Monday 11 November 2013

Remembrance and Hope

The Service was titled “A Service of Solemn Remembrance and Hope on the 75th Anniversary of Kristallnacht”.  The part that interested me was “hope”.  How do you keep hope in the face of death and destruction?

Kristallnacht – or the Night of Broken Glass - took place on the 9/10 November 1938 across Germany, occupied Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia occupied by Germany. We went to Westminster Abbey on Sunday night for an interdenominational service of remembrance.  It is rather poignant that this anniversary occurs during our Remembrance Week. 

This “spontaneous” violence was carefully orchestrated and 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland were attacked - broken glass referring to the streets littered with the glass of the windows. Many synagogues burned throughout the night, in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. SA and Hitler Youth members across the country shattered the shop windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned commercial establishments. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions.

Although murder was not directed, close to 100 Jews died. The SS and Gestapo arrested about 30,000 Jewish men, and transferred most of them from local prisons to Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and other concentration camps. Hundreds died in the camps as a result of the brutal treatment they endured; most obtained release over the next three months on the condition that they begin the process of emigration from Germany.

Ironically this probably saved many thousands of Jewish lives as the effects of Kristallnacht served as a spur to the emigration of Jews to those countries that would have them and, as Rabbi Julia Neuberger so eloquently said – there were individuals amongst the British consular staff who stretched every rule to help thousands enter Britain.

We heard very moving testimonies from a man, who as a boy had seen from the balcony of his apartment his parents’ shop smashed with his parent in the store, a woman who survived in the camps because her parents starved to death so she could eat and another, as a boy, had managed to survive the camps and ended up here building a successful life. Is that where hope comes in?

Chillingly, the passivity with which most German civilians responded to the violence signaled to the Nazi regime that the German public would accept measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life, moving eventually towards policies of forced emigration, and finally towards the realization of a Germany “free of Jews” (judenrein).

"All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."

Saturday 9 November 2013

Day of Remembrance

I walked past Westminster Abbey on Tuesday morning on my way to a meeting.  People were kneeling in the pouring rain hammering small wooden crosses topped with red poppies into the lawn outside.  On my way back the rain had stopped and I walked through the garden reading all the countries, regiments and organisations represented.  No doubt by the time the service at the Cenotaph takes place on Sunday it will be full.

There is always a strident minority that campaign not to wear red poppies as they “glorifiy war”.  They don’t seem to realise that they memorialise death – a predictable consequence of war.  Besides that, the money goes to the Royal British Legion who take care of the families and the wounded without challenging whether this war was better than that war – I am wearing mine. 

I thought it was sad for many years when South Africa was out in the wilderness that their ambassador never laid a wreath in memory of the thousands of South Africans who fought and those who died, particularly in World War II.  There was no conscription in South Africa (and it was touch and go whether the government of the day supported the Allies or the Axis powers). 

Those who signed up did it out of conscience: my father, recently qualified as a surgeon and newly married, served on a British hospital ship during the war, coming back to start his surgical practice from scratch at the end.  He spoke very rarely about his experiences apart from the fact that he once operated for three days and nights with only brief naps while the operating theatre was prepared for the next patient. My mother did tell me, after he died, of the nightmares he suffered for several years afterwards. I wear my poppy out of respect for him and many others. 

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Biltong, boerewors and tomato sauce chips

It is not the least surprising that every high street now seems to have a Polish shop. As an immigrant (or even if you are just working in a different country) the most nostalgia attaches to the food you have left behind.

We may laugh at English pubs and cups of English breakfast tea in far flung places but while I feel you should be able to manage in a foreign country for a couple of weeks without the food and drink of home – if you are living there – well that is something very different.

When we first lived in London in the 1960s I was desperately homesick – a telephone call home had to be booked two days in advance and cost £1 a minute (and I was earning £15 a week) so no familiar voices just weekly letters.  Arriving in London in January from a Johannesburg summer was no joke - but all that could be overcome but no familiar food for comfort was eventually very hard to bear.

I struggled at the butcher as many of the cuts of meat had different names (my mother sent me a butcher’s poster which I took with me so he could ‘rename’ the cuts of meat for me.)  But I needed boerewors (a spicy all meat sausage, the main seasoning being crushed coriander). What to do. I bought the intestines (yuck, yuck) rinsed them, mixed the meat and spices and spent ages stuffing the sausages and tying the slippery ends.  It was almost a day’s work and we ate them in one meal.  My butcher took pity on me and in future I delivered the mixture to him on the day he made sausages and he put them through his machine.

Now there are several butcher shops selling South African specialties.  I recently tasted some biltong from Limpopo Butchers in Acton and spent three hours in the car going there and back to buy some more (and boerewors of course).  The traffic coming back was so slow that I opened one bag and started on the biltong – I nearly cried for joy it was so good!! They also had tomato sauce chips (tomato ketchup crisps to you) so a bag each for my children – that’s their soul food memory.  Next time Elizabeth Ann Baby Shampoo for Number two granddaughter and Peppermint Crisps....

Saturday 2 November 2013

South Africa – some childhood context

Shortly after writing the blog, Cosmos - the flower not the universe, where I alluded to my childhood in South Africa in the 1950s I saw a school project that Number One Grandson had created about African Americans. 

It reminded me of some facts I had forgotten. While South Africa was being vilified for its racial segregation policies from the 1950s onwards – they were not alone.  I do remember after the crisis in Little Rock Arkansas where black students were prevented from enrolling at a white high school, a riot ensued and presidential intervention was required.  South Africans cynically said to American criticism – ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw Little Rocks’.  This was in 1957 only two years after Rosa Parks tried to sit in a “white” seat on a bus in 1955.

The Jim Crow laws were only repealed in 1965. These legally enforced racial segregation in the South – separate but equal (where have I heard that before), whereas in the North it was in practice rather than in law.

I don’t want to defend for one moment the race laws in South Africa – racial discrimination in the UK during this time was in practice rather than in law – all prejudice is abhorrent (anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim etc ). I remember in the 1960s in London when people heard my South African accent they could be very abusive: people can be so self righteous about something they know little about – “hey guys ask me why I left?”

The family of a childhood friend went to live in New York in 1962. They were negotiating to buy a very expensive apartment in Manhattan when the sale was suddenly cancelled as the building was “restricted”. The agent apologised as she had not realised they were Jewish (they weren’t called Cohen or Goldberg!) – no Jews or blacks allowed. Towards the end of the decade I saw an application form for a London golf club – “have you ever changed your name and if so what was your name before you changed it?”  There was a joke that did the rounds at the time where Cohen changed his name to Smith and then to Jones so that he could answer that question with “Smith”. 

Earlier this week we went to see the National Theatre production of Frankenstein screened at our local cinema. The play, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Nick Dear follows the Creature rather than Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s creation was an empty vessel that learned hate and violence from the way people treated him.  Lots of resonances there.