Sep 2002 Journal

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Desperately seeking solidarity (Part 2)

It followed as a matter of course that I too went into the rag trade. My fellow garment workers, though Jewish to a man, were not particularly sympathetic. A puzzling aspect of our relationship was their repeated mention of Franz Josef mit di papierenen hoisen (paper trousers). I later discovered that my Austrian origin put them in mind of Emperor Franz Josef and his dress uniform of pink tunic and white trousers.

The year 1940 brought three disparate forms of excitement: a spell behind barbed wire on the Isle of Man, the London Blitz, and my recruitment into Young Austria. That organisation did really valuable work in engendering refugee solidarity at the same time as it trumpeted the pathetic fiction that the Heimat yearned for our return. Though draped in the Red-White-Red flag, Young Austria were, of course, Reds of the deepest dye. Accordingly, when Russia came into the war, they exhorted the membership to support the British war effort. I left the rag trade and enrolled in a government training scheme to become a centre-lathe turner. My first donning of overalls struck me as a veritable rite of passage. Was I not about to join the industrial working class, to whom the great Marx had assigned the vanguard role in the forward march of humanity? Reality could not have been more different. At the Radiamp Works in Tottenham, N17, I encountered a totally non-unionised workforce. Obedient to YA directives I started a membership drive for the Amalgamated Engineering Union - which netted exactly one recruit! If class-consciousness languished, xenophobia waxed powerfully. A female capstan operator dubbed me 'the refuggie', while the factory storekeeper was given to saying 'My name is Smith with a y!' and covering his nose with his hand every time we met. The fact that the 'joke' passed over my head in no way diminished his delight in retelling it.

One person at the Radiamp, however, treated me as a fellow human being and invited me home. He was my boss - in other words the exploitative, bourgeois class enemy conjured up by Marxist mythmakers. This was not the only paradox my Young Austria mentors had difficulty in explaining away in 1945. Just as baffling was the fact that the Heimat neither thanked the Allies for having liberated it nor showed any appetite for Communism. By 1946, under the impact of the Shoah and with Palestine coming to the boil, my Jewish sense of solidarity kicked in again. Not that I did very much, except having shouting matches with leftie dinosaurs among my friends. However, all this emoting must have done some good because decades later my eldest son headed Labour Friends of Israel. Would it be hubris to detect genetic programming behind this convergence of two foci of solidarity?

The first part of this article appeared in the July 2002 issue.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:Central Office for Holocaust Claims