May 2011 Journal

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Seder in Bombay in 1944

In 1938 my parents, like many other Jews in Vienna, were frantically searching for a country that would issue a visa to let us in. One couldn’t just turn up at a border and claim to be an ‘asylum seeker’ - though goodness knows we were! Although all the countries of the world had different opinions on nearly everything, they were unanimous in not wanting any Jewish refugees. The wry joke of thumbing through the school atlas, coming to the end, and then asking ‘Where else is there?’ was not really funny.

There were a few loopholes. It was possible to go to Shanghai without a visa, or one could try for a domestic service post in England, or one could try to bribe a member of one of the South American consulates known to be open to offers. We looked on these possibilities as a last resort because, while various other approaches had already failed, we had become hopeful that, through friends of relatives, we might obtain visas for British India (as it then was). As it turned out, it was well into 1939, past Kristallnacht and all that went with it, before the visas arrived. We could then commence the ordeal of paying the Reichsfluchtsteuer, obtaining police clearance and getting a passport so that the precious visa could be stamped in. We must have been among the last people who were able to leave Vienna before the doors slammed shut - we arrived in Bombay on 24 August 1939, nine days before the war broke out.

There were several hundred German and Austrian Jews in India, many of whom had come some time earlier to fill senior medical, commercial or technical posts. Some of the established residents were quite prosperous and tried to help the more hard-pressed recent arrivals by forming the Jewish Relief Association. The Association also enlisted support from the Baghdadi Jewish community, some of whom were very wealthy indeed (the various branches of the Sassoon family were eminent members).

Although everybody tried to be helpful, my father found the task of earning a living very difficult. In Vienna he had been a trading member of the Agricultural Exchange, commercial experience that was of little value to a penniless refugee. After some false starts, an opportunity arose through the Jewish Relief Association when the post of manager of their hostel became vacant. At the same time, the demand for places at the hostel was increasing as refugees continued to arrive during the war by an overland route. After some discussion, my father was employed to open a second hostel some distance away and my mother accepted the post of managing the existing hostel.

The hostels were rather spartan and people tried to leave as soon as they were able to make their own way. There were inevitably some residents who never left, but on the whole the pressure on places eased as the years passed. It was thought that good use of the accommodation could be made by offering it to Jewish servicemen stationed throughout India who came on leave to Bombay. By now, large numbers of troops had been sent to India to deal with the Japanese threat on the eastern border and the offer was greatly appreciated. The hostel became well known among the Army and RAF and quite a number of servicemen spent a few days or a week there. This was so popular that it was decided in 1944 to issue a general invitation for a seder at Pesach.

The Rev. Maurice A. Lew had been appointed Jewish Chaplain for the Forces in India with the rank of Captain and obtained an agreement that as many servicemen as possible would be granted leave for the occasion so that some 400 people were expected. My father was charged with the task of organising the entire event (with the help of many lady volunteers). I thought it was rather brave of him to accept because the largest seder he had previously organised was in Vienna for our family of four plus a few guests. Observance in our household had been a compromise between my father’s and my mother’s background. He had come from a fairly observant, though hardly orthodox, family in Lemberg in Poland. My mother was born in Vienna and her family was, I suspect, Jewish largely in name only. For most of the year we avoided pork or shellfish, but otherwise ate general food. At Pesach, however, we became properly kosher. Completely different pans and crockery were brought down from the attic and my father did all the cooking. (He had always been interested in cooking as a hobby.) However, as my mother wryly observed, his strict Pesach observance apparently did not include washing up in spite of all the extra dishes involved.

My father threw himself into this new enterprise with great energy and the preparation for the Bombay seder seemed like a military operation. A Baghdadi school was asked to provide the hall. The Army supplied a field kitchen and personnel to operate it. Sir Victor Sassoon agreed to foot the bill for food and wine. My father seemed to be everywhere and I can still see him tasting a huge cauldron of chicken soup. I remarked that I had only previously seen a cauldron like that in cartoons for cooking missionaries by cannibals, but was firmly told to stop schoolboy jokes like that or I would start a new Passover blood libel! It all came together finally without any major hitches and proved to be a great success.

The service was taken by the Rev. Lew while his irreverent ‘Other Ranks’ audience remarked on the high polish of his Sam Browne belt. There was much banter as to who should ask the ‘Four Questions’ and one cynic remarked he had a lot more than four questions to ask. It was all great fun and the lady volunteers kept the glasses filled as many had difficulty in counting to four in the number of cups to be drunk. The singing of ‘Chad Gadya’ finally shook the rafters as it came to the end. In the following weeks, my father had many letters of appreciation and I think it gave him quite a lot of satisfaction at a time when he must have felt disappointed at how his career had turned out.

There was a sad end note in that only a few days later, following an accidental fire, an ammunition ship blew up in Bombay harbour sinking 11 other ships with many casualties. Some of the servicemen who attended the seder may well have been among them.

Walter Bergwerk

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