Maurice Glasman: No one had a good word to say about my Zaida

Three months ago, Lord Glasman went on a journey through Ukraine to find his Zaida's shtetl. The JC publishes the first of five instalments of his moving, funny and thought provoking account of what he found


My grandfather, Joseph Glasman, woke up one morning in a small shtetl called Winkowitz, which has always been in the Ukraine but was then under Tsarist rule. It was 1905. Succot had passed and winter was coming. An attempted revolution had gone too far and not far enough and the consequences were terrible.

The Black Hundreds, the church and the secret police blamed the Jews for the attack on the Tsar’s life. It didn’t take much to get the ball rolling and a wave of pogroms swept through Galicia, which is what we called that bit of the Ukraine, through Poland and then Russia. They slaughtered us with butcher’s knives while cursing us as communists, capitalists, traitors and Christ killers. You can’t win with these people. Whatever you do is wrong.

We didn’t take it all lying down. In Odessa, where they killed 400 Jews in three days, a 12-year-old shoeshine boy called Moishe Yaponchik blew up the Chief of Police while cleaning his boots. And he got away.

Moishe Yaponchik, may his name be blessed.

My Zaida, in contrast, followed the path of Abraham. He left his home in the east and he made his way west to the sea. He woke up in his little shtetl, he davened at the shul, he went back home, put his tephilin and siddur in a bag, said goodbye to his Mum, Dad and brother and left Winkowitz forever. He was seventeen years old.

Joseph Glasman walked west and then he walked north. He walked through the valley of the shadow of death as Jews were being buried all around him. As the story was told to me he just carried on walking and walking until he got to the German port-city of Danzig, which is now in Poland and called Gdansk.

Once he was there, he managed to buy a one way ticket to New York from another Jew that he met and he got on the boat and left der heim behind to begin a new life in America. He had promised his parents and his brother that he would bring them over once he found his feet.

The only problem with the plan was that he was swindled on the ticket and instead of Ellis Island he was dropped off in Glasgow. He couldn’t tell the difference between the North Sea and the Atlantic and, to be honest, I don’t think I could either. I mean, how can you tell the difference between oceans? It was winter, it was cold, it was rough and it was wet.

Do you know the difference between a birch tree and a fir tree and a pine tree? Waves are even harder to tell apart than trees. I can tell a rose from a daffodil but even when it comes to flowers it gets a bit hazy after that. Hydrangeas, forget-me-nots and stocks; I really don’t know the difference. I was recently in Kew Gardens for a barmitzvah and we were given a guided tour of the grounds. It wasn’t just that it was South London, I didn’t know where I was. What’s an anemone?

My grandfather was not a man who took advice easily and for a full six weeks he insisted he was in New York. The buildings were grand and the locals spoke something that sounded a bit like English. After a while the penny dropped and it confirmed his view of human nature, which was that everyone was corrupt and no-one could be trusted. Not even Jews.

He made his way down to London, where he lived on Yalfut Street in Whitechapel and worked in a cap factory. He brought his parents and his younger brother over as he had promised. His parents were known to everyone as ‘Mr and Mrs Marx’, I think because his Dad’s name was Mordechai, and his younger brother was called Harry when his name was Chaim. Four of my eight great grand-parents lived next door to each other and a bad thing happened between them but that’s a story for another time.

Somehow he got it together to open a record shop and most of my family have been working in the music business ever since. But not him. He noticed that the people who came in to buy the records were more attracted by the gimmicks and gadgets that lay around the shop and which came with the promotion. They preferred the cardboard cut-out of a dog with its ear to a megaphone to the music, the gramophone to the record. What they really wanted to buy, he thought, were toys.

And so it was that he went on to found the third largest toy factory in the country making trains, fire engines, cars, tea sets, dolls houses, conductors outfits and red double-decker buses. BETAL was the name of his factory and you can still buy the cars, fire engines and trains on eBay for a great deal of money a century later — and they still work. He brought Harry in as a partner and they traded under the name of J & H Glasman Ltd.

The point of all of this is that I have a lot to be grateful for when it comes to my grandfather, Joseph Glasman. He left on his own and he walked on his own and he brought over his family. Everyone he left behind was killed. There is no trace of anyone that I can find and I have looked. The bit of the Ukraine he was from recorded the highest percentage of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Thanks Zaida. I kind of feel I owe you one.

He was also the chair of the Limehouse Federation Talmud-Torah and my Dad could daven, lead the Seder and spoke Yiddish. He wasn’t so keen on the Gemora but when it came to what we once called the Old Testament and now call The Tanakh, my Dad could move around it with ease.

He loved classical Hebrew, with a particular passion for the Psalms which he considered to be a sublime form of romantic poetry. Essa Ainay el Heharim. And he passed that on to me. Tehilim.

My Dad took over the business and for a while it went well. When I was growing up the Pesach order was delivered to our house in many brown boxes by many different types of grocer and placed carefully on newspaper in the hall because that had already been ‘done’. The price of the eggs alone was astonishing.

That’s setting aside the number of chickens, which wouldn’t fit on a supermarket shelf, and the Snowcrest jam and the stale coconut macaroons that no-one ever ate. Plus the 48 boxes of Rakusens matzos and the small round ones and the square ones, described as tea biscuits, in case we got peckish.

One of my jobs at home was to open the door to receive these orders and they were all paid for with cash. Hundreds of pounds were in an envelope in the kitchen drawer with all different kinds of colour notes. Huge £20 notes that looked like certificates. I felt like a drug dealer.

I once read that in Ethiopia Jewish families burnt down their house at Pesach and built a new one. It would have been cheaper if we’d done that. We had a top-loading Pesachdik freezer in the garage, "just in case".

For at least six weeks before the Seder, my Mum used to spend every night, except Friday, getting high on the smell of a bucket of steaming ammonia on top of a ladder cleaning everything. The attack on chometz was relentless. I used to sleep on a camp bed in the lounge for two nights while my mother ‘did’ my bedroom.

It was like the war. Our house was so clean you could "eat off the floor". I loved to keep her company when she went about her night-time battle. She told me stories from the top of the ladder, about abandoned cousins and heartbroken aunts. There was one that lingered and it was about my Uncle Shmuel, who married her sister Betty and who came from Vienna. I loved my Uncle Shmuel like I loved my Mum and Dad, my Auntie Betty, my Auntie Marion and Uncle Lawrence and their twin babies Jeremy and David, like I loved Spurs; with all my heart and with all my soul. It was always good when they were around.

My Mum told me, while raising her arms to the corner of the ceiling, that when he was seven years old my Uncle Shmuel’s Mum and Dad took him to a railway station in Austria. They kissed him goodbye, put him on a train and told him that they would come next week to join him, they had a few things to sort out, and he never saw them again. “What happened to them?” I asked. “They were killed by the Germans”, she said, and left it at that.

I started having a dream in which I lost my parents and couldn’t find them anywhere. The strange thing was, I did not feel lost. It was them that were lost and I was worried about them. When I crawled into my parents bed at night, what they didn’t know was that I did it to protect them. To make sure they were safe. With one hand on each of them, I lay in the middle and knew they could sleep sweetly. My Dad, in particular, did not always see it that way. He actually said “Jesus Christ”, which I knew was wrong but I forgave him.

My Uncle Shmuel was six foot two and extraordinarily strong. Both me and my brother Joe used to hang from one of his outstretched arms but we tired before him and fell to the ground in disbelief. He was like the ‘mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ that we read about in the Seder. My Dad used to chant that loudly and punch his fist up to heaven twice when he said that. Beyod Chazoka, Uvizroya Netuya.

Uncle Shmuel worked in a carpet shop in the East End and used to sling the massive rolls over his shoulder and walk away like he was carrying a small Sefer Torah for a Hakofa. He was like a strong man at a funfair and whenever I saw him I used to let him know in lots of different ways that he could rely on me if there was any trouble. I didn’t really like saying goodbye to him either. I had the Captain Scarlet gear and my mission was to keep an eye on my Mum and Dad and my Aunties and Uncles and protect them from getting into trouble. It was a tough job but I think I carried the burden lightly.

On those long electric nights me and my Mum would just clean the surfaces of bookshelves, drawers, window sills and lamps, empty the contents of wardrobes and chests of drawers, fill up the bucket, rinse out the cloths, heat up pans, change the water, wipe down wires and get into the corners, right into the corners. I was little and I could do it. Chometz never slept and nor did we. Hours would pass as if they were nothing, nights would dissolve, weeks would disappear and it felt like we would live forever. She would tell me to put some ‘elbow grease’ into it. When she asked me to put the kettle on I would bring her a cup of tea at one in the morning while she sat on top of the ladder, her eyes radiating light and sometimes she would even sing because we were ‘on track’ and she would list the number of rooms and the days to go while pulling back a finger for each one.

She didn’t have enough fingers to count all the things, Gina’s room, the bathroom, the pantry and the cupboard under the stairs but we could do it. It was a great feeling. I can’t tell you. During the Pesach cleaning, as long as I helped I wasn’t sent to bed. And I had four sugar lumps in my tea. I used to get up for school each day without complaint because I knew that if I showed tiredness I wouldn’t be allowed to stay up with her. Once I got there, it was a different matter.

Sometimes my Dad would stick his head round the door on the way back from the bathroom and he would squint into the brightly lit room and shake his head and say, “You’re both meshigga”. But we didn’t care. We were happy in our work and we would look at each other so blessed as we drank our tea. She had two saccharine in hers.

My Mum was the eldest of five girls. Her father, Morris Pressberg, was a presser and often unemployed. He died a year before I was born and I am named after him.

My Dad said it was the poorest family he had ever seen — and he was evacuated and saw some things.

My Mum left school at thirteen and all five girls shared one room in a semi-basement on Bethune Road. Pesach cleaning was pure Pressberg business and I loved it. It gave me an idea of how wonderful it must have been to be her sister growing up. She led by example, she dug deep and she came through.

I felt special just to be with her as she did her work. And as Pesach came closer we could stay up until two or even three. Once we hit the kitchen, all bets were off. Chometz was facing its darkest hour. I never wanted it to end. My heart longs for the company of my Mum the most when I’m wiping down the shelves and filling the bucket. Pesach cleaning was our best of times.

Rivie Pressberg, may her name be blessed.

My Mum and Karl Marx’s Mum have the same maiden name. I don’t want to say any more than that.

We lived in a five-bedroomed semi-detached house in Palmers Green with a big long garden and we had a car. In our Austin Westminster, when my Dad indicated to turn, a luminous green pointed arrow would rise from the side and a sound like a ticking time-bomb in a horror film would boom out of the dash board. We made the traffic-less trip from Palmers Green to Stamford Hill every Sunday in some style. All we needed was a horn that played the tune to Adon Olam and the arrival outside my Buba’s council flat would have been complete.

I used to have to put on my suit and elasticated tie for the 25-minute car journey and my aunts stood on the pavement of Queen Elizabeth’s Walk to greet us as the car pulled up. We got out and they got in. As a treat, my Dad used to take my Mum’s sisters and my Buba for a ride while we stayed behind in the flat.

My Buba used to put her coat on for the journey. And when he dropped them back ten minutes later, he had a cup of tea and an egg mayonnaise bridge roll and after a quick cigarette, he drove us home because there was school in the morning. That was our social life.

My Zaida paid for my Dad to have German lessons when he was evacuated during the war with his grammar school, Raines, because he thought that German was the language of civilised Jews. For my grandfather, Samson Rafael Hirsh was the bees knees and my Dad talking in German to Rabbi Schonfeld and Dayan Grunfeld at my Aunty Betty’s wedding is one of the stern bewildering memories of my childhood. What was that coming out of his mouth?

I wear the same glasses as them as a sign of respect. They looked serious and they were.

It was Rabbi Schonfeld who saved my Uncle Shmuel’s life. When my Dad was little he walked behind him with an ever growing troop of children as Rabbi Schonfeld marched from Whitechapel to Stamford Hill on Yom Kippur, telling Jews in every shul he passed what was happening in Germany and Austria and raising money for the kinder-transport and for the bribes he gave to get the children across the borders.

My Uncle Shmuel was one of those children. Can you imagine allowing your child to end Yom Kippur five miles from home with no clue as to how to get back? Rabbi Schonfeld used to give the children sweets. I don’t think that would be allowed now either.

Rabbi Schonfeld. Dayan Grundfeld. May their names be blessed.

The only problem with this story is that no-one had a good word to say about my Zaida.

Least of all my Dad.

When he was eighteen he did his National Service as a British intelligence officer in Austria. He was automatically made a sergeant and all because he spoke German. He spent two years interrogating suspected Nazis. He was stationed in Graz and he didn’t meet one who wasn’t.

My Dad had a car and a driver and an Austrian secretary who lifted his cap when he spoke to him. As far as I could make out he smoked, he drank and he arrested Nazis. When I was that age, I was sleeping all day at university.

As National Service stories go, my Dad had a good one and he stayed on an extra year and British intelligence wanted him to join permanently. They said they would support him to do a German degree.

In late June 1948 he received news that his Mum had died and although he couldn’t get back for the funeral, or the Shiva, he was given a month’s compassionate leave. He returned to Limehouse wearing his uniform, his sergeant’s stripes and his cap. He had been evacuated at twelve years old in 1939 and then went straight into the army on his eighteenth birthday on May 25 1945. He had not lived with his mother or his father for nine years. It was Friday evening and he made his way to shul. The first thing my Zaida said to him was, “You’re late”. The second thing was that he had two days off and was starting work on Monday. My grandfather told him he was being “groomed for the chair”.

A life hangs in the balance, it can go this way or that. My Dad could have been a spy but instead he married my Mum. I can assure you, he held no secrets after that. And he did a lot of driving.

For the rest of his life my Dad couldn’t really explain why he said yes to his Dad or, rather, why he couldn’t say no. He sensed it was his doom but he couldn’t refuse his fate. He found himself taking over a declining business which slowly disintegrated over four decades with my Dad’s final years characterised by the endless drumbeat of financial anxiety. We didn’t have a word for globalisation then, we just called it "Hong Kong".

The Pesach order was no longer delivered to our door and we drove in our orange Ford Cortina Estate to Kosher Kingdom as strangers in that land. You could say that my Dad’s face when he got the bill was crestfallen. He died when he was 67 and I can’t shake the idea that he just had enough. He had a heart by-pass operation and never woke up. He just couldn’t afford another Pesach.

I was living in Italy and my Mum didn’t tell me about the operation because she didn’t want to worry me. She said that as we were "very close" she thought it was better if I came over during his convalescence to cheer him up. By the time I got back I was the one who was late and he was in intensive care and I never did wish him luck or say goodbye.

I walked into that room and I told him that he had to wake up. He had to, but he didn’t. He just lay there. I’d abandoned him and failed in my mission. Captain Scarlet was useless. Eicho. And I never did tell him how much I loved him. Not when he could hear me.

I’d lost him for good.

My Dad did not feel that way about his Dad. He felt no gratitude to my grandfather. None. When I pushed him on it he would say it was “all about him”. He told me that when my grandmother’s Bucharest family came over my Zaida used to have a pile of half a crowns stacked up next to his chair and would give one to each of his in-laws as they came to stand before him and they showed great gratitude.

Then, when they left he would inform my Dad that they would all be “off in a taxi to Lyons Corner House to spend it all on cake. They never do any bloody verk”. He used to imitate his father when he said that. “That’s what he was like”, said my Dad, looking at me and shaking his head slowly, not fully trusting that I took the point. He kept an eye on me.

Romanian Jews enjoyed themselves from time to time. They ate glazed spicy soda-powdered sausages called Karnatzelach and drank Red Bessarabian wine. My Zaida did not. My Dad told me that as a small child he once came downstairs when his Dad was working late and my Buba, whose name was Vetta Glasman, had her sisters and brothers round. He opened the kitchen door and two of his uncles were stamping on the table with bottles in their hands and their arms in the air and his aunts were dancing and clapping singing Romania Romania, a song he sang throughout his life. Zets.

He told me that it was the happiest he had ever seen his mother. When they saw him the scene froze and his Mum said, “Please don’t tell your father”. The spy kept his secret under his hat. The first thing he brought when he left the army was an electric guitar and an amp.

My Mum didn’t like him either. He didn’t want my Dad to marry her because she was poor and warned him that he would lose everything in a generation. And he was right. Which made it worse. What really made it worse is that my Dad didn’t marry her until after my Grandfather died of lung cancer in 1954 at the age of 66. I always imagined he exploded but those are the facts.

My parents were engaged for more than three years and my Mum told me that my Dad went straight from the funeral to Woburn House to book the wedding. There was no music. Throughout their long courtship he used to leave my Mum outside in the car when he went in every night to make his ailing Dad a cup of tea. That was never really resolved either.

My dad’s brothers and sister didn’t have a good word to say between them. And as for Harry’s children, you would have thought they would be grateful. Nothing like it. They used to go out of their way to tell me bad stories about him at barmitzvahs and weddings, like refusing to allow their Dad to get a cleaner when their mother was dying and making their Dad go to the post office every day when they were on holiday at a specified time to receive a phone call so my grandfather could tell him all the things he had to do when he got back to work. He said that hair would grow on the palm of his hand before they had a cleaner. My dad’s cousin Cissy really hated him. She called him “that man”.

My Buba used to have to cart the shopping back on Thursday in a wheelbarrow from Ridley Road market while the car sat outside the factory unused. I could tell you stories of their courtship that would defy any definition of romance. Zaida’s mother, Mrs Marx, was so miserable and mean-spirited that she made Joseph look like a ray of sunshine. But there’s not enough space and time in the whole world to tell you all the stories that need to be told and I’m trying to tell you about my Zaida.

Nobody liked him but I loved him. Every time I heard bad things about him it offended me. I mumbled that they should be grateful for what he did. It’s true he died seven years before I was born, so I never, as my Dad put it, “had the pleasure of meeting him”. It’s also true that he had no friends or anything resembling what my mother would call ‘a social life’, but I don’t think that work/life balance was really a concept in the 1920s. He worked, he smoked, he davened and he slept. Fartik. My dad told me that he stood all day on Yom Kippur, broke the fast with a whisky and a piece of cake and then went down to the factory to cut up boxes ready for the next day.

All of his children went to grammar school. On Saturdays my Dad used to do the Times cryptic crossword in his head and then filled it all in when Shabbes went out. He used to stare at the square of paper for hours. He loved Shakespeare as much as Tehilim and could recite long quotes from the Sonnets and his plays that were appropriate and beautiful. Let not to the marriage of true hearts commit impediment. It seemed to me that he knew all English poetry and he read Ulysses every year. I did not receive an education like that at JFS. He knew stuff. He had a whole world in his head and he lived in it.

My Uncle Paul became a doctor and my Auntie Frances was the first woman on the floor of the stock exchange, whatever that means. I couldn’t stand any of them. They were cold, distant and strangely superior. They made my mouth go dry.

My Mum’s family were my family and none of them seemed to have gone to school at all. My Dad didn’t like his family either so it all turned out ok. Thank God. By which I mean that nothing worked out ok but there’s no time for that either. There never was any time for that.

And I was proud of him.

My Zaida had a stand at a big toy exhibition at the Crystal Palace, which was an almost Tsarist construction made of glass and wooden beams. It was dazzling in the sunlight, so dazzling that it burnt down a few years later leaving an entire area named after something that no longer exists. A bit like Burnt Oak. Or Temple Fortune.

There was a visit from King George V and his son the Prince of Wales, the one who married a divorced American and hung out with Nazis, whatever his name was. My Dad told me that in his playground at school they used to sing:

Hark the Herald Angels sing

Mrs Wallace nicked our King

And the King was asking my Zaida about his toys when the Prince of Wales asked a question. Time stood still. There was a look of stunned incomprehension on my Zaida’s face, as if someone had farted quite loudly as the congregation silently awaits the Tekiyah Gedolah on Rosh Hashanah. Joseph Glasman turned and said, “Excuse me young man, your father was first”. These exact words have been told to me by several non-Jews who witnessed this exchange so it must be true.

King George received this response with the closest you can get to regal rapture. He recognised a man who believed that children should respect their elders. He had encountered a man who understood his family values in their resolute entirety and the King pulled up a chair and indicated for my Zaida to sit down and for a full hour they discussed these matters, on which there was intense unanimity, while the Prince of Wales had to stand in attentive silence, banned from making even the slightest sound.

Do you understand why I am proud of him?

And I am grateful. For all that he gave and for all that I took. I nurtured a long standing longing to go back to the shtetl he grew up in, to find the cemetery where my ancestors lie and to say Kaddish for the named and the un-named who are buried there, abandoned forever by the world on their unremembered yoorzeit. I wanted to read Psalm 23 which my Dad loved so much. ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.’

My Zaida is buried in Edmonton. I could have gone to his Matzeyvah but nothing stirred. I wanted to see where he grew up and those that went before. I wanted to smell it and feel it and see it. I wanted to say thank you to all of them because let’s face it, I got all the luck. Mazel falling on my head like moon beams and all they got was tzores.

But how do you visit a place which you can’t even find on Google Maps? Winkowitz did not exist.

I kept on hoping that someone would walk up to me, in the Peers Lobby for example, and say, “Lord Glasman, I sense that you have an intense longing to visit your grandfather’s village in Ukraine but you don’t know where it is and even if you did you would not know how to find it, never having been there yourself and not speaking one of its contested languages. Forgive me but I have taken a small initiative and organised flights, hotels, a driver, a translator and a car and we can leave at your convenience.”

I wanted that to happen, but it never did. The years passed behind me like a half remembered fog and I was no nearer getting there. I was losing hope of ever getting there. I was losing my faith.

Part Two: Remember the Yidden in all the mayhem of their disputed visisons

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