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The State of Dark by Judith Mok: a memoir beyond the ordinary

Mok interweaves details of what happened to her family during the war with vivid evocations of the bright life they led beforehand

The State of Dark
Author: Judith Mok
ISBN-13: 9781843518501
Publisher: Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €16

“Only now do I realize that it might be time for me to speak, where my parents stayed stumm ... they passed on this terrible silence to me.”

As Judith Mok points out, the story of the holocaust has been told many times before. But this is her personal memoir, a deeply personal delving into the history of her family, which her parents, who survived, could not bear to tell their daughters — or anyone. Nor could they bear to search for facts. A simple phone call reveals them — 163 of Mok’s relatives perished in Nazi concentration camps. “My grandparents never got a tattoo number, she says. They went straight to the gas chambers when they got off the train.”

Mok interweaves the shocking details of what happened to her family during the war with vivid evocations of the bright life they led beforehand — a time of parties, ballgowns, and joy. She also tells us of her own happy childhood in a seaside village in Holland, a life filled with music and poetry, lovely dresses and delicious food. Kindness. Her early years training as a classical singer in the Hague and Vienna are colourfully described — “Chestnuts and sausages were being roasted by women, their heads bound in radiant scarves ... I told myself I had landed in a feast, close to where the musicians Mozart, Schubert and Mahler had composed.”

Well-known and loved in Ireland, the soprano who delighted neighbours by singing from her Dublin balcony during the Covid Lockdown, Judith Mok comes from a creative and richly cultured family. Her mother was a singer, her father an important Dutch poet. They were multilingual: “You had to be perfect at it [a new language] or else there was the risk that you could betray yourself.”

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This brilliant book is a tapestry, interweaving glowing strands chronicling lives replete with learning and literature and song, with the unbearably dark story of how those lives were brutally ended during the holocaust. The contrast is heartbreaking and it is impeccably conveyed. Mok is an impressive writer.

We should be grateful to her for not staying stumm. If you read only one Irish book this year, let it be this superb and unique memoir.

  • Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest books are Look! It’s a Woman Writer (Arlen House 2021) and Little Red and Other Stories (Blackstaff, 2020)