Family & Education

Grey door to a new life

Rabbi Miriam Berger discovers that an old family story is not all it seems


There is an unmarked grey door in my telling of the Pesach story this year, the story of flight from persecution and deliverance: a grey door on a busy thoroughfare at the heart of Saint Pancras. What you would never know as you rush past to get a coffee or board your train, is that this innocuous door is the gateway to a new life for many. It is the British border, the miraculous parting seas for the lucky few who walk through it into their new lives. 

Last September, I found myself standing at that door to welcome very cuddly and affectionate Mawaz, an 11-year-old unaccompanied minor who was on the last leg of his treacherous journey from Syria to meet his uncle who lives in Manchester. I was granted this privilege through Finchley Reform Synagogue’s membership of London Citizens and our High Holy Day appeal for “Safe Passage”.

As we stood waiting, with commuters bustling past us, Mawaz’s uncle asked why I was there. I explained that I was the rabbi of a synagogue raising money to pay for solicitors like Mawaz’s to enable unaccompanied children to be reunited with relatives in the UK. 

He looked at me, totally confused. “But why would you?” he asked.

I explained that my great grandparents Nathan and Pearl Mann met a little boy named Walter off a train in 1939. He had no family with him and he was fleeing war, so they gave him a new chance, bringing him into their home to live with my grandma and her sisters. 
Walter had a full life, because he was given the opportunity to escape an adult conflict – to be a child again. I said that I wanted the same today for Mawaz and for children like him. 

When I told Mawaz’s uncle about my great grandparents, I wasn’t really telling him the whole story. You see, if we’d had a little longer to talk and to go back a few more generations, I’d have liked to have started with those words we will be saying at our Seder tables: 
Arami oved avi – “a wandering Aramean was my father”. 

He was a refugee who flourished for generations, and then suffered persecution. Because he was liberated from Egypt, I am commanded at every harvest, whenever I feel blessed with all I have, not just to remember my meagre beginnings, but to use that knowledge of myself and my feeling of redemption to compel me to be a source of redemption for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. 

My great grandparents knew that was their responsibility. Now, while I am still able to count my blessings, I need to feel my calling to be responsible and a source of others’ redemption too. What could be more tangible a way of answering that Deuteronomic plea than by bringing the stranger, the fatherless, out of a refugee camp, out of squalor and into the security of the home of his uncle, his own flesh and blood?

Yet, from that moment at the grey door until today, a new phrase has taken a grip on society: “Fake news”. It often denotes a blatant lie, referring to stories plucked from the air – but to some extent all stories are manipulated and show the storyteller’s bias. This was demonstrated to me sensitively and beautifully when I received an email from Walter’s son, who had read about my moment at the grey door in a sermon that had been shared on social media. 

You see, all I knew about Walter were the couple of sentences my grandma had spoken about him. I never met him, though my great aunties stayed in touch with him all his life – and I never asked many questions. I had put my own interpretation on my grandma’s story, inadvertently filling in the gaps with my own gloss.

Walter’s son saw my story as “fake news”; he told me it was a fairy tale:

“I am the elder son of Walter, the so-called ‘little boy’ in your recent sermon story. I don’t want to diminish in any way the power and strength of your message, which I wholeheartedly support, but as a historical researcher, I believe that legendary stories are more powerful when based upon recorded fact than upon romantic myth.

My father, Walter, was actually 15-years-old when he came to England on a Kindertransport, and he tells the story that all the sponsors were most interested in the charming little children, but not at all the gangly adolescents (like the Calais Jungle boys now, who desperately try to climb onto trucks). They did not arrive by train into a London terminus, but by boat at Harwich, from where they were bundled off to a cold and miserable, empty Butlins holiday camp (it was late December 1938) at Dovercourt, near Ipswich.

After Easter 1939, when Butlins wanted to reopen, they were turfed out and sent to live in a hostel in Becontree, also home to the local rabbi, with the principal purpose of being available to ensure a minyan. The hostel was administered by a committee led by your great-grandmother Pearl, who learnt after a while that my father hated being there, and very generously invited him to come and live in the Manns’ house instead, where he discovered that your great-grandfather Nat was born in the same town in Galicia as his own father (Jaroslav), and got to know your grandmother and her sisters. 

But a year later, he and the remaining boys in the hostel were all suddenly arrested as ‘enemy aliens’, then brutally treated by the British forces as they were sent to be imprisoned on the Isle of Man, then shipped around the world to an internment camp in Australia. When Pearl heard of his return from Australia (now as an enlisted soldier), she insisted that he stay with them whenever he had leave.

Unfortunately, Walter was never able to regain his lost childhood (which ended abruptly with the Anschluss in March 1938). Although his father was held in Dachau for a period, his parents escaped to Palestine (on the last train out of Vienna before war was declared). His mother died there during the war, and he never saw her again.

I hope you don’t mind my feeling the need to tell you the real story, which I think is just as inspiring as the ‘little boy’ story – perhaps more so, because the social effects of the real story ran for over 40 years. My father not only embraced the country that gave him a new home, but also forgave his birth country that had driven him out.”

The Pesach Seder is the most observed Jewish ritual of the year. More so than lighting Shabbat candles or fasting on Yom Kippur. Perhaps it is because it happens in the home or perhaps because it is so easy to do it in a way that makes it meaningful to you. Yet, every individual who tells the story this Seder will both tell it and interpret it in their own way. It will either inspire them to throw open their doors to welcome in the stranger, or it will encourage them to build high walls to keep the persecutors out.

When we tell our story, let us think about how it was passed down to us, how we have made it ours, and how we pass it on. I hope Walter’s family will understand the way that fact and folklore got blurred through the generations in my family, but that the story impelled me towards doing the best for others. May our stories always help us understand the world around us and compel us to take on the morals taught.  

Miriam Berger is the rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue 

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