The Miracle Typist: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

February 24, 2021 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Leon Silver’s The Miracle Typist is a powerful true story of one soldier’s long journey home.

One of the results of reviewing this book is that one should not be influenced by the Author’s Note [some would call it either the Foreword or the Introduction. The book is really about the author’s father-in-law, Tolek Kings. Silver describes how Tolek would usually arrive for their meeting to start putting the story of Tolek’s journey on paper. Tolek would arrive with scraps of paper with his notes for that day and Silver portrays it as rather chaotic. The reality is that the book is well structured and recounts the story well.

Just prior to the German invasion of Poland in 1939 Tolek is in the Polish army with its inherent antisemitism and he is relentlessly tormented by his fellow soldiers. It was almost more important to harass Tolek as it was to defeat the nazi army. The one thing he dreams of is returning to his wife, Klara, and son, Juliusz.

This book is almost a travel log in that Tolek ends up in a Hungarian internment camp from which he escapes. His escape is to Palestine. He has one skill which is needed- namely the ability to type. For this skill, he earns the title “The Miracle Typist”. His journey takes him to Egypt, and especially Tobruk, onto Libya and then onto Italy. He was part of the Carpathian Brigade which had trained with the British Army and many, if not most, had been Polish prisoners of War under Soviet control.

He continues to seek to be reunited with his wife and son. It is a telegram from his wife which pushes him to seek a way home and fulfil the promise he has made to himself. The reality was that Klara and Juliusz were in hiding in a neighbour’s house in Poland.

There is an extremely poignant story about Tolek and 3 of his Jewish soldier friends from the Polish army encountering a group of survivors in a house in Modena as he sought his family. For many readers of the book and of this review, the story told has been told many, many, many times before and yet each time it is fresh. The survivors recount their experiences as well as whet they saw.  Silver so succinctly sums it up with “He was used to death, as all long-term soldiers were, but not like this. Unlike deaths on the battlefield, these deaths were choreographed—a systematic slaughter.”

Tolek’s wife and son were hidden by a priest and a few parishioners for more than a year until betrayed by neighbours and shot outside the church. They were betrayed by another member of the parish as the Germans were retreating.

As many know, for many of the survivors the end of the war was not the end of their troubles. Tolek’s brother describes the first post-war pogrom experienced in their hometown including how the police stood by, often with smiles on their faces.

When Tolek had served in North Africa he had met many Australians including a chaplain Rabbi Cohen who not only gave him a tallis and prayer book and on Erev Yom Kippur had distributed “in the desert… chicken soup and knotted challah.”. The Australian Jewish soldiers he met had shown him that Jews can be proud of who and what they were. Out of this, he formulated a plan as he also remarried and they were expecting a child, a daughter.

It was not until 1952 that the family set sail on a Lloyd Triestino set sail for Australia from Genoa. In Australia, he was no longer “Tolek Naftali but simply Aussie Ted”. Eventually, he set up a knitting house establishing one of Australia’s top brands ‘Sovrano’.

The book ends with a note he types, reverting back to his role as the Miracle Typist, to his, as yet unborn, first grandchild ultimately giving the child a charge that “when you know what your grandfather did in the war, perhaps you will march for me on Anzac Day and wear my medals.”

Each time when I pick up a book of a survivor, I am sure that each and every story has to be recounted, regardless of how similar to others they may be. Each is unique and must be told. This one is definitely worth the read.

The Miracle Typist: Leon Silver 2020

Published by Simon and Schuster

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Research Chaplain at St Vincent’s Private Hospital. He was CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum. He has held a number of academic positions as well as appointments at a number of hospitals both in Australia and North America.


One Response to “The Miracle Typist: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    The process of writing can be chaotic before its final presentation in structured form, when the architecture of the writing falls into place and shape. So, the scraps of paper that Tolek brought along for Silver’s consideration and use in the initial stages may well have produced a messy situation from which to carve the story.

    It’s always interesting to hear how an author works with his material and what it involves, so thanks for mentioning it, Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen.

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