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Turning out the light and keeping the memories

Daniel Finkelstein writes movingly on a universal, but rarely-discussed rite of passage

    Last night, I visited my childhood home for the last time, turned out the lights and that was that. I say I turned out the lights, but actually I flicked the wrong switch. I’m 55 now and I’ve never known which one turned out the light in the hall, and which the one in the lounge. I guess I’ll never get it right now.

    I thought I’d feel really terrible. I loved that house, or I thought I did. But when it came to it, parting wasn’t any where near as bad as I imagined it would be.

    It had been worse when my father’s books were packed away. We’d taken the ones we wanted but there had still been thousands more. You could start studying the prophet Isaiah in my parent’s dining room and not stop for a year. All the volumes looked fascinating. (That’s a lie. Sorry, Dad, but only some of them looked fascinating.) But logically I knew we couldn’t keep them. Where would they go? Yet, when they were taken away, I couldn’t watch. I hid in the kitchen.

    The best part of clearing up were the little discoveries. My sister-in-law Judy (the hero of the house operation) had found my old school cap. And then there were my old school reports.

    I suspect readers of the JC will identify with my teacher’s judgment that “He always does better when free from the problems of developing a sustained argument.” But given the career that I have chosen it was a little late to be reminded of my teacher’s conclusion: “he is not a born essayist but he soldiers on.”

    Most moving and significant were the documents from the war years. I knew we would find the two yellow stars that my mother kept for her talks about her wartime experiences. But I hadn’t expected the telegram.

    Sent on February 3 1945, it broke to my grandfather, then in New York, the news that “your wife Margarethe Wiener with children Ruth Eva Mirjam Wiener from Camp Bergen Belsen Germany arrived Switzerland children in good health.” And then to these joyous tidings was appended the heart-breaking sentence “Margarethe Wiener passed away after arrival on weakness Jewish funeral 26 January at Kreuzlingen Greetings Rabbi Rothschild.”

    Among the dozens of letters that made we wish desperately that I could speak German and Polish, were two publications of my maternal grandfather — one a pamphlet, the other a book — that I’d heard of but not seen. The first, published in 1919, predicted pogroms against German Jews. The book reported on a trip to Palestine and questioned whether Jews would be allowed to live in peace in the Middle East.

    My grandfather had engaged in quite a political tussle with Zionists between the wars in which he wondered if there could ever be safety for Jews in Palestine while they wondered if there could be safety in Berlin. The great Jewish tragedy is that they were both right.

    Beyond that stuff, what was there? We took some cutlery and some pictures, a few nicknacks and some pottery. I am not quite sure if my dad’s chair — the one he sat on during Shabbat meals — really fits in my dining room but I took it anyway.

    We children never argued about any of the possessions, our main feeling being one of relief if a sibling took something we didn’t want but were loath to see go to the dump.

    And, as I left, I appreciated more strongly than ever that our wealth wasn’t in the possessions and what I loved wasn’t the house.

    It was in the memories of Friday nights in the dining room and eating chicken soup while my nephews played football in the hall.

    It was in the Chanukah evenings with the presents under the blanket in the lounge. It was in the huge Seder evenings and remembering when Honey the cat ate the Afikomen.

    It was in the laughter and the arguments, the festivals and the celebrations. It was in sharing our Judaism with friends, in singing the Zemirot, in sharing the stories of the week. It was in each other.

    And, as I shut the door on the house, I realised I was taking all that was left and really mattered, with me.

    Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

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