Keren David

I thought I’d be the one to see disaster coming

'Now I realise how strong the urge is to ignore an impending threat, to carry on shopping and pretending that all will be well.'


One people alone. A senior woman enjoys evening shopping while taking advantage of offers and discounts. On his arm a lot of shopping bags while she looks at her cell phone

March 04, 2021 15:14

Exactly a year ago, I went shopping with my daughter. She’d been promoted and needed work clothes. So off we went to Westfield Stratford, where she tried on jackets, trousers, dresses — essential for office life.

We knew, of course, that there was a pandemic raging elsewhere in the world. But it didn’t affect our mission. She started her new job on March 9. Less than 10 days later she was working from home. The new jackets and smart trousers are hanging in her wardrobe almost unworn, a reproach from another era.

When I think about that shopping trip now, I ask myself why we didn’t realise. We knew about China. We knew about Italy. But somehow we didn’t allow ourselves to consider that office clothes would not be required at all for the next 12 months.

The next day, I spent time with survivor Mala Tribich, as part of the research for my new book. We sat together in her flat, drank tea and talked, about the darkest of days, about life in the ghetto and the camps. And then her phone rang, cancelling her plans to speak at schools in the next few weeks.

The following week was Purim. I didn’t go to hear the megillah in the evening — but only because it clashed with a school reunion. Ten of us had dinner in a pub in Hertfordshire. We joked about how we shouldn’t hug — but then hugged anyway. We had a great evening catching up — but our laughter echoed in an empty dining room.

By the end of that week in mid-March 2020, we were scared. Properly scared. But it was my birthday. I met a friend for a coffee, we bumped elbows and laughed at how odd it looked. My husband and I had tickets to see Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt for my birthday. There would probably be lots of empty seats, we reckoned; other people would be cautious. But the theatre was packed. We sat on the edge of our seats, the (then unfamiliar) smell of hand sanitiser wafting on the air, and watched a play about Jews on the brink of disaster, a play about the poignant cruelty of optimistic denial. It was — as it turned out — the final performance before theatres closed.

Before then, I’d always thought of myself as quite savvy in the face of oncoming disaster. I assured myself that I’d have seen it coming, made my plans, escaped. But a year ago, I learned that wasn’t true at all.

We have feared for our lives, and been unable to hide or flee. Choices have been made about who lives or dies – about priorities and protection. I was horrified at the news this week that some doctors added “do not resuscitate” orders to the medical records of people with learning disabilities. If we can’t learn to value all lives in a pandemic and look after the most vulnerable, when will we?

My generation grew up hearing war stories but lived in peace. We worried about nuclear weapons and the Cold War, but watched as the Berlin Wall was dismantled. We feared that a political party infected by antisemitism would win a British election, but it didn’t. And I thought I knew that a pandemic would never get as far as our shores. But it did. And now I realise how strong the urge is to ignore an impending threat, to carry on shopping and pretending that all will be well.

It’s my birthday again next week, and I’ll be meeting my friend in the park for coffee — what joy, what excitement that this will be permitted. We’ll look back at our 2020 selves and discuss how this year has changed us. How elbow bumping never caught on. The odd combination of things that have sustained us through lockdown from making challah, through Duolingo Dutch lessons to Married at First Sight Australia. And we’ll look ahead to the excitement of restrictions ending and life gradually opening up again.

But I am not sure I will ever leave this year behind completely. From now on, March will always feel like a countdown month: this was the day that the shops had no food… this was the last day in the office…a month to remember that life can twist and change out of control, and that our natural instinct is often to ignore the warnings that are right there in front of us.


Keren David’s Young Adult book What We’re Scared Of is published by Scholastic








March 04, 2021 15:14

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