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May 2010 Journal

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Family histories (review)

THEY CALLED HER CASSANDRA: A STORY OF SURVIVAL
by Renée Tyack
Book Guild, 146 pp. hardcover, £16.99

FAMILY CONNECTIONS: GELLES - SHAPIRO - FRIEDMAN
by Edward Gelles
Maastricht: Shaker Publishing, 2009, 106 pp. hardcover, £18, from 3 Hyde Park Crescent, London W2 2PW

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS TO AUSCHWITZ: A FAMILY ODYSSEY FROM THE INQUISITION TO THE PRESENT
by Irene Lawford-Hinrichsen
London: Edition Press, 2008, 232 pp. hardcover, £21.95

For someone who has not experienced the Holocaust, any story of survival, any random rescue, any kindness of strangers can make you catch your breath with wonder. Renée Tyack’s story, with a forward by playwright Ronald Harwood, is of her parents, Ruth and Fred Bergmann, who escaped to Britain in 1939 with the help of the Quakers. Ruth is nicknamed Cassandra because of her premonitions of disaster but also because she had the intuitive sense to be one step ahead of danger.

The book is written partly from her mother’s written testimony and partly from her own, surprisingly vivid childhood memories. It is a typical tale of wartime amnesia. Despite looming war signals, Fred, a medical student in Leipzig, was an optimist busy with his work and trying to feed his young family. He paid for his student fees by playing in a jazz band and joining a famous football club. But soon ‘Juden verboten’ signs began to loom and he was prevented from studying his favoured paediatrics. More punitive laws were passed in 1938, but Fred bought a small surgical ward with 20 beds, an operating theatre which he sent to Rotterdam to be shipped to British Honduras. In 1940 the Germans invaded Holland and confiscated it all. Ruth’s younger sister disappeared into the gas chambers.

Renée, born in 1934, wore the yellow star and learned to avoid eye contact. She and her brother got used to being spat on. Told that the Nazis were coming for Jewish doctors, Ruth ran to warn her husband. Kristallnacht led to more humiliations for Jews and, in her father’s hospital, Renée as a young child faced daily interviews with the Gestapo. With a mixture of courage and audacity, Ruth rescued her father-in-law en route to Buchenwald, and there are other, similar examples of her presence of mind.

Ruth, whose dreams of becoming an actress were thwarted, was mentored by a leading Berlin actress, through whom she met Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Her elder sister, Leni, became engaged to Kurt’s younger brother, Fritz.
Armed with an invitation from the Quakers to go to England, Ruth went to Dresden for their visas. Fred was under house arrest. She was refused, but had an instinct to wait.

Life in Britain was no joy ride either. Internment, insecurity and separation characterised their first year, while the family moved from hostel to hostel in the north of England, always wondering about moving on to British Honduras, Australia, the USA or South America.

Despite a rather muddled beginning - it leapfrogs between wartime Germany and internment in Britain - the book settles into a more linear narrative and it is in her moving descriptions of her mother, and later her aunts, their marriages and private torments, that Tyack excels.

Fred is less well-drawn. Though he is described in one passage as a remote, authoritarian figure, his clear affection for his children and his sense of mischief tend to belie this, coming through the precise German vernacular of his dialogue. There are vivid descriptions of wartime Kilburn, of the swimming pools in the Macclesfield hospital where Fred worked, of life in various schools, and of the humiliating privations endured in Britain by the internees, and their fears of sudden, forced transportation. This trade in human suffering is a shocking indicator of British insensitivity to Jewish privations under the Nazis, despite the fact that Britain was fighting for its existence.

Family Connections: Gelles - Shapiro - Friedman cannot quite be described as a family history - it is more a highly researched bibliography of rabbinic lineage. Carefully indexed and complete with family trees and extracts from Orthodox papers like the Jüdische Presse, Gelles traces the genealogical links between several rabbinic families in Central and Eastern Europe who could be described as the aristocracy of European Jewish scholarship. Certain Chassidim, Cabbalists and Talmudists can be traced, he claims, back to the priestly or Davidic line, even to prophets like Samuel or priests like Eli. Whether this is so or not, their inbreeding is clearly part of the elite Ashkenazi tradition, almost a form of ancestor worship.

In his preface Gelles describes the ‘closely woven fabric of the Ashkenazi rabbinate’ that flourished in Europe for more than 1,000 years and descended from the eleventh-century scholar Rashi. Protective of its rabbinic status, the tendency was to marry cousins, thus forming newer branches, or ‘sprigs’, of that dynasty. Or a student might marry his teacher’s daughter and so preserve the highest positions in the seminaries for the chosen few. One Friedman wedding attracted 600 guests with the grand rabbis of the Friedman family seated at the high table, with large sums of money donated to charity. Reading between the lines – and we are merely given genetic lines – the preservation of this specific Orthodoxy meant that the marriages generated a cultural and religious endogamy.

We learn early in the book that the importance of ‘yichus’, or family lineage, was embraced by the eighteenth-century Chassidic founder Israel Ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov. When his ideas were challenged by the author’s ancestor, Isaac Horowitz, Chief Rabbi of Brody, Glogau and Hamburg, he retorted, according to Gelles: ‘What can I do? He is of a stock whose descendants are heard when they weep before the Lord.’

Another ancestor, Moses Gelles, who probably died in the 1750s, belonged to the prestigious Brody Talmudic study group, of which only skimpy records survive, having been mainly lost in the Holocaust. A fragment remains in the library of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary. But, despite the scarcity of records, a ‘miracle’ is quoted in a collection of stories about the Baal Shem Tov. As he passed a Jewish cemetery, he saw a pillar of fire over one of the graves. It turned out to be that of a man described as ‘Moshe the servant of God’. Although that very site is now lost to history, the author questions whether it could have been the grave of his ancestor, Moses Gelles.

Edward Gelles traces his descent from this ancestor to his father, Dr David Isaac Gelles, whose paternal line was closely involved with the Friedman Chassidic dynasty of Czortkow but who rejected their Orthodoxy in favour of a more modern outlook

This is clearly not a book concerned with personalities, but in one welcome extract from the memoir of Florence Mayer Lieblich, a Holocaust survivor, there is a vivid description of Rabbi Israel Friedman’s visit to Czortkow, where he was greeted by Chassidim from all over Europe. Lieblich retains a moving memory of this religious gathering, including the women’s preparations for the Sabbath.

Perhaps the intense interest Edward Gelles had in writing this monograph is revealed in a chapter on his father, Dr David Gelles, in Galicia in 1883, at the time of Russian pogroms. David broke with centuries of Orthodox Judaism in favour of a modern, mainstream education, a legal career and a life-long interest in Zionism. He and his wife lived in Vienna until the Anschluss, when they fled to England, but returned to Vienna for good in 1949.

David was not alone in rejecting strict family values. The emerging Zionist movement, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the problems facing Russian Jewry generated a battle between Orthodoxy and a burgeoning social and political life. Zionism represented the new face of Judaism, even though that too became polarised between Revisionist and Labour factions.

The really interesting question is the break-up of a centuries-old rabbinic elite through these external political factors. Perhaps in another, more reader-friendly book, Edward Gelles might analyse how his family tradition broke down and came to represent more contemporary Jewish attitudes, from modern orthodox to secular.

For anyone seeking a potted history of European Jewry through the experience of one family, Five Hundred Years to Auschwitz: A Family Odyssey from the Inquisition to the Present is a good read. Except there is nothing potted or brief about this episodic and densely researched volume, which covers five centuries and 14 generations. A patrilineal Jew (not recognised by Orthodox Judaism), the author has taken upon herself the daunting task of exploring her father’s history, which is the eternal Jewish struggle for emancipation and freedom from persecution. Her saga is a tale of trials, tribulations, torture, terror, courage and occasional redemption. As she retraces the steps of her forebears, from the Spanish Henrique de Milao to the German Hinrichsens, up to her own time, she reveals the imagination, courage and energy of this remarkable family in escaping their grim destiny. And many of the characters, such as Alvaro Diniz, who escaped to Portugal in the seventeenth century, and her grandfather, Henri Hinrichsen, in the twentieth, really spring to life.

The book opens with a graphic description of the martyrdom of the author’s paternal ancestor, Henrique de Milao, burned at the stake in Portugal by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Fast forward 500 years, invert the number and the year is 1942, when de Milao’s descendants, having fled their enemies across Europe to become successful businessmen, create a publishing dynasty in Leipzig, about to face extinction at the hands of the Nazis.

It is not just the protagonists who tell their story. The growth of the powerful Leipzig music publishing business CF Peters, in which the author’s grandfather became a partner in 1894 and which he defended, effectively with his life, is a very strong element in the book’s later stages. Due to the author’s immersion in her subject, the wavering fortunes of this company become as much a personal story as that of its partners, many fated to die in the Holocaust.

From Henrique de Milao’s first induction into the shipping trade at the age of 13, to the graphic description of his martyrdom at age 81, to the confiscation of Jewish wealth and property in Spain and Portugal to finance the great voyages of discovery, the story becomes one of endless escape and betrayal, more spine-chilling than many a spy thriller or horror film. But the family demonstrated flair, optimism and commercial acumen in many business fields.

The Henriques, banished from Spain in 1492, first fled to Portugal as secret Jews or Marranos. Fleeing across Europe, involved with the lucrative shipping trade, they still feared the lengthening tentacles of the Inquisition, fuelled by state and royal interests. Many members of the family were tortured by the Inquisition.

Over the next 400 years, the descendants of the martyred Henrique de Milao reached Hamburg, then Glückstadt, Schwerin, before returning to Hamburg, where their family connections launched the Hamburg Bank among their business ventures. But a change in direction drew the author’s grandfather, Henri Hinrichsen, away from commerce and into the cultural centre of Leipzig, where he achieved great success with his music publishing dynasty. A wealthy philanthropist honoured by the Kaiser and feted with civic honours, his close friend was the composer Edvard Grieg. He also collected the autographed letters of Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner – all later confiscated by the Nazis. Tragically, like so many others of his time, he failed to take heed of the Nazi bureaucratic death machine.

This is a roller-coaster story of rags to riches and riches to rags, with jealous enemies, occasionally visionary kings, forced conversions, extortionate taxes, court Jews, non-Jews, tolerance and virulent anti-Semitism. It is told simply and without sentimentality against the background of the Inquisition, the Seven Years’ War, the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Nazi era. The author’s description of the slowly encroaching Aryanisation of Jewish businesses and professions and the almost bureaucratic restrictions and persecutions which will end in the death camps chillingly revisit the horrors of the Inquisition with which the book opens.
 

 

Gloria Tessler

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