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Jan 2008 Journal

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Musings from the departure lounge

Old age a refugee affliction? Not quite. I have just googled ‘old age’ and there are approximately 23 million links. So there must be a lot of it about. But we refugees are defined by age as no others - you can’t be a young refugee from the Nazis. I suppose the youngsters among us are in their seventies, and the oldest rate a paragraph - or an obituary - in the Journal.

Yet there is something special about our advancing years: we are not just dying, we are dying out. Refugees don’t reproduce their own kind; they become extinct. Their offspring are a different species. Watch the old lady looking out of the window of her Hampstead flat and calling to her grandson: ‘Plantagenet, stop playing mit dirt!’ Or if you prefer to go upmarket: Sigmund Freud’s grandson Lucian transmogrified into Britain’s greatest living painter.

No one of note has celebrated our terminal condition in poetry, the proper medium for swan songs. Perhaps it is too soon to celebrate a shared history, with so much to make us alike at the level of the common unconscious. On the surface, we are as different from one another as any random selection of the population. We have our stars and our also-rans, yet I cannot help thinking that we are a bit special if only for the fact that in addition to luck there is a gruesome element of natural selection in escape and survival.

Our ‘senior moments’ too are everyman’s and yet different. Infantile regression takes us back not just in time but in place; slips of the tongue hark back to a vocabulary forgotten or repressed. Ancient melodies surface strangely twisted: does the song really go ‘Queen, Queen, nur Du allein’? English acquaintances don’t see it this way. They think us canny survivors, consider every one of our stories unique, worth writing down. The shrewder among them note that, unlike our English brethren, we lack a proletariat, that among us are - or were - more philosophers than plumbers.

So many of us have done better in this country than they would have done where they came from, and that goes for me too. Had I stayed in Vienna, I would at best have been a minor coffee house wit with a law degree. Yet you should have seen me 20 or 30 years ago, in my English pomp. ‘Heraufgefallen’ is the word that springs to mind.
And, while on the subject of my person, I am not growing old graciously. I do not value ‘the gifts reserved for old age’, in T. S. Eliot’s bitter phrase. Mellowing? Not a hope - not with the odour of antisemitism always in my nostrils, even (or perhaps especially) in better-class company.

What occupies my mind and my days is thinking, puzzling about my Jewishness. A few weeks ago I re-read a passage in my mother’s diary. ‘We ourselves did not belong anywhere’, she wrote, in German of course. ‘No priest blessed us, no beggar bowed to us, we were alone in a world of strangers. We were Jews, our happiness lay in the family. That was our fortress from which we observed the world, understood it better than they understood us.’ That was written by a very young girl in Berlin, pre-Second World War, who had never seen the inside of a synagogue. I still feel beleaguered, a hundred years on.

For light relief, I ponder the refugee balance sheet - not to calculate what we have contributed to English life but whether this country would have been much the same today if we had come here or not. There can be two entirely different answers – for instance, Paul Hamlyn certainly changed the face of British publishing, but would someone else have done so, if he had not been there first? Entire books have been written about the contribution individual immigrants have made in their respective fields, but have they changed the face of the country? What would a Britain without us look like today? Much the same or significantly different? Would the broad stream of history have taken a different course, or were we just corks bobbing on the surface? It comes down to how you think history is made. Do events produce the man, or do men arise to shape events? I am with Tolstoy on this one.
Victor Ross

previous article:A fond farewell
next article:Where are those ‘museum pieces’ exactly?