The Other Side of Absence – Discovering my father’s secrets

By Betty O’Neill
Impact Press, an imprint of Ventura Press, Australia 2020

To create a work which is at once beautiful and terrible is indeed a mark of literary talent and Betty O’Neill achieves this to perfection with The Other Side of Absence.

Barbie talks to Betty O’Neill about The Other Side of Absence

After meeting her father for the first time at the age of 19 and then seeing no more of him, Betty O’Neill is moved apparently by sheer happenstance to go in search of his secrets – as the result of a writing exercise taken during a ‘gap year’ in her fifties. No such thing, however – these wounds and absences had remained untended since she was a child and clearly needed to be acknowledged and healed.

With the tenacity and fortitude of an archeologist on a precious dig, the author takes herself to Poland to retrace her father’s steps after he was arrested and sent to Lublin Prison for being a  Resistance fighter. Assuming she will have to visit any number of archives and official records offices, she is astounded upon arriving in Poland to not only gain access to the flat of her half sister Janina but also to discover that she has inheritance rights to it.

More motivated initially by the treasure trove of photographs, documents and objects contained in the flat, she engages a translator and embarks upon a voyage of discovery – the uncovering of a life of many lies and tall tales told by her father, including the fact that he was still married to his first wife when he married her mother and that he continued to be in communication with her until he returned to Poland  after more than 30 years and joined her in this same tiny three roomed flat.

Like a fiction detective of the highest order, Betty O’Neill uncovers many more layers of deceit and obfuscation in conversations with neighbours, lawyers, bank officials – all with the assistance of an interpreter, as she speaks almost no Polish.

The author’s steely determination to reach what truth she can about her father, whilst at the same time grappling with her own emotions and feelings of loss and confusion, is another testament to her character. That she saw it through and documented so well her experiences and feelings has enabled her to produce a book which goes well beyond the simple story of a life, a memoir or biography.

In tracing her father’s experiences in Lublin, Auschwitz and Gusen, Betty describes her tours of the camps and presents first-hand accounts of the brutality of the Nazi regime which created them. This is not gratuitous. She now lights a candle daily for peace and remembrance. The last section of the book details for us how she has become connected with thousands of others, the descendants of Gusen survivors, in a family of humankind.

This book is skilfully and artfully constructed. We live each moment that Betty shares with us of the frustrations, the difficulties of her research journey. We plough through with her the overwhelming piles of detritus of the lives of the three residents of the flat – every saved button, piece of ribbon, letter and photograph – and those precious hats of her father which she used to piece together places and dates in concert with photographic evidence.

And then as the resolution comes with the holiday reunion with her daughter, the return to Australia with the nightmares of what she has seen and felt wreaking havoc on her psyche, the 2015 trip to Vienna for the commemoration ceremonies for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, we feel the emotional tide turn.  We see Betty O’Neill as she is now, and the dignity and grace which carried her through these troubling years, the memory of childhood put in perspective, the ghosts seen, faced and forgiven.

This is a book for us all and for our times –  a cry for peace, a blessing on the lives spent to give us what we enjoy, a recognition of the toll of war not just on the fighters, the victims and perpetrators but on every generation that follows.

Thank you to DMCPRMEDIA for sending me a review copy.