Something is missing from Paula Fox's intriguing book about her year as a traveling young journalist in liberated Europe in 1946. The author...

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“The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe”
by Paula Fox
Holt, 144 pp., $18

Something is missing from Paula Fox’s intriguing book about her year as a traveling young journalist in liberated Europe in 1946. The author herself, enigmatic and distant, is little more than a phantom in her own tale. It is an interesting absence, and it lends “The Coldest Winter” much of its emotional strength.

Fox, 22 at the time, was running away from her own demons, which she has already brutally described for us in her critically acclaimed memoir “Borrowed Finery.” Abandoned as a child for years at a time while her parents fell into self-destructive spirals, Fox hoped her travels might somehow free her from the past.

In some ways, perhaps, she was right. As a reporter, she was free to reveal only what she wished or nothing at all, which allowed her to lose herself in the postwar madness. Fox journeyed widely, recording the horror on the faces of people she met: concentration-camp survivors, shell-shocked soldiers, homeless children.

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A half-century later, Fox documents what she saw and the people she spoke with while describing the paranoia that permeated the streets. Her tale has an authentic rawness that chills to the bone. Europe after the war was in chaos, people were starving, the winters were unbearably cold, and it seemed as if every family had suffered some irredeemable loss.

The story of one man in Prague seems to have affected the young writer more deeply than others. His name was Jan, and he had been a political prisoner. After the war he remarried, and his new wife was an Englishwoman who worked for a postwar refugee organization. Fox’s assignment was simply to listen to Jan’s story and file a report for a British news service.

Jan’s first wife had been murdered by the Nazis, and his children, too; they were victims of Dr. Mengele’s hideous experiments. Fox writes that she can still remember the unchanging expression on Jan’s face, which seemed locked in an absurd half-smile, frozen somehow between laughter and madness. Like her, he seemed unable to grieve.

There is an unnerving current of tension in Fox’s writing. She does not allow herself the luxury of sentimentality or nostalgia, but relies heavily on truth, unafraid of its stink. The anguish of her early years is always right beside her; she feels like a perennial outsider, an orphan, who has mastered the art of survival by resigning herself to bitter realities.

Like many battered children, Fox remains at a distance, from us and from herself, so we never feel the comfort of her full embrace. She seems to understand all too well the dangers of intimacy; people can always disappear, so it is better not to get too close. This may be an awful way to live, but it lends an eerie power to her prose.