Caroline Beecham – Esther’s Children

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2022
Cover design Christabella Designs
Cover images Stephen Mulcahey/Trevillion/LillaSam/Shutterstock

Esther’s Children is a fictionalised history/biography of Esther Simpson (née Sinovitch), whose work with the British based organisation, the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, led to the rescue of thousands of academics and scholars from the Nazis before and during World War 2.

Barbie talks to Caroline Beecham about Esther’s Children

The Society provided grants which enabled placements for many scientists and other gifted intellectuals in British universities and organisations, where many went on to produce significant work.

Caroline Beecham imagines a personal life for Esther through her largely unresolved relationship with Harry Singer, son of a Viennese Jewish family caught up in the horrors of encroaching Nazism from 1933.

Esther’s trips to Vienna expose her to the danger of what was at first a hidden Nazi presence, not just in academia but throughout Austrian society. The author skilfully creates the atmosphere of latent terror that must have characterised the lives of ordinary people at this time and place.

In following Esther’s life from young womanhood to old age, this story leaves us with such an intense admiration for the real-life character, but at the same time, a sense of sadness at what the times took from her.

We are conscious of what extraordinary levels of diligence and commitment she had, hand-writing thousands of letters and application forms in order to help the oppressed Jewish academics and scientists. All this we feel in the fiction too, without a hint of sentimentality.

Caroline Beecham writes many graphic vignettes in this sweeping work – Harry and Esther’s trip to the alps, the tension-laden concert in Vienna, the ugly display of anti-Semitism in the pub, the internment camp on the Isle of Man (yes, the scholars were amongst the ‘enemy aliens’ interned on the Isle of Man on Churchill’s order).

Here we have a heart-breaking picture of the times and the building dread wrought by a vicious authoritarian regime, a terror that inexorably spread well beyond its European beginnings.

Music is another important strand in this book. Not only is Esther a gifted musician (one of the ‘what could have beens’ in her life) but so too does this musical connection give her entrée in Vienna to the circles upon whom she relies to enable the work of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. It is through music and recitals that she meets key people in the application process for so many of those she helps.

Music is also part of the love story between Harry and Esther – Harry is a professional musician; music is the backdrop to the harsher reality of this story; music is solace and consolation, as it is in our times, and an expression of longing and beauty.

The author has included a play list, accessible via Spotify, of some of Esther’s favourite pieces, others which have a role in this story or are simply beautiful works.

In composing works of fictional history, authors have to make decisions about their characters based on flights of fancy, albeit educated flights. The author’s research into Esther’s real life was considerable – she had access to Esther’s personal papers and key documents about the SPSL.

However it is in the imaginative musings that such a story and such a character as Esther are made real to a contemporary audience. We are immediately won over to Esther as a character and invested in her safety and success. This is delicate and persuasive writing.

Caroline Beecham writes with passion and compassion about her subjects; the women she portrays in her novels have inspired her and they inspire us with their courage, fortitude and kindness.

Esther Simpson’s work for World War 2 ‘academic refugees’ reminds us that human kindness and tireless effort can wreak change and lead to bigger stories than the life of a single person or family. But it always starts with an individual story. The connection to our current world situation is very clear in this work.

Caroline Beecham’s command of the historical fiction genre is beyond doubt  –  Esther’s Children is another story that needed telling, of a remarkable woman who achieved remarkable things and yet is little written about. The book addresses this omission -the story and its execution are luminous.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and Caroline for our book chat, always such a pleasure.