Oct 2006 Journal

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Critical Moments

Most people can remember where they were at the time of major world events. In 1939, when I was 13, Gwen Clarke, the wife of the geography master at Bradford Grammar School, of which I was a pupil, invited us to spend a few days' holiday with her at Cleveleys. At 10 am on Sunday 3 September we huddled round the radio to hear that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had issued an ultimatum to Hitler. At 11 am Chamberlain came on the radio personally to give his famous speech, ending 'No such assurance has been received and therefore this country is in a state of war with Germany' - at which Gwen burst into uncontrollable weeping as well she might, as if she had prescience of the horrors to come. The announcer said 'Please stand by for further announcements', but we switched off. We had heard enough.

Fast forward to 1953, when I was in the British Army of Occupation in Austria, enabling me to attend fantastic opera performances in Graz and Vienna. One day in mid-summer there was a market in the small town of Spittal, where a middle-aged man, apparently picked for the occasion from the nearby refugee camp, was trying to demonstrate newly invented ball-point pens but, embarrassingly, couldn't make them work (as sometimes happens nowadays). He tried every trick under the sun, but in vain, when news came through that Stalin had died. No one knew Stalin had even been ill. But what interested me even more was that Prokofiev had died on the same day.

Fast forward again to 1963. I had sung at our Erev Shabbat service and took our organist, Miriam Clayton, home. Her sister Nellie opened the door and in great agitation told us that President Kennedy had been shot. A similar situation occurred when we visited my school friend Henry Gunby and his wife Ilse in New York State in 1995 - I had last seen him in 1937 and had only 're-discovered' him a year or two earlier. We had had a magnificent reunion, retired to our bedroom and put on a crackly radio - when we heard the news that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. We gathered round the TV in our nightclothes to get further news.

Then in 2001 I had been invited by Leonore Maier, Curator at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, to bring family artefacts to coincide with the opening of the Museum. Coincidentally, a film was being made by Sissy von Westphalen of myself both at home and in Berlin, and part of the filming took place at my old Jewish school in the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. I sang part of Schubert's Heidenröslein accompanied by the same piano the music teacher had used before the war. When, after six attempts to get it perfect, the film was safely in the can, Sissy's mobile phone rang: it was her husband to tell her about the Twin Towers' attack in New York. All the Jewish, national and international people who mattered had already assembled for the Museum's pre-opening dinner and celebration when one after the other was collared by the broadcasting authorities to give their opinion on the tragic events. One German, mirroring Kennedy's bon mot 'Ich bin ein Berliner,' declared: 'Heute sind wir alle Amerikaner.' My appointment with Leonore was the next day and, though the Museum was closed for security reasons on what should have been its opening day, we had special permission to enter. I deposited the artefacts and we had a private tour of the Museum as its only visitors.

Three coincidences occurred while we were on various holidays. Our first long-haul break was to the Far East. On arrival at our hotel in Hong Kong in 1984, we saw CNN, our main provider of news in all the venues, describe the explosion at Chernobyl. In 2004, while we were in Lanzarote, the train bombings in Madrid took place. In 2005, while we were celebrating our Golden Wedding on holiday in Austria, Hurricane Katrina engulfed New Orleans. In the spring of 2006, in Carcassonne, France, when it was impossible to go outside for the rain, we watched the riots in Paris and, as we were holidaying in Malta later that year, the Middle East crisis broke. Each time we spent almost more time in front of the TV than holidaying. All venues were special to us for we had been there - except Chernobyl. I had actually been at the 'Good Fence' at Metulla on the Israel-Lebanese border, where Lebanese workers could cross into Israel to work on a daily basis.
Rudi Leavor

previous article:A Stolperstein for Irma Zancker
next article:How to be a Technophobic VEP