‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant

I ordered this book (from Bibliophile Books) because it was described as being set in 1950s England – a time when I was beginning to be aware of the world around me, growing up into teenagerhood and going through my school years. Those were my formative years, in fact.

The main theme of the book is the battle with TB (tuberculosis) of the characters depicted in it, just as the miracle medicine of antibiotics, known then as Streptomycin, is beginning to appear on the world stage, bringing with it the promise of salvation from diseases formerly considered incurable, even fatal. While the wider context of the book is 1950s Britain, with its entrenched class differences, prejudices and post-war restrictions, the immediate environment in which the narrative develops is a custom-built sanatorium intended to cure its inmates, or residents.

The two principal characters are Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, teenage twins from the East End of London and, yes, Jewish. There are references to the various kinds of food their mother brings them on visiting days (kichelach, chopped liver, potato latkes), and the occasional Yiddish expression is thrown in for good measure. Because of the recently established National Health system, which had made the benefits of medical care universally available in England, they find themselves in a milieu which consists mainly of genteel, middle- or upper-class individuals, such as former officers, university graduates, or business people, but all with TB. The author also reveals the attitudes held by the other inmates towards the new arrivals, and Jews in general, especially refugees, with references to widely-held anti-Semitic or philo-Semitic views.

As I was reading I could hear echoes of Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ in the accounts of the monotony, boredom and gloom of life in a sanatorium, despite the good-intentions the various members of staff. The treatments are sometimes inexpressibly harsh, involving endless bed-rest on outside verandas, in all weathers, on the assumption that freezing cold air is somehow good for the lungs. Meanwhile, friendships are established, sexual adventures are experienced and a panoply of characters from vastly different backgrounds are presented. Lenny and Miriam are introduced to English literature by one of the inmates, and as the book progresses, describing the year that they spend in the sanatorium, we follow the development of their personalities.

The conclusion of the book brings us into contemporary England and we see how the lives of the various inmates developed over time, revealing the forces that have made England into the country and society it is today.

The book is written in an interesting and insightful way, and provides the all-encompassing experience one seeks in a book, namely, entering into a world of imagination that is not our own but with which the reader can identify.

A Visit to the Hula Lake Area

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The second Coronavirus lockdown has just ended, and the third one can already be seen in the offing. So anyone with a yen for a change of atmosphere and landscape had better utilise the opportunity to take to the open road, and get out of the house.

So hubby and I decided to make for the north of Israel, to the Hula wetlands or lake area, since at this time of the year it serves as a stop-over and resting place for many migratory birds making their way from Europe to Africa for the winter. Israel’s location, between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the arid Arabian desert to the eest, has made it the preferred flight path for millions of birds migrating from their summer sojourn in Europe to Africa’s warm winter.

Our friends in central France have recently reported sighting and hearing the flocks of cranes (grue) overhead on their way to warmer climes. For those agricultural communities this presages the change of the seasons, and plays an important role in their life. Here in Israel the arrival of the birds has been less welcome in the past, as they tend to eat the fish in kibbutz fishponds and the grain in fields. However, the JNF, which manages, the area of the Hula, has seen to it that the lakes in the area are stocked with fish and grain is put out for the birds, thus enticing them to prefer that venue.

The history of the Hula region is interesting in itself. Set in the low-lying area between the Golan Height and Upper Galilee, for thousands of years it has been a site where human habitation has been sparse. The marshy terrain served as a fertile breeding ground for insects, so that malaria and other diseases were prevalent, causing high death rates among human inhabitants of the region. The presence of water-fowl and other animal denizens made it an ideal hunting-ground. The local inhabitants cultivated rice and wove the indigenous reeds into matting which was used for constructing and furnishing their accommodation. Remains of human habitation dating back thousands of years have been found in the area.

Jewish settlement in the area began in 1883 with the First Aliya, when Yesud HaMa’ala was established on the western shore of the lake. In 1948 there were 35 villages in the Hula Valley, 12 of them Jewish and 23 Arab.

In the early 1950s Israel’s government invested considerable efforts in draining the marshes in order to use the reclaimed land for agriculture. This turned out to be less than successful, as water containing chemical fertilizers served to pollute nearby Lake Tiberias while the reclaimed soil became dry and infertile. Eventually, environmental concerns prevailed, the wetlands were restored to their original state, and the JNF established the Hula National Lake Park as an area where visitors can come and enjoy the bird life.

And so a couple of days ago, ensconced in a golf buggy, hubby and I drove along the eight-kilometer-long path, passing lakes and open areas where birds of all sizes and kinds could be seen and heard. We particularly enjoyed the sight of pelicans fishing in pairs in one of the lakes, and the cranes flying from one feeding-ground to another, or landing near us on ground that was dry. Cranes seem to be much smaller on the ground than when they are flying in formation overhead.

The weather was perfect, the sight of the land, the mountains and the beauty of the region were invigorating and it was good to get out into the open, breathe the fresh air, and feel that we were communing with nature once more.

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

(Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo) This is not an easy, light-hearted read. Far from it. It describes in harrowing detail the experiences of George Heisler, who is one of seven men who have escaped from a prison camp somewhere in rural Germany. The year is 1935, and anyone suspected of opposing the Nazi regime is liable to be summoned by the Gestapo, arrested and sent to a prison camp.

Although the camps were not yet sites of mass murder on an industrial scale, the use of indiscriminate brutality was widespread. The seventh cross of the title was part of an arrangement in the camp whereby prisoners were punished by being nailed to crosses attached to trees and subjected to various sadistic practices by the men who ran the camp, leading ecventually to their death.

George’s escape route, a veritable Via Dolorosa lasting a week, takes him over the barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp, across the difficult terrain of the local countryside and along paths that intersect with villages and towns which contain people who may either help or betray him. George is a native of the region, so there are some people who know him and would help him if he came to them, while others who know him are too much in fear of the consequences to be prepared to extend a helping hand. His main problem is that he doesn’t know into which category any individual might fall. That is his constant dilemma.

Interspersed with graphic descriptions of the privations experienced by George are accounts of the course taken by the other escapees, all of whom are either captured or killed. The reader’s feelings are not spared when it comes to descriptions of the punishment meted out to those who are returned to the camp. The lives and emotions of the various individuals in the surrounding countryside are also described at length, and it is at times confusing as we try to disentangle exactly who and what each character is and where they stand with regard to George. But the general atmosphere is one of fear and suspicion, and that is the main point.

Alongside descriptions of a wide range of characters, we are also treated to a detailed account of the surrounding countryside, the activities of the various farmers and villagers, and the climate, with the ever-present mist rising from the nearby river, enveloping everything and determining what is seen and what is hidden. The female characters are mostly docile farmer’s wives or daughters whose main occupation is cooking, baking and tending to their household chores. The inner lives of the men who run the camps and are members of the Gestapo, the S.S. and the S.A. are also revealed to the reader with all their warped logic and justification of the unjustifiable.

Eventually one friend, motivated by their joint past as opponents of the Fascist ideology, undertakes to help George, even letting him stay in his home overnight. He arranges for George to be helped to escape the country, and it is with this that the book ends.

What is most amazing is that this book was written before the Second World War and published in 1942, when the was was raging, but the full extent of the Holocaust and all its attendant horrors was not yet known. It is not so much prescient as providing an accurate picture of the way terror and physical violence came to dominate the thinking and behaviour of people who would otherwise have continued to live peaceful and inoffensive lives, showing how an entire society could accept a perverted ideology and become subservient to the rule of terror and fear.

Shopping in Coronavirus Times

I wouldn’t say I’m a shopaholic, but I was brought up at a time and place where shopping was a regular feature of life. As a child I would be sent round the corner to the grocery store in Willesden Lane (which was no lane at all) to buy the loaf of rye bread my mother loved. On the way home I would gnaw the crust, and once I had handed the loaf over my mother would cut off the crust, spread it with butter and give it to me to eat like a civilized person, which made it rather less attractive. But I ate it anyway. When I was a bit older I would be sent to the greengrocer’s to ask for a pound of mushroom stems (a cheap substitute for whole mushrooms), with which my mother would prepare a delicious mushroom sauce.

Before every major Jewish festival our mother would take me and my two sisters to buy a dress or coat or shoes so that we would be suitably attired when we attended the services in synagogue. When we lived in Kilburn this meant marching to the end of Willesden Lane, then turning right into Kilburn High Road where the shop-fronts beckoned with myriad delights. I know that today Kilburn and its High Road are considered to be an area where it is not advisable to go alone, but in those days it was still borderline respectable.

My two younger sisters and I would gaze in fascination at the displays in the shop windows, imagining ourselves wearing the sequined evening dresses or warm, flowing coats, and vying to be the first to ‘bags’ (i.e., claim) possession of them. Eventually our mother would lead us into the local Marks and Spencer’s store, where each one of us would be suitably equipped with an item of clothing considered suitable for the season and the occasion. There was nowhere to try on what one had bought in those days, so it was rather a question of knowing one’s size as well as an element of hit and miss.

I don’t know how my parents could afford this constant outlay of money, as my father’s salary as the secretary of a Jewish charity was far from generous. I do know that he worked extra jobs in the evening at home, whether typing envelopes for other organizations or managing payments for another Jewish charity, so that they could buy extras. Our mother, with her nimble fingers, did her best to make clothes for us, but when it came to the festivals they felt it was necessary to make an extra effort.

In my teenage years we moved away from Kilburn to a leafy suburb on what was then the Bakerloo line of the underground, and is today served by the Jubilee line. Then our shopping expeditions took us far afield to Oxford Street, with all the delights that were to be found there. Of course, Marks and Spencer’s was still the mainstay of our outings, but the lure of the other shops could not be denied. And so we became familiar with the interiors and offerings of Selfridges, John Lewis, C&A and many other magical emporia. On the long journey home by tube we would clutch the colourful paper bags containing our purchases and our mother would finally be able to rest her aching feet.

When I moved to Israel I found that there were fewer shops and that the stock on offer was less tempting, but still there was always somewhere where I could occasionally go and try to find a new item of clothing. Whenever I managed to get to London, however, I would gravitate towards Oxford Street at least once, partly to satisfy my shopping needs and partly to relive the regular pilgrimages I used to make there with my mother and sisters.

Of course, I have been buying (and selling) books on Amazon for several years, but that’s a very different category of shopping.

Today, as we labour under the burden of the Coronavirus, all clothes shops are out of bounds as far as I’m concerned. Here in Israel I have no desire to venture into an enclosed place containing people I neither know nor trust, and especially not to try on an item of clothing which has been handled by any number of people.

So these days I do my shopping on line. After I ordered an item of clothing from good old Marks and Spencer’s it got into the habit of bombarding my email almost daily with offers and deals of various kinds. It’s almost like having Oxford Street at my fingertips which, like everything, has its advantages and its disadvantages.

Although I still long and hanker and crave for the day when I can resume my annual pilgrimage to Oxford Street, for the moment I’m prepared to assuage my thirst with what the internet has to offer.

‘How to Plan a Crusade; Religious War in the High Middle Ages’

This book, with its sixty pages of notes, twenty pages of bibliography, lavish illustrations and extensive index, is a thoroughly-researched study of events that took place between the late eleventh and mid-fourteenth centuries during which crusades were launched from Europe to the Levant. The author does not deal with the crusades chronologically, although he provides a list of dates and events at the beginning of the book. Rather, the book proceeds according to specific subjects in chapters devoted to them, such as Justification, Propaganda, Recruitment, Finance, Logistics, etc.

Furthermore, the level of detail in the book concerns every aspect of the broad topics covered. Thus, in the chapter on Logistics, we read how the boats that took the armies across the Mediterranean were constructed, and how they were adapted for the transportation of horses – an essential component of every fighting force at the time. Thus, as well as separate stalls in the ship’s hold, every stall contained a cloth cradle within which each horse would be strapped during the voyage, to prevent it from falling as the ship rolled.

I must admit that my knowledge of the various crusades was rather sketchy before I read this book. Now I know that the First Crusade, which succeeded in capturing Jerusalem from its Turkish rulers lasted from 1096 to 1099, was the result of preaching and instigation by the Pope and other clergy. This process culminated in the Council of Clermont, which proclaimed the Crusade, and set the wheels in motion for its execution, with the eventual establishment of crusader rule in the Levant. The Fifth and essentially final Crusade, which lasted from 1217 to 1221, ended in Muslim victory and the failure of the crusaders to recapture Jerusalem.

Where I live, just outside Jerusalem, there is a hilltop called Kastel with the remains of a Crusader castle, which in turn was built on top of a former Roman stronghold. In fact, throughout modern Israel (as well as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria) there are remains of crusader castles and other edifices. I have toured the impressive halls once inhabited by the Templars which have been excavated in Acre, the last crusader stronghold before their defeat by Saladin’s successors in 1291. I have also visited the site of the battle of Hattin (Hittin in Hebrew) in Galilee, where Saladin routed the crusader forces in 1187, marking the beginning of the end of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Thus, between 1099 and 1291 Christian forces ruled some or even most of what was known as the Holy Land, or Outremer for the French, establishing what was known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem with European rulers, benefiting from the local crops and other produce, trading with the countries of the region and interacting with the local population.

Organising a crusade involved a great deal of planning, such as prior knowledge of the geography of the various regions, the vagaries of possible land and sea routes, the need to find food and equipment for the troops, the nature of the indigenous populations of the countries on the route, and the necessity of negotiating treaties with the rulers of those regions. Prior to each successive crusade (there were five main ones, as well as several minor ones) various members of the clergy would embark on preaching tours throughout Europe to rally support among the local populace and set in process the arrarngements for amassing men, weapons and materiel for the promulgation of what was seen as a holy war to rescue the places sacred to Christians from the hands of infidels (i.e., Muslims).

Fired up by a combination of religious fervor, the promise of salvation and remission of sins, as well as the possibility of material gain, many thousands of the inhabitants of the countries of Europe gathered together to make their way to the ports or other points of departure for the Levant. The rulers of each country, supported by the local aristocracy, were also instrumental in the crusades, providing physical, financial and moral support for the venture. Taxation was an important element in the funding of each crusade, and in many instances the various monarchs used the opportunity to impose additional taxes on the local population, including the Jewish communities (whose property was often expropriated). The massive forces mustered sometimes attacked local populations, and this was especially so with regard to Jewish communities along the Rhineland (Worms, Wormaisa, Mainz), where large numbers of Jews were massacred.

The crusades were not limited to fighting against the Turks or whoever controlled the Holy Land. In 1208 what was known as the Albigensian Crusade was initated by the Pope against the Cathars in the Languedoc region of southern France who adhered to a different version of Christianity than the Catholicism of Western Europe. This resulted in the deaths of many thousands of the local population. Between 1239 and 1268 periodical ‘crusades’ were launched against the Hohenstaufen rulers of Germany and Sicily by rival German dukes. The various Popes were actively involved in the crusades, and usually also instigated them.

The overall picture one gets is that war was a way of life for all or most of Europe, which was on a war footing for a large part of the Middle Ages (and certainly beyond that, too). This can perhaps even be traced back to 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy, massed forces, crossed the channel and invaded England. War seems to have been a way of life for large segments of the population, so that its promulgation, organization and implementation, as well as its sanction by the religious authorities, constituted an integral part of daily life, affecting every stratum of society. This was what determined the fates of millions of inhabitants of Europe for many centuries, even until quite recently.

One can only hope that the age of wars in Europe has now come to an end.

Speaking Out

In these difficult times Israel finds itself facing a fresh scandal on an almost daily basis. The latest was the bold statement made by the outgoing head of a hospital situated in the ultra-orthodox town of Bnei Braq, and hence treating primarily that population.

As a rule I prefer not to write about negative aspects of life in Israel, or to tackle political issues which are amply covered in the media. Given the current situation, however, matters seem to have got out of hand, and this bodes ill for the future.

In a radio interview to mark his departure, Professor Motti Ravid had some harsh things to say about the population he has been serving for the last twenty years. The views he expressed were essentially akin to those held by large segments of the general population in Israel, though because of political considerations they are not often voiced out loud by public officials.

The vast majority of Israel’s population is secular, or at most traditional. Some segments adhere to the full panoply of religious precepts, but they are a minority. Most Israelis are happy to mark the various festivals that punctuate the year with traditional observances such as lighting candles (Chanuka) or holding a token Seder and eating matza (Pesach), and that’s about as far as it goes. They still want to go to the sea or a national park on the Sabbath, eat out in all kinds of restaurants or drive to visit friends and relatives whenever it suits them. Living in Israel enables one to identify as Jewish without having to be observant.

When Israel was founded its first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, agreed to exempt a small quota of ultra-orthodox Jews from serving in the military. Since then the political clout wielded by ultra-orthodox politicians has extended that quota considerably, as well as managing to extort enormous sums from the government to support those communities, whose birth-rates are far higher than those of the general population.

And so today, in the middle of the twenty-first century, the general Israeli population finds itself supporting a huge and growing ultra-orthodox segment that has come to constitute a millstone round its neck. These groups of ultra-orthodox Jews cling to modes of behaviour, dress and religious observance that were current in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of them do not work, do not pay taxes, do not serve in the military, and thus benefit from the efforts of the rest of the population.

When restrictions were imposed on the entire country in order to stem the tide of coronavirus infections, several ultra-orthodox groups blatantly ignored the ban on large-scale gatherings by insisting on congregating together for mass prayers and festivities. The latest lockdown imposed on the country as a whole was in part due to their refusal to abide by these restrictions, as well as to their politicians’ threats to cease supporting the current government if the restrictions were imposed selectively on areas with a high proportion of ultra-orthodox residents, which is where infection rates are highest.

Thus, many ultra-orthodox groups appear to have made it part and parcel of their ethos to hold the rest of the country to ransom, and it was the good doctor, Professor Rabid, who pointed this out fairly and squarely, without quailing before the repercussions to his position and reputation.

Israel’s tragedy is that the current government, and especially the individual at its head, show themselves only too ready to kowtow to the threats and pressure exerted by the ultra-orthodox and their leaders.

Once the coronavirus is beaten and the world – Israel included – can return to normality of some kind, it will be time for a thorough reassessment of the values and political systems that have prevailed to date.

Newspapers and I

I have read at least one daily newspaper almost since I could read. At my parents’ home in London we had the luxury (which we took for granted) of having a morning newspaper put through our letterbox every morning, so that it was there on the mat, waiting for whoever was the first to come downstairs. Originally it was the News Chronicle, and when that failed it was the (Manchester) Guardian. When my father came home from work each evening he would have the Evening Standard under his arm, and it would be eagerly seized and read by myself and my sisters. Sunday mornings were always the highlight of the week when I could delve into the Observer and soak up the delights provided by its erudite reporters, feature writers, columnists and book and theatre reviewers.

More recently, whenever I made my annual pilgrimage to London in pre-Corona days, I would marvel at the fact that the Evening Standard was freely available (albeit full of rubbish) and wished my father had lived long enough to see that.

Since making my home in Israel my consumption of newsprint has not declined. At first I was limited to the Jerusalem Post, which was not very satisfactory back in those distant pre-Six-Day War days, when Israel was still finding its feet in the world, and in journalism, too. But my knowledge of Hebrew was not up to reading the Hebrew press, and it wasn’t until many years later that I found myself preferring to read the Ha’aretz morning paper in Hebrew, even though today it is also available in English. I suppose that spending many years translating texts of various kinds from Hebrew to English must have honed my Hebrew-reading and comprehension skills.

Some years ago, when I was offered a job in the Government Press Office in Jerusalem, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I soon found that the nature of the work involved far more than simply reading and summarising the Hebrew press. The work was done in awkward shifts which unhinged my home life, the pay was low, the physical conditions were shabby, the equipment unfriendly and office rivalries prevailed. It did not take long for me to realise that I was not cut out for that kind of work, and resigned in short order, relieved to be able to continue my leisurely (and more profitable) work as a free-lance translator.

These days, since I am an early riser, I delight in the start of my day, when I can read the paper in peace as I drink a cup of coffee and nibble a Hobnob or (chocolate) digestive biscuit (now easily available in Israel, thank goodness). Even though it may still be dark, by six in the morning the paper has usually been delivered, while my house and the street where I live are still at rest. The birds are just beginning to chirp and sing, and even the neighbours’ dogs are still asleep.

Sometimes I’m up even before the paper has arrived. It comes wrapped in a plastic bag and is usually deposited at the far edge of our driveway, which means that I have to take a few steps outside to retrieve it. If there is no sign of the paper, I go out onto the pavement and look up the road to see if there is some indication that it is on its way, the indication being the headlights of the car of the lady who distributes the paper to the various subscribers in our area. If I see the headlights gradually coming closer, I stand at the end of our driveway and as the car draws near, instead of chucking the paper out of her window, the lady hands it to me with a smile. We each greet one another with ‘boker tov’ (good morning) and we then go our respective ways. I to sit in comfort and read the day’s (usually depressing) news, and she to bring the information to the other poor blighters who are still sound asleep.

‘A Notable Woman; the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’ edited by Simon Garfield


Jean Lucey Pratt began writing a journal in April 1925, when she was fifteen years old, and continued doing so for sixty years. She lived through much of the twentieth century, and experienced most of its principal events. She recorded the mundane happenings of her daily routine as well as disclosing the feelings, desires and experiences that occupied her mind. The editor has gone through the large number of exercise books that Jean bought from Woolworth’s and has presented the reading public with an all-encompassing picture of the diarist, though inevitably forced to be selective.

Her family (her parents and older brother) lived in a large house in Wembley, which at the time was still a semi-rural suburb of London. Her mother died when she was thirteen and her father remarried, to a woman whom Jean understandably found it difficult to like. Nevertheless, her relationship with her step-mother lasted throughout most of her life, long after her father’s death, and eventually developed into one of affection, much to this reader’s surprise.

Jean started studying architecture at London University but failed some exams and was told she would have to repeat the second year, whereupon she abandoned her studies and decided to study journalism. However, the friendships she made during her student days remained with her throughout her life. She endeavoured to forge a career for herself as a writer, and even managed eventually to get a book published. Her biography of the eighteenth-century actress, Peggy Wooffington, who was the mistress of George II, was published under a pseudonym in 1952, but she never managed to get anything else published.

She seems to have invested a great deal of her writing energies in her diary, and it was there that her character, loves and disapointments are revealed with disarming and sometimes heartbreaking honesty. There were too many failed love affairs, too many unreliable or simply dastardly men, leaving her pining for someone to love and be loved by. But it never happened. Time and again she was let down by the man she thought was ‘the one,’ and time and again she confides her stricken heartache to her diary.

I myself was living in London for some of the time she records in her diary, and it is interesting to read her accounts of listening to the same programmes on the radio, the broadcasts of plays or concerts, as well as to read her opinions of books that she read. She was an educated woman, went to the theatre and concerts, as well as to lectures and other cultural events, in which of course London abounds. In her early thirties she moved to a country cottage, which must have been in a very primitive state, as we learn that it had only one outside toilet, and no proper bathroom until she had been living there for some twenty years. But it had a large garden, was in a beautiful setting, enabling her to indulge in her passion for cats, of which she had many. Nonetheless, she bemoaned having to attend to many domestic chores even though she almost always had ‘a woman from the village’ to do the heavy work.

During the Second World War Jean worked in the office of an industrial fimr in Slough, riding there and back on her bike, as so many people did in those days, often having to make her way through the heavy fog which affected England at that time. Her work also brought her into contact with another of the philandering men who stole her heart and then broke it. She admits quite openly to her need for sex and her almost constant sense of hopelessness and physical frustration.

Eventually, as middle-age descends, there is a greater sense of contentment in the entries. Although having to contend with financial difficulties for most of her adult life, she never dreams of abandoning her cats. She tries several times to stop smoking, but fails every time until a sudden illness and consequent surgery completely stifles her desire for a cigarette (she had been smoking about 30 or 40 a day).

On the day the Nuremberg trials began in Germany she records a discussion at lunch at work about Jews, quoting the vaguely anti-Semitic comments her companions make, but making no judgment of her own (November 1945). One indication of her feeling on the subject may be inferred from the veritable tirade she writes in referring to the concentration camps in April 1945: “The horrors that have been revealed by the Allies are past belief…how any human being in a so-called civilized nation could treat other human beings like that… We just cannot understand it.”

She lived through the Second World War in which London and other cities were bombed, and expresses sympathy for all those forced into underground shelters. She even mentions the arrival of “Rudolf Hess (sic.) Nazi Party leader and Hitler’s deputy…It is the best piece of news we have been given for months.” (May 1941). She pronounces her disappointment at not having lost her virginity until she was well over thirty, but she eventually rejoices in being a virgin no longer. She also makes comments about current events, such as the unexpected death of King George and “the idea of that shy, charming young mother Princess Elizabeth as Queen now is too massive to take in properly (February 1952).” For the last twenty years of her life she ran a bookshop in the village, which caused her both happiness and financial difficulties.

All in all, the book constitutes a fascinating, well-written account of the daily life of a fairly average woman in the course of the events that shaped twentieth-century England.

Louisville, Kentucky


 It’s just a fairly obscure town in the USA where a woman of colour was recently shot and killed, and the subsequent decision by the court not to indict any of the three policemen involved for a serious crime has given rise to demonstrations and riots there and elsewhere. But it has a connection with my family’s past.

In 1928 Herbert van Son, the uncle I never knew, was a young man of nineteen. The family lived in Hamburg and his father was a successful importer of tobacco. He arranged for his son to travel to Louisville and work as an apprentice to a business associate who was a tobacco farmer and trader there. He writes about the hot, damp climate and the warm relations between him and his employer, who helped him get settled and even took him to the Kentucky Derby. It was all interesting but very different to the life he had known in Hamburg,

Herbert, like most of the members of his family, was an inveterate letter-writer. Every week a typed letter describing his experiences and encounters in Louisville’s tobacco farming and processing industry would arrive in the family home in Hamburg. His initial tentative steps in the field eventually led to his being given ever more responsible positions, such as improving the speed and efficiency with which the blending process was managed. He writes home that “All the negroes here regard me as the ‘Big German Boss,’ simply because I don’t talk to them as if they were dogs, and I don’t go around with a gun in my pocket, like the other managers do, indicating their ridiculous arrogance and stupidity…”

After spending a year in Louisville and the surrounding area, Herbert was asked to manage the Chinese branch of the American tobacco company to which he had been apprenticed. After a brief trip back to Hamburg to see his family, he set off overland to Shanghai, taking a series of trains culminating in a week-long journey on the Trans-Siberia express. Before leaving Hamburg he traced his route with his younger brother, Manfred, who eventually became my father.

Herbert’s letters, which were written in German, were carefully collected and filed by his parents, and that file was among the few possessions my late father was able to take out of Germany when he fled the country in December 1938, after Kristallnacht.

There are no letters from Herbert from Shanghai. The family was informed a few days after his arrival of his death there by suicide, and the anguished correspondence between his father and the Jewish community there regarding the gravestone is all that remains.

In 2002 my father commissioned the translation of the letters, which I undertook together with Miriam Ron. The letters, which were published in book form as ‘The Tobacco Road; Hamburg, Kentucky, Shanghai,’ trace the brief trajectory of Herbert van Son’s life.

Several years later, I spent some time in the British Library’s Newspaper Department in Stanmore, London, as my father was sure that there had been a newspaper report of the incident. Lo and behold, in the May 25 edition of the ‘North China Herold,’ the English-language weekly newspaper that appearend in Shanghai at the time, I came across an irem headed ‘Tragedy in a Bathroom; Young Foreigner Found Dead: Suggested Suicide.’ My sharp intake of breath when I found it caused heads to turn, but blessed silence was soon restored.

And so, every mention of Louisville, Kentucky, brings back the memory of the bright young man who came to a tragic end at the other side of the world.

P.S. I have imagined Herbert and the other members of the family in my novel, ‘Time Out of Joint, the Fate of a Family,’ available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Time-Out-Joint-Family-Historical-ebook/dp/B00L96LKUI/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Time+Out+of+Joint%2C+the+Fate+of+a+Family&qid=1551801977&s=digital-text&sr=1-1-catcorr



Tracking the Fate of my Grandparents

“We don’t know anything about what happened to our (mutual) grandparents. Our parents never talked about them,” my American cousins told me when I visited them last year.

The two sons of my mother’s brother, the late Dr. Kurt Hirsch, live comfortable lives in Virginia. Jack and Harry and their families maintain their connection with Israel and Judaism, and are loyal American citizens. We have not grown up together, for obvious reasons, but over the years we have kept in touch, whether by letters, email or occasional visits to one another’s country. We are all more or less the same age, which helps to keep the bond between us strong.

I did not have much information about what happened to our grandparents, Max and Paula Hirsch, either. I knew only that in 1940 they had been due to leave their home town of Sprottau, Silesia (then Germany, today Poland), to make their way to Cuba at some point, but had never arrived. The whole thing was a mystery, and had obviously caused immense grief to their children: my mother in England, her brother and sister on either coast of the USA, and another sister in Israel.

I mentioned this to my cousin in Israel (son of my mother’s sister) and he claimed to have very little knowledge of the subject, though he sent me copies of the memorial pages (Gedankblatte) his mother had filled out for her parents for Yad Vashem. For both Max and Paula Hirsch the details of when and where they had died were ‘unbekannt’ (unknown). There is no record of them in any official archive.

“Don’t you remember? We found the Red Cross messages between them and our mother in their flat after Dad died,” my sister reminded me when I told her about this. And then it came back to me.

Over the course of a year my two sisters and I would meet one evening each week to clear out the contents of our father’s flat. One small box tucked away in a cupboard contained some tiny dolls that had evidently come from our mother’s childhood home. The box also contained the few Red Cross messages (sent from Red Cross Message Bureau 80 at 130 Station Road, Hendon N.W.4) she had sent to her parents in 1941 and their replies to her from Germany. The flimsy paper used at the time was disintegrating, and after much heart-searching we decided to deposit those precious mementos for safekeeping in the Yad Vashem archive. We were given photocopies of the pages, and it was with a heavy heart that we left the originals there.

After being reminded of their existence by my sister, I located the photocopies, typed the texts into my computer, and promptly sent the file to my sisters and my cousins.

The first Red Cross letter was sent from Sprottau and is dated 29 July 1941. The number of words is limited to twenty, and mentions hopes of reaching Cuba via Barcelona. The next Red Cross letter from Sprottau is dated 19 November 1941 and notes that the journey to Cuba seems unlikely. This is followed by a Western Union Cable from Norfolk, Virginia, evidently from my uncle, dated 12 November 1941 and stating solely ‘LEFT FOR CUBA.’ How he knew this I don’t know, and nor it seems do my cousins. My uncle had presumably arranged the visa for Cuba, and also sent tickets for the voyage.

The last Red Cross letter from my grandparents was sent from Leignitz, which was then (22 March, 1942) in Germany but is now in Poland. It states that they are well, and that they hope to be reunited with their children.

Of course, that was not to be, and they probably knew that by then. I have no idea why they went to Leignitz, though they may have been ordered by the Gestapo to report there, as it seems that from there they were deported to one of the concentration camps. Or shot. Nobody knows.

While browsing Facebook a few days ago, I came across a question asked by one of the members of a group of descendants of Holocaust survivors asking till when it had been possible for Jews to leave Germany.

One of the replies contained the link to the Jewish Virtual Library, and the order issued by the Gestapo on 23 October 1941 (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/order-banning-the-emigration-of-jews-from-the-reich) banning Jews from emigrating from the Reich. Among the comments were accounts of people whose relatives had escaped by boarding a train in October 1941 that went from Berlin to Lisbon. The train was sealed and guarded by the Gestapo, and the journey took five or six days. Passengers remained in Lisbon for a few days, before sailing to America or Cuba.

So it seems that for reasons unknown my grandparents could not get to the train that was to be their salvation in time to leave that benighted country. Just another story of pain and grief like countless others, but it’s my own and my family’s private pain and grief.