I was born in Jerusalem a year before the outbreak of World War II. My parents had met there (my mother was married to someone else at the time), both having left Germany in 1933 soon after Hitler came to power.
My mother, who was half-Russian and half-German, had had to abandon her legal studies in Berlin when the Nazis decreed that Jews could no longer practise law. My father (who was 10 years older) had at that time already built up a successful legal practice. He was exempt from the Nazi ban on Jewish lawyers because he had won an iron cross in the First World War. On the other hand he had defended a social democrat, who had been accused of being a Communist, in a high-profile court case: defending “Communists”, whether you were Jewish or not, also disbarred you, under Hitler’s new rules, from continuing as a lawyer. Not that my father would have stayed in Nazi Germany. Both my parents, like many German Jews who could afford to start a new life, left their families behind and set off for Palestine. They married there in 1937.
Neither of them were committed Zionists. On the contrary, my father’s wartime experiences as a soldier in the German army had put him off all forms of nationalism. My mother too was at that time doubtful about the idea of a Jewish state (before the rise of Hitler, she had been in favour of assimilation, believing that the more Jews and non-Jews intermarried, the more likely it would be that the “Jewish problem” would gradually fade away). But they wanted to live in a place where Jews were free.
Nor were my parents religious. In common with many German Jews, they did not observe Jewish customs or traditions in any shape or form. Throughout my childhood I never once entered a synagogue — I barely knew there were such places — and I was brought up in total ignorance even of the most basic tenets of Judaism.
I have often wondered what effect, if any, such a totally secular upbringing has on the development of character. Secular people have never seemed to me less good or kind or honest than believers. But then of course we are all brought up in a Judeo-Christian culture, so there’s no way of telling what we would be like without it. Equally, although I’ve always been aware of a “God-shaped hole”, religious faith of any kind seems to me to be completely irrational. Would I have felt differently if I’d had a religious upbringing? Impossible to know.
My father spoke only German when he arrived in Jerusalem, so a legal career was not open to him. But because he was familiar with the retail business — his family owned a department store — he decided to set up what was to become the largest women’s fashion store in the city. All the installations for the store (he had rented the premises in what was known as the Armenian building: the landlord belonged to Jerusalem’s Armenian community) were shipped in from Germany. This was still possible in the early 1930s. The large glass panes for the shop-front windows were imported from Belgium and apparently caused much trouble by breaking several times.
Our name, May, was carved in stone above the entrance in three scripts — Roman, Hebrew and Arabic — and the store thrived. Even the Queen of Jordan sometimes came to shop there. So did the emperor Haile Selassie and his entourage, for whom a meal was cooked specially on the premises.
We lived in a large flat above the shop. My father and his brother ran the business and my mother did the accounts. A succession of cook/housekeepers, usually Arab women, looked after me in the daytime, though my mother would appear from time to time to ensure that her strict rules were being observed. During mealtimes, for example, I often had to hold books under my arms to make sure that my elbows weren’t sticking out. If I didn’t finish my spinach at lunchtime, it would be served up for supper, with a bit of sugar sprinkled on it.
Not that my childhood was unhappy. I recall frequent trips to the city’s best ice cream parlour, holidays at the seaside resort of Netanya, whizzing around the shop on my tricycle, being cosseted by the shop assistants. Best of all, I remember the annual excursion to pick flowers with my adored father. He would take the day off — presumably with the aim of putting in what is now called “quality time” with me (though I felt that we were covertly conspiring to get away from my mother) — and we would walk hand in hand to the outskirts of Jerusalem. We would clamber across rocky hills looking for the long-stemmed wild cyclamen, pink, purple and white, which sprang up every year in the patches of dusty earth between the rocks. We were always alone on this stony high ground, with its panoramic view of the old city surrounded by olive groves. Even as a small child I could sense that there was something historic and mythical in this landscape, or so it seems to me now.
My parents were never very happy in Palestine. They did not succeed in learning to speak Hebrew fluently, they didn’t like the heat, and both of them, particularly my father, wanted to resume their legal careers. Above all, they deeply disapproved of the terrorist tactics which, since after the end of the war, were being deployed by some Jewish underground organisations against the British. The bombing of the King David Hotel — site of the British Mandate’s military headquarters and central offices — in July 1946, was a turning point. As it happened, this imposing grand hotel had been one of the highlights of my parents’ social life — they went dancing there once a week.
I had no idea, when we set sail for Europe in 1947 (I was nearly nine), that I was never to return — or not for more than 30 years, as a tourist. Presumably my parents thought that to explain that we were emigrating would upset me too much; or perhaps they feared that I would cause trouble. In any event, I was not given the chance to say goodbye to my school friends or to anyone else.
After a brief holiday in Switzerland, my parents travelled on to America and to England to look for work and decide where they wanted to settle. Meanwhile, they left me at a small Swiss boarding school where I was overwhelmed by so many new impressions and demands that I began to forget my old life. I also began to forget the Hebrew language.
Much, perhaps too much, has been said and written about the importance of roots. Does being uprooted from the country in which you were born and where you spent half your childhood, leave some indefinable emotional scar? I don’t believe so. In any case, it has been a commonplace occurrence ever since the beginning of the 20th century.
I did, however, have a surprising experience when I went to see the Hollywood epic Exodus, sometime in my thirties. Before this very mediocre film begins, while the credits are rolling, the wide screen is filled with beautiful panoramic scenes of Jerusalem and its surrounding hills and olive trees. As soon as I saw this, I unexpectedly burst into tears.
Back to Jerusalem I
I didn’t go back to Jerusalem for about 30 years, mainly because I was too busy — getting married, having children, working, going on holidays to less dangerous places. But I have been back for three or four short visits, of which the first and last are the most memorable. Naturally, on my first visit after an absence of so long, I immediately set off from my hotel to look for the house in which I had spent my early childhood. Though Jerusalem had expanded enormously, the part of it in which we had lived was largely unchanged. I found the street (Princess Mary Avenue under the British Mandate, now Shlomzion Hamalka Street) easily enough and I recognised the look and feel of it, even if not the details of its topography.
What was much harder to find, because of the tricks that memory plays, was the actual house. I was absolutely certain that our shop — now converted, I had been told, into a bank — and the flat above it which had been my home, was on the right-hand side of the street. But there was no sign of a bank. So I went into shop after shop asking assistants whether there was a large bank anywhere in the vicinity. They all pointed to the other side of the road, but I was convinced that couldn’t be it.
When I came to the end of the street I retraced my steps and asked them all again whether they knew of a large fashion store called May which had once existed somewhere nearby. They’d never heard of it. I was on the point of giving up in despair when one of the assistants suggested that I should ask the owner of the small bookshop opposite — he had been around for donkey’s years.
So I crossed the road, went through an unobtrusive doorway and found myself in semi-darkness. When my eyes adjusted to the dim light I realised that I had stepped back in time, into a cramped, dusty, Dickensian cave in which every corner was jammed with books. At first I thought that there was no one in this book-paradise. But as I moved further into it, I saw a light at the back of the room; and then I discerned a stooped figure sitting at a desk. It was a very old man — he must have been about 80 — bent over some manuscripts.
I advanced cautiously. “Sorry to disturb you, but I wonder whether you can help me. I am looking for the house in which, many years ago, there was a fashion shop — May.” As soon as he heard the name the man leapt from his chair, waving his arms about. “May was here, in this building! Come, I’ll show you.” He ran, stumbling ahead of me back into the street. “Here,” he pointed to the bank. “This was May”.
Of course — it all fell into place. How disoriented I had been. The three large glass shop windows were still there and the flat above looked instantly familiar. “I was born here,” I told him, “my name used to be May.” The old man looked at me and smiled. “You must be the daughter of Kurt May. I knew him very well. He helped me get this shop in 1935. And he helped me later, too.” Tears started streaming down his face — as they did down mine. I could hardly speak. We stood there for a while and then I thanked him, we shook hands and he disappeared back among his books.
Later I learned that his name was Ludwig Mayer, that he had come to Jerusalem from Berlin in 1908, that he was an internationally renowned book-seller and that his shop was known as “Israel’s first quality bookshop”. It was regarded as a landmark of Zionist history. I have always regretted that I didn’t go back and talk to him further. There are so many questions I would like to have asked him. At the time, though, I thought he was too busy and wouldn’t want to be disturbed again. I doubt that I was right about that.
Back to Jerusalem II
My most recent visit to Israel came about in a most unexpected way. I found myself seated, at a conference, next to a distinguished and charming Israeli journalist, Danny Rubinstein, a columnist for the left-leaning paper Ha’aretz. He was about the same age as me and had also been born in Jerusalem. But talking about our common background turned out to be ant embarrassing experience for me. What school had I attended, he asked. Alas I couldn’t remember its name. What about the names of any teachers? Again, sorry, can’t remember. OK, surely you can recall the names of some school friends. Well yes, I remember the name of one girl, who had been my best friend— Ruth. Ruth what? It was almost exactly 60 years ago, I protested; sorry, no, I can’t remember.
“Well”, he said, “I regard this as a challenge. I am flying back to Jerusalem tomorrow and I will find your Ruth.” I gave him my email address, but I thought it highly unlikely that he would succeed, or even try. There must be hundreds of Ruths in Jerusalem.
He was as good as his word. A few days after our meeting he emailed to say that he had found my Ruth. It had taken only a few phone calls. My Ruth was Ruth Meyuchas (the surname rang an immediate bell), a good friend of his. She remembered me well.
A day or two later I got a call from Ruty (as she was known) who sounded so friendly and jolly that I was instantly drawn to her. We decided to email each other our life-stories, starting from the time we had last seen each other, at the age of eight or nine.
So began a very candid and absorbing correspondence, which proceeded by chronological instalments. Our stories could hardly have been more different: Ruty’s life resembled an action thriller while mine was more akin to a romantic novelette.
Ruty had deep roots in Israel. Her father was a Sephardic Jew whose family had come to Palestine in the 19th century; her mother’s family had also arrived several generations ago, from Russia. Ruty had been brought up with a strong sense of duty to the nation, as a pioneer and a volunteer. After doing her military service she had, among other things, co-founded a kibbutz, worked in various psychiatric clinics and addiction centres and helped integrate immigrants from Morocco, India, Iraq and elsewhere. Later, she had founded Israel’s first organisation to help dyslexic students and had been involved in establishing a nationwide network of nursery schools.
In her forties, she was invited — “out of the blue moon” as she put it — to work in the Knesset as a civil servant, where she eventually rose to become Head of the Foreign Relations Department. Along the way, she had brought up three sons, and had experienced the hardships and terrors of war.
By contrast my life, with its succession of desk jobs and string of romantic entanglements, seemed hopelessly commonplace. But, as Ruty very kindly put it when I half-jokingly pointed out that her life had been much more “real” than mine: “You didn’t have outside wars, but many wars inside yourself”.
When our narratives finally reached the present day, Ruty invited me to a party she was giving for her women friends. Would I like to come, and spend the weekend in Jerusalem? Yes, indeed I would.
Meeting someone in person for the first time (or for the first time after 60 years), when you have been in continuous, close communication for some months, is a disconcerting experience. Inevitably Ruty was subtly different from the way I had imagined her. She had a round attractive face and a warm smile, but what mainly surprised me was that I had expected an immediate sense of intimacy — and this was absent. Our conversation on the drive to Jerusalem was amicable, but distant.
Her party was attended by about 40 women — civil servants, doctors, professors of archaeology, lawyers, art-historians, journalists — all close friends of Ruty. I have never before, or since, been to a gathering where there was such a strong feeling of mutual trust, openness and equality. None of the elements which so often impair the enjoyment of social gatherings in England — cliquishness, social insecurity, insincerity, and so on — were present. Ruty’s friends had spent their lives working for a cause — to make Israel a viable and civilised state — and they had lived through wars and dangerous times together. I was hugely impressed and attracted by them but at the same time I felt very English, and very much an outsider.
Ruty took immense trouble to make my weekend as action-packed as possible. She introduced me to all kinds of interesting and friendly people (some of them old class-mates). The question that nearly all of them asked me was: “Why did you leave Israel?” My reply, that it had been my parents’ decision, not mine, seemed not quite to satisfy them. Perhaps I was imagining this —- there was certainly nothing overtly reproachful in anyone’s reaction — but I felt an unasked question hovering in the air: why hadn’t I come back when I was old enough to make my own decisions?
How would I have replied? The truth is that it never occurred to me to return to Israel. I greatly admired the country’s achievements — its democratic way of life, its outstanding universities, its cultural attainments, its contributions to medicine and so on — but I had no family or friends there and I no longer spoke Hebrew. I had been brought up without any sense of religious or ethnic identity but I had, meanwhile, acquired a strong sense of English cultural identity. So I had no incentive to go back. Moreover, the notion that people should be judged as individuals, not as members of a group (or for that matter gender), had been instilled in me from an early age.
Of course, Jews share a common history, a history of appalling persecution. I and my parents, and my grandparents are part of it. I remember having an argument about antisemitism with my father when I was a teenager. He had said that, however horrified and remorseful people felt about the Holocaust, however much they claimed that such a thing could never happen again, prejudice against Jews would reappear in about 50 years’ time. I poured scorn on this view, reproving my father for being defeatist and out of touch. Now I know better. The virus of antisemitism is passed on from generation to generation. It is almost impossible to shake off prejudices that have been embedded in childhood, by parents or teachers or clerics. Besides, very few people would easily give up the idea that there is someone, or some group, that they can despise and blame for their own misfortunes and shortcomings.
There is plenty of anti-Jewish feeling in England too; but I firmly believe that it is a country where racism of any kind will never be allowed to flourish. “The English people are not good haters…” George Orwell wrote in 1947, “…to 20th-century political theories they oppose, not another of their own, but a moral quality which must be vaguely described as decency”.
This seems to me still to hold true in the 21st century. It is one of the reasons which makes be proud to be English, or almost English.