Sue Smethurst’s The Freedom Circus is not only a well-written novel but one that perfectly exemplifies the power of people. While it is a difficult read at times, it is also an important piece of literature in society’s current climate and should not be overlooked; The Freedom Circus does exceptional cultural work as it reminds readers not only of the past but of why we should fight so hard to preserve the intimate details of it.
Each time Smethurst sat down with her grandmother-in-law, Mindla, to hear and record her story of the Holocaust, she was shooed away. At the time of the recording, Mindla was living in a Jewish nursing home in Melbourne with other survivors; although her body was deteriorating, her memory sharp as a tack. Mindla would insist that her story was ‘nothing special’ and questioned why there was such an interest in it. As her health began to deteriorate, Smethurst began to push harder to uncover the truth. Each week Smethurst would bring a cake from her favourite shop in St Kilda, a bottle of the brightest nail polish available, a selection of old pictures, and her tape recorder to capture Mindla’s history. And what an unbelievable one it was. Smethurst learnt the story of a young woman who lived in Warsaw who met and fell in love with Kubush, a performer in one of Poland’s premier circuses. When Poland was divided by the Russian and German armies, Mindla and Kubush escaped with their young son — embarking on a daunting journey through the USSR and the Middle East to Africa and eventually Australia.
The Freedom Circus is an exceptional novel that shines an uncomfortable — yet necessary — light on the experiences that aren’t oftentimes at the forefront of dialogue regarding World War Two. Concentration camps, gas chambers, and fighting on the front, while still within the story, are not at its core. The brutality of German occupation is instead given great attention with a grand chunk of the novel focusing on Mindla’s experience with the Soviet-controlled areas of Poland. This new account of and angle on hardship makes this novel all the more powerful. At times, it is easy to forget that The Freedom Circus is the tale of an actual person as opposed to a fictional character. Smethurst is so thorough in her explanation of people and events that it would not be difficult to believe that this story is the fictional product of a wonderful and experienced writer; however, it is not. Smethurst does an exceptional job in seamlessly blending the information given to her firsthand by Mindla and that acquired via an extensive historical deep dive. It is well-executed, so much so that it could be considered art.
Essentially, Sue Smethurst’s The Freedom Circus is a tribute to the people that have shaped our lives today—those that demonstrated resilience, strength and power in the most brutal of circumstances. It is an incredible story full of incredible people that will no doubt have a great effect on our cultural climate. I look forward to seeing its success not only within Australia, but worldwide.