.

    4.5★s The Freedom Circus is a memoir by Australian journalist and award-winning author, Sue Smethurst. The author explains in her prologue how it took patience and gentle encouragement (and bright nail polish!) for her grandmother-in-law, Mindla Horowitz, to reveal the details of a life she believed was no more remarkable that those of her compatriots. The story begins as a sweet pre-war romance between a tannery worker and a circus clown, aided by Mindla’s sisters, set against a background of spreading anti-Semitism. Kubush Horowitz woos Mindla Levin and manages to overcome her father’s reservations to marry “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen”. His life with a touring circus means long periods apart, but their love is strong. It’s during one of those periods apart that the Nazi invasion of Warsaw sees Mindla packing up her two-year-old son and heading for Russian-occupied eastern city of Bialystok, hoping to reunite with Kubush. It’s a trek that involves being squashed in an old oak farmer’s cart, refuge in barns and a night river crossing, with some narrow escapes from the Germans. Things don’t quite line up, though, and while Mindla spends time in crowded jail cell, Kubush and his Jewish circus colleagues hide in plain sight doing performances for the Nazi soldiers occupying Warsaw and overseeing the building of ghetto walls. When Shmuel Levin told his daughter “Nothing good comes from a clown”, he could have no concept of quite how wrong he was: a position with the great Moscow Circus and an apartment at the sumptuous Hotel Moskva was something none of them could have predicted. Smethurst easily evokes the era and setting with descriptions of folk cures, traditions strictly observed, the opulent Cyrk Staniewski circus pavilion. With her vibrant prose, the sights, sounds and smells of the circus are almost tangible, while the fear and sadness triggered by the bombardment of a beautiful city with its attendant destruction of landmarks and icons holding memories, are palpable. As she describes what they endure (indignity, cruelty, unscrupulousness, hunger and cold), Smethurst easily conveys the myriad of emotions and feelings these brave people experience: fear, loss and anxiety but also hope and optimism. This is a story of extremes: poverty in Warsaw, hunger in a crowded jail cell, luxury in a Moscow hotel, freezing cold in Russian camps, lush abundance in an African refugee camp, appalling conditions in an Italian one, and finally, safety, security and freedom in Australia. While an account of such a life could be dry and tedious, Smethurst fills it with such rich detail that it is never dull or boring: it reads like a novel, and the reader cannot help but feel anxious for these people and their unenviable fate, and joy when things fall their way. Twelve pages of photographs of those populating the book cement the connection. This is a moving and inspiring read. This unbiased review is from a copy provided by the author.

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