We Americans often forget how devastated Europe was by World War II and how long it took for life to return to a semblance of normalcy there. It didn’t help that the two winters following VE day were two of the harshest on record. From Warsaw, she writes:
The cold was so intense that like many others I took to wearing sheets of newspaper under my coat. There was hardly any public transportation, a few streetcars to whose dies people clung like flies on a lump of sugar, two or three buses, a few tiny cars with no windshield wipers, and perpetually fogged windows, and some motorbikes with wooden seats trapped on the front, from which, after the shortest ride, one toppled like a stone.
Arrangements had been made for us to attend the opening of the opera house that night, the first time a concert had been given there since the beginning of the war. Our Wroclaw interpreter told us to dress warmly. “There are holes in the roof from the bombing,” he said.
Even after the musicians had taken their seats, even when the audience filled the loges and orchestra, that penumbral cavern with its smell of dust and damp felt like a catacomb. There was something wrong with the electricity, and the lights couldn’t be dimmed without plunging us into total darkness. . . . The violin soloist . . . wore mitts; I could see from the box where I was sitting that they were woolen gloves with the fingers cut off. The musicians wore ordinary suits. Some were without ties.
Fox herself seems to still be uncertain what she learned that winter, how she feels about what she saw, how she understands that year of her life. The deprivation of the European scenes is sharply contrasted with the luxury (despite continued rationing) of the London set she moves in due to her parents, and in the shift, she is at least a tiny bit reminiscent of Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby: present yet apart, impressed yet appalled, and implicated despite. But the fault here is not really Fox's—it's not too-passive witnessing of cruel indulgence, but rather the near-ultimate failure of humanity in general, and the close, detailed witnessing of its consequences. For that reason, The Coldest Winter feels like a necessary book, one that nagged and insisted at its author for 70 years in an attempt to force understanding.