The first time Sue Smethurst sat down with her husband’s grandmother and asked about her experiences during the Holocaust, she was shooed away. Surrounded by fellow survivors in the Montefiroe Jewish nursing home in Melbourne, Mindla (pronounced Marnya) Horowitz felt no need to share her story. Everyone around her had one much the same, after all.
But Smethurst persevered, and when Mindla finally opened up, and the facade of perfect hair and red lipstick slipped, the tale she told was more extraordinary than Smethurst could ever have imagined.
Married in Warsaw to the man who would one day become The Tarax Show‘s Sloppo the Clown, Mindla and her family saw first-hand the horrors of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. As the Nazis’ grip tightened on Poland, Mindla fled with her young son, hoping to catch up to her circus performer husband, Kubush, in Russian occupied Bialystok.
This is just the beginning of the tale that would eventually form The Freedom Circus; the latest from award winning author and journalist Smethurst. Beginning in Poland and finally settling in Australia, the young family found themselves moving all over the world in their search for safety from the seemingly unstoppable German war machine, with Kubush’s clown career saving their skins more than once.
Switching between Mindla and Kubush, Smethurst gives this non-fiction an often novel-like feel, balancing historical research (both family and global) with descriptions alternately lush and graphic. The end result is a gripping read, filled with fascinating characters, heartbreaking scenes, and – thankfully – wonderful, glorious relief.
If there’s cause for concern, it’s perhaps in the pacing. Once the Horowitzes are reunited, things speed up a little too much. The stays in Moscow, Mombasa, and eventually Melbourne fly by in just ninety pages. The detail is still there – Smethurst’s description of the Moscow hotel and circus are particularly strong, and when Mindla hears of Hitler’s death, a true weight feels lifted – but, after so many pages waiting on Mindla and Kubush’s reunion, you can’t blame a reader for wanting a little more of them together.
What endures the most throughout The Freedom Circus is an abiding sense of love. Not just in Mindla and Kubush’s long marriage, but also in Smethurst’s handling of her husband’s family history. From those first days pressing the so-called Princess of Montefiore to share her story, to the years of research that followed, to the family found half a world away, The Freedom Circus is truly a labour of love, and it feels oddly like an honour to be allowed to share it – even for those of us Mindla would never have let sit on the sofa with the plastic off.
Sue Smethurst’s The Freedom Circus is out now, published by Penguin.