Poetry 1 To Irena

Although you always did deplore 

My frequent locking of your door,

With gentle, kind and boundless tact

You pardoned this egregious act;

And swore – despite my mortal sin – 

You’d save me from the loony bin.

Should I grow frail and get the flutters

You’d keep me from the House of Nutters.

And I — to show that I’m true blue –

Will do as much, my dear, for you. 

Ch8 Pt3 Escape from Berlin to Haifa

As far as the Rüdigers were concerned, they looked with concern at the future of the little girl in their charge in an increasingly military, racist and anti-Semitic Germany. Irena was also aware of the changes going on about her. Jews were forbidden by notice to sit on public benches, so-called “Aryan” Germans were forbidden to patronise Jewish businesses under threat of severe penalties, and there were always secret police on the lookout for offenders. Julius Streicher’s Der Stűrmer churned out the vilest and crudest of newspaper libels against the Jews. Thanks to unceasing insults and propaganda Hitler’s mania seemed to have communicated itself to the entire nation.

One day Irena came across two boys who were tormenting an old orthodox Jew by pulling his beard. She picked up some stones, threw them at the boys and bluffed them into moving on. It may have been at this time that she finally decided to quit Germany for good and go to Palestine. She always said that she smelt something dangerous and unhealthy in the air. She might have been fourteen or fifteen years old when she made this decision.

During the years following the end of the First World War, the interest in Palestine of European Jewry had been greatly stimulated. This revival of interest was due mainly to three factors. In the first place, the vast upheaval of peoples occasioned by the war had brought Western European Jews face to face with their eastern co-religionists who were in closer contact with the Holy Land. Secondly, European Jews began to have forebodings of new pogroms, especially in Germany as Hitler rose to power. The walls of the ghetto were down, but the new freedom did not necessarily spell security for the Jew. Finally, there was the Balfour Declaration, by which Great Britain gave her support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews. There had been small Jewish settlements in Palestine since biblical days, but it was at the end of the nineteenth century, during the lifetime of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, that serious if sometimes unsuccessful attempts were made by communities of Jews to return to Palestine and settle there. At the conclusion of the First World War, the Balfour Declaration coupled with the lifting of the Turkish yoke now gave a basis for the realisation of Herzl’s ideas.

In the Germany of the nineteen twenties, as anti-Jewish feeling increased, a movement known as the Jugend Aliyah came into existence through which Jewish children were to be trained for settlement in Palestine. “Jugend” was the German word for “Youth” and “Aliyah” was the Hebrew word for “migration”. Members of the “Youth Migration” movements were sent for varying periods to farm schools in their native countries. They lived in “kibbutzim” or settlements in conditions that tried to simulate those they would find in Palestine. Here they were taught the elements of Hebrew, a dead language which was being revived and which is today the living, universal language of the people of the State of Israel. These Jewish children were carefully watched during their stay at farm schools, for immigration certificates to Palestine granted by the British authorities were limited. Therefore only the best could qualify for them and the Hebrew title of “Halutzim”, or “Pioneers”. The emphasis was on manual work and all-Hebrew speech. By manual work the Jews would redeem themselves and the soil of Palestine. By the use of Hebrew and the renunciation of bastard Yiddish and Ladino they would be truly recreating the spirit of the biblical ancients.

It was to one of these schools that Irena now went, taking tearful leave of Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti, and of Oma and Opa Rüdiger, who had been almost like real parents to her. Her mother put no obstacle in her way and appears at times to have been almost indifferent as to where this new step might be leading her daughter. Despite this, her final acquiescence, which still seems to be shrouded in a certain mystery, was to save her daughter’s life. 

In the autumn of 1938 Irena, 15 years old, obsessed by the idea of going to Palestine, and studying Hebrew earnestly, learnt that she was to board a train carrying Jewish children out of Germany. She had made her own arrangements to obtain a passport stamped “Palästinawanderer” after wrangling her mother’s consent. Although differences of opinion were opening between them, the mother did not want her young daughter to leave Germany. Irena had been in hospital with a lung infection and told her mother that she was signing a release form. The mother, her mind occupied as usual by business matters, signed without thinking. Irena also tried to persuade her brother Heini to emigrate with her, but he declined and thereby tragically and unwittingly signed his death warrant. The great Berlin railway station was crowded with parents saying tearful goodbyes to children carrying lunch baskets and spare clothes. But Irena’s mother was not there to see her off. It was a disappointment etched into Irena’s mind. Thus she quit the land of her birth. 

She was only just in time.       

Suddenly the embers of racial and religious prejudice and violence, fanned so assiduously by the Nazis, burst into flame. Anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out everywhere, and the exodus of Jewish children to Palestine was stopped. By lying propaganda, by offering the traditional Jewish scapegoat as the cause of all Germany’s misfortunes, and by appealing to the basest of human instincts Hitler was propelled to the pinnacle of his power. The long-suffering Jews took the first steps on a seemingly unending path of tears to European concentration camps. And the civilised nations who did not want to know about the butchery beginning in the Third Reich found themselves hurtling towards the most destructive war in the history of mankind.

At a later date gentle Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti were to find death in one of those concentration camps so aptly called by the Nazis “Vernichtungslager” – “Vernichtung” meaning quite literally “reduction to nothingness. 

After Irena had left Germany the Nazis one night smashed their way into the house where her brother lived and sent him to a concentration camp. Heini, a sixteen years old boy, must have wondered why he was so ill treated, for he had broken no law and harmed nobody. His mother, awake at last to the danger, fled to England, where she frantically canvassed a number of her relatives who had settled there to raise enough money to ransom her son. But she was unsuccessful. And then, with a finality which put paid to all her efforts, Germany invaded Poland. Within twenty four hours England had declared war on Germany and all avenues of communication were cut.

Heini Schreiber disappeared from the face of the earth. He became one of the six million victims of the Holocaust and one of the forty million dead from all sides in World War Two.

Irena had escaped to Palestine on one of the last refugee trains to leave Germany. She travelled by way of Italy, where she took ship across the Mediterranean. The crew was Italian and there were many adult passengers aboard. But the youthful refugees formed a large proportion of the travellers.

Although they were little more than children the young emigrants were unnaturally subdued. Only a few weeks before, they had been looked after by parents and relatives. Now, very suddenly, they had to look after themselves and, perhaps, after each other. Without being able to put their feelings into words they knew that they would be without family for a very long time. They knew also that their parents and loved ones in Germany were in great peril. As if this was not enough they were going to a strange country of which they knew nothing. And all the time they were trying to cope with a new and difficult language. This was Hebrew, whose Semitic words, grammar and writing had nothing in common with their native German. 

After ploughing through the blue and mostly calm Mediterranean the ship berthed at Haifa. Irena felt little joy and some trepidation when she first set eyes on the continental-style cafés along busy Kingsway, the picturesque but run-down Arab quarter, and the white, flat-roofed houses climbing up Mount Carmel. In any event, her stay in Haifa was brief. Almost immediately she was whisked away to the long-established kibbutz of Ashtoth Yakov, some miles out of the city. Here the only language spoken was Hebrew. Even though it was understood German was met with a stony stare, so the newcomers had no option but to learn the language. Older kibbutzniks were intermixed with them to teach them agriculture and accustom their ears to the new tongue. 

The trickle of mail from Germany stopped with the advent of the war. The new arrivals felt like total orphans. This was what most of them were shortly to become.

Ch8 Pt2 Irena growing up.

With the death of Irena’s father, her mother had to support two children. She thus became a commercial traveller, and with her handsome appearance, persuasive manner, and multi-lingual gifts, began to make a satisfactory if somewhat hazardous living. Neither was she always too worried about the quality of the merchandise. Personal survival was the object, and it was legitimate to subordinate everything else to that end if necessity so dictated.

Irena always remembered one occasion when she was with her mother in a small village somewhere in Germany – a “Dorf.” Her mother had been selling fur coats at very reasonable prices against the bitter cold of the coming continental winter, and she had made a killing and got rid of all her stock. They went back to their hotel, Irena hoping for a day of relaxation in the country. But the sky began to cloud over, and a thin drizzle of rain started to fall. Her mother began to show signs of great agitation, and went to the hotel desk, ringing the bell impatiently until the clerk came to attend to her.

“Gnädige Frau?”

“What time does the next train depart for Berlin?”

“At two o’clock, Madam.”

“We are leaving straight away.”

“But Madam, your bags……?”

“They are packed. How much do I owe you?”

The clerk added up some accounts, and she settled the bill. Dashing upstairs, she descended almost immediately, lugging two suitcases. “Irenchen! Komm’ schnell!”.

“But Mutti,” cried Irena, “why do we have to leave so soon?”

“We have to catch the train to Berlin.”

She dashed up the street, lugging her two suitcases through the drizzling rain, while Irena ran to keep up with her. In the distance they could hear the approaching train. Just in time they reached the ticket office, paid their fares, and climbed on board. Irena’s mother hoisted the suitcases on to the rack, and collapsed on the wooden seat, puffing and blowing. The train gathered speed as she regained her breath. Outside the rain began to pour down.

“Mutti,” said Irena, “tell me why we had to leave so quickly.”

“Those fur coats, Irenchen,” said her mother. 

”They were no good. I got them very cheaply. That’s how I sold them so well and made a profit. But I got them because….. as soon as it starts to rain, all the fur falls out.” She began to laugh uncontrollably. 

“Can you imagine? All the fine ladies of the village will be parading up and down in their coats. But as soon as they get a little bit wet, they will all start to moult. Their fur will fall out. They will look like mangy cats……like plucked chickens! Oh, it’s so amusing. But we couldn’t stay in that village when the rain started. We had to leave. Otherwise they would have wanted their money back!” 

”My mother,” said Irena, in later years, “was not always one hundred per cent honest in business.”

But what woman can afford to be honest when she has two children to feed and no husband to look after the family.

The burden of caring for two children was a heavy one for Berta. Both Irena and Heini were sent to foster parents or orphanages to live while their mother travelled the country, buying, selling and cooking up all sorts of deals to keep the pot boiling. Slowly Irena began to spend more and more time with foster parents, while the mother kept Heini more and more with her when she managed to stay in Berlin. Did she sense that Heini was the weaker and Irena was the stronger? Did she feel that it was impossible to keep the two, or that she was only capable of looking after the one? Who can tell? Who can make a valid judgment at this distance when things were so bad in Germany for Jewish people; when Berta had to make her own way, or starve, with her young husband dead. Life must have been so lonely and difficult for her.  

The unfortunate result was that Irena spent practically no time at all with her mother, and did not see her for months on end. She boarded sometimes at orphanages, but mostly with the Rüdiger family, being in the care of the old grandfather and his wife. These became her “Oma” and “Opa”, – her “Grandma” and “Grandpa”.

The Rüdigers lived in Blumenstrasse – (“Flowers Street”) – in a working class district of east Berlin. Three and four storeyed nineteenth century houses had been broken up into flats, each flat on its own level, reached by a common flight of stairs.

The Rüdigers lived one floor above street level. They were good Catholics who attended church regularly. But in addition (somewhat unusually), they were secret communists. There was a special hole in the ceiling where Opa Rüdiger used to hide his personal documents and party propaganda. Opa was a great canary breeder, and the walls of the kitchen at the back were lined with cages he had built himself. When the sun shone through the windows, the canaries would sing their hearts out.

Irena hated the times when she was separated from the Rüdigers and placed for some unfathomable reason in an orphanage. Her sadness was almost traumatic. But somehow she always gravitated back to the Rüdigers. She loved them most of all. From Opa and Oma Rüdiger she received the personal kindnesses, the good night kisses, the embraces, the small expressions of affection without which children die spiritually and emotionally. She felt that she belonged to their family. Her heart cried out for the need to belong to a family. Why had her own original family been taken from her after the death of her father?

There were, however, some relatives close at hand. Just down the road, in the same Blumenstrasse in which Oma and Opa Rüdiger lived, there dwelt also Irena’s Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti. These two inoffensive, elderly citizens kept a small clothes shop in another part of the city that Irena sometimes used to visit. There was nothing spectacular about their shop. It was rather cramped, and much of the merchandise was suspended high on the walls on special hangers, which were lifted down by Uncle Heinrich with a hook attached to the end of a long stick. Auntie Netti was a motherly type who enjoyed excellent relations with a long established clientèle. She made it her motto that no customer should go away dissatisfied, and if the required goods were not in stock, then they would be obtained.

It was a true family business in an unhurried age in which there was still time to have a chat with people and not rush them off their feet. Uncle Heinrich, quiet and self-effacing, seemed only there to help Auntie Netti. They went quietly to business together every morning and came quietly home in the evening. Their hobby was collecting silver. They were by no means rich, but over the years had built up a collection of interesting pieces, which Auntie Netti kept scrupulously polished.

Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti had no children of their own. But Auntie Netti was the sister of Irena’s father. She had promised him before he died that she would look after Irena, and whilst the little girl could not live with them, due to their need to go to business, they kept an eye on her when they were at home. The bakery was just down from their apartment, and whenever Oma Rüdiger sent Irena to buy a loaf of bread she looked in if she could on Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti.

It was typical of Irena’s mother that although she was at great pains to eat kosher and was in some ways very orthodox, in other directions her orthodoxy was conspicuous by its complete absence. For instance, she nearly always placed her daughter to be cared for by Gentiles, not Jews. Thus Irena rapidly began to lose touch with the pattern of Jewish life. The Holy Days meant nothing to her; even the Sabbath. The “most holy day, the bond between God and man” became just another day in the week for her. And it has been truly said…”More than the Jew has kept the Sabbath, it is the Sabbath that has kept the Jew.” 

Yet although Irena lost her Jewish observances, she was conscious always that in the eyes of the outside world she was marked for life as a separate person, a Jew, somebody slightly different from the rest of humanity.

CH8 Pt1 Meeting Irena

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?”

“Certainly.”

“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”