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Family secrets unlocked

Vicky Unwin always thought she knew her father. But the contents of an old suitcase told a very different tale

04 February, 2021 — By Jane Clinton

Tom and Sheila Unwin on their wedding day

TOWARDS the end of Tom Unwin’s life, he finally allowed his daughter, Vicky, access to a dusty old suitcase. Inside were books and family papers that would unlock secrets that had lasted a lifetime.

Despite her father’s more British-than-British exterior, with his pipe and monocle, the truth was quite different.

Some years earlier a surprise visit from a relative who revealed some of the family’s background had also confirmed Vicky’s niggling suspicions.

His family were in fact from the small Czech town of Boskovice, and he was Jewish – this last detail he had kept secret even from his wife and daughter.

Tom’s daughter, Vicky Unwin, decided to research further and the result is the book, The Boy from Boskovice: A Father’s Secret Life.

Just before the Second World War, Tom, aged 16, fled Prague to come to England.

He transformed from Tomas Ungar to Tom Unwin and with his excellent English, he embraced this new country with zeal. He eventually married Sheila in 1946 and the couple had Vicky.

Tom was ambitious and would go on to become a United Nations diplomat. But Vicky’s parents’ relationship was a deeply unhappy one and they would eventually divorce in 1972.

Letters written by the pair and other correspondence are threaded throughout the book and tell the Ungar/Unwin story.

Vicky discovered the fascinating story of her paternal grandfather, Hermann Ungar.

Vicky Unwin

A writer and diplomat, he was friends with Stefan Zweig, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, who also mentored him. (There is a suggestion their relationship may not have been entirely platonic).

Hermann, would marry and have children, including Tom, whose godfather was Mann.

Vicky, however, also made the grim discovery of the many relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust.

And there was another secret. In the last years of his life Tom revealed Vicky had a sister: Bonnie.

Bonnie was the result of Tom’s relationship with Joyce Rocheport, who at 28 she was eight years Tom’s senior.

When she fell pregnant, Tom, prompted in part by his mother, decided the child could not be his and Joyce and Bonnie were abandoned. (In later years Tom would, however, re-establish contact with them).

The discovery of a “secret auntie” and the Unwins’ Jewish heritage sent ripples through Vicky’s family. Her daughter, Louise, was particularly thrilled by the developments.

Tragically, however, in 2011 Louise died aged just 21.

Vicky, grieving for her daughter, put the project on hold.

But she admits Louise’s interest in her family history and her own wish to make some reparation for Bonnie drove her to return to the book which was decades in the making.

“When a book is really difficult to write you have got to have a reason to do it,” says Vicky, who lives in Belsize Park. “I wanted to write it for Bonnie as well as Louise.”

The Boy from Boskovice is epic in its historical and emotional scale and is both a compelling and difficult read.
Tom is narcissistic, abusive and there was domestic violence.

As Vicky asserts, Tom was “simultaneously the adoring father and a misogynistic bully of a father”.

Writing the book was, she says, “cathartic” but she was saddened reading the letters to discover just what her mother had gone through.

When Vicky asked her father why he had kept his Jewish roots secret his response was one that even his harshest critics could understand.

He relayed that his mother had told him being Jewish had been the “cause of all the pain we had endured” and insisted their origins were “never to be spoken about again”.

Tom died in 2012 aged 89. Joyce and Sheila had died in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Vicky hopes the book could one day be made into a film.

But for now she is just happy that this family secret is a secret no more.

“So many families have secrets. It’s universal and I thought that by taking Bonnie into the family and accepting her we were fulfilling my dad’s last wish, which I think is about redemption.

“It was also giving her something back – that sense of family.”

The Boy from Boskovice: A Father’s Secret Life. By Vicky Unwin, Unbound, £25.

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