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Sep 2003 Journal

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Stamford Hill Tannhäuser

The above heading most emphatically doesn't refer to an actual staging of Wagner's opera in N16. Those familiar with the work will know now that its full title is Tannhäuser and the Song Contest on the Wartburg. What I want to write about is a song contest - or, to use Wagner's term - Sängerkrieg (singers' war) that took place at a Stamford Hill youth club just over 60 years ago.

I was 17, a newly recruited, fully committed, member of Young Austria. It would be no exaggeration to say that I considered the organisation my spiritual home. For one, it had released me from the debilitating isolation I had felt since my arrival in London. For another, coming from a Social Democrat home, I thrilled to the Marxist message (carefully wrapped in Austrian patriotic packaging) my new mentors were sending out. As an ex-member of the Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair, I didn't even baulk at substituting the Vienna Woods for Mount Zion as the focus for an exile's yearning - not least because the process was helped along by camaraderie and a diet of lectures, as well as readings from authors like Schnitzler and Karl Kraus.

Stamford Hill being what it was - and still is - the youngsters Young Austria tried to recruit were of a somewhat more religious cast of mind than their contemporaries in other parts of London. The target 'audience' were either living with observant parents or Jewish landladies, or in single-sex hostels under rabbinical supervision. Our two-dozen-strong Stamford Hill group accordingly contained a sizable bloc of brand new recruits quite deaf to the siren call of Austrian patriotism (not to mention Marxism). They had joined because we organised socials and rambles, where they could meet youngsters of similar background and converse in their mother tongue. In addition, the mingling of the sexes provided a not insignificant draw.

However, in that particular respect the situation that confronted the newly recruited intake was far from propitious. Our bobby-soxers - to use a contemporary expression - looked for boys in whose company they might do something glamorous, such as going dancing at the Royal or Paramount dance halls. Alas, most of our lads were not cut out for that role. Bespectacled, walleyed Rudi N, for example, resembled one of Dickens's bedraggled waifs and strays. Running him a close second sartorially was dark, fuzzy-haired Leo W, whose down-covered upper lip still awaited an encounter with the razor. Leo was so proud of having become a munitions worker because (a) it helped the war effort, and (b) it brought him closer to the proletariat - he didn't take off his overalls even after leaving the factory. (No chance of him being admitted to the Royal in that garb!) Another of our stalwarts self-excluded from the Royal was Fritz S, the group leader. Overly serious and stiff of manner, he considered dancing a bourgeois frivolity; besides he had two left feet. As for me, I was no Beau Brummel. I wore shirts with frayed collars, socks with holes and scuffed shoes.

Then one evening two newcomers fetched up at our meeting whose appearance rocked the room. They wore suits (of matching jackets and trousers!), collars and ties and their feet were shod in polished shoes. And what's more, both sported moustaches - a feature unknown among Young Austrians, and frowned upon us as an expression of vanity. The specimen adorning the upper lip of the taller newcomer was so well-trimmed that it might have secured him employment as a stand-in for Anton Walbrook. Alas, the sojourn of the two men-about-town among us ragged-trousered philanthropists was brief. The Anton Walbrook lookalike took a boat to America; left high and dry, the other swapped socialising for evening class study.

As luck - or, more precisely, ill-luck - would have it, our girls' craving for a touch of glamour did not remain unrequited for long. Within weeks of the 'clotheshorses' departure, three somewhat younger and less standoffish newcomers made their appearance at the group. The trio's lynchpin was the quite impeccably suited Herbert H. Herbert who turned out to be a veritable teenage Svengali with handsome features often screwed up into a lopsided, sardonic grin. His adjunct, Siggie R, had a tendency to go for the jugular under a display of surface affability. 'If you looked at yourself in the mirror', he once told me pointedly, 'you would see you have no choice but to be a Zionist!'

Lowest in the trio's pecking order stood Sam L. This was paradoxical because Sam, offspring of poor Polish immigrants to Germany, was the 'entryists' greatest draw: he was tall and slim and had Rudolf Valentino looks allied to a Tino Rossi-type singing voice.

And it was largely in the sphere of song that the subsequent battle for the allegiance of our Stamford Hill group's two dozen members was fought out. We Young Austria loyalists went through our standard repertoire of anodyne folksongs, roared out to the accompaniment of the slapping of (preferably Lederhosen-clad) thighs, followed by less full-throated attempts at yodelling.

At meetings of Herbert's rival faction, meanwhile, Sam wowed the listeners with Yiddish and Hebrew melodies before launching into an evocation of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan:

Wenn die Sonne untergeht und wenn die Nacht beginnt/Weht von Transjordaniens Bergen her ein kühler Wind/Um das Lagerfeuer stehen Männer ohne Zahl/Einer spricht und jedes Wort klingt hart wie Stahl:/Niemals wollen, lassen wir's geschehn dass die Grenze bildet der Yarden.
(When the sun sinks and the night begins/A cold wind blows from Transjordan's mountains/Around the campfire stand men without number/One of them speaks and every word sounds hard as steel:/We shall never allow it to happen/that the Jordan should form the frontier.)

The reason why we hardcore Young Austrians knew exactly what went on in the enemy camp was that Rudi N had crept into their meeting place ahead of time. Duly discovered, he presented himself as a potential convert eager to hear the Zionist case set out. Naturally he was laughed to derision, and then mock-serenaded with an Alpine folksong of jaw-dropping banality: 'Black-brown is the hazelnut/ I am Black-brown too/ Black-brown must be my girl/ Just the same as I.'

Rudi's report was delivered to a rump of 13 Young Austria members - whereas our previous meeting had attracted 25! Were we depressed - you bet! But then, having been worsted by the power of song, we fought back with the only available weapon to us, i.e. more song:

Wie uns die Lüge auch schmähend umkreist/Alles besiegend erhebt sich der Geist/ Kerker und Eisen zerbricht seine Macht/ wenn wir uns rüsten zur letzten Sclacht/ So flieg du flammende, du rote Fahne/ Voran dem Wege den wir ziehn/ Wir sind der Zukunft getreue Kämpfer/ Wir sind die Arbeiter von Wien.
(Although lies mock and encircle us/ The spirit will arise victoriously/ Its power smashes iron and prison. When we prepare for the final battle. Unfurl the flaming scarlet banner/ Lighting the path that we pursue/ We are loyal fighters for the future/ We are the workers of Vienna.)
Richard Grunberger

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