Extracts from the Jun 2016 Journal
As it passes into middle age and beyond, every generation looks back on its own stock of memories, sometimes embellished, sometimes diminished, sometimes transmuted and even falsified by the passage of time. In this respect, the memories of the second generation, the children of the Jewish refugees who fled from the Nazis, have arguably taken on a special quality. Born and brought up in their parents’ countries of refuge - in the case of most of our readers, Britain - many of them retain links through family memories to aspects of their parents’ past in their native lands.
But the Nazi years and the Holocaust created a gulf between the post-war British present and the pre-war Continental past. This was partly the result of the destruction of the Jewish communities in the German-speaking lands, along with their entire culture and way of life, which could be recreated only very partially in the countries like Britain where Jewish refugees had settled. The fact that National Socialism, dedicated to the elimination of the Jews, had originated and come to power in Germany, later including Austria, formed an almost insuperable barrier to the emotional and psychological reconciliation of the Jewish refugees with the societies of their former homelands.
At least as important as a barrier between past and present for members of the second generation was the psychological impact of their parents’ inability to speak about the fate of their family members who had died in the Holocaust. That suppression of painful memories, often amounting almost to a taboo, affected many refugees, though they had not themselves directly experienced the wartime death camps. The second generation, born between the 1940s and the 1960s, often grew up in households where the absence of grandparents, for example, was never spoken about openly, but remained suppressed and unarticulated beneath the surface of everyday normality.
My parents, if I may use my family as an example, accustomed themselves to return visits to Austria quite quickly after the war, though my father’s first journey back to Vienna in late 1946 proved traumatic. Thereafter, however, they took annual holidays in Austrian resorts like Kitzbühel and Pörtschach am Wörthersee, the kind of resorts where prosperous Austrian-Jewish families had enjoyed leisured vacations in the vanished era before March 1938. As my father had regained possession of the family firm in Vienna, he needed to go there quite often on business, sometimes accompanied by my mother.
My parents first took me to Vienna as a boy in 1958. They showed me all the city’s sights -the Spanish riding school, the big wheel at the Prater, St Stephen’s Cathedral, the Hofburg and Schönbrunn palaces - they let me roam around the Innenstadt, the city’s First District, and they took me along the Höhenstraße high above the city, from the Cobenzl to the Kahlenberg and the Leopoldsberg, to enjoy the spectacular views across Vienna and its surroundings. I learnt that in 1683 the King of Poland, Jan Sobieski, had launched his attack on the Turkish forces besieging Vienna from the Kahlenberg and that much of the Höhenstraße had been built in the 1930s to provide work for the unemployed during the Great Depression; both these topics came across to me as almost equally remote historical episodes from a distant past. What relevance could they have to an English schoolboy?
Only many years later did I realise that I had been shown nothing at all relating to our personal family history, apart from the family firm. Not until I saw my father’s documents decades later did I find the address where he had lived with my grandparents, in the Hohenstaufengasse in the First District; and while I had picked up that my mother had been brought up in the Hörlgasse, one of the streets in the Ninth District running parallel to the Berggasse where Freud lived, I did not know her exact address. I had no idea that my parents had lived as a young married couple in the Capistrangasse, in the Sixth District, just off the Mariahilferstraße. My parents had systematically avoided taking me to any locations connected to their pre-emigration past and in particular to their parents, who had all been deported and killed.
At home, in the same way, my parents never spoke about the family and the Holocaust. Of course, I realised as a child that I had no grandparents and was able to work out the reason why. But I also understood instinctively that I must never ask my parents about it. Even the photograph of my maternal grandfather playing chamber music with Einstein stood mutely on the mantelpiece in my room, never commented on. I assume that my parents wished to shield me from the horror of my grandparents’ fate. I also assume that it was simply too painful for them to talk about it openly. As a result, the entire area was subject to an unspoken but rigorous interdict and relegated to a forbidden zone. As a schoolboy, I once complained about our school food, likening it to the food in POW camps (which I knew about from popular books like The Wooden Horse and Colditz), and, when that had no effect, to the food in the concentration camps (about which I knew nothing). Sharply reprimanded, I gathered that this was a taboo area, though I didn’t at that stage understand why.
When I was a student at Oxford, my mother took me aside and showed me the few scanty documents that passed as death certificates for my grandparents. She kept them hidden from my father and impressed on me that I must never tell him about them. We never broached the subject again. To my lasting regret, I followed the unspoken injunctions of my childhood and never asked my parents about their pre-1938 past. Consequently, I am reliant for what I know about their life in Vienna on memories of scattered incidents mentioned in random conversations that I heard or overheard more than half a lifetime ago. Did my father play tennis for Hakoah, the Jewish sporting club? Did my mother leave Vienna illegally in summer 1938, after the Nazi authorities had refused her a passport, to ensure that my father returned to Vienna from a business trip to Britain? Or are these embellishments added on to stories that I heard as a child and that have been magnified in my memory over the course of time? Second generation memories, suppressed and sometimes distorted by the blanket of silence cast over them, are frequently subject to such vagaries.
Two of my youthful recollections of my mother’s stories concern her school friends. My mother was sent to a select private school for girls, the Mädchenmittelschule Luithlen, at Tuchlauben 14, in Vienna’s First District. Originally founded as one of the ‘Höhere Töchterschulen’ (schools for the daughters of the better classes), by the 1920s its intake was heavily Jewish. In a class just below my mother’s was, she told me, a girl called Hedy Kiesler, who while still a teenager caused a scandal by appearing naked in a film. That film was Ecstasy (1933), directed by the Czech Gustav Machatý, and Hedy Kiesler went on to become Hedy Lamarr, star of numerous Hollywood movies and celebrated for her beauty; ruminating in The Mating Season (1949) on the person that he would most like to accompany him to a desert island, P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster nominates Lamarr, whose charms excel even those of the delectable Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright. Sadly, the films in which Lamarr acted are now mostly forgotten; unlike Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), she had no director like Billy Wilder to maximise her acting abilities.
The Luithlen girls socialised with those from the Schwarzwaldschule, a renowned progressive school for girls run by the educationalist Eugenie Schwarzwald. The writer Hilde Spiel has left a vivid description of the school in Die hellen und die finsteren Zeiten: Erinnerungen 1911–1946 (The Light and the Dark Times: Memoirs 1911-1946) (1989). I remember my mother telling me that one of the Schwarzwaldschule girls that she knew had married, in London, the ruler of a Malayan state. Unlikely as it may seem, that was Marcella Mendl, the sixth wife of the much-married Sultan Ibrahim of Johore (1873-1959), a playboy and one of the richest men in the world. Mendl, born in Vienna in 1915, is usually described as Romanian, but that was merely the nationality of her father, who left his family when his daughter was five years old; she was brought up in Vienna. She fled Vienna after the Anschluss and met Sultan Ibrahim by chance in London in 1940. The most recent object of his affections, a 27-year-old showgirl called Lydia ‘Cissie’ Hill, had been killed in Canterbury by a German bomb. He promptly married Marcella, 42 years his junior; she bore him a daughter and remained with him until his death. In these cases at least, my memories hold good.
To consider Hitler anything other than a racist, genocidal despot is historically untrue. Britain – including many Jews – fought against the Nazis for our vision of democracy and paid a high price for doing so. We will not allow any rewriting of the history of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party’s racist ideology.
I was invited to write an article for the AJR Journal about our recent important and successful conference in Berlin but so much has changed since March that I thought it useful to broaden my reflections and cover not only our achievements abroad but what we will seek to achieve at home too.
I launched the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combatting Antisemitism in London some seven years ago with a number of other parliamentarians from across the world. Our aim was simple: to learn from one another about successful models in facing down and beating antisemitism in our own countries. The London conference concluded with the publication of a ‘London Declaration’, a paper that has been welcomed, signed and adopted by political leaders from across the globe, from Britain to Costa Rica and Australia.
Our London event was followed by a second in Ottawa, Canada. This conference led to the establishment of a permanent working group, based in the United States with the aim of engaging, collaborating with but also challenging directly the various social media companies to do more to tackle the scourge of cyberhate. The results have been good and the companies are already showing some signs of maturity in their approach.
This March we were hosted by the German Bundestag and Government for the third international conference. The more than 100 parliamentary delegates who attended were addressed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Foreign Minister, the Parliamentary President and many more top German political leaders. Current and former Justice Ministers from Canada, Israel, Australia, Italy, France, Germany and the UK discussed the various legal approaches to tackling antisemitism and a number of other significant figures, including UNESCO Director Irena Bokova and European Commissioner Frans Timmermans, offered their thoughts on combatting this evil racism.
Most importantly, we established our onward work. We decided that work to combat internet hate in Europe needs parliamentary attention and so we will be seeking to shine a light on the internet companies and their efforts on the Continent. We saw an opportunity to address antisemitism in sport, particularly football, and have already engaged FIFA about what more can be done. Finally, we agreed to seek to better understand migrant antisemitism - the scope and nature of the problem and how it might be handled.
The international gathering was an early high point in the year and we were especially pleased to launch a British ‘best practice’ guide on combatting antisemitism which set out the approach and successes achieved by the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism. Regrettably, only months later we had a new set of challenges to deal with at home. [more...]
It was in May 1928, when I was eight years old, that I stopped being ‘ein besseres Kind’. To be ‘ein besseres Kind’ a bathroom and a live-in maid were de rigueur and I was to lose both.
I forget what my father was dealing in then - was it shoes or watches? - but he decided he wanted to be a full-time librettist. I believe it was at the beginning of my second school year, in September 1926, that his operetta Das Land der Liebe (The Land of Love) was performed at the Bürgertheater in Vienna. The composer was the then popular and successful, but now totally forgotten, Edmund Eysler, also a Jew, whose non-Jewish wife was to save him from deportation by the Nazis.
There I was, sitting in a box with Mutti and my father at the premiere of the operetta and I do remember my intense pride at seeing my father, together with Eysler, on the stage at the end of the play bowing repeatedly to hearty applause. The play was well received and my father anticipated wealth and fame but it was not to be. The theatre got into financial difficulties and the show closed, with the theatre, after very few performances.
At the beginning of 1928 my father started writing the libretto of Ihr erster Ball (Her First Ball) and it was in May of that year, just before the end of my third school year, that he decided that Vienna cramped his style and that we were going to live in Salzburg. He gave up our nice flat in the 9th District, sold the furniture, and pocketed some ‘key money’.
I remember nothing about our stay in Salzburg except my father saying there were too many anti-Semites there and that he couldn’t write in such a hostile atmosphere. What followed were some of the happiest months of my life.
We travelled to Altmünster, a village in the Salzkammergut, Austria’s Lake District, surrounded by mountains and rented rooms right by Lake Traun.
I was enrolled in the local school but after a few days the teacher told my father that my presence demoralised my classmates because I was too ‘advanced’ and she wanted me to leave. I obliged happily. It meant three-and-a-half months of total freedom!
The lake beckoned and I begged my parents to let me learn to swim. I was taught by the Herr Bademeister himself. He fitted an elastic band round my waist and attached to it a long rod by which he guided me. I can still hear his instructions: ‘Einatmen, ausatmen!’ (Breathe in, breathe out!). All I learned was the breast stroke but it was enough to turn me into a fervent and intrepid swimmer and, though Lake Traun is one of the coldest in Austria, I swam in any weather.
Mutti and I walked in the woods and picked mushrooms and cyclamen and my father sometimes rowed us over to Gmunden, the nearest town, where we had coffee and cake. Or I played with local children who had befriended me.
I also remember an odd episode. A friend from Vienna brought us a young pigeon, which was intended to serve us as a meal. We put it in a cage, fed it regularly, and became so fond of it that it was with reluctance that we eventually released it.
My father, an early riser, walked for at least an hour before breakfast. It was on those walks, he said, that his best lines occurred to him. By the end of the summer he had almost finished the libretto of ‘Her First Ball’, which, however, was not to be performed for some years.
An enchanted summer had come to an end and it was time to return to Vienna, homeless and practically penniless.
But that’s another story …
Margaret F. Harrison Homewreckers 1977
It’s not about answers, it’s about questions. It questions ideas, it questions form. If form exists it is organic and does not occupy a fixed place in time. Puzzled?
You may well be but Conceptual Art in Britain, 1964-1979 at Tate (until 29 August 2016) tells the story of the Conceptual movement from its birth in Britain’s art schools, such as St Martin’s School of Art, the Royal College of Art and Coventry School of Art, from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s.
The development occurred at a pivotal time in the West when intense political and social change followed the devastation of war 20 years earlier. The lure of the market place, the rise of youth culture and populism all began to change thought patterns. Harold Wilson’s Labour Government gave way to the election of Margaret Thatcher.
To many people though the Conceptual movement is epitomised by Tracy Emin’s unmade bed - a parody of the seductive nudes portrayed by Goya or Velazquez, Ingres or even Picasso. Emin’s bed was in every sense a naked expression - baring all except the nude herself. It is pure Conceptualism. Just as Duchamp’s urinal showed a thing to be just the thing in itself, or Damian Hirst’s dead animals in formaldehyde tried to make us see the organic matter in everything that lives - or once lived - and breathed.
If you want to call it art - and many don’t - it is an art of ideas, of interchangeability, of concepts, just as it says on the tin. Fine Art had already reached its zenith. What more to say?
The first thing you can’t miss at the exhibition is a pyramid of oranges by Roelof Louw - a triangle of perfectly symmetrical fruits. Because this art form can be participative he invites you to take an orange - obviously from the top of the pile. And, as curator Andrew Wilson explains, if a thing is organic it is capable of change and equally of decay. So it was a case of to try or not to try. My companion was first in line to grab one, and others followed hesitantly, eying each other and then tentatively picking an orange from the middle of the pyramid. I wonder how much, if anything, is left of it today.
But apart from the oranges, a mirror, a large jet-black oblong described as possessing colours I couldn’t see, and a huge piece of multi-media propaganda on behalf of Homeworkers by Margaret F. Harrison, there wasn’t a great deal to catch the eye.
There’s Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, which literally shows the path his feet carved out of a landscape: a man burying himself in a deep hole in the turf. Or the same photograph of three animated people, each bearing a different caption. Then there’s the clever stuff - words stretched right across a wall in the format of musical notation minus the double clef.
The wittiest exhibit was Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (1973). Well, actually it’s a glass of water pitched high on a glass shelf.
Now the important question: did I take an orange? I’ll leave you to guess … I declined.
RESPONDING TO THE CALL: A LIFE OF LIBERAL JEWISH COMMITMENT. A FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOUR OF RABBI HARRY JACOBI MBE
edited by Danny Rich
London: Liberal Judaism, 2015, 208 pp. paperback, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0-9934458-0-4 [more...]
The Israel I live in
I’ve been called many things in my lifetime but this (a letter in the April issue of the Journal) is the first time I’ve been derided as being ‘bland’ or even ‘beige’. That is perhaps the unkindest cut of all, whether justified or not.
Over ten years ago I was asked by the then editor of this journal to write a monthly column about life in Israel. There was no reference to my political views or any of the many current events which overtake us on a weekly, daily and even hourly basis. Any attempt on my part to keep up with all or any of these in this column would be futile, particularly in view of the fact that the printed format of the AJR Journal requires that copy be submitted well in advance of its publication.
So I write about the more mundane or less controversial events and happenings that I encounter. And I must admit that I live a very pleasant and relatively uneventful life at the heart of one of the most turbulent regions of the world at a particularly chaotic time in its pretty chaotic history.
I apologise in advance if what comes next sounds complacent and anodyne but that is the nature of bourgeois life anywhere in the world. When I graduated from a rather left-wing university some 50 years ago the last thing in the world I wanted was to join the ranks of those who had undergone what we dismissively called embourgeoisement and so I emigrated to Israel. But becoming bourgeois, sadly, is generally what tends to happen to anyone who marries and has children. Acquiring property is necessary in order to put a roof over your child’s head, gaining an education is necessary in order to get a job and put food in your child’s mouth, and the process is more or less inevitable.
In the initial stages of our life as a family my husband and I worked and studied, brought up three children, and struggled to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. Gradually, however, the economic situation in Israel improved, and so did our own. Today, as a retired couple, we enjoy the benefits of the national health system, private and state pensions, and an extensive circle of relatives, friends and acquaintances, most of whom enjoy material circumstances that are more or less like our own.
The Israel I live in is one in which people enjoy a comfortable standard of living, consume cultural events, enjoy an active social life, and on the whole are not beset by financial worries. We have almost all lived through wars, have children and grandchildren, and are not unaware of what is happening around us. Many of my Sabra contemporaries have served in the army (though I myself have not) and my children and grandchildren have and still do. We tend to avoid discussing politics when we meet as the subject is either too boring and depressing or might arouse tension - not good for our blood pressure. Politicians all over the world, including in Israel, tend not to be models of probity and it is disingenuous to expect anything else.
I know there are problems in Israel but I accept my inability to do anything about them. I’m still waiting for someone to show me a country that has no problems. We vote when the elections come round but have stopped going to political demonstrations, which anyway tend to be futile. Those demonstrations in which I participated in my youth achieved either nothing or the opposite of what I desired. The overall situation in Israel and the Middle East is too complex for me to determine what is the best solution. Once I thought that a two-state solution would resolve matters but today that does not seem to be feasible. In order for that to be a viable solution a great many things would have to change on all sides.
That’s my two-pennies’ worth, for what it’s worth, and I would suggest that anyone seeking a more sensationalist text and rabid opinions should look elsewhere. I feel that by living and writing in Israel I am making my own small contribution to the present and future of the Jewish people. My Israel is a place where life is pleasant and the sunshine is plentiful. That probably explains why my mood is sanguine and my opinions bland. [link]