Jun 2011 Journal
Letters to the Editor
BOMBAY SEDER, 1944
Sir - My mother (about to celebrate her 100th birthday) and I read Walter Bergwerk’s article in the May issue with interest, even though I was a child at the time he was describing. My mother, incidentally, remembers him.
My father, Alfred Rosenfeld, was one of the professional people already in India as the war approached. He had emigrated from Germany some years previously to take up a senior managerial post and was already a British subject. More to the point, he was the prime mover behind the Jewish Relief Association to which the article referred and worked tirelessly to help new arrivals. My mother has told me that he spent many nights at the docks in order to meet and help Jewish refugees. I would attribute his early death after the war at least in part to these efforts. Nor were they confined to India. His passport bears several entry and exit stamps for Austria and Germany, the last dated 1938. He was also actively involved there in helping people to emigrate to India. Some, at least, expressed their gratitude to us in later years.
In case Walter Bergwerk and others with an interest in the subject have not come across it, a book was published in New Delhi in 1999 and reprinted in 2005 (I was easily able to order a copy from an Indian bookseller) entitled Jewish Exile in India 1933-1945. The publisher was Manohar in association with Max Müller Bhavan and the editors were Anil Bhat and the German academic Johannes Voigt. In large part, the work consisted of papers presented at an academic symposium in India in 1995. It contained many references to people we knew well - an entire chapter was devoted to one of them - and it also contained a quotation that was particularly poignant for me from a circular sent round by my father in 1939 and extracted from the archives. In it he warned new arrivals to behave ‘with the utmost circumspection’ and not to speak German in particular (advice I don't think was always heeded at home!): ‘[I]t would be better to speak only English.’ Such warnings may seem exaggerated today, but the book also contained documentary evidence that the arrival of Jewish refugees was hardly greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm in certain British quarters in India.
‘BECAUSE OF OUR SINS’
Sir - In our prayers on Rosh Hashanah we recite ‘Because of our sins we were exiled from our country and banished from our land.’ If that event had not occurred, we would not have suffered persecution, including the Holocaust. Why is it then that so many who rush to commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Yom HaShoah are not to be found in synagogue on Tisha B’Av?
A LOST GENERATION
Sir - Leslie Baruch Brent observes in his commentary on the Kent Messenger’s commemoration of Anna Essinger’s school in Kent, 63 years after its closure, that this was due to its main task (giving a home and education to Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia) having been fulfilled. This is correct up to a point, but it is by no means the whole story. Anna Essinger was, by general agreement, a remarkable and farsighted humanist but, like all of us, she had her weak points. One of these was an inability to conceive of Bunce Court School being run by anyone other than herself.
In a brief post-war experiment, she had agreed to Dr Fridolin Friedmann taking up the post of headmaster. Dr Friedmann had been the director (Schulleiter) of the renowned Jewish school Landschulheim Caputh. Before that he had taught at the Odenwaldschule. He was a man of outstanding intellect, great experience and profound humanity. Bunce Court School benefited greatly from his short stay, which was characterised by his overriding belief in the influence of the arts, particularly music, in the education of children. Alas, Anna Essinger’s consistent interference in his function made his position ultimately untenable. By 1948 it was evident that she herself could no longer run the school (as Professor Brent observes, she was very nearly blind) and this was undoubtedly one reason for its closure.
Did the school, as is often maintained, effectively run out of children? In 1948 there were thousands of deprived, disadvantaged and under-educated children populating Europe’s displaced persons’ camps. As it was, it was left to another German-Jewish refugee, Dr Henry Alexander, to give a home and an education to some of these children in his Pestalozzi Children’s Village near Hastings, which, in its early days, was very nearly a copy of Bunce Court School. As Jews, we are naturally on the side of the persecuted, the underprivileged, the impoverished and the forgotten. Bunce Court School could have upheld this tradition (with possible funding from agencies like UNICEF and UNESCO) for many more years and thus made its contribution to ameliorating the great tragedy of a lost generation that was post-war Europe.
GRATEFUL TO THE UK
Sir – In August 1939, my late mother was granted a Domestic Service visa to come to England. I was nearly ten years old and I was not on the visa. My mother would not leave me behind as my father and brother had already left Vienna. She went to the British embassy and pleaded for them to include me on her visa. A consular office took pity on her - plus the fact that they saw what was going on in Vienna - and gave permission for me to be included, so we arrived in London three weeks before the war started. I have been grateful to this country for saving my life ever since.
STIFF UPPER LIP
Sir - I read with great interest Edith Argy’s article on her ‘Blitz experience’ during the war (February). It reminded me of an anecdote I was told by Ruth Schulze-Gaevernitz, a prominent member of London’s emigrant community.
She was sitting in an air raid shelter during the Blitz and expressing a certain amount of embarrassment. There she was, a German sitting in a bunker together with British people as German bombs fell all around them. But a woman next to her simply replied: ‘Oh don't worry, our boys are doing the same!’
I think this reference to the RAF’s raids on Germany is a true expression of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the English sense of humanity. Such statements could have got you into big trouble here in Berlin, where the Bunkerwart Nazi kept a watch on people and would quickly charge them with Wehrkraftzersetzung for unwanted remarks.
WONDERFUL MODEL SEDER
Sir – I would like to thank Susie Kaufman and the dedicated staff at Cleve Road AJR Centre for the recent wonderful Model Seder. Rabbi Steven Katz again made it very enjoyable and interesting and a happy emotional experience. The meal was absolutely delicious. Thank you for the hard work involved to all concerned.
OBSESSION WITH CZECHOSLOVAKIA
Sir – Your journal is like a treasure trove. It never fails to evoke in me memories of days long gone. In your April issue, it was Czechoslovakia that was given substantial coverage. My sister, when in her late teens, was obsessed with Czechoslovakia and its democratic regime under President Jan Masaryk. After her matriculation in the summer of 1938 at the realna gimnazija in Maribor, Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, she wanted to go to university in Prague, but our mother dissuaded her, rightly assuming that Czechoslovakia was likely to be the next on Hitler’s list. London was a much safer option and we had relatives here.
Not long afterwards, we were all expelled from Yugoslavia at very short notice and so found a safe haven here as well. Visiting my sister in her room in her London boarding house for the first time, my mother and I saw a modest, framed picture of Jan Masaryk on the wall above her bed which her landlady believed was a picture of her grandfather. The picture is still here, in this very flat - but in a drawer, not on the wall.
BULGARIANS AND JEWS
Sir – Kurt Winter’s picture of Bulgaria’s attitude to its Jews in the Second World War (April, Letters) is very positive: almost all Jews were saved because of the attitude of all sections of the population.
This makes it all the harder to explain the action of the Bulgarian occupation of Greek Thrace and Macedonia after the German defeat of Greece. There, almost the entire Jewish community was deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka. Of about 11,000, 11 survived.
LOVE AFFAIR WITH MAHLER
Sir - Reading ‘My love affair with Mahler’ by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson (March) brought back my own childhood in Berlin. As a very young boy, I frequently sat on the floor under the grand piano listening to my parents playing duet arrangements of classical symphonies. That helped me to learn by heart the tunes which ten years later I was to hear performed on the radio and on scratchy records by orchestras in my new home, London. Indeed, my first live orchestral concert was in 1940 in the Queen’s Hall, which, a few nights later, was destroyed by a direct hit. My memory is of Sir Henry Wood and Moisewitch, later translated to the Albert Hall for many nights of Promenade Concerts. And that was when I first experienced - not heard - a live performance of a Mahler symphony.
It immediately brought back the memory of sitting under the piano in 1930 and hearing a kind of music quite unlike that of Haydn or Beethoven, which nevertheless affected me in a strange, emotional way, nowadays referred to as the ‘Jewish experience’. And these were also the harmonies and dissonances that were to open the gates to the development of twentieth-century music. My mother had died soon after my first under-the-piano Mahler experience, but, as a teenager, my piano-playing was of a sufficiently high standard to tackle the duet arrangements with my father. He also taught me how to read complex scores and to transpose and simplify the music for a ten-finger piano rendering. This ability has helped me to study what makes the Mahler songs and symphonies so special and my love has grown. It was, however, only after reading Norman Lebrecht’s recent book Why Mahler? that I learned more about the complexities and sufferings of this genius. I guess they are all part of the ‘Jewish experience’ and we of the Kindertransport or ‘survivor’ generation should be familiar with some of the symptoms.
My love affair with Mahler had later to be shared - but not diluted - with another musical love affair, not at all Jewish. My father remarried before emigration, and my new mother’s love was J. S. Bach, with whom I share a birthday. I caught this love from her. It involves many emotional stirrings that are similar to those I experienced earlier from Mahler’s music. So I might ask ‘Why Bach?’ And why just Mahler and Bach? My personal musical activities are devoted to string chamber music, in which neither of them excelled, compared to Mozart or Beethoven. Lots of questions, few answers - probably also part of the ‘Jewish experience’.
Sir- Dorothea Shefer-Vanson omitted to mention that, in addition to performances of Mahler’s music, a film show - a skit on Mahler’s life - sponsored by the Leo Baeck Institute was shown at the Cinematheque here in Jerusalem. I say a ‘skit’ as it showed that, after his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, Mahler bit into a pig's head with great relish. He was forced to convert to become conductor of the Vienna Court Opera.
Some years ago, the Jewish playwright Ronald Harwood wrote a play entitled Mahler's Conversion, but this was not a success: apparently Mahler was rated more highly as a composer than as a convert to Catholicism.
Sir – On a visit to Vienna in 1976, I went to the Grinzinger Friedhof to see whether Mahler’s gravestone was still standing after the Nazi era. When I enquired at the cemetery office as to its location, the official responded: ‘What is Mahler the Jew doing in my Catholic cemetery?’
ISRAEL AND THE CHARGE OF APARTHEID
Sir - Dorothea Shefer-Vanson’s ‘Letter from Israel’ (April) is timely. Apartheid, like Holocaust and Nazism, is a term that conjures up such unbearable images that we tend to deal with them by watering down the term itself. These three terms have been used so frequently in the media, and often totally inappropriately, that our minds have become inured to them. Their dilution in this way anaesthetises us to the uneasiness we try to suppress about our own part (or our government’s part in our name) in all the suffering caused today by greed for wealth and power - or realpolitik as its perpetrators prefer to name it.
Arabs and Jews are locked in a conflict going back to misrule by Ottoman Turks and the British Mandate long before the state of Israel was created. The UN’s creation of the state of Israel intended a parallel Palestinian state which didn’t happen. Instead, Israel has been forced to fight for its existence against heavy local odds. The prime enemy for both sides, as I experienced it in my latest visit to Israel, is not ‘the other’ but fear accompanied by suspicion, mistrust and, in some cases, loss of belief that peace is possible.
Shefer-Vanson is right to remind us that the Arabs in Israel and the West Bank have better living conditions and greater freedom than the Kurds in Turkey or Muslim women in France. She might have added that the treatment of Roma/Gypsy/Travellers in Britain - and right across Europe - is closer to apartheid than the experience of Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians. Many Gypsy communities are totally excluded from our government’s much-vaunted ‘community cohesion’ and have no means of claiming their voice, let alone their rights.
Something more akin to apartheid is developing in Britain. Deep-seated and repressed feelings of helplessness and guilt about what Britain did, in our name, in the run-up to the state of Israel and is doing to people in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, are becoming unbearable. We are driven to try and find the ‘good side’ to support against the ‘bad side’ so that we can feel ‘good’ and locate all the ‘bad’ out there in the ‘other side’. The media have done a pretty good job of presenting the Palestinians as the ‘under-dog’ - Brits have always loved the ‘under-dog’ and this sells papers and hypes up TV ratings. Hence the rise of anti-Zionism in all its forms and inability to see the conflict as, in Amos Oz’s words in How to Cure a Fanatic, between right and right and between wrong and wrong.
There is no ‘good side’ or ‘bad side’ and we are deluded if we create such ‘sides’. We need to stop playing blame games and turn our energy and money to supporting projects that benefit both Arabs and Jews and help them to negotiate a peaceful solution.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
Sir – A number of your letter-writers continually blame Israel for the elusive peace. But how does one achieve genuine peace in a notoriously unstable part of the world?
Israelis live in a region where an agreement counts for little. Egypt is a case in point. That ‘cold peace’ has become shaky, which is not of Israel’s doing. According to a recent poll, most Egyptians are in favour of annulling the peace treaty with Israel, although Israel doesn’t occupy one inch of Egyptian soil. Land for peace anyone?
Turkey, which denies the genocide of the Armenians, has chosen to align itself with the Iranian Holocaust deniers, who are threatening the next one.
Israel finds itself in a locality where withdrawals and compromise are viewed as weakness and countered with rocket fire – you cannot make peace with those who seek your destruction. And yet, one reader states that no Palestinian leader wants to eliminate the Jewish state. On this, I would rather take the word of Abbas, who vowed that not a single Jew would be allowed in their future state. Did anyone cry apartheid?
The era of strong Arab leaders who can be ‘bought’ by Uncle Sam to keep the peace seems over. Now that the Arab ‘street’ has flexed its muscles, it also calls the tune: any leader who wants to keep his throne has to play to the street.
Peace sounds all too easy to the sanctimonious with a universalist Anschauung, who naively apply Western parameters to a volatile and brutal region. The ideal of ‘In Defence of Doves’ (your December 2010 issue) is fine if you live in Belsize Park, but in a tough neighbourhood one must hope for the best but prepare for the worst. In the final analysis, it’s the Israelis who are best placed to be the judge of this.