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Facing Fearful Odds: My Father's Story of Captivity, Escape & Resistance 1940-1945 Hardcover – 30 Oct 2014
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About the Author
John Jay was born in 1957 in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, and was educated at University College School, Hampstead, and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read Modern History. After graduating, he became a journalist, working initially for the Western Mail in Cardiff and Thomson Regional Newspapers' City desk. In 1986, he became City editor of The Sunday Times and between 1989 and 2000 he ran the business coverage of The Sunday Telegraph and then The Sunday Times. Since 2001, he has worked in the fund management industry and is currently development partner of Brompton Asset Management. In 1989, he published The New Tycoons with Judi Bevan, now his wife. They live in North London with their daughter, Josephine.
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Part biography, part memoir, part military history, Facing Fearful Odds is meticulously researched. John Jay relies on archival sources from four countries, oral testimony, his father’s notes and contemporaneous poetry to trace Alec Jay’s Second World War experiences with the Queen Victoria Rifles.
Following the British defeat at Calais in May 1940, Alec Jay was a POW until the end of the war. His predicament differed to most of his fellow soldiers. A British Jew, whose family was ‘not particularly religious,’ Alec Jay succeeded in hiding his religion from his German captors at personal cost. Fearful that the Germans might invade the UK, and that his letters might place his family in jeopardy, Alec did not write home. One can only guess at the emotional trauma this added to his plight.
At times, as the title suggests, Facing Fearful Odds reads like a thriller. The reader wills the protagonist to survive draconian marches and the horrors of POW camps, but as the Epilogue reveals, good fortune comes at a price. John Jay portrays a thoughtful character determined to survive, who stood up to his captors, led one of the few protest strikes, attempted to escape five times and spent the last days of the war fighting alongside Czech partisans.
The author succeeds in conveying camaraderie amongst the British prisoners against a backdrop of cruel German guards, antagonistic French POWs and feisty Palestinian Jews. When faced with the dilemma of whether Alec should admit to being Jewish, his British fellow prisoners seated either side of him, force his arms down, thus assisting the deception before the Germans.
The book provides a showcase for Alec Jay’s writings that deserve to be published within a Second World War anthology. At times melancholic at others optimistic, always evocative, the poems break up the well-documented military and political history. The reader is given insight into Alec Jay’s state of mind, longing for home, his aching for the “face and the smile” of the love he left behind. “The Jews” reveals the importance of Alec Jay’s Jewish identity, even though we witness Jay burying evidence of his Judaism at the beginning of the war.
“A people tormented,
Crushed by oppression”
“Our one hope is that soon,
Will arise a Maccabeus
Who will lead us from our persecution” (...)
Facing Fearful Odds adds to the historiography of the Second World War. It flirts with loyalty, cultural and national identity, exposes the disconnect between those who survived the war, regardless of their religious or political affiliations, and those at home who had to navigate altered personalities. John Jay’s book reminds us that morality under wartime conditions differs from peacetime behaviour. It reveals that the impact of trauma, loss and grief on the battlefield or in the camps are impossible to contextualize. Those experiences make the survivors beyond reach, inaccessible and influence the heritage of subsequent generations. For John Jay, Alec remained elusive and distant.
Without sentimentality, this book pays homage to a father and grandfather, to a British Jew whose legacy should never be forgotten.
Facing Fearful Odds, for all its fascination of a young soldier's extraordinary and harrowing experiences due in part to his Jewish ethnicity and superb grasp of the German language, would be much the poorer without the poetry which binds it together and gives a glimpse into the soul of a young man thrown into a terrifying set of circumstances.
This is, at times, tough reading, particularly the episodes that deal with the "long marches" that Alec Jay was subjected to, but they demand attention and are beautifully told by Alec's son in honour of his father.
if you want to know more about the debacle of Calais in 1940 then this book is for you but for me the most haunting episodes are those that cover the terrible conditions suffered by those unfortunate enough to be POWs but particularly if they also happened to be Jewish.
I have not been so stirred for decades and I urge you to read this heart-rending but so inspiring tale.
ex 4th Queen's Own Hussars
John has done a fantastic job evoking the atmosphere of those early war years. Alec and his friends were so poorly equipped and trained for the task ahead.
John also draws a very different picture of the way the Germans treated the mass of POW's: very far from the romanticised portrayals of the typical WW2 war films.
The story of the Jewish Black Watch major was especially moving.
Looking forward to reading more from JJ
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