By some strange coincidence – or perhaps not – in the same week as many world leaders gathered in Jerusalem to mark (celebrate?) the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I was in the middle of reading a book about one child’s experience of anti-Semitism. And that child’s experience reminded me of one of my own at a similar age.
The event described in the book ‘O Vous frères humains’ (O ye Human Brethren). by French author Albert Cohen took place in Marseille in 1905, on the author’s tenth birthday. As he was walking home from school he encountered a street vendor around whom a small crowd had gathered. Fascinated by the objects on sale, the child bought some trinkets with the money his mother had given him for his birthday. Noticing his dark curly hair and dark eyes, the vendor proceeded to hurl epithets at him, ‘Dirty Jewboy! We don’t like bloodsucking Yids here, Shove off.’ etc. Adding insult to injury, the people standing around him laughed or did nothing.
Anguished and stunned, the boy wandered away and the rest of the book consists of the thoughts that run through his head, his inability to reconcile the insults he has heard with the knowledge of his parents’ kindness, the history of the Jews, the biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbour,’ compounded by Christianity’s teachings of kindness and love. Worse still, as he wanders along, the boy comes across slogans such as ‘Death to the Jews,’ and ‘Dirty Jews,’ scrawled on walls, and these only serve to intensify his confusion and desolation.
Of course, the emphasis at the gathering to mark the liberation of Auschwitz was on the wholesale massacre of the Jews of Europe, and justifiably so, but Albert Cohen points out that the anti-Semitism he encountered as a child, and which came not long after the Dreyfus trial in France, was endemic throughout most of Europe, and eventually led to the Holocaust, which is now known officially in France by the Hebrew word Shoah.
And the anti-Semitism that pervaded Christian Europe even found its way to my ten-year-old self, as I lay in hospital in London, with a suspected (but eventually unconfirmed) case of scarlet fever. No visitors were allowed, though I was able to receive parcels of sweets and chocolates, and even the occasional much-yearned-for reading material. The nurses, many of them Irish, were practical, generally getting on with the job in hand without bestowing great affection on their young patients. My one consolation was being able to listen to the ward radio, with the customary sequence of light music and talk programmes broadcast in those days on the BBC’s Light Programme
One day, the bed nearest the radio became vacant, and I asked Maureen, one of the nurses, whether I could move there. She helped me with what I thought was a good will. But when I found that my arm was just too short or the bed too far away for me to reach the radio to adjust the volume, I asked if it could be moved a bit nearer to me. At that she exploded. ‘You Jews,’ she said. ‘Next thing you’ll want to sit at the right hand of God!’
I had never heard that phrase, had no idea what it meant, but knew instinctively that it was an insult. I had never been slighted before for being Jewish (or not knowingly, as there were probably others I was too naïve to recognize as such), and felt totally crushed by what the nurse had said. Alone in my hospital bed I began to cry, and just could not stop. The separation from home had been long and hard, and this was just the last straw. I continued to cry, refusing to answer the doctors’ and nurses’ questions as to the reason for it, as that was in fact something I was unable to put into words. Screens were put round my bed and medical staff peered round them at me from time to time. Eventually it was decided that I should be discharged. And so it was that at last I was able to go home and be reunited with my family.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this little incident was nothing very grave, though how a nurse can bring herself to insult a ten-year-old child in hospital escapes me. The age-old spectre of religious and cultural hatred of Jews, of being castigated for being different, the myth of their supposedly grasping nature and sense of superiority can– and does – pop up unexpectedly anywhere at any time. It makes me wonder how many of those world leaders’ declarations of ‘never again’ and ‘we will never forget’ will stand the test of time.