Oct 2009 Journal
Letters to the Editor
‘MY VIENNA IS DEAD’
Sir - Though now back in my home in Sydney, Australia, I can still enjoy your wonderful journal on the internet. I was moved by a letter in your September issue from Mrs. E. Holden, which she concludes: ‘England is my home. I love it and belong to it - warts and all!’ It reminded me of my father and uncle, who were my only blood relatives to escape the Holocaust. My father never wanted to return to Prague to a way of life that no longer existed, as Mrs. Holden found in Vienna. Instead, he became more British than the British. Whatever he might say at home, if anyone ever criticised Britain in public, he would immediately rise to its defence.
Integration and patriotism for their adopted countries have always seemed to me to be the cardinal duties and virtues of refugees and migrants.
Sir – How I agree with Mrs Holden! I was born in the Patzmanitengasse and lived there until I came to England. The kosher butcher with whom she enquired, an immigrant from Russia, did not know of the beautiful synagogue I attended regularly in the Patzmanitengasse, which was burned down on Kristallnacht.
When I was in Vienna a few years ago, we made sure that the Kultusgemeinde put a memorial tablet for our beautiful Tempel on the house built on the ground where the Tempel had stood.
Sir - My father is a member of the AJR and I recently read some of the newsletters. My own position is very different - though born and bred in Bradford, I am actually a rabbi working in several congregations in Germany and Austria! And it struck me that although several of your correspondents wrote about visiting important former places for them in Berlin, Vienna and so forth, there seems to be little awareness of the existence of living communities once more in some of these cities and towns.
They remain small and they cannot be compared to what existed before the war. In Germany, many of them are also dominated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have little understanding even now for the nuances of German-Jewish history. Nevertheless, should one of your readers - a survivor or child of survivors - be interested in visiting a synagogue service or a community centre when exploring former ‘roots’, this is something I would encourage.
Clearly some readers tend towards Orthodoxy, others are Reform or Liberal, and yet others atheist, so there are no simple answers to offer. I work in the small Liberal communities, badly underfunded and usually not given any of the state support lavished on certain more Orthodox communities (officially Einheitsgemeinden). Nevertheless, we try to maintain a living Jewish presence in these places, which have known such a destructive past. There are ‘Liberal’ or open, tolerant and welcoming Jewish communities in Vienna, Munich and Cologne, in Schleswig-Holstein and Hanover, and many other cities. Some of them have websites; details of some can be found in yearbooks and Jewish travel guides. But if anyone is travelling to Germany or Austria and is interested, I would also be glad to respond by e-mail to any queries about communities.
‘GOD ON TRIAL’
Sir – The unjustified and erroneous statements on Reform and Liberal Judaism expressed by Margarete Stern (September) demand a refutation. She wrote: ‘[I]f left to Reform and the Liberals, the Jewish “race” would have got diluted even more as no one … can deny.’ I, for one, am denying it.
Having the experience of leading congregations over 60 years and having served for a decade as Chairman of the Rabbinic Board of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, I can testify that the opposite is true.
The adherence to Jewish status solely on matriarchal descent, the agonies endured by Agunot, the restrictions imposed on Cohanim, and the demands put on prospective proselytes by Orthodox authorities have led to considerable dilution of Jewry, whilst Liberal Jewish attitudes and practices are strengthening and enriching Jewish life.
Sir – Peter Phillips attacks the sincerely held beliefs of Mrs Stern and makes wild, unsubstantiated statements asserting that the Torah was authored by men.
God was the author of the Torah and He gave it to the Children of Israel orally via Moses, who spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai receiving it. Moses handed it on to Joshua and it was passed on by mouth through the generations until in times of persecution it was feared that it could be lost and it was then written down.
A Liberal Jew once went on a train journey and saw his Liberal ‘rabbi’ eating a ham sandwich. The minister said to his congregant: ‘I suppose you are surprised to see me eating this!’ ‘Oh no’, said the man, ‘I am only surprised you call yourself a rabbi!’
Rabbiner Samson Raphael Hirsch, staunch defender of Orthodoxy against the inroads of Reform in the nineteenth century, aptly summed it up: ‘They [the Liberals] permit that which God has forbidden us.’
Sir – We live in a state of emergency, where intermarriage is rampant and the fires of confusion and assimilation are raging. When a fire is burning, everyone is responsible for helping his fellow man in a caring and kind manner, for the essential thing is the deed!
In response to the challenges expressed in previous issues of the Journal which question the 13 Principles of Faith codified by Maimonides, I would like in a courteous and brief manner to address one of the most fundamental issues raised. Faith is not the absence of reason: it is a skill in its own right, which, when cultivated, allows us to experience the ultimate. Man can never be happy if he does not nourish his soul as he does his body.
Sir - Peter Phillips’s latest diatribe (July) betrays a Voltairean dogmatism that shows how little he understands the Jewish doctrine of Torah min Hashamyim (Revelation) and so is reduced to abusing an Orthodox Jew as a ‘poor deluded creature [who] believes that the Torah ... was actually written by God and not by man’.
He should endeavour to find out what he is attacking instead of displaying his prejudices for all to see. Unfortunately, a letter is inadequate for a full discussion but he can read an exposition in my book A Time to Speak (Devora Publishing, August 2009), which should be available from Borders and most Jewish bookstores or over the internet from Amazon.
Perhaps, when he has had a chance to study it, he will be able to write in a more reasoned manner on the subject.
LITTLE BLUE BOOK
Sir – If S. Muller cares to peruse the front page of the August issue he will see that the standards of education and culture were unequalled among German-speaking Jews on the Continent.
My parents made tremendous sacrifices in the 1930s slump to give me a good start in life. Moreover, my non-Jewish piano teacher went on teaching me free of charge after the Anschluss, although Aryans were strictly forbidden to have anything to do with Jews. She risked arrest and even concentration camp.
What aroused my anger most in the ‘Blue Book’ was that the boys were going to be allocated to agriculture and menial ‘trades’ and girls to nursing and domestic service. ‘That’s what you were brought here for. Think of the pioneers in Palestine; they did not mind getting their hands dirty.’ They did it to build up their country voluntarily, and they already had their education and professions.
A great deal of emotional, if not mental, damage was suffered by us children. I myself was in hospital eight months for nervous breakdowns in 1939-40.
As for your renowned Lady Reading, she was well known as a snob. During the war, the Government offered to issue extra clothing coupons for us deprived, parentless children but she declined, saying ‘Hand-me-downs are good enough for my refugees.’
Incidentally, the two girls from the hostel who went into domestic service to her wrote to us and told us how unhappy they were there.
As for ‘concentration camp and gas chambers’, I would have been far better off if I had gone to Shanghai with my parents or even to a kibbutz in Palestine, as I was preparing to do.
There is a book called And the Policeman Smiled which gives a truthful account of the Kindertransport. More people ought to read it.
DON’T OFFEND THE NATIVES
Sir – I’m a post-war addition to the ranks of newcomers. Evidently, by that time the Anglo-Jewish establishment no longer considered the ‘Little Blue Book’ essential reading. I suppose things changed with the war and certainly not because the bunch of unruly youngsters I came with were not lacking in civility. Betty Bloom’s mention of the condescending attitude to refugees (August) brings to mind an amusing tale from that period. It’s no joke - it actually happened!
After a group of German refugees had been counselled on proper conduct, lest the natives be offended, one gentleman got so peeved that he rose to his feet and hurled back at the speaker: ‘You Breetish sink vee forenners know bugger nussing, vell I tell you, vee know bugger all!’
MY DAD SALO KESTEN
Sir - My father died in July of complications from Parkinson’s. I hope I may use your Journal both to let this be known and to invite those who knew him to contribute their recollections to a paper I am producing.
He came here from Vienna in 1938, as, separately, did my mother. They married in 1947 and had both been members of a ‘Young Austrians’ choir. After the war he worked first as a tailor in Saville Row and, more recently, as the trade union representative for the bespoke tailoring trade in London. Until his late 70s, he was on the Board of the Tailors Benevolent Institute and still able to find employment for people who rang him. His commitment was such that he set up a grinding stone at home to sharpen scissors for tailors. On a number of occasions he organised reunions of ‘Young Austrians’ and I recently wrote to those whose addresses I could find.
I decided not to hold a memorial event because many of his friends are now too frail to attend one. I intend to collate whatever comments I get with at least some of an autobiography he was writing and with some pictures I have found (including, I believe, one of my father at about two) and send them to those who contribute.
‘WHERE WERE YOU ON D-DAY’?
Sir – In contrast with Ken Shindler (your September issue), I was at school, in North Wales, preparing for my School Certificate examination. For some reason, newspapers were not allowed in the school, although as a dayboy I had heard the news. The first lesson in the morning for my class was Latin and our teacher, Walter Fischer (from Vienna!), always told us the news, in the form of sentences to be translated into Latin. That morning it was something like ‘The Allied forces have landed successfully on the coast of France. There is very heavy fighting.’
CONFUSED AS NEVER BEFORE
Sir - Peter Phillips’s thoughtful article in your September issue highlights the sad course of events in and around Israel over the years. I remember the admiration most of the world expressed about the kibbutz movement and about creating a healthy and prosperous country out of a patch of land which had been little more than a sandy desert. There was international appreciation of Israel’s resourcefulness in the 1967 Six-Day War and the world’s press couldn’t praise Israel enough for her daring exploits at Entebbe. Dr T. Scarlett Epstein rightly mentions the many shortcomings of Arabs surrounding Israel, and all the real and imagined wrongs they have suffered at the hands of Israel do not excuse some of their actions. And yet, and yet - I do wish Israel would stop building new settlements in the West Bank. I hope Peter Phillips does not consider this ‘fighting among ourselves’.
‘FREMDWÖRTER SIND GLÜCKSACHE’
Sir – My mother used to say ‘Fremdwörter sind Glücksache’ - meaning that the use of words of foreign derivation is a matter of luck. I do not believe that, in their final paragraph (August issue), Ros and Jane Merkin meant that Dorothea Shefer-Vanson’s ideas would cause a bonfire, but rather that they ‘conflate’ into a single belief. I note that you reserve the right to shorten correspondence – why not also correct obvious errors?
Sir – I value your magazine – took it over from my mother when she died.
Sir - Regarding the Cosmo Restaurant in Finchley Road, I believe it was originally called the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, as we Northerners called it. It became the Cosmo as the letters ‘politan’ gradually fell off and were not replaced.
Sir - I much enjoyed Anthony Grenville’s recent leading article, which explored the development of the German psyche since the defeat of Nazism. I was wondering why a similar journey for Austrians has not necessarily brought them to the same place. Their current, enshrined neutrality was brought about by geopolitical forces outside Austria and they also have the rather flimsy excuse of the Anschluss to hide behind for their own exculpation. The elections in November 1945 were distinct for being free and anti-Communist and perhaps this, together with the beginnings of the Cold War, enabled the Austrians to retain their conservative views without extirpating their Nazi roots, thus allowing a continuity from pre-war rather than the total disconnect caused in Germany.
Following your theme of the female experience determining the sociological development of Germany, I would be interested to hear why this didn’t work in Austria.
Please continue to produce such thought-provoking articles.
RESCUE OF REFUGEE SCHOLARS
Sir – Warm thanks for your recent excellent feature ‘The Rescue of Refugee Scholars’. The Society for Protection of Science and Learning was one of the most effective refugee assistance organisations. Those involved, like its secretary Esther Simpson, cared not only for the scholars as individuals but also for their families, especially their children. The attitude was to assist the persecuted as people. The physiologist A. V. Hill was a long-term supporter of refugee scientists and physicians. He took someone from an ordinary non-academic family from Vienna into his household: a 17-year-old girl, Erica Guttmann (my mother-to-be).
Importantly, the Society continues today. Now known as the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA), it is busier than ever because of the persecution and intolerance worldwide. CARA maintains its excellence in valuing every refugee as an individual person. The experiences of the 1930s help a new generation of the displaced and persecuted. CARA would be pleased to hear from anyone (and their families) who was helped in the past or wishes to support its work today.