Dec 2000 Journal

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Love Story or Stalin was my Cyrano

(final part)

Work was tailoring, the calling of my ‘foster parents’ in the East End. In the early war years the rag trade had continued to be seasonal. For that reason, and also because workplaces occasionally burned down in the Blitz, I switched, as occasion arose, between making Home Guard uniforms, military greatcoats and fashionable ladies’ wear. Then one day the war expanded its scope with Hitler’s attack on Russia, which spelt the final abandonment of his plans for invading Britain. We YA cadres breathed a threefold sigh of relief. Firstly because London was out of the immediate firing line, secondly because Communists were now allies, and thirdly, because overnight Stalin had become everybody’s ‘Uncle Joe’. To me he became, in addition, my very own Cyrano. This occurred when my Roxane, looking for the company of teenagers who spoke her own language, fortuitously turned up at a meeting of my Young Austria group. She came for conversation – but stayed for conversion.

In Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac the hero’s awareness of his own bizarre appearance makes it psychologically impossible for him to declare his love for the heroine, Roxane. Instead he stands in the shadow below her balcony where, in a Romeo and Juliet style setting, his handsome but tongue-tied rival woos Roxane, and prompts him. Now Stalin was my prompter. In autumn 1941 I still looked quite unlike a Hollywood screen idol, but my life had acquired another dimension. I had become a cog – however small – in the wheel of Young Austria, which was attached to the motor of Communism. It was Stalin who gave my tongue wings. He enabled me to woo my Roxane not with the lyrical phrases Cyrano had whispered into his rival’s ear, but with mind-bending Marxist mantras. I waxed eloquent, like a Catholic priest quoting Latin scripture to a vernacular-speaking communicant, about the ‘labour theory of value’, the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production’, ‘expropriating the expropriators’, and ‘the dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis’. I was able to explain with talmudic dexterity how the war had turned at 4am on June 22, ie the precise moment of Hitler’s attack on Russia, from an Imperialist side-show of no consequence to the working class, into a fight-to-the-death between civilisation and barbarism.

From which it followed, I concluded, that we had to enrol in the war effort. Soon afterwards I gave up making ladies’ costumes in the East End – and Roxane stopped selling blouses in a smart West End shop – to retrain as ‘dilutee engineers’.

It was the first of many things we did together.
Richard Grunberger

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