What do I have in common with the Jews? I don't even have anything in common with myself. - Franz Kafka
August 1962, Jamaica
In my hand are two letters: one from my mother, one from her brother, my Uncle Walter. I’m 18 years old, in Jamaica, staying for a week with friends of friends of my family back in England. I’ve broken my journey from Peru to New York and home, heading back from a gap year in Lima. In South America I’ve earned my living, learned the Spanish language and Cuban dancing, faced gunfire and a cavalry charge, spent a night in jail and afternoons in the arms of a lovely Limeña.
My hosts, British colonial types, have gone out for the afternoon, leaving the house empty except for me and the aged aunt, or is she a great-aunt? In fact, how she fits into the family is puzzling: she’s black, a descendant of slaves.
The letters are puzzling too, so I ask the old lady about them.
“Look, this is from my uncle in Montreal, inviting me to come and visit.”
“Do you know him? Have you met him?”
“No, my sister, my mum and dad, we’re close, but the rest of the family, well, it’s all a bit vague. Uncle Walter, well, it’s just a name. And then this other letter…”
I hand her the blue airmail.
“It’s from my mother. She says: ‘You’ll be receiving an invitation to visit your Uncle. I give you my permission to go.’ Why should she need to say that?”
“Well, who knows. But you should go and meet him. Because you will learn something important about your family”
Late August 1962, New York & Montreal
After a week in New York, I jump on a Greyhound bus for Montreal. Uncle Walter is there to meet me with his wife Irmgard. He’s strongly built, on the tubby side, not much hair left. Something of the showbiz intellectual, with a bow tie to prove the point, he works for Canadian Broadcasting, and in his spare time translates German comic verse into English. Something about him strikes me as rather like me. In some ways he seems more like my own kin than do my family back in suburban Cheltenham. Irmgard is a simpler soul, warm, attractive, straightforward.
May 2020, Scotland
At this point I hit a writer’s block. This is the time of Covid lock-down and I have put writing this on my list of things to do with all the empty hours. The shape of my memories is part of the problem. I remember that certain things happened or were told to me, but often have no clear picture of exactly where or when. I’d like to write it in dialogue form, but can recall only the odd scrap, a one-line here, a joke made there. Should I make it up? Should I write the whole thing as fiction? Well, let’s try. The spoken words I shall invent; the content, the story they convey, will be the truth as near as I can make it. Back to…
I stay with my uncle for a weekend, Some time we spend at their flat in Montreal, then go to their cottage in the Quebec countryside. Fine August weather. We sit by a small lake sunbathing. My uncle’s back is rather hairy, a trait I’ve not inherited; Irmgard’s back, already quite tanned, I massage with sun cream. Apart from that, only two things stick in my mind.
The first is Walter unfurling a family tree. It goes back two centuries, spreading across northern Germany from Hamburg to Königsberg. I am amazed. As the old lady predicted, here is something I have never known about my family: it is packed with rabbis and classic Jewish names. How many of these, I wonder, did the Nazis cut down?
The other moment was Walter casually asking:
”Do you ever go up into the loft at home?”
“Sure, I played about up there lots when I was a kid.”
“Ever come across something called Das blaue Balladenbuch?”
“Can’t say I have. A lot of books in Gothische Schrift that I couldn’t read, but a Blue Ballad Book, no”
A scene from the loft comes to me now as I write. Playing old 78s on a wind-up gramophone with my friend Bill.
One I quite like is Bruch’s setting of the Jewish ritual melody Kol Nidrei. Bill hates it, saying “You can see Hitler had a point”, an anti-Semitic wisecrack that struck me as odd but hardly shocking. My father would make remarks of that kind; PC was a long way off yet. A Jewish connection in my family was somehow in the air, but hazy. In my mind, my mother was German, from Danzig, which I knew had been separate from Germany proper.
She’d left for England because of Hitler, an understandable move given what I knew about Hitler. She’d married my Daddy, 100% English, before the war. And I still have clear memories of my grandfather Heinrich Ruhm - “Opa” – who lived with us, bouncing me on his knee to a German nursery rhyme:
Hoppa hoppa, über’n Graben
Wer will den Kleinen Vincent haben?
(Hoppity, hoppity over the ditch.
Who wants to have little Vincent?)
1962, Montreal to Cheltenham, England
Weekend over, Walter stays on in the cottage to write, Irmgard has work in the city so she and I travel together back to Montreal. Some more adventures, of which later, and I leave New York for England.
Back home in Cheltenham after a year away, I chat to my mother. She asks me:
“So how did you get on with Walter?”
“Oh, really well! In fact, I thought I was a bit like him.”
“Not too much like him, I hope!”
“What… do you mean?”
For a moment she hesitates, then, “Come into the kitchen. I’ll tell you. There’s a lot to tell.”
Puzzled and intrigued, I follow her into the kitchen where she’s preparing lunch.
“Back in Danzig growing up, Walter and I were very close. In our teens there was tennis and dancing and bathing at the beach. You might say Walter was a bit of a playboy. He always had a pretty girl on his arm, with something more than that probably going on behind the scenes.”
“And what about you?”
“I was his companion, sometimes a go-between. I was a good girl but I did enjoy having fun. I loved dancing and all the social life and I was never short of money. Opa was one of Danzig’s leading lawyers.”
“What about Irmgard? Was she part of the scene?”
“Irmgard? No, in fact he met her here in England.”
“So how come you left Danzig?”
“Eventually Walter joined Opa’s firm and I went off to study law in Berlin. I got my degree but when I tried to find work there was nothing.”
“Was your degree not up to it?”
“Yes of course it was! At first I thought it was just because I was a woman. But no, it was something else. I was Jewish, this was 1935, and the Nazis were in charge. Well, they were not quite in charge in Danzig yet, but their influence was everywhere. I had never thought of myself as Jewish; I’m German! Like so many Jewish families in Germany, we thought of ourselves as completely integrated, formally converted or not, we’d lost touch with the old traditions. Opa’s only “religion” was the philosophy of Schopenhauer!”
“But Walter, he showed me this genealogical tree. He gave me a copy. Look, it’s all Jewish-sounding names.”
“Yes, that’s all that was left of it really. We tended to marry other Jewish people.”
“But how come you never told me about this? Why did I not know I was Jewish? It comes through the mother’s side, doesn’t it?”
“True, but to me it just seemed to do more harm than good, holding onto the Jewish identity. It seemed to matter to others, evil others, but it didn’t to me. So I just blanked it out.”
“So what did you do? How did you finish up in England?”
“You could say I saw the writing on the wall. Prospects in Germany, in Danzig, were bad and getting worse. I packed my bags and got on a train across Germany to France.”
“Friends found me work there as a governess.”
“And England? You met Daddy on the steps of the National Gallery, didn’t you? I know that bit.”
“Yes, by then I’d moved to England. Wanting to get to grips with the language really. My cousin introduced us– your Uncle Eugen. You’ve met him, remember? Your Daddy and I knew at once there was something serious between us, we just couldn’t stop talking, never went into the Gallery!”
“And then came the war?”
“Well, before that we got married and moved here, to this house. That was in 1938.”
“So what about Walter? Did he stay in Danzig?”
‘At that point, yes. He was still working for Opa. But he went a bit off the rails, maybe with the rising threats, the insecurity. Anyway, he took to gambling at the casino. We got this letter from him saying that he’d got in up to his neck; borrowed – well, stolen– some cash from Opa’s office and then lost that too. Could we help him out and lend him the money?”
“Oh. Dear me. And did you?”
“Well, I talked it over with your father. You know Daddy, he’s absolutely straight and honest. He would never dream of doing something like that himself, but he said this was family, we had to help. It wasn’t a fortune, perhaps a hundred pounds, but substantial. We sent him the money.”
“Hm. But then Walter ended up over here in Cheltenham, didn’t he? And Opa too? How did that happen?”
“The Nazis closed in. Hitler invaded Poland to take Danzig back into Germany. That was what made Britain declare war on Germany. As the German tanks rolled in, the family got out on the last boat to leave the city. Opa and Oma, your aunt Edith and her son - that’s your cousin Harald - and Walter of course. They all ended up here in this little house. And it was only because I was here, married to an Englishman, and we had this house, that they were allowed into the country at all. Lots of Jewish refugees were turned away.”
“Gosh, that must’ve been quite a crowd.”
“It certainly was, though they weren’t all here all of the time. Walter was interned on arrival, as were all so-called ‘male enemy aliens’. Edith and little Harald spent some time as guests of the Bishop of Gloucester. And Harald was one of the naughtiest boys I’ve ever known, totally undisciplined. They managed to bring a lot of their furniture too.”
Looking around the room, I see Opa’s desk, an oak filing cabinet, a china cupboard full of Meissen porcelain, an oil painting of my mother in her twenties. All must have come on that boat from Danzig. Much of it is in my own house today; the filing cabinet with its roller front is by my elbow as I write.
“Do we still have Uncle Walter’s Blaue Balladenbuch in the loft? He asked me about it.”
“No, we certainly do not!! But I’ll come to that later. The war was a hard time for everyone and certainly for us, even if the Blitz didn’t hit Cheltenham – just one bomb fell on the town.”
“Your father was called up. So our crowded household was struggling along on a private’s pay. Everything was in short supply. Although other people seemed able to get hold of things. I would try to get eggs and things on the black market, but I never could.”
“I don’t believe that! You’re usually pretty good at… persuading people.”
“That may be, but my German accent will have been the barrier at that time.”
“But your English is perfect!”
“Well perhaps it was not so good then. Remember I’d only been here a couple of years. To English people, I came across as German, not Jewish”
A few weeks later I would be phoning my mother from university in Oxford. Only then did I realise her accent really was quite noticeable. Face to face, it was just my beloved mother’s voice.
“What about the wider family? Where did they end up? Or were they rounded up by the Nazis?”
“Well, Eugen somehow managed to conceal his Jewish connections; wound up in the Wehrmacht on the Russian Front, and still survived. My cousin Peter lost his job as an architect. He played in a dance band all over Germany, then got to Istanbul. Others made it to America. My friend Mimi’s husband died of typhus in one of the camps. But as far as I know, everyone you might call our family came through.”
Words like ‘miracle’ and ‘survivor guilt’ float through my mind. To bring my feelings under control, I turn to something lighter.
“Tell me more about Walter. How did he get on here? Must have been very different from the way he carried on in Danzig.”
“One thing didn’t change: his outrageous flirting. Plenty of young wives were around with husbands away in the forces. A big affair he had with your godmother Connie across the road. That was embarrassing, to say the least.”
“Oh dear, you must’ve been glad he wasn’t here all the time.”
“Yes, he joined the Pioneers, digging trenches. Then things got a bit more exciting for him later on. As a native German speaker, he got recruited by the British as a spy.”
“Wow! Behind enemy lines?”
“Yes, he claimed to be the oldest person ever to parachute into Germany. Soon after he landed he went into the nearest bar and ordered a drink. Straightaway the man at the next table called out, ‘Na Walter!! Was machst du denn hier?’ (Hey, Walter!! What the Devil are you doing here?) So his cover was blown and the RAF had to come and haul him out.”
“Gosh, some story.”
“Well, I don’t know how true it is.”
“Oh, but somehow you fell out with him, didn’t you? He wouldn’t say much about it when I asked him.”
“Well, you see, after the war he got himself a nice job with the BBC, in the German Department. He met up with Irmgard in London and was nicely settled. We’d been taking care of Opa right until he died in 1947. So we thought it reasonable to ask him to pay back the £100. We wrote to him.”
“Oh, I can guess: he got angry and refused.”
“Worse. He didn’t get angry, he went mad. He wrote to everyone we knew. Poison pen letters. Family, neighbours, friends, everybody. He claimed we had driven your grandfather to his death. 1947 was a very cold winter. He wrote that we had forced Opa out into the snow to fetch coal for the boiler, and that it had killed him. Well, Opa did help around the house, where he could, but there wasn’t a word of truth in this story.”
“What did you do?”
“What could we do? We explained things to people as best we could; I think they believed us. Then we packed up all the stuff he’d left here and sent it to his address in London. We’ve never spoken since.”
“Oh Mummy, how very sad.”
Later in the day I ask her, “Did those things you sent him include Das Blaue Balladenbuch? He asked me specifically about it.”
“I suppose so. We sent him everything. But yes, he did write to us to say it was missing.”
“What did you answer?”
“We didn’t. As I said, we cut all contact with him.”
Irmgard and I return to Montreal by train, leaving Walter at the lake with his holiday writing. We get back to the apartment, have a bite to eat, a few drinks and exchange what we both think is to be a goodnight kiss.
Two things I still remember she said later in the night:
“You could be the son I never had.”
“Be careful. I don’t know what I could tell Walter if I got pregnant!” (She is in her early forties, so it’s still a distinct possibility.)
Next morning I am on the Greyhound bus back to New York.
A few days later an invitation comes for me enclosing the bus fare to Montreal, with a strict instruction to destroy the letter. I return to Irmgard for another weekend.
Decades later cousin Harald is staying a while in my London flat. He’s come over from Canada to be with his mother, my Aunt Edith, who has only a few days to live. He’s easy to get on with, his eyes shining gently through thick pebble glasses. A long while back that “undisciplined boy” had joined the elaborately named Foursquare Elim Pentecostalist Church. We’re alone together sharing a pot of tea and I ask him casually,
“Harald, how do you feel about our family’s Jewish background?”
Harald goes down on his knees, with an air of transfiguration:
“I am as John the Baptist, a sign, one of the first among the Chosen, a fulfilment of the prophecy. The Conversion of the Jews shall lead to the Second Coming.”
All I can think to say is:
“Umm… I’ll just go and pop the kettle on for another cup of tea.”
Looking back on those brief moments with Irmgard I sometimes wonder: was I caught up, an unconscious player, in some great Oedipal revenge drama? But no, for me it was a tender surprise, an innocent delight.