A Dismal and Delightful Week

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My week began with the stranger who walked into the local hairdresser’s where I was sitting and asked if the car parked further along the road was mine. It was. “Well, I’ve caused some damage to the windscreen,” he informed me. In the process of cutting branches off a tree in his garden one of them had fallen right onto my windscreen, smashing it, then bounced onto the bonnet, causing further damage. The result: three days at the garage and several thousand shekels of damage.

I had a very full programme that week, with activities in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, so that it was necessary to resort to public transport, lifts from friends and my husband, and even the occasional taxi. Until recently, Mevasseret Zion, where I live, was on the route between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv but recent changes to the road system means that we are now cut off from the highway. The bus route that used to go directly to and from Tel-Aviv from Mevasseret is now limited to a couple of hours in the morning, and vice versa in the evening. Oh well, such is life. I managed to get the bus to Tel-Aviv, but wasn’t so lucky on the way back, which meant changing buses, catching the shuttle-bus and calling my husband to collect me from the distant bus-stop.

But the reward for all this inconvenience was being able to attend the conference of the Israel Translators Association, with its plethora of fascinating lectures and the chance to meet up with old friends and colleagues. After all, translators are generally ensconced in their homes with their computers, and in this day and age one doesn’t even need to venture outside to go to a library to consult a book or to go to the post office to send off a completed text. Thus,  an opportunity to meet up with other translators is very much appreciated.

The Conference had many interesting lectures on offer. I was particularly intrigued by the title of Dr. Basilius Bawardi’s talk, ‘How Did Sherlock Holmes Build a Nation? The Cultural Translation of Nasib al-Mashalani into Arabic at the Turn of the 20th Century,’ and found myself plunged into Egyptian society in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the aforementioned Nasib al-Mashalani (about whom very little is known) took it upon himself to translate works by Conan Doyle into Arabic. He did not always acknowledge his source, sometimes presenting the stories (when they did not involve Sherlock Holmes) as his own. According to Dr. Bawardi, the translator’s objective was to disseminate the concepts of law and order, adherence to norms of morality and respect for the police. Apparently, in his translations of the Sherlock Holmes stories the police are regarded as purveyors of justice rather than being the corrupt and bribable element they constituted in Egypt at that time (or the inept force depicted by Conan Doyle). In an aside at the end of the lecture Dr. Bawardi mentioned the mind-boggling fact that al-Mashalani had begun his career by translating the books of Enid Blyton.

Anothere fascinating lecture was given by Inbal Saggiv-Nakdimon and concerned the problems encountered by translators of science fiction and fantasy into Hebrew. As well as having to invent terms for concepts and objects which appear in these kinds of texts, there is the additional issue of consistency for such terminology within a series, for example when a later volume is published at a different time and is given to a different translator. In addition, across the genre different terms may be used by different translators for similar concepts or objects. The presence in the audience of other translators in that genre gave rise to a lively discussion about the different words used for the concept of ‘telekinesis,’ regarding which it transpired that there is as yet no accepted term in Hebrew.

The highlight of the conference was the final lecture, given by the acclaimed Israeli writer, Amos Oz, about the translation of his books. As well as writing novels which are known for the richness of their characterization and beautiful Hebrew prose, Oz possesses the gift of being able to speak clearly, concisely and in an engaging way. Thus, he held the audience captive with his account of the way he and Nicholas de Lange worked together on translating his first novel, My Michael, into English, some fifty years ago. He admitted that his ability to monitor translations of his work into Korean or Japanese is limited, but he asks those translators to read him a passage or a page out loud in order to gauge whether they have accurately captured the ‘music’ of his prose.

Amos Oz also spoke about his approach to the writing process. It was interesting and inspiring to hear how he starts each day at 4 a.m., when he goes out to walk in nature, and it is this communing with the natural world that gives him his perspective on life and the universe. He contends that this enables him to utilize his own natural empathy and curiosity about people to imagine himself in their place in various situations.

The insights, intellectual stimulation and social interaction that I experienced that day filled me with joy, providing a delightful contrast to the rather dismal beginning of the week.

Capturing the Enigma; the Unsung Heroes of HMS Bulldog

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In May 1941, at a time when the Second World War was in full swing and the British forces were doing their utmost to block Hitler’s rampage across Europe, the battle to control the ocean was of paramount importance. Convoys of ships transporting troops and bringing much-needed supplies and materiel to Britain from the USA and Canada were routinely hunted down and attacked by groups of German submarines, known as wolf packs, causing untold damage to the British navy and mainland, not to mention suffering and death to the sailors manning those ships.

The British war effort was conducted on a number of fronts, among them that of intelligence. Inter alia, the British were doing their utmost to decipher the codes used by the Germans to disseminate their military messages to their troops, whether on land or at sea, but their efforts were frustrated by their inability to gain access to the encoding machine used by the German for this purpose. The existence of the machine, known as Enigma, was known to the Allied forces, but without a working exemplar it was impossible to ascertain precisely how it was used. Although the Poles and the French had managed to work out some aspects of the code, they were still far from attaining perfect knowledge of the way the machine worked. The British had set up an extensive system for decoding and translating messages at Bletchley Park, and tremendously important espionage work was implemented there, including the development of what came to be known later as the first computer, by Alan Turing. As is well known, Turing played a seminal role in understanding the workings of the Enigma machine and deciphering the code.

How the actual machine came to be in the hands of British Intelligence is the subject of this book by Patrick Spencer which tells an exciting tale of the pursuit and capture of a German u-boat by a British destroyer. HMS Bulldog, commanded by Captain Joe Baker-Cresswell, as he shepherded a convoy of merchant ships across the North Atlantic. From being the hunter he became the hunted, but the depth charge he set off succeeded in hitting the German u-boat that was pursuing his vessel. The u-boat was listing, and its crew abandoned ship. At that point Captain Baker-Cresswell decided that instead of finally sinking the German vessel his men would board it and take whatever they could find, known as ‘doing a Magdeburg,’

The operation was complex and risky, as the u-boat was in the process of sinking, but the men of the boarding party were determined to remove anything they could find that looked as if it might be of value, whether papers or equipment. Thus it was that one of the men came across what looked like a peculiar typewriter which was bolted to a wooden surface. Using the screwdriver that he had included in his bag of tools before leaving the ship, the officer managed to release the machine. It was only with great difficulty and considerable dexterity that the men managed to haul the heavy machine up to HMS Bulldog, where it could finally be identified as an actual Enigma machine. Displaying great bravery, the boarding party returned to the u-boat several times to remove whatever they could find that might be of value to the war effort.

The commander began towing the captured u-boat back to Blighty behind his ship, but when it began to sink beneath the waves he cut the tow-rope and let it go to the bottom. The operation was later given the name ‘Operation Primrose,’ and every effort was made to ensure that the Germans did not realise that the British had managed to seize hold of an actual working Enigma machine. In fact, Winston Churchill kept the details secret for months even from his close ally, President Roosevelt. The decryption of the Enigma code enabled the British forces to anticipate the movements of the u-boat wolfpacks, significantly reducing the loss of ships and contributing significantly to the victory of the Allies

London, Paris, Jerusalem


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‘He who tires of London has tired of life,’ wrote Samuel Johnson, and I dare say he had a point. Even in the dead of winter, when the bone-chilling cold really does chill every inch of bone in your body, the place has its pleasures provided you are suitably attired with hat, coat, boots, etc., breathe only through your woolly scarf and try to limit your time outdoors to the absolute minimum.

After all, buses, trains, shops and the tube are reasonably well-heated, and the pub is usually full enough of human bodies to generate sufficient heat to enable one to remove at least one outer layer of clothing. It pains me, though, to see the homeless people (mainly men) huddled in doorways, and probably literally freezing to death. I’m told on good authority (taxi drivers) that these people could find shelter through one of the government or charitable agencies that are prepared to help them, but they prefer to be free to come and go as they please. And for that they have to pay a price.

One of the chief delights of London is the theatre. I confess to being greatly irritated on the rare occasions when I go to the theatre in Israel. The actors do not speak clearly and, worst of all, have never learned to project their voices and rely instead on those odious little face-microphones. What do they think? That the actors in Shakespeare’s day used face-mikes? In England (and America, too, perhaps, but I’ve never been to a play there) part of the basic training of an actor is learning how to project their voice so that even the poor sods up in the gods (the highest, cheapest seats, often limited to standing only) can hear every word. Admittedly, our seats were quite near the stage and so we were in a particularly privileged position, but it was definitely possible to understand most if not all the dialogue on stage. And what a joy the two plays we saw (‘This House’ and ‘The Kite-Runner’) were, with clever dialogue, imaginative staging, competent acting and witty direction.

We left cold and rainy London for freezing central France and felt very sorry for ourselves as we huddled over log fires (me) or spent a lot of time and energy bringing logs into the house and getting fires going (him). The countryside was beautiful in its frozen state, but I’m afraid I didn’t see much of it as simply going outside required immense investment of mental and physical energy. We couldn’t even enjoy the view when we drove to Paris as almost the entire route was shrouded in fog. Can we call freezing fog frog? Let the froggies keep their frog, I say.db75f405-688f-4eec-97d4-780bc7ccb71e

Our few days in icy cold Paris enabled us to enjoy an enlightening visit to the Musée d’Orsay to see the special exhibition of works by Frederick Bazille, an early Impressionist painter who was killed at the age of 29 in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. What a waste! The few paintings he produced are extremely impressive, showing his ability to produce work of great sophistication and beauty.

The pinnacle of our stay in Paris was a stellar performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute opera, with first-rate singers and orchestra. The show ended late and we had to get up early the next morning to catch our plane, but it was worth it.

In Israel we were greeted by pouring rain, but consoled ourselves with the thought that at least it wasn’t freezing, foggy or froggy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

 

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Who needs yet another biography of Virginia Woolf? Not I certainly, who have been a VW aficionado for dozens of years, possibly ever since the day somewhere in the 1960s when I first came across one of the five volumes of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, borrowed from the British Council Library in Jerusalem, in the days when it was still situated in Jerusalem’s wonderful Terra Sancta building.

That book led me to my obsession with Virginia Woolf, Leonard’s wife and one of the leading writers of the twentieth century. As ever more volumes about her came out, whether other people’s memoirs about her, her own collected letters, diaries, and essays, and the monumental biography and literary analysis by Hermione Lee, pretty much the entire English reading public was swept away by the conglomeration of artists, writers and intellectuals who constituted what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, because of the area of London where many of them lived. By now I have several bookshelves containing her books as well as other people’s books about her and the group of friends that coalesced around her and Leonard.

But it’s been some time now since I immersed myself in Bloomsburyana and eagerly consumed everything I could about Virginia, so that this relatively slim volume (only 187 pages), which I received as a gift, comes as a succinct and well-written reminder of all the things that so fascinated me in the past.

First of all, Virginia’s life in and of itself is fascinating. Born into an intellectual and relatively wealthy family in London, she and her siblings were subjected to the rigours of a Victorian household, with the manners and mores that pertained to their standing. While her brothers went to public school and Oxford university, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were kept at home, where they were taught by private tutors and their father, the writer Lesley Stephen, and were given the run of their parents’ extensive library. This obviously rankled with Virginia, whose book-length essay, A Room of One’s Own, written many years later, criticizes the discrimination against women implicit – and often explicit – in so many British institutions. The situation has changed since then, it’s true, but reading those lines today still stirs feelings of resentment at the many injustices inherent in the system of education and administration.

For most of her life Virginia was periodically afflicted by some kind of mental illness which has been post-factum defined as mania-depression. Whether or not this was indeed the case, the fact of the matter is that she suffered bouts of terrible depression when she was unable to function normally, let alone write. But it was writing that was her raison d’être, and had it not been for Leonard’s careful and caring stewardship it is not clear whether Virginia would ever have managed to overcome them. Thus, despite the crippling bouts of despair, she managed to produce a large body of work, each of her ten novels was a ground-breaking contribution to contemporary English literature, and her non-fiction reveals an active and brilliant mind combining insights and understanding with a polished literary style.

So it is good to have this new and comprehensive little book, written with clarity and understanding and also containing copious illustrations – photographs of people and places, and of Virginia in particular, as well as paintings and illustrations produced by her sister, Vanessa, who was a talented artist.

Fearing both the recurrence of her mental illness and the consequences of a possible German invasion of Britain, Virginia Woolf took her own life in 1941 at the age of 60. Admittedly, her end was tragic, but her life was full and creative, and that is her legacy to future generations.

A Dangerous Profession

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In order to spare the feelings of anyone who might happen to read this I am not posting a photo of my face. I look like something out of a horror movie. The sight would be too horrifying for most people. Especially anyone who knows what I look like normally. But just to give you a general idea – think of Charles Laughton in the classic film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. OK, I’ll grant the dentist this: he didn’t give me a hump on my back. But what has happened to my face is, in my opinion, even worse.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The dental X-rays showed that some of my teeth were in a bad shape. Treatment would be required. At first it looked as if a large old filling on a molar would have to come out and be replaced by a new one. Fine. I’m prepared to have fillings done, provided I get all the desensitizing injections that make the process tolerable.

The first dentist, supposedly an expert in his field, removed the said filling and then proceeded to give me a long explanation, most of which I didn’t understand, about the sorry state of what roots were left. I gathered that this meant that there was nothing for it but to extract the offending tooth. However, the state of the rotten roots was so grave that not even a crown could be considered. The only solution, in his view, would be to put in an implant – a procedure that is extremely long, tortuous and expensive. I could only gulp and nod in helpless acceptance of my fate.

But the hapless tooth would be extracted by another, even more expert dentist, a professor no less, whose proficiency in his field is acknowledged worldwide. The appointment was duly made, and I was taken like a lamb to the slaughter by my devoted husband. The extraction was to be implemented at the same time as another dental procedure, the preparation for a previously-ordained implant, and since the two teeth involved were fairly near one another, it seemed advisable to undertake the two together.

The process of preparing a mouth for an implant procedure is interesting. A surgeon’s hat is placed over the patient’s hair, the body is swaddled from the neck to the waist, the head, including the eyes and nose, is wrapped in material so that the only part visible is the mouth. The dentist and his assistant are also dressed in surgical gear, so one has the impression that this is going to be a very sterile and professional procedure.

Several painful injections later the dentist started to work on my mouth, drilling, digging, burrowing and screwing, exerting all his considerable energy on wrestling that darn tooth to the ground. In my head I was trying to sing Brahms’ German Requiem, a performance of which I had attended the previous night. I also wondered if what I was feeling was in any way akin to what my grandparents must have felt in the Auschwitz gas chambers (no, it never leaves me).

I suppose one could say the dentist was ultimately successful, as after an hour or so of vigorous activity he declared my mouth to be rid of the loathsome tooth.

The wrappings were removed from my face and body, and my slightly wobbly legs took me out of the surgery to where my husband was waiting, equipped with chocolate ice-cream and sympathy. The shocked look on his face and the uncharacteristic panic in his voice when he uttered the phrase ‘What’s this!’ told me that something was amiss.

The entire side of my face had swollen. My skin had turned bright red. It looked to him as if a big red balloon had been placed atop my neck. The dentist, who seemed to be similarly alarmed, took me back to the surgery and tried by force to depress the swollen cheek. He’s big and strong. It hurt. Nothing doing. “Well, at least it irons out the wrinkles,” he said with a playful smile. I did not appreciate the humour.

“Put ice on it,” the dentist called after us as my husband led me out of the surgery.

Yes, the swelling went down gradually over the next few days, though eating, talking and smiling are still difficult one week later. But worse was to come. My face turned all the colours of the rainbow. I have two big black eyes (just like the song), with purple, blue and wine-coloured bruises around my mouth, chin and neck.

I have not felt up to leaving the house for a week, and although the pain and discomfort have subsided I am still too embarrassed to be seen by anyone but my close family. Heavy makeup helps to some extent, but tends to wear off after a while.

So that’s it. I’ve had it with dentists. Until every single tooth in my head rots itself to death I’ll think twenty times before venturing into another dentist’s surgery.

A Visit to the Ballet

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Once a year Israel’s classical ballet comany puts on a performance of a traditional ballet. This is intended mainly for the entertainment of children during the Chanukah/Christmas holiday season. For me, however, this is a golden opportunity to enjoy a very special aesthetic and artistic treat.

When I was growing up my parents showed no interest in the ballet, and I don’t regard myself as a great connoisseur of that particular art form, but ever since I saw my first performance in Jerusalem some twenty years ago I have loved it and waited eagerly for the next opportunity to attend a performance. In addition, ever since the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1980s the intake of dancers in the field of classical ballet in Israel has risen in both quantity and quality. The number of Russian-sounding names participating in the show each year is a clear indication of this. Until 2012 the Israel Ballet was headed by Bertha Yampolsky and Hillel Markman, who founded the company in 1967, directed and choreographed the performances and kept up a very high standard. Upon their retirement in 2012 they were replaced by Leah Lavi and Matte Morai, who have succeeded in maintaining the company’s excellence.

Over the years, accompanied by one or two of my granddaughters (the boys declined to join us), as well as the occasional daughter-in-law, I have been able to see some wonderful performances here in Jerusalem (though the company’s home is in Tel Aviv). It goes without saying that putting on a ballet is a highly complicated and complex undertaking, involving scenery-painters and movers, set designers, choreographers, costume designers and makers and lighting experts, not to mention male and female dancers (predominantly the latter), all of whom must demonstrate consummate skill and artistry as well as being lithe, athletic and beautiful. Amazingly, all the dancers in the one I saw last week fulfilled all those requirements, making for a breathtakingly beautiful performance.

This year the ballet chosen for the stage was ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ with the music of Tchaikovsky, and what a delight it was! So although my granddaughters and daughter-in-law and I are all fairly grown-up and no longer entranced by fairy-tales, we were all enchanted by the beauty of the dancing, the superior technical level, the beautiful costumes and the excellence of every aspect of the show.

It is customary in Israel to use recorded music rather than a full orchestra for a ballet performance (the cost would be prohibitive), but the professional sound system used dispelled all reservations about the quality of the sound. And Tchaikovsky’s music resonated throughout the Jerusalem Theatre, bringing joy and emotion to our hearts.

The costumes and dancing of the corps de ballet, as well as the soloists (the Good Fairy, the Wicked Fairy, the Prince, Sleeping Beauty herself) were outstanding, and each dancer managed to convey a gamut of emotions through movement and expression alone. I have never forgotten the question my granddaughter asked on her first visit to the ballet. Accustomed to seeing children’s plays, after half an hour of music and dance she turned to me and whispered “Why aren’t they talking?” Many dancers and wonderful music have entranced her since then, and now grown up she is quite the connoisseur, but I hope that my answer to her question then made it clear that in ballet there is no need for words.

Now that the season’s performances have ended all that remains is to wait eagerly for next year’s offering. We are truly blessed in Israel to be able to enjoy artistic performances of such a high standard and such variety. And for me to be able to share that pleasure with my grandchildren is an added bonus.

Shakespeare and Insomnia

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Some time ago I had one of those ‘white nights’ that occasionally descend and prevent me from sleeping. I cannot say whether it was my night-cap cup of tea or thoughts about the dire political situation, but whatever the cause, sleep eluded me.

As I lay in bed passages from Macbeth kept popping into my head. ‘Macbeth hath murdered sleep.’ ‘Sleep no more.’ And ‘Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care.’ And of course there was Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking affair. Although I read the play at school a great many years ago I was intrigued to note that those phrases had remained in my mind.

That set me thinking. Was it possible that Shakespeare, the brilliant poet, dramatist and psychologist, himself suffered from insomnia? That could, of course, explain his immense output in a relatively short life (think about it; as well as writing thirty-nine plays and undertaking research into historical sources for some of them, he also acted in some of them, produced most of them, formed his own theatre company and wrote dozens of sonnets and sundry poetry). My volume of his complete works in minuscule print with two columns on each page runs to 1,080 pages. That’s a stupendous output that could put many other writers to shame.

So I decided to re-read Macbeth, and see if I could find any clues to my theory. I was surprised to find very early on in the play a reference to Aleppo, of all places, which is mentioned in passing by one of the three witches, a curiously topical reference in this day and age. My re-reading of ‘the Scottish play’ also reminded me that Macbeth and his wife were both as evil as each other, egging one another on to further acts of betrayal and murder in order to clear the path for Macbeth to become king. And both paid a heavy psychological (and eventually physical) price for their deeds.

In Act II, scene I, after Lady Macbeth tells her husband not to dwell on negative thoughts (essentially saying ‘snap out of it’), Macbeth replies saying that he thought he heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!’ At this point Shakespeare puts words in Macbeth’s mouth that describe the blissful state of sleep that ‘knits up the raveled sleeve of care,’ and constitutes ‘the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.’ In other words, sleep is nature’s way of bringing comfort and consolation to our troubled minds, so that if we are deprived of it our psychological equilibrium is upset. This is something that is known to anyone who has been reading espionage novels and knows anything about interrogation techniques.

In Act III, scene II Macbeth talks of ‘terrible dreams that shake us nightly,’ and declares that it would be better to be dead than ‘on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy.’ I understand what he means by ‘restless,’ but it’s not clear to me what he means here by ‘ecstasy,’ which seems to be a contradiction in terms, but the bit about ‘terrible dreams’ is pretty obvious.

Those ghosts and other apparitions that he keeps seeing also constitute some kind of psychological disturbance, though in this case not necessarily associated with sleep. But in the same scene he speaks almost enviously of Duncan, whom he has murdered, being ‘in his grave; After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well… Nothing can touch him further.’ Now that’s a wonderful description of peaceful sleep if ever there was one, and that seems to be how he perceived death (‘the bourne from which no traveller returns,’ as he describes it in Hamlet).

I decided not to pursue my researches any further, as doubtless there are references to sleep in others of his plays, not to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where it’s almost as if the whole play takes place in our sleeping minds as well as on stage, and Shakespeare even recommends us to regard it as such at the end of the play..

Then I had the bright idea of googling ‘Shakespeare and sleep,’ and sure enough, there I found that the sleep and dream images in Shakespeare’s plays (not to mention his sonnets) come thick and fast, with varying degrees of positive and negative associations. So it seems I’m not alone in seeing additional meanings into this particular aspect of the Bard’s work.

 

The Pianist of Willesden Lane

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Several years ago I read the book of that title written by Mona Golabek about the experiences of her mother, Lisa Jura, first in Vienna and then in London. She had been sent there at the age of fourteen in the framework of the Kindertransport, the undertaking that saved twenty thousand Jewish children from certain death in the Holocaust.

The book spoke to me on several levels. First of all, the pivotal role played by music in the life of the young girl who eventually became a concert pianist, and secondly, the location of the hostel for refugee children, Willesden Lane, not far from where I grew up, in Kilburn. Incidentally, Willesden Lane is no country lane, as its name implies, but rather a busy thoroughfare in a residential area of north-west London. Even Riffel Road, which is mentioned several times, featured in my childhood, as it was there that my mother’s cousin, our Auntie Fraenze, lived. But most importantly, the hostel itself was a concept that featured largely in my life. As a newly-married couple, my parents worked for several years as house-parents at a similar hostel, the Sunshine Hostel in Hampstead, and it was there, in fact, that I first saw the light of day.

Over the course of recent years I read that the author, Mona Golabek, was appearing with great success in America, and later London, with a dramatized version of the story, and it intrigued me greatly. In fact, I went so far as to contact her by email to suggest that she bring the performance to Israel. I received a polite reply from her assistant saying that at present Miss Golabek had no plans to come to Israel, but that it was a possibility to be considered in the future.

And so I jumped as if bitten last week when I saw an ad in the newspaper stating that the play would be given at the Cameri Theatre in Tel-Aviv in a few days’ time. The tickets were quickly ordered (by then the main auditorium was already completely sold out, and the only seats left were on the balcony), and on the appointed evening we made our way to the metropolis.

Mona Golabek is the sole performer, and what a talented individual she is! She walks onto the empty, darkened stage alone, plays passages from Grieg’s piano concerto and other pieces from the classical repertoire and reenacts the story of her mother, first as a child in Vienna, and then as a teenager in London during the Blitz. Images illustrating the various incidents in her life are projected onto screens behind her, but the main focus of attention is on Mona at the piano.

Simply being able to play that demanding piano concerto would be quite a feat in itself, but Mona does much more than that. She sits at the piano, plays and talks (sometimes simultaneously) and seems to revive her mother’s life, to such an extent that we identify the two as one individual. She also has an actor’s talent for mimicking the voices of other characters – her gruff piano teacher in Vienna, the young French resistance fighter who courts her mother, and some of the other children in the hostel.

But for me the most moving moment came at the end. After tumultuous applause from the audience, Mona came to the front of the stage and spoke, visibly moved, about her lifelong ambition to present her story in Israel, “the best country in the world” (her words), and how much it meant to her to be here. She also mentioned having visited Yad Vashem with her father, and for a moment I thought ‘that’s impossible,’ but of course she was speaking as Mona, not as Lisa, the persona she had inhabited for the preceding hour and a half.

Sadly, only one or two performances were given in Israel, and it is to be hoped that Miss Golabek will find the time to come back in the future, to enable more people to benefit from her moving story and unbounded talent.

I Only Wanted to Live; the Struggle of a Boy to Survive the Holocaust by Arie Tamir (translated from the Hebrew by Batya Erenberg)

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Some kind of morbid fascination, possibly even masochism, seems to impel me to download and read yet another Holocaust memoir, and this one is a faithful member of its genre – not always well-written but a genuine and authentic account of what it was like to live through that period and emerge more or less intact.

The author was a boy of seven, living  a comfortable life in Krakow, one of Poland’s major towns, when the Germans invaded and conquered that country. He and his parents and two sisters, as well as grandparents and various uncles, aunts and cousins, were part of a warm family, living in a cosmopolitan city with a rich social and cultural life. Arie’s parents met at university in Vienna in the 1920s and were perfectly at home in the German language and culture. His father was part owner of a wholesale textile business, supplying fabrics to many stores and factories in and around Krakow. The author points out that the Jews of Krakow did not speak Yiddish, as their co-religionists in the Polish villages did.

Initially the Jews of Krakow were not opressed by the German invaders, and not only was Arie’s father able to continue to manage his business, but even to supply the Germans with fabrics. With the introduction of anti-Semitic laws and restrictions the business was nominally in the hands of his non-Jewish partner, but the family did not suffer privation, even when obliged to leave their large apartment and move into housing designated for Jews. In fact, for some time their neighbours in the apartment block were German military personnel, and a German woman even rented a room in their apartment. The family’s ability to speak German doubtless helped to protect them from the worst excesses of Nazi brutality, at least initially. Arieh writes about his friendship with a German boy of his age, the son of a neighbour who was an officer in the Wehrmacht.

Eventually, however, all the Jews of Krakow were obliged to move to the crowded conditions of the ghetto. Arie’s family seems to have been able to live in relative comfort, and his description of the way the Jewish children went to improvised schools and played together makes it sound almost idyllic. But little by little the property and possessions of the Jews were appropriated by the Germans, food supplies were restricted, and the deportations to concentration camps began.

Arieh describes how he and other Jewish children would manage to sneak out of the ghetto in order to steal and scrounge food outside, then smuggle it into the ghetto to help their families and earn money. Because of the German occupation and the loss of many lives all over Poland, gangs of street urchins came to be a common sight on the streets of the cities, so that the Jewish children did not arouse undue suspicion. Arie’s father managed to stave off the family’s deportation for some considerable time, during which young Arie witnessed many ‘actions’ in which Jews were rounded up and deported, often accompanied by displays of sadistic brutality by the German soldiers and their henchmen from various eastern European countries.

Eventually, Arie managed to escape from the ghetto and was taken in by a non-Jewish Polish family, who treated him well. His father had provided him with money and this enabled him to remain with the family for some time. Eventually, however, he was either discovered or betrayed and was sent to the Plaszow forced labour camp, where he was reunited with his parents and older sister. His three-year-old younger sister had previously been handed over to relatives who had documents enabling them to leave for South America, but instead they were deported to an extermination camp and murdered.

It is amazing to read the details of Arie’s experiences in the camp, the way he was able, though little more than nine or ten years old, to evade execution and even to find work for which he was paid in extra food rations and sometimes even in money. Luck was obviously part of the explanation, but it seems that he was an intelligent child who developed a heightened awareness of danger as well as the ability to arouse the interest, even affection, of the people around him, also including the occasional German soldier. In this way he managed to survive Plaszow as well as several concentration camps, including Gozen and Mauthausen. His accounts of the way the camps were run and how life was lived there is both harrowing and instructive, and the descriptions he gives constitute important evidence for the record.

Arie was the only member of his family to survive the camps, despite doing his utmost to enable his father, with whom he endured the camps, to survive. He gives an entertaining account of what happened when he was liberated by American troops and the way he and other Jewish youngsters roamed the Austrian countryside, demanding compensation from the local population, who readily gave them money and valuables. When Arie was recuperating in an American-run hospital he encountered emissaries from pre-state Israel and was convinced to go there. He landed at Haifa, aged sixteen, just in time to participate in Israel’s War of Independence. He subsequently joined a kibbutz, married and established a family of his own in Israel. It was the trip with his wife, children and granchildren to Krakow, and the interest they displayed in his family’s history there that moved him to write this memoir.

The book concludes with a chapter of factual notes about the Jews of Krakow, aspects of Jewish community life under Nazi rule and various historic events concerning deportations, ‘actions,’ and resistance. All in all, it constitutes another important plank in the structure that is the history of the Holocaust as experienced by someone who was there in person and whose eye-witness testimony is invaluable for dismissing the lies of those who seek to deny what happened.

 

Jerusalem, Mon Amour

jerusalem-city-center1

It came as a bit of a shock to realize that I’ve been living in or near Jerusalem for over fifty years – the best part of my life, in fact. I still love London, my birthplace, but there’s no escaping the fact that I don’t really know it any more. The residents of the suburb where I grew up have changed radically, as have its physical surroundings – the field at the back of the house, the shops in the high street and the exteriors of the houses.

Change is, I suppose, an inescapable feature of the urban experience wherever one happens to live. These days most people undertake the large part of their purchases in the shopping malls that protect them from the elements and offer every possible facility under one pleasant roof.

So it’s a rare occurrence that brings me to downtown Jerusalem nowadays. This was not the case when I first came to live in Jerusalem, even though at the time it was little more than a provincial backwater with only a few dusty shops, hardly any traffic-lights and not a single pedestrian mall. ‘Going to town’ was what young people did on a Saturday night, and that was where the few night-clubs, cinemas, cafés and eateries were situated.

Over the years, though, the place has undergone a radical transformation occasioned by both technical progress and the results of the Six Day War. The Old City now serves as a magnet for tourists and some segments of the population. Part of the famous ‘triangle’ formed by the town’s three principal thoroughfares has been pedestrianized, the Light Rail that runs down Jaffa Road has brought an eerie silence to what was once a noisy, congested route replete with polluted air and crumbling shop facades.

Because I had to leave my car in the garage for a few hours I decided to use the opportunity and visit downtown Jerusalem. Very few of the shops I remembered still existed, most of them having been tarted up and converted into fashionable cafés with lavish outdoor seating. The unkindest blow of all was to find that Shai Kong, the one shop that sold cotton garments imported from India and the Far East had disappeared. I walked up Jaffa Road looking for it and failed to find it. Only when I walked back down on the other side did I realize that the interior had been completely gutted and workmen were busy tearing it to pieces. The words ‘closing-down sale’ were still scrawled on the glass facade. Only the name of the store on the awning that had not yet been removed served to prove that it had once existed. My first thought was: where am I going to buy the cotton blouses and trousers that have served me as perfect summer pyjamas for so many years?

But trivial matters aside, whither downtown Jerusalem? None of the cinemas that were local landmarks in my younger days are left, and anyone who wants to see a film must go to one of the emporia of the cinematic industry located elsewhere in Jerusalem. Some of the market-style stores selling cheap clothes and trinkets have been replaced by more respectable chains selling garments that are neatly arranged on counters and artistically displayed in shop-fronts. But the overriding impression is that the area has become the mecca of eating and drinking, and possibly of making merry, too, for all I know. But that is something I must leave to the younger generation.

Who knows? Perhaps in another fifty years one of those individuals will find him- or herself in downtown Jerusalem and be amazed by the changes that have occurred.