May 2005 Journal

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My country

I think of Smetana's Ma vlast' (My Country). The melody of one of its sections echoes the winding progress of the River Voltava and Israel's national anthem is based on a similar folk melody. How assured the title sounds! The Czech lands were Smetana's country. What is mine?

'Du bist eine Wienerin' (You are Viennese), I remember my mother telling me when I was quite small. Did she say this because of some cachet that went with being born in Vienna? Probably. She came from Poland, which, though it had been part of the Austrian Empire, was lower in the scheme of things than Austria itself. The Nazis soon put her right. It was made very clear to me during the 15 months I lived under the swastika that I was not fit to be educated with Aryan children.

England took me in. I received two hateful titles there - 'refugee' and 'evacuee' - each reinforcing my ambivalent status. I learned England's language and was fed its culture in schools and at university. My world was divided into three parts. Across the Channel was the Nazi enemy. At home I lived in the mainly Jewish community my foster mother belonged to. The year was punctuated by rituals: Friday night meant chicken soup and candles; then there were the festivals - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - and, for me, lessons at the local synagogue, where I learned to read Hebrew. As for languages, Yiddish and Polish were the lingua franca of my foster parents.

But at school, things were very different. Despite some readings from the Old Testament at assembly, we sang the bracing hymns of the Church of England - so unlike the nasal chanting in the synagogue. Overt references to the Christian deity were left out as a sop to the large number of Jewish girls. Later, however, separate prayers were introduced and, while the Christians had their assembly in the more dignified setting of the hall, we Jewish girls were consigned to the gym with its smells of rubber plimsolls and sweat.

What with the stateless message on my passport, and faced with these multifarious cultures, the only thing to do was to keep them in separate compartments. In one incarnation, I recited Kipling's The Glory of the Garden, won a prize with my rendering of Blake's The Tiger, and agonised with Milton's Samson Agonistes; in another, I sang Adon olam in the synagogue and did my best to ignore Christmas.

The question of my nationality didn't come up until I was 17 and about to go to Switzerland on a school journey. To be included in the communal passport, I would have had to be British, have lived here for 65 years, and have never left the country for more than a few weeks; my husband, his father and my children were born here. I am now also entitled to dual British and Austrian nationality, but have declined the offer. Once, an insurance company wanted to put in an exclusion clause for Austria in case I made frequent visits to relatives there. Joke! Go tell them, as they say in Yiddish.

During the war, the British were fighting the Nazis, so my loyalty was to them. After the war, life became more confusing: I'd discovered some relatives in Palestine, but was horrified when the King David Hotel was blown up by the Jews with the loss of British lives. I was equally upset when a Jewish member of the Resistance was hanged by the British.

Now, as my awareness of the subtext of both my English and Jewish education has increased, I have my own views of what I think worthwhile. Perhaps the country I am most comfortable in is the country of the mind, where I can meet John Stewart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft and Heinrich Heine, as well as my congenial companions of today.
Martha Blend

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