After I had been back in London four days, I took the tube train across the city to Willesden to look up Iris’ friend, Miss Irena S. I did it from a sense of duty without any great enthusiasm. I was back in civvy street, still on leave, trying to find my bearings. But I felt like a fish out of water and I was very unsettled and unhappy. Much as I had detested the army, I could not see how I would ever settle down to a civilian job in London. The very paving stones shrieked to me of the days I had spent walking them when I was a poverty-stricken boy. The aftermath of war did not promise any greater prosperity. Taxes were high, everything was enormously expensive, while wages were low. I began to see more years of dismal struggle ahead. Had we all been through the war for nothing beyond this? How was I to find some avenue of progress?
I came to Willesden at lunchtime, and knocked at the door of a suburban house. It was opened by a spectacled, middle-aged woman.
“Irena!” she screams up the stairs, and in a few moments Irena comes clattering down. She is in her early twenties, straight-haired and long, fine features in which I can somehow sense her Polish ancestry. I notice that she has a very good figure. She addresses me in excellent English with a faint accent that I found difficult to place.
“Good afternoon. What can I do for you?”
“I’m from Iris. I’ve just returned from Palestine.”
“Oh, yes. I received a letter from her a short time ago. How is she?”
“She’s in good health, and sends her best regards.”
And so on and so on, until Miss Irena suddenly says, “I have to go to work now. This is my lunch hour. Couldn’t we meet tonight and talk?”
Meet and talk? The whole night long? Oh, but I can’t. I am absolutely browned off and fed up, and the last thing I want to do is make polite conversation with Iris’s friend. Anyway, the girl is Jewish. So it’ll be a platonic emotionless exercise from the start, because Jewish girls don’t go for goyim. I just couldn’t stand up to such frigidly polite protracted make-believe in my present poisonous mood.
“You can’t make it?” Miss Irena is saying. “Why? Have you got a date?”
I can see that she is prepared to argue the toss, but before I can stop the words, I have admitted that I haven’t got a date.”
“I haven’t got a date either,” says Miss Irena. “So I’ll meet you outside the underground station at six.”
She gets ready for work, and I take a train back to the west end. Miss Irena is apparently a forceful character with a way of handling things. Oh, well, I suppose if I’m with somebody else it’ll leave less time for introspection.
At six o’clock a train from the west end redeposits me at Willesden where Miss Irena, with her hair newly set and her nose daintily powdered is waiting for me. Where shall we go? Back to the west end, of course, decides Miss S, and I agree with that, because that’s where the magic of London resides. So back we go, and I begin to think that maybe it’s not so bad. I’ve been out of the army four days, and it looks as if I’ve already got myself a girl friend. We spend the evening arm in arm walking through the cool London night, listening to the never ceasing rumble of the traffic, and talking interminably.
Near Victoria Station, on the way to Westminster, Miss Irena suddenly discovers that her high-heeled shoe is pinching, and stands on one leg to adjust it. By God, what lovely slim ankles and shapely calves she’s got. I really like that in a woman! As she adjusts her shoe, she leans on me for support. Hmm! A figure as slender as a reed, but as feminine as the Venus de Milo. I like that too!
The cool breeze lightly touches our faces. It is October, and the northern winter will soon be with us. The traffic rumbles. The twinkling lights of the great city are echoed by the twinkling stars in the cloudless night sky above. Later, as we approach the Houses of Parliament, Miss Irena feels tired, so we sit on a bench near the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Later still, Miss S remarks that it is turning rather cold, and moves closer to me for warmth. I put an arm around her, in a fatherly, protective fashion. But somehow this seems inadequate. And finally, beneath the yellow, illuminated moon face of Big Ben, I find myself kissing Miss Irena with unrestrained and very unfatherly enthusiasm. She is wearing a ruby red lipstick that tastes as sweet as sugared strawberries. By gee, I like that in a woman!
All good things come to an end. As we rise to go, Irena says, “The very first moment I saw you I knew you were the man I was going to marry.”
I seem suddenly to have jumped six feet in the air. Whoa!! Hold your horses, Sis! We were just having a matey smooch. A simple kiss between friends. Nothing more.
Shut your noise, Foxon, and save your breath. You have just had your first experience of the steel trap Irena mind. You clearly don’t know it yet, but Miss Irena has already crossed her Rubicon, and that means that you’ve also crossed yours.
I capitulated shortly afterwards, and we were married in April, 1947, at the Willesden Registry Office in north London. This was the last day of the income tax year, and I got a taxation rebate for supporting a wife for the whole of the preceding twelve months. Irene and I were equally happy about such a good bit of business. Several years later, when my brother got married, he worked it the same way. Nobody in our family likes paying taxes.
Irena had been in England just over a year when I met her. On arrival in the country, although she had picked up a great deal of English in the Middle East, her grasp of the language was still not perfect. German was her native language, Hebrew was still her second language, and English number three on the list. However, she insisted, as always, on speaking only the language of the country she was in. As a result of this, at the time of our meeting, her English was fluent, apart from minor errors such as saying “mit” for “with”, or ……..”putting a spook in his wheel,” or …….”screaming like a horse on fire…….”
“Like a house on fire, darling, not a horse on fire.”
“But why not? A horse would scream if it was on fire, wouldn’t it?”
How can you beat feminine logic?
Irene was born in Berlin of Russian-Polish parents. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was a Polish rabbi from Cracow. He studied Torah and Talmud, preserved the Faith amongst his congregation, and sought with reverence to obey the will of the Master of the Universe. Later the family moved to Berlin where Irene’s brother Heini was born, followed soon after by Irena. Her father was a fine-featured man whose face clearly showed sensitivity and intelligence. He had been an officer in the Russian army during the war. He adored his small daughter, and lavished kindness and affection on her. He liked to go to boxing matches, and whenever he did so, took Irena with him. She loved her father above every other person in the world. On Irena’s birth certificate, her father’s profession is shown as “Kaufmann” – buyer.” The whole family was engaged in the garment trade, mostly in the sale of dresses in shops. They seem to have led a reasonably prosperous and happy life in Berlin, where they apparently had relatives, until the sudden death of Adolf S when his daughter Irena was seven years old. He had seen the rise of Hitler’s Brownshirts and survived the ruinous period of monetary inflation after the First World War. Mercifully he did not see Hitler’s final accession to power in 1932; neither did he have to suffer the terror, heartbreak and foul murder of the holocaust.
But to Irena the death of her beloved father was a terrible blow, which all but broke her heart.
Irena’s mother, Berta, was a strong-minded, attractive woman, who came originally from Cracow in Poland. She spoke Polish, Russian, Yiddish and German. When she came to London in her early forties, she added English to her list of linguistic accomplishments. She might never have passed a degree in a University, but she never failed to know what was going on in any of her several languages, neither did she ever fail to make her point of view known to other people, no matter how fractured her grammar might be. She was a strongly built woman, but was always carefully corseted. If one applied the description “handsome” to her, it would be appropriate. She had very fine features, not a bit like the “Jewish” features of popular imagination. She dyed her dark hair blonde, and piled it artistically on top of her head. She looked exactly like one of Hitler’s fantasy “Aryan” maidens. The notices forbidding Jews to sit on certain seats or to enter certain public places never bothered her. She treated them with the contempt she so rightly thought they deserved. Her own mother, Esther, continued to live in Cracow in Poland, and Irena’s mother never failed to visit the old lady regularly and to look after her, even though, with the approach of the second world war she began to risk her life in so doing.
On September 1st, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, and on September 3rd Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. With the German forces nearing Warsaw, the Soviet Union also attacked Poland. On September 28th, with most Polish resistance suppressed, Hitler and Stalin signed an agreement dividing Poland between them. Germany took the western and central part of the country, including Warsaw and Cracow. The Germans treated Poland with the utmost brutality, exterminating the educated class and more than 3 million Jews. Bearing this in mind one can only make the most pessimistic assumptions regarding the fate of “Grandma Esther”
2 thoughts on “CH8 Pt1 Meeting Irena”
World War II may have been officially over but for Jim it seems he was having his own personal internal battle, after being churned in the washing machine of war. The cycle of life that had been accepted with compliancy becomes a less convincing one to maintain in peace, and only births more questions than answers.
Romance in itself is full of complex emotions, especially when you remember the reaction of Jim’s previous Jewish girlfriends who denied him their love because he was a “Goyim“. Why was this Irena so different? What had War changed? It seems that both had lost something precious in their lives: Irena her Father, Grand-mother, brother, and home; Jim his home and identity, for he was not a soldier any more and civilian life held no interest to him in England, just bringing more questions than answers. They obviously considered they were strong enough to find the answer together, or at least Irena did. “The first moment I saw you I knew I was going to marry you “. That is a leap of faith for anybody. But when you have different upbringings, countries of birth, religious beliefs, and language, maybe love does conquer all ?
That old adage leaps out at me – “it’s always darkest before the dawn”. Jim was in a “poisonous mood” and didn’t feel like wasting time, being polite. He knew it would be pointless because of his previous experience that “Jewish girls don’t go for goyim.” But what we know as a fact, is not always so. With Irena’s completely opposite attitude, she knew she was going to marry Jim. The background on Irena’s family reminds us of the traumas that both Jim and Irena have suffered, and yet the tone of this passage is uplifting; of hope; that happiness is still possible.