Nov 2011 Journal
Letters to the Editor
Sir – An interesting ‘if’ question seems to me to arise out of Anthony Grenville’s splendid aperçu of Austrian history in your October issue.
If there had been no Sarajevo, and Franz Ferdinand had succeeded the old gentleman in the normal way in 1916 (I am assuming that a general European war would have come only a generation or so later), would the Karl/Otto line ever have ascended? Or would Franz Ferdinand, once he had become emperor, have succeeded in ‘de-morganaticising’ Sophie and would the way therefore have been paved for his Hohenberg son eventually?
Otto came to London under the auspices of the British Hungarian Society about six years ago and gave a talk on current Central European issues in a committee room at the House of Lords. I went and was much impressed. At well over 90, he was – in excellent, if heavily accented, English – totally in command of the situation and did not falter for a second. His daughter, Countess Ilona Esterhazy, who is married to Mark Bicknell and who lives in this country, sat next to him. He spoke for an hour.
Sir - I always enjoy Anthony Grenville’s articles, but this month ‘The Habsburg twilight’, and one paragraph in particular, brought memories flooding back. Yes, ‘The Radetzky March’!
My late father, born in 1908, originated in the town of Gnesen in the province of Posen, Germany. He told me that his father was brought up by his grandmother alone from an early age as her husband was a soldier and had been killed in some conflict (I have a picture of him in uniform dated 1840-ish). My father also spoke of one of his uncles who was a soldier as well and a knee dancer who used to perform in front of the troops as they marched. I recently discovered that Gnesen is where infantry and cavalry regiments had their fixed quarters.
As a boy aged six in 1950, I remember that every Sunday after lunch my late father would go into the front room and play the piano. He would run through a medley of tunes but always finish with ‘The Radetzky March’, which he would belt out at full blast. A very happy memory, thank you!
HISTORY OF THE KINDERTRANSPORTS
Sir – I am always keenly interested in the articles by Anthony Grenville and ‘A history of the Kindertransports’ in your September issue was no exception and held my particular attention.
The contribution made by Rabbi Dr Schonfeld in the name of Jewish children from the continent was touched upon. I well remember the instance of the youths whom he brought to England after the war as I was one of the pupils of the Avigdor High School who returned to London at the end of the evacuation from Shefford (Beds.).
Moreover, it seems that studies have been made of the Jewish children who came to England before and after the war. I wonder, however, whether any research has been done regarding Jewish children who escaped to this country during the war, as my mother, sister and I were fortunate to do, fleeing from France via Spain and Portugal and arriving in Bristol (by air) on 19 February 1942. I would be interested to learn about any other refugees/survivors.
Sir – Re Anthony Grenville’s review of it in your September issue, Vera Fast’s A History of the Kindertransport is the most comprehensive statement I have so far read. And it is very readable by anyone. A full academic study, which - according to some - needs to be written, may not achieve the same.
CHILDHOOD IN LETCHWORTH
Sir – I was very interested in the article ‘Jewish life in Letchworth’ in your October issue as I lived in Letchworth myself at one time.
My family had come from Germany in 1937. We lived in Highgate before the war and stayed there until the early weeks of the Blitz in 1940. Then, when a colleague was killed in an air raid, my father decided that we must leave London and we moved to Letchworth. My (somewhat patchy) recollection is that we all – father, mother and two children – lived in one room at first and had to go through the kitchen to reach the only bathtub in the house. Somewhat better accommodation was found after a while. I believe, incidentally, that my parents knew the Kirsch family quite well.
I was still at school in 1940 (in the sixth form) and travelled to London every morning by the workman’s train, which left Letchworth at 6.33 and arrived at King’s Cross at 7.58 – then on to University College School in Hampstead (the school had big cellars serving as air raid shelters and had decided to stay in London). I also went rowing for the school and often didn’t return to Letchworth until 10 in the evening. My homework was done on the train.
Letchworth was, no doubt, a pleasant place in which to live but I found it boring, with many churches and no pubs. At any rate, we were spared the Blitz.
Sir – I remember my childhood as an evacuee in Letchworth during the Second World War. On his release from internment, my father regularly attended the Sephardi services with me in tow. I marvelled at the magnificently plated boxes containing the Torah scrolls and, at Chanukah, the no-candle oil-burning cruse tray. Many a time after we had put our coats on and were leaving, Rabbi Sassoon would send his Indian servant to fetch us back from beyond the gate for a sumptuous lunch - a mitzvah for which we were always very grateful. A lush affair in those days was a reception after the wedding of Flora Sassoon, which extended to the lawn at Sollershott West on a fine summer’s day, I recall.
My mother made me sing, resentfully, a Christmas carol in the cold, standing outside the door of a Quaker lady who had helped us earlier with gifts of clothes.
However, we were not safe from the Luftwaffe. One night, with the aid of a stirrup pump, my father helped the landlord extinguish an incendiary bomb which had glanced off the roof during an air raid. Next day, two more (unexploded) bombs were found in the grounds in Letchworth Lane: the Spirella corset factory, then making parachutes (I was told in hushed tones), may have been the target. Cheder for me was Ashkenazi and on the other side of town. I carried a torch to get me home in the black-out.
I still have my B’nai Akiva badge, but my Irish holiday with them after the war is another story.
A WONDERFUL CELEBRATION LUNCH
Sir - I have just come home from the most wonderful 70th Anniversary Lunch of the AJR. It was outstanding and I would like to thank the organisers and all the volunteers for all their hard work. It certainly was appreciated by me.
Sir – Having attended an AJR Lunch for the first time, I want to tell you that my wife and I enjoyed it hugely.
As a longstanding critic with the Munich Opera Magazine and as a trained amateur opera singer myself, I very much enjoyed your excellent quartet. The superb, powerful and technically faultless singing of Jonathan Fisher stood out on a level on its own. But each of the four artists gave of their best, which was very good indeed.
Finally, may I say how much I appreciated your chairman’s interesting report, which indicated the fantastic amount of work which he is doing on our behalf.
Sir - We attended the 70th Anniversary Celebration Lunch at the Hilton Hotel, Watford and wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed both the entertainment and the catering. Many thanks for all your efforts in making this Lunch a great success.
Sir – I am writing to show my appreciation of the wonderful 70th Anniversary Lunch and concert at the Watford Hilton. My family and I loved the lunch and tea and the operatic concert was the best ever. All the artists taking part were excellent. It was a lovely choice of programme, a great violinist and pianist and very talented singers.
Thank you to all the staff at the AJR for giving us this memorable great occasion and for all the good work you have done during the past years for us since we came as refugees. Special thanks to Susie Kaufman and all the staff at Cleve Road Day Centre when it closes at the end of the year to relocate to Belsize Square Synagogue. We will always have fond memories of the Cleve Road Day Centre.
ANNIVERSARY OF OCTOBER 4
Sir - October 4 is a significant anniversary which we should joyfully celebrate. Seventy-five years ago, October 4 was a cloudless, sunny Sunday and was pencilled in as the day that would prove beyond doubt the popularity and invincibility of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) in a march by them through London’s Jewish quarter. Despite months of attempts to split the Jews from the Irish, and both from the poorest Londoners, and despite weeks of intimidatory attacks, particularly on Jews, at Gardiner’s Corner at Aldgate and round the corner in Cable Street, the 3,000 black-shirted bullies met the united might of the local residents. Happily, they got a very bloody nose and ultimately stumbled and staggered in retreat to Temple Tube Station.
We should also joyfully remember that the locals did not stand alone. Progressives and radicals of diverse hues banded round them and supported local organisations, especially the Jewish People’s Council – perhaps a lesson for us when we read of the treatment of Travellers and asylum-seekers. Also, we need to recall that this failure caused or contributed to Italian money drying up and the BUF going into a gradual but steady decline. How many Kindertransportees owe their lives to the growing political irrelevance of organised Fascism in Britain?
Sir - Recently my wife and I saw the film Marga, presented by Ludi Boeken (Jewish, born in Amsterdam just after the Second World War) and based on the book Unter Bauern – Retter in der Nacht. It is a splendid film on a Holocaust theme, showing how the former comrades of the Jewish horse dealer Menne Spiegel hid him in one of their stables and allowed his wife and little daughter to assume a new identity as refugees from a bombed city in Westphalia despite the initial opposition of their families. The film is closely based on the book by Menne’s wife Marga, which is based on her diary. The mainly Jewish audience here in Brussels, fascinated, debated for a couple of hours the interplay of conflicting emotions - the peasants’ fear of being found out and accused of treason; the Jews’ parallel fears; Menne’s loneliness leading to mental breakdown; and some surprises at the end of the war with the US army.
I think this film would be of interest to AJR members because there must be many survivors who experienced some of the happenings portrayed and because it highlights a few of the 450 ‘Just of the Nations’ in Germany itself.
MICHAEL SANKIE MEMOIR
Sir - I was very interested to see this item in your August issue, although, since it is only an extract from a larger account, it is not clear how Michael came to Birmingham or what was his age at the time or the date. Since he was 19 in 1946, he must have been very young and it was perhaps about 1939?
Michael talks about ‘Wolf Levy’, whom I identify as Reverend Wolf Lewi, appointed as First Reader to Singers Hill Synagogue, Birmingham in 1933. As a child, I was fascinated by Reverend Lewi’s magnificent voice - he could have had a career as an opera singer - and, later in my life, I was privileged to have been the GP to Reverend Lewi and other members of his family. Reverend Lewi’s only son, David, was for many years a Midlands-based solicitor and now lives in retirement in London. He does not see your Journal but I have sent him the relevant page and he has already made contact, and enjoyed a long reminiscence, with Michael.
What of ‘the Chief Rabbi of Birmingham’? I had not realised my native town was so important as to have a chief rabbi! However, I identify this person as the Reverend Dr Abraham Cohen (1887-1957), Chief Minister at Singers Hill from 1913 to 1949 before he became President of the Board of Deputies (the only religious leader in the Board’s entire history to have held such a position). My late first wife, Jane (née Mindelsohn, 1938-84), was a granddaughter of Dr Cohen and her family and the Lewi family were close friends. Dr Cohen never took Semicha and so was not a rabbi, but he was a most eminent Jewish scholar and editor of the Soncino Chumash (and many other books of theological significance). The only other time I have ever seen him described (incorrectly as mentioned) as a rabbi is on the marriage certificate of his eldest son, which document Dr Cohen probably never saw since he was most certainly not present at the wedding. Michael Cohen married in a Catholic ceremony on Shabbat and Dr Cohen never saw his son again (his wife was not so resolute in her disapproval and saw him occasionally, surreptitiously, when her husband was not around).
As to why Dr Cohen is described as a rabbi on his son’s marriage certificate, we can only speculate and there is nobody around now who can give a definitive answer. It could have been Michael, in a continuing act of defiance, naming his father in such terms while knowing it was untrue; or it could have been simply the secular registrar, not knowing enough about the niceties of such intra-religious distinctions, giving him the label because it sounded right! The ‘marriage out’ cast a shadow over the Cohen family for two generations (my late wife was unaware she had this uncle until she was herself an adult), but such is one of the ironies of our people’s history that father and son now lie buried within a few yards of each other in the Witton Jewish cemetery.
A SHARK BY ANY OTHER NAME
Sir - A note to correct the information in all the biographies of Robert Capa, whose photos feature prominently in the current exhibition of Hungarian photographers in the 20th century at the Royal Academy (reviewed by Gloria Tessler in your September issue).
They all claim that he and his girlfriend, Gerda Taro, invented the name Capa to help him get work with an equally invented career. The truth is that Friedman, as he was known before, got the nickname Capa (pronounced something like Tsapa) at school in his native Budapest. Capa means shark in Hungarian. If one reads about his life, the nickname Shark is not altogether ill-fitting.
‘GRIST TO THE REVISIONISTS’ MILL’
Sir - Having read reviews of it in the AJR Journal and elsewhere, and even heard a talk by the author, I was determined to read The English German Girl by Jake Wallis Simons.
It’s a good novel - no doubt about that! The trouble with fiction of this kind, though, as distinct from straight reportage, is that the reader has the task of separating fact from fiction. Gas masks, for example, are worn in the novel throughout the war years, when in fact they were a 1939 panic measure and people had lost interest in them by the second year of the war. For 80-year-olds like me, this deprives the book of authenticity.
More important is the visit, shortly after the war, of the heroine to Bloomsbury House to see lists of concentration camp victims and the dates of their deaths. I made such a visit myself at the time, and the lists on the wall were of survivors and their dates of birth - not victims and their dates of death. Indeed, a moment’s thought would have made it clear that the murderers did not employ a registrar to record the date on which they committed each individual murder. The only records in most cases are of the dates on which victims were put on the transports.
All this would matter less if this were just a novel. As soon as there is any pretence to historical reporting, as by appending a list of real-life characters, small errors and inconsistencies are grist to the revisionists’ mill. It is a vital requirement of Holocaust literature that it cannot be accused of being fictional, as there are people out there who are only too ready to reject the nub of the story together with the little inconsistencies they find.