Extracts from the Oct 2016 Journal
On 1-2 June 1941, the Jewish population of Baghdad experienced a pogrom sometimes compared to those that took place in the towns and cities of Nazi Germany on the night of 9-10 November 1938. The Farhud, as the anti-Jewish excesses in the Iraqi capital are called, is far less well known in Britain than the so-called ‘Crystal Night’ pogroms in Germany. Yet Iraq had come under British control in the First World War, when British forces defeated those of the Ottoman Empire, occupying Baghdad on 11 March 1917. The League of Nations subsequently granted Britain a mandate over what became the Kingdom of Iraq, and Britain effectively administered Iraq until its independence in 1932. After that, Britain retained important air bases in Iraq, notably at Habbaniya, some 55 miles west of Baghdad. The strategic importance of Iraq and its huge reserves of oil led Britain to maintain its influence in the country, by preserving the Hashemite monarchy that ruled from 1921 until it was overthrown by the revolution of 1958.
At the end of the First World War, Jews composed about a third of the population of Baghdad - incredible as that may now seem. Jewish settlement in the Baghdad area dates back no less than 2,500 years, to the deportation of the Jews into Babylonian captivity early in the sixth century BCE. The ancient city of Babylon was situated about 50 miles south of present-day Baghdad. When Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who conquered Babylonia in 539 BCE, allowed the Jews to return to Judea, many chose to remain in Mesopotamia (the Greek term referring to the lands between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates). There they survived the many conflicts, conquests and changes of regime that affected the area.
In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great of Macedon invaded the Persian Empire and defeated Darius, the Persian king; he planned to establish his capital at Babylon but died in 323 BCE. Subsequently, the city fell under the rule of the Seleucids, the successors to Alexander in that part of his empire, then of the Parthians, the eastern foes of the Roman Empire, and then of the Sasanian Empire, which fought the Romans and the Byzantines, the Romans’ eastern successors, over several centuries. But in the seventh century CE came the Arab invasion, which brought the area under Muslim rule. The centre of the Arab world moved to Baghdad in 762, when the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur founded the city, to the north of the Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon. Baghdad became the glittering capital of a vast empire extending from present-day Pakistan across the Middle East and North Africa into Spain. Baghdad’s Jewish community flourished under Muslim rule, producing great Talmudic scholars, though Jews (as dhimmis) were regarded as inferior and treated accordingly.
Baghdad’s role as one of the great centres of power and culture was ended by incursions from Central Asia, first by the invasion of the Mongols under Hulagu Khan in 1258, when the sack of the city marked the end of the Islamic golden age, then by the capture of the city by Timur (Tamerlane) in 1401, with his trademark slaughter of its inhabitants. The city was later contested between the Ottoman Turks and the Persians. It first fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1534, when it was taken by the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent (who had besieged Vienna in 1529); the Turks finally established control over Baghdad in 1638. It languished as a provincial capital until the First World War.
The division of the Middle East between the imperialist powers, Britain and France, after the First World War catapulted the area into the era of modern nationalist politics. British policy in Iraq, and in the wider Middle East, greatly affected the fate of Baghdad’s Jews after 1918, especially perhaps in its failures. Though they were welcomed as liberators in 1917, the British, attempting to impose a quasi-colonial form of government under guise of their mandate, soon provoked disaffection and active resistance; that burst into outright revolt with the Iraqi uprising of 1920, which was only suppressed by means of substantial military force. From then on, radical Iraqi nationalism was hostile to British power and influence in the country and looked to Britain’s enemies for support.
The post-1918 settlement also created a division between Baghdad’s Jews, who were on the whole supportive of British rule, and those sections of the Arab population that were opposed to the British administration and, after 1930, to the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty that bound Iraq to Britain. That division between Jews and Arabs was sharpened as a result of British policy in Palestine, where the Balfour Declaration of 1917 had established a Jewish homeland. The situation deteriorated further after 1933, when the Nazi regime in Germany sought to undermine the British position in Iraq by offering support to disaffected army officers eager to throw off all vestiges of British control. In the 1930s, Iraq underwent a period of intense political instability, with a series of changes of government that threatened to erupt into outright violence.
During the Second World War, the constellation of radical Arab nationalism in combination with both anti-British and anti-Jewish sentiment bore malign fruit in Iraq. In spring 1941, the British position in the Middle East had become precarious. General Wavell’s successful advance into the Italian colony of Libya had been halted, and by April 1941 the arrival of Rommel’s Afrika Korps had pushed the British back to the Egyptian border. British forces had also been unable to stem the German invasion of Greece and were forced to withdraw to Crete, where in May 1941 they came under successful attack from German airborne forces. Pro-Nazi and anti-British officers in the Iraqi army seized on this moment of crisis for the British to launch a coup d’état, installing Rashid Ali al-Gaylani as prime minister. This led to the brief Anglo-Iraqi War of 2-31 May 1941, which formed the background to the Farhud.
The British, their military forces stretched to the limit, relied mainly on the RAF to garrison Iraq. Initially besieged in their air base at Habbaniya, they nevertheless succeeded in defeating the Iraqis in short order and advanced on the capital. Rashid Ali’s regime collapsed; he fled via Iran to Germany. On 1 June 1941, in the power vacuum before the British entered Baghdad and during the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a wave of violence erupted, aimed at the city’s Jewish community. Shops and businesses were looted and many homes destroyed; marauding armed mobs killed at least 180 people - some estimates put the number far higher - before order was restored on 2 June. This was the first anti-Jewish pogrom in Iraq in modern times; previously, the Jewish community had mostly coexisted peacefully with its Arab neighbours, whose culture they shared in large measure, considering themselves Iraqis. Despite the atrocities of the Farhud, Jews lived unmolested in Baghdad until the defeat of the Arab armies in 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel sparked fresh anti-Jewish measures that led over the following few years to the mass exodus of Iraq’s Jews and the end of two and a half millennia of history.
Jews from Baghdad played a significant role in British history, in particular those who moved in the nineteenth century to Bombay, where British India offered lucrative commercial opportunities. Probably the most famous family was that of Sir David Sassoon, the ‘Rothschilds of the East’, who built a huge commercial empire from the trade between India and China in cotton and (regrettably) opium. Sassoon funded the building of one of India’s largest and most beautiful synagogues, the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla, Mumbai; his most famous descendant was the writer and war poet Siegfried Sassoon. The brothers Sir Ellis and Sir Eleazer (Elly) Kadoorie established major commercial enterprises in Hong Kong and Shanghai; Elly’s son Lawrence was the first Hong Kong-born man to be elevated to the House of Lords. Sir Naim Dangoor, bearer of a distinguished Baghdadi Jewish name and a leading industrialist and philanthropist, and the eminent scholar Elie Kedoorie, an authority on nationalism at the London School of Economics, were other Jews from Baghdad to enrich British life.
Readers will be pleased to know that the history of the Jews of Iraq is being recorded for the future as part of Sephardi Voices, a collection of filmed interviews similar to the AJR’s Refugee Voices and designed to preserve the precious legacy of the entire Sephardi-Mizrahi tradition. Dr Bea Lewkowicz, who created the exhibition Continental Britons (2002) with myself and is currently administering the second phase of Refugee Voices, is, as Director of Sephardi Voices UK, responsible for the British part of this historically significant endeavour. The new interest in the story of the Jews from the Arab lands has already led to the first event in Britain commemorating the Farhud, held at Lauderdale Road Synagogue, London, on 2 June 2016, the 75th anniversary of the Farhud. Information on the project is available at www.sephardivoices.org.uk.
The recent correspondence in the Journal about Hedi Lamarr evokes delicious memories. She came into prominence as a result of a brief appearance in the nude in Ekstase (Ecstasy), a film daring in its day but today fit for Children's Hour. Of course, we all went to see it. My cousin watched it 33 times - but then he came from a rich family. Through his good offices I had the unusual advantage of getting glimpses of Hedi au naturel, not just on film.
It came about in this way. My cousin lived in a very grand villa in Neubabelsberg, just outside Berlin (Louisenstrasse 23, if you are interested in Jewish geography), next door to an even grander Palais, the home of Lamarr’s then boyfriend. She was a regular visitor and in the habit of sunbathing in the nude in the sheltered garden. But there was one weak spot in the otherwise perfect cover and, if one took up position by a particular first-floor window in my cousin's house and craned one’s neck at an agonising angle, one could see a wide strip of the lawn next door. As the earth moved - in every sense - so did the sunny strip and with it Hedi. There therefore came a moment when she hove into view in all her splendour. It was a matter of fine calculation to be half-hanging out of the window at the right moment at the right angle. For my cousin, who had both patience and opportunity, this presented not much of a problem. I was less well placed, living in Charlottenburg, by public transport nearly an hour’s ride away. My cousin became adept at calculating when the constellation would be favourable and rang me when it was time to get moving. The reward, subject to sudden changes in the weather not interfering, was overwhelming, as was the crick in my neck. Hitler saved my cervical vertebrae from permanent damage.
Many years later, when Hedi Lamarr (née Kiesler) was a great Hollywood star, and her flesh just a pleasant memory, I had the chance of being introduced to President Reagan as a reward for a minor service rendered to the CIA. It involved a meeting in the Oval Office, scheduled to last precisely three-and-a-half minutes. I was sure the President had been briefed on why I had been accorded this honour, and equally sure he had immediately forgotten. It was therefore up to me to think of something to say as I was being introduced by Melvin Laird, my sponsor and one-time Secretary of State for Defense.
I decided to mention that I had not only seen Hedi Lamarr in the nude on film (as I was sure he had) but also - ah, bliss! - in the flesh. I also explained briefly about the acrobatics involved. A look of recognition lit up the President’s features and, thumping his right fist into the palm of his left hand, he said with great conviction ‘Great bust, bad legs!’
Right about that as about so many other things.
I am what is colloquially known as a ‘second generation survivor’ - the child of a Holocaust survivor - as are many people in our community. As the years pass and my parents are unfortunately no longer with us, the desire to find out more about my roots and history has increased.
My mother arrived in this country on the Kindertransport on 14 February 1939 and, in common with so many Holocaust survivors, hardly spoke about her experiences leading up to that day. My father would buy her flowers on that date and for many years I thought it was a romantic Valentine’s Day gesture - in reality it was a celebration of the date on which she arrived in England!
In 1987 my eldest nephew in America was working on a family history project at school and was required to interview his grandparents about their life stories. Never having spoken about these distressing memories either to my brother or to me, my mother recorded much of her story for him on tape and, although for many years I found it too painful to listen to, it was this recording that enabled us to piece together some of her story.
My mother was an only child born in Gelsenkirchen, a town in north-west Germany, to Polish parents who ironically had moved to Germany for a better life. In 1927, when she was three, her father died and was buried in the town’s Jewish cemetery. A few years later her mother, Sarah, remarried a man with two sons. The family of four remained in Gelsenkirchen until September 1938, when they were all rounded up and taken away. They were deported to a place she describes as ‘no man’s land’ on the borders of Germany and Poland and it was from this camp that she was able to register for a place on the Kindertransport.
Unfortunately, neither of her step-brothers was eligible and, although one was eventually able to escape through Siberia to the USA, the rest of the family perished in, or en route to, the camps. Through the Red Cross, she was able to maintain contact with her mother by letter until 1942 and I am the proud owner of this bundle of letters sent from a loving mother to a daughter living many miles away in a strange country with an English family: seemingly her main concerns in the correspondence were whether she was eating enough, keeping warm enough, and why she didn’t write more often! It was the same Red Cross organisation that informed her after the war of the death of her mother.
Although my mother didn’t have many memories of her real father, she recalled that he was fondly known at home as ‘Leib’ and so when my brother was born in 1948 he was named ‘Dovid Leib’. During my childhood years, I recall my mother speaking about her early life in London: how she was ‘adopted’ by a lovely family with two sons and stories of her refugee friends, many of whom didn’t have as positive experiences with their host families as she did. These stories made such an impression on me that I wrote my dissertation as part of my sociology degree on ‘The Absorption Process of German Jewish Refugees’ and dedicated it to her.
Understandably, my mother had no desire ever to return to Germany. However, in the late 1980s, after she had been diagnosed with cancer, she took the incredibly brave and emotional decision to visit her father’s grave. My parents made contact with the head of the Jewish community in Gelsenkirchen and they arranged the visit. I recall her commenting on her return how well looked after the cemetery was and how everything in Germany was so well organised – ‘typical of the Germans’, she said in disgust. The other remarkable thing that came out of that visit was that, according to the headstone, her father’s name was actually Yehuda Menachem and not Leib! When my son was born in 1990 we named him Shmuel Yehuda in honour of my grandfather and to continue the family names down the generations.
Mum sadly died in 1993 aged only 69 but having had a happy marriage, a fulfilling life, and having been fortunate enough to have seen both her children married and four grandchildren.
As the years have passed, the desire to visit my grandfather’s grave, to see Gelsenkirchen, where my mother grew up, and to find my roots deepened. Unfortunately, she did not leave us any information about the cemetery or the whereabouts of his grave. However, after much research, I made contact with the President of the Jewish Community, Judith Neuwald-Tasbach, and located my grandfather’s grave in the old (closed) town cemetery and, after a few unsuccessful attempts, a visit was finally arranged for November 2015. My brother David came over from Israel and, with my husband Mike, we made that eventful journey to Germany.
Many people asked me before we went how I felt about it. The truth is that although I really wanted to go, I was filled with trepidation at entering a country I had previously never had any desire to visit, with such a horrendous history. I tried to focus on the purpose of the journey - to visit Gelsenkirchen and the cemetery with the help of Judith and we would then escape as quickly as possible. We landed on German soil and, as I got off the plane, I whispered to Mike ‘This is the first and last time I will come here and I will not say a Shehecheyanu (prayer to celebrate special occasions)!’
Amazingly, the outcome of the trip was far different from this. There were many surprises ahead of us that day. Judith met us on the evening of Sunday 8 November at the new synagogue, built on the site of the synagogue my mother had attended and had been burnt down on Kristallnacht. She informed us of the programme she had planned for the next day – coincidentally the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
When we arrived at the synagogue the next morning there was a large wreath of flowers at the memorial stone on the side of the building. This was an annual gift from the local government. We discovered that Judith’s late father, Kurt Neuwald, had been the previous president of the community and the person who had taken my parents to the cemetery some 25 years earlier. He had been taken to the camps with 27 family members and lost his first wife there, but after the war he resolved to return to Gelsenkirchen and rebuild his own life and that of the community. He was determined that Hitler would not destroy all Jewish life. Remarkably, he did just that! There is a huge memorial wall dedicated to the approximately 300 Gelsenkirchen residents who were deported in 1942, but what we also experienced first-hand was a warm and thriving community with a full-time rabbi and a modern building hosting many varied events including a youth theatre group, a sing-along session for senior members and, of course, regular Shabbat services. How courageous of one man with a vision and how heart-warming to meet a rabbi and a synagogue president working hard arranging the same kind of activities as we in Edgware and David’s synagogue in Netanya.
Kurt Neuwald was made an Honorary Citizen of the city of Gelsenkirchen for all his efforts in Jewish renewal and there is a square named after him in the town centre.
Aside from this, our personal family journey was emotional and uplifting. Unknown to us, Judith had enlisted the help of a local historian who had uncovered two handwritten documents showing the addresses where our mother had lived. We visited both locations with Judith. One was a flat above a shop (possibly the family furniture business), the other a large house, which we guessed would have been occupied by more than one family. At the house we were interviewed by the local TV station, who asked us about our feelings towards modern Germany. We both expressed our mixed feelings that day: the intense emotions of our family’s history, seeing how our mother’s family’s lives were cut down, together with many reminders all over the town of who and what had been destroyed, contrasting with the renewed faith we felt within the current Jewish community – a community financially supported by today’s German government in what appeared a sincere attempt at T’shuva (repentance). This interview later appeared as part of a news item commemorating Kristallnacht. I never expected my first (and probably only) TV appearance to be on German TV with my words dubbed into German!
We then went to the old cemetery – the original main purpose of the trip. We were saddened to see several double headstones with only one name engraved on them of someone who had died before the war: their spouse presumably had no burial place just like our own grandmother. It was, of course, an emotionally charged moment finally to be standing at the grave of the grandfather we never had the privilege of knowing but, as we recited Tehillim (Psalms) and El Male Rachamim, I looked at the names on the stone and realised how my grandfather lives on through my son Sam and my grandmother Sarah - who has no burial place or headstone - lives on in me, ‘Sarah Chaya’. Whilst Hitler had destroyed and devastated so many of our families and communities, he had not won.
That evening, before we flew home, we participated in a memorial march to the old cemetery in the presence of the mayor and other dignitaries, who made speeches on remembrance and tolerance. That Kristallnacht memorial march is an annual event sponsored by the city with the participation also of many non-Jews.
We came home physically and emotionally exhausted and deeply moved by so many events in 24 hours, but at the same time uplifted, having experienced the warmth of the Jewish community in a small town that was almost destroyed in the Shoah but has risen up and revitalised itself and - please God - will continue to go from strength to strength. We can never forgive or forget but there was some personal closure that day and a new friend was made. I feel sure I will return to Germany one day despite my original misgivings.
My grandmother, Adele Metall, was born in 1887 into a prosperous family in Lemberg. At that time, Lemberg was still very much part of the Habsburg Empire and she grew up speaking both Polish and German and, since she had a French governess, also French - but heaven forfend, not Yiddish! Her grandfather had made his fortune dealing in timber for the building of the railways. She was the youngest child of the youngest of his five sons and the youngest of 28 cousins. All the sons were left enough money by their father to live as gentlemen of leisure but her father was a gambler: by the time she had grown up, there was only enough money for a small dowry and, when she was 19, a marriage was arranged with a much older pharmacist. Fortunately he had to work for his living and they moved to the centre of the Habsburg Empire, Vienna, where my mother was born and grew up, became a pharmacist like her father, married my father, and eventually gave birth to me in 1936. Almost all my grandmother's cousins remained in Lemberg and were murdered in the Holocaust.
Our family was fairly prosperous and lived a rich social and cultural life. In 1938 everything changed when my father lost his job as company secretary to the largest department store in Vienna, Gerngross, and my mother’s pharmacy was ‘aryanised’.
My grandmother, like everybody else’s grandmother, was the best cook in the world - she really was! - and she told me two conflicting stories about this talent. My mother was born in Vienna in 1908. As a small child she was travelling on a train with my grandmother and in the same compartment was a man who had a parrot in a cage. My mother put her hand too close and the parrot nipped her. The man was very concerned and the next day a bunch of flowers was delivered to their flat with a card signed ‘Franz Lehar’, saying he hoped the little girl had recovered; in return, my grandmother, who was a marvellous baker, sent one of her delicious cakes to him. The family became firm friends and Lehar became my mother’s Onkel Franz. As a teenager my mother took singing lessons and performed at concerts of his pupils. I still have the concert programmes and a collection of postcards from Onkel Franz‘s trips to many places.
The other story concerned our escape to England in 1938. My grandmother had two sisters, one of whom had married a dashing but improvident Hungarian who was, luckily for us, unable to make a living in Vienna. He and my great-aunt moved to London in the 1920s and set up a small lampshade manufacturing business. In 1938 my grandmother, parents and I were able to come to England, my grandmother and mother as domestic servants to the relatives of the improvident Hungarian and my father, a lawyer, as a bookkeeper to the lampshade business. Somehow they managed to bring with them their furniture, including my pink-painted nursery table and chairs. Our home, until my mother died in 1994, looked just like that of Sigmund Freud in Maresfield Gardens (except for the couch).
In the second story, my grandmother explained that when they knew they were leaving their comfortable life in Vienna she asked her cook to teach her everything she knew about cooking. I have detailed exercise books with all her Viennese recipes. I also have her book Wie koche ich in England by Kitty Köberle, published in Vienna in 1938. It contains recipes for rissoles, shepherd’s pie, bubble and squeak, bread and butter pudding, rhubarb fool, and other English delights, none of which my grandmother ever made. Throughout the war she somehow managed to make the rich Austrian dishes of her pre-war life.
It was my grandmother who cared for me in London while my mother and father went out to work and I used to sit on our kitchen window ledge while she cooked and told me stories about her previous life. Later on I became her assistant cook and was allowed to beat the cake mixes and whip the week’s accumulation on top of the gold-topped milk into cream - strenuous jobs before the advent of the food mixer. She went on cooking three-course meals for my parents, myself and, after I married, my husband and our four children, every Sunday until she was 90 and always sent us home with Monday’s supper ready to reheat. Every Wednesday she and my mother came to visit us with cakes for our tea. She died when she was 91 having smoked 20 cigarettes a day for 20 years. When we advised her to give up she always said she was too old to die of cancer, but in this instance she was wrong.
I am a mother and grandmother now and a fair cook myself, though not up to her standard. From time to time I feel the urge or am pushed by my children, her great-grandchildren, to make Krautstrudel or Kaiserschmarrn or the Nussroulade she always made for my birthday. My two daughters, one here and one in Israel, are both more than competent bakers of classic Viennese cakes.
As Claudia Roden writes in her Book of Jewish Food: ‘Dishes are important because they are a link with the past, a celebration of roots, a symbol of continuity. Cooking … is transmitted in every family like genes … and … makes it possible by examining family dishes to define the identity and geographical origin of a family line.’
A Modernist painter who developed shapes and forms from her private fantasy world, Georgia O’Keeffe’s imagination peaked when she visited Taos and Alcalde in New Mexico in 1929. She was mesmerised by the colours of the sky, the earth-built architecture, the mountain plateaux and the ubiquitous crosses.
Tate Modern’s (until 30 October 2016) most significant exhibition of her work outside the US charts her progress from floral shapes in primary colours - particularly her celebrated flower painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) - to red desertscapes and, later still, her exploration of animal bones found in the desert. She was less interested in the pelvic bones themselves than in the blue sky she glimpsed through the holes in them. Working in the 1940s, the era of the Second World War, she read its metaphor into the bones, suggesting that the blue would survive ‘all man’s destruction’.
The Tate has assembled over 100 major works from lenders across 23 US states. Her famous depiction of the humble white garden weed is on loan from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and is the most expensive painting sold at auction by a woman artist.
To some, her oeuvre is the ultimate expression of the female body; others hear musical notation. But there are Cubist influences too in New York Street with Moon, while Black Cross with Stars and Blue from her New Mexico period merges the deep blue landscape and paler blue starry night with the brooding black cross, only partially conveyed, which ingeniously suggests that Christian influence over the elemental Mexican landscape.
O’Keeffe is an artist equally dominated by colour. In 1934 she discovered Ghost Ranch, where tourists discovered a fake Wild West effect. She bought the house in 1940 and painted the subtle mood and colour shifts seen from the window: ‘I wish you could see what I see - the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north - the full pale moon about to go out in an early morning lavender sky - it is a very beautiful world.’
In a career spanning seven decades (she died at 98), she became the best known female artist in photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s avant-garde circle. She later married him.
Her first abstracts were in charcoal: she resisted any colour except black and white but her colour skills became evident in her vivid watercolours of Virginia and Texas.
Her abstracts in oils demonstrate the relationship of form to music, colour and composition, preceded by her famed flower abstractions. But frustrated by critics who saw her paintings as erotic, she moved into less popular, Cubist-inspired work.
From 1925 she painted New York cityscapes but the city lost its magic for her after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Her love of New Mexico was possibly rooted in her paintings of Lake George, with its maple colours, its soft blues and greens and, of course, her eternal flower.
‘Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small - we haven’t time - and to see takes time,’ she wrote.
A magnificent work MY DEAR ONES: ONE FAMILY AND THE FINAL SOLUTION by Jonathan Wittenberg London: William Collins, 2016, 354 pp. hardback including Notes, ISBN 978-0-00-815803-3
Before it was agreed that I should review this book there was discussion as to whether I was maybe ‘too close’ to the author for professional reasons but, since Rabbi Wittenberg and I work for different movements in different countries, I felt this should not be a problem. Soon after opening the book, however, I realised that there was indeed a closeness, not in terms of our profession but a personal one for we have stories which are closely parallel – both of us searching for the history of a lost family, recreating from salvaged documents a sequence of events, and trying to clothe the scraps of knowledge and fill the gaps with surmise, a surmise compounded with regret at not having asked these questions earlier when there might have been more chance of discovering the information that would fill some of the aching gaps. And the book is filled with aching gaps, chronicling the lives and relationships of many family members and in many - in most - cases describing how all their best efforts met with no success and, trapped in a tightening net, they met their brutal and undeserved fates.
Rabbi Wittenberg’s search began with an encounter while clearing the home of a deceased relative, stumbling over an old suitcase on a balcony in Rehavia in Jerusalem. Unopened for 60 years or so, the suitcase proved to contain letters, documents, receipts, and all sorts of things including a Ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), receipts for funeral expenses and photographs – a true treasure trove. The story the documents tell is one familiar to many readers of this journal so it doesn’t need to be explained at length. Jonathan discovers family members from Berlin and Breslau, from Posen and Holesov, and explores on the basis of the few facts available and occasional family anecdotes handed down. He describes in a moving, clear and readable style how they met and married, their piety, their impressive and respected rabbinic careers, the families they raised, how they later tried to escape the tightening controls around them, how they worked so hard to save each other as well as themselves, writing and pleading for a visa here, a guarantee there, an opening anywhere.
All is placed in historical context, for instance Hitler's speech on 30 January 1939 threatening ‘annihilation’ for Europe’s Jews. The author is excellent at describing how Nazi policy gradually changed as the war progressed, how there were internal disputes about what best to do – to force emigration or prevent it, to use labour or eliminate people, to deport them east of the Urals or shoot them straight away, or to let them starve and die of hunger, cold and exhaustion ...
Letters, hopeful, personal letters describing to those in America or Palestine what those in Germany or the ‘Protectorate’ or even in obscure transit camps are doing, are contrasted with the official instructions not to let Jews use telephones (p.208) or arguments between various groups as to who might profit from destroyed synagogues, or the letter by Höppner of the Reichssicherheitsdienst in Posen putting forward a suggestion that it might be more merciful to kill the Jews rather than just let them die – the ‘final solution’ was to be a ‘most humane solution’ (p.236). This is highly valuable in terms of establishing the context for it is clear that the victims could not have known what was to happen if even the perpetrators were unsure what to do next.
There are beautiful insights. One person, having safely got to England after a stormy ferry crossing from Hoek van Holland in January 1939, writes to his mother still in Berlin ‘We were all seasick during the night. It’s an illness most people long for the opportunity to have.’ There are personal connections to a set of old prayer books which survived or the manner in which parents and grandparents had preserved fruit in jars – and yet the time comes to discard the old and rusted artefacts. There are references to the traumas one inherits when a father suddenly snaps ‘Don't write your religion on that official form – that’s how they found the Jews!’
If an intelligent teenager is to read any one book about the Shoah this should be the one. Although it references historical events and cites from speeches by Nazi leaders it is not a listing of statistics but a passionate, moving description of the destruction of a family of innocent people: mothers and fathers, grandmothers, cousins and aunts and children, some of whom survived physically but all of whom were devastated, both keeping and hiding documents from the past.
In a sense, the core of the book is a personal comment on p. 240f: ‘[T]hey decided they had had enough. “We couldn’t take any more,” Jenny told me. They had known [the writers] and could hear their voices in every word ... I and those like me belonging to the second and third generations were free to follow our inner compulsion to know what had happened without experiencing a similar impact of immediate personal pain.’ And this is it – the effort of the following generations to decipher, to translate, to explore, to visit and to understand what happened to the grandparents and great-aunts and uncles and cousins whom they never met. Just ordinary people. ‘My dear ones.’
Shining through the book too is an endless faith in a God who is frequently called upon to protect and help and save the ‘dear ones’. Not all readers may share this faith, not all will be able to balance the ‘theodicy’ question - the role of God in a tragic family saga which continues through the post-war tragedies (one of the family members is murdered in the ‘Hadassah Convoy Massacre’ during the build-up to the independence of the State of Israel) - to the present, the author himself as a rabbi clearly feeling strongly connected to the faith of his ancestors. In Alfred’s last letter before his murder he described his efforts to establish legal principles for the nascent state: ‘I’m responsible for the departments of religious, family and inheritance law. There are many difficult issues that could be resolved if only our rabbis were of the right calibre.’ One could - should - write a book on this statement alone.
I noted one slight typo – where ‘Siberia’ should read ‘Silesia’. But this is nitpicking. It is a magnificent work.
I happened to be in France at the time of several vicious terrorist attacks there. The poor French public is subjected time and again to these horrendous attacks and is left bothered and bewildered by it all, as well as being angry with its government for not doing enough to ensure its safety.
The trouble with France - the country of liberty, equality and fraternity - is that it has allowed itself to be lulled into a sense of false security by those very values. Everyone tries to be very tolerant and enjoy the good things of life (and France has plenty of those) and this has enabled cohorts of angry or possibly disturbed young men to be persuaded by leaders and preachers with evil intent to perpetrate acts of mass or individual murder on an unprecedented scale.
I have heard well-meaning French intellectuals speak out in favour of the assumption of a position of cultural superiority. It seems somewhat naive on their part to contend that culture, music and greater acceptance of ‘the other’ will defeat all the hatred and radicalism that is awash in the immigrant communities which inhabit the high-rise suburbs of the big cities, where poverty, crime and murder are everyday occurrences.
Other than that, it’s no secret that France is host to a large Muslim population, much of it from what were once French colonies and most of whose members are well integrated into French culture and language. So there shouldn’t be any sense of disgruntlement there, nor should one expect young men (and it always seems to be young men) to be so full of hatred and venom that they are prepared to plough a heavy truck through a throng of innocent people enjoying a day of national rejoicing or take a knife to the throat of an elderly priest as he conducts a church service.
One can only shake one’s head in dismay and wonder what’s going through the minds of those young men. On the other hand, there are a great many things that governments can do to stymie or preempt those dastardly deeds and, unfortunately, the necessary actions do not seem to have been taken by the French authorities. After all, as an editorial in Le Figaro pointed out, the attacks that recently took place in Paris, with dozens of casualties, should have triggered a far-reaching heightening of security.
In this respect, Israel has much to teach other countries. After suffering for many years from terrorist attacks of every possible variety, the last few years have seen a drastic reduction in such attacks, so that even though some individuals still feel impelled to perpetrate assaults, these are usually restricted to small-scale knifings and the occasional attempt to ram vehicles into bus stops or run down pedestrians. Obviously, every country and society has to tailor its counter-terrorist activity to meet its own needs and one cannot expect everyone to put into place the same kind of extensive surveillance and security checks that Israel does - but the fact of the matter is that these methods work.
No one wants to live in an Orwellian dystopia - and Israel is not quite at that stage - but surveillance is part of the modern world and the methods available in this day and age can contribute to preventing terrorist attacks. When all is said and done, it’s still preferable to have a higher degree of security than to put innocent lives at risk. Surveillance makes it possible to identify and track down potential terrorists and, in my opinion, the price of less personal privacy is worth paying.
There are indications that things are moving in France. As we left Toulouse airport a unit of ten heavily armed soldiers patrolled the area. And a friend in the south told me that the small holiday town where he lives on the Riviera was being inundated by armed soldiers and policemen, with sharp-shooters posted on the roofs of buildings. This was happening just prior to 15 August, a national holiday when crowds tend to fill the beaches, promenades and open spaces.
In the final event, however, in France as in Israel, Germany and anywhere else, it’s all a question of being lucky enough not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.