Jews who lived in Arab lands were NOT just fine! Jews in Yemen

YJ tefillin

Photo from Shalom Seri & Naftali Ben-David (Eds.) A Journey to Yemen and its Jews.  1991.  Tel Aviv.

It tends to be asserted – and has been for decades – generally by those who oppose Israel, that Jews who lived in Arab lands were just fine – that there were no problems between Arabs and Jews before the State of Israel was established. This assertion is made with absolutely no knowledge of the facts! The message intended to be conveyed is that it is the fact of Israel’s establishment and existence that is the source of all problems between Arabs or Muslims and Jews in the Middle East.

Having researched on the situation of Jews in Yemen during the period preceding their main exodus to Israel in the 1950s “on the wings of eagles”, I am in a position to respond to such assertions with particular reference to Yemen. So I’ll provide a brief account of the situation of Jews in Yemen, mainly from the time of the second Ottoman occupation of that country in 1872 which lasted until 1918, after which time it came under the rule of Zaydi imams.

The Arab population of Yemen was divided between a number of Muslim sects. The ruling sect was the Zaydi (Shi’ite) sect. Judaism was the only other religion to have survived in Yemen apart from Islam.

Rank
Jews came at the bottom of the hierarchical system in Yemen. This system was caste-like in respect of there being a traditional connection between rank and occupation, and prohibitions of various degrees existing against intermarriage and the sharing of meals between members of different ranks. In order of descent, the ranking system was as follows:

I Royal lineage and some other Zaydi lineages.
II Sayyids – holy men, who claimed descent from Husayn and Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed.
III Mashayikh – large landowners and religious scholars. (Bujra 1971)

The above three ranks were accorded prestige and authority. Further down along the scale were:
IV Gabili – small landowners and free farmers.
V Merchants
VI Pedlars, vagrants, slaves and other pariah groups
VII Ahl-Al-Dhimmi – protected peoples who, in Yemen, were the Jews.

It seems that in rural areas, category VI (above) was actually considered, and treated as ranking, lower than the Jews – at least among the tribespeople.

Although the Jews had no choice but to tolerate the place allocated to them in Yemenite society, I find no evidence that they accepted that they were inferior to anyone because of their rank. It is interesting to note that they referred to the class of Muslim holy men as “impures” (teme’im), (or “Jew baiters”,) expressing contempt.

Anti-Jewish legislation
During the first century of the spread of Islam, Muslims were a minority in the countries they conquered, and had to depend on the conquered peoples for their military security, administration, food, and finance. However, during the second and third centuries of the Islamic era, Muslims became the majority in all the conquered countries. At this time, they developed an elaborate religious law, and began to pass anti-Jewish and anti-Christian legislation, some of which was taken directly from Byzantine anti-Jewish legislation, and which continued to apply in Yemen up to the time when the majority of the Yemenite Jews were flown to Israel in “Operation Magic Carpet” in 1949 and 1950.

The status of the Jews in Yemen was governed by two sets of laws: those deriving from the Covenant of Omar, and those specific to Zaydi legislation in Yemen. The Covenant of Omar, originally attributed to the second caliph, Umar ibn Khattab (d. 644), is a collection of discriminatory regulations and restrictions applied to the Ahl al Dhimma (people of the covenant) – protected peoples – this status being open to Ahl Ketab (people of the Scriptures) – Christians and Jews. These regulations were issued by various Caliphs and sultans from the early years of the eighth century to the mid 14th century when the Covenant received its finishing touches, whenever religious fanaticism or envy directed towards the protected peoples spilt over. They were intended as interpretations of the following prescription of Mohammed:

Fight those who do not practice the religion of truth from among those to whom the Book has been brought, until they pay the tribute by their hands, and they be reduced low.

Because Jews and Christians are believers in the essential truth: that there is one God, they have a right to be protected together with their property. However, they only have this right so long as they pay jizzyah (poll tax) and comply with a number of other laws. The (unrealisable) idea behind the payment of jizzyah was that while Muslims should be responsible for defence and administration, the infidels should bear the entire fiscal burden of the country and the task of keeping up its economy.

According to the Covenant of Omar:
I Jews could not bear witness against a Muslim, or give testimony in a Muslim court. This in theory deprived Jews of any legal rights, but in Yemen, this severe disadvantage was counterbalanced by the institution of “protected comradeship”, as described below.
II Ahl al Dhimma could not carry arms or ride on horseback, as this would give them an advantage over some Muslims in terms of power or height.
III They had to display a respectful attitude towards Muslims. On passing a Muslim, a Jew had to walk on his left side. They were not permitted to engage in any conduct considered offensive to Muslims, such as blowing the shofar loudly, praying loudly, or displaying the cross in public. (A shofar is a ram’s horn blown on the Jewish New Year and other solemn religious occasions.)
VI They could not build their houses higher than those of Muslims.
V They had to dress differently from Muslims.
VI They could not attain to government posts, since prestige and authority attached to such posts could accrue only to Muslims.
VII Non-Muslim doctors or pharmacists were forbidden to treat Muslims on the grounds that they might poison them, or that through control of a patient’s body, they might also gain control over his soul. (In practice, Jews were appointed doctors, and even viziers, to sultans and imams in many Islamic countries, including Yemen.)
VIII Some law books of Islam state that a non-Muslim may not engage in the same commerce as Muslims. This was reiterated in a public proclamation by the Imam of Yemen in 1905, but its application was limited. The most ancient law books of Islam discriminate against non-Muslims in the economic field by imposing customs duties at 5% on the value of their merchandise, whereas Muslim merchants paid two and a half per cent, and the minimum value of consignment on which duties were paid was 40 dinars for a Muslim, and 20 dinars for a non-Muslim.
IX Non-Muslims were not permitted to use saddles.
X They could not look upon the genitals of a Muslim in the bath house, while separate bath houses were to be built for Jewish women so that they did not bathe together with Muslim women.
XI Non-Muslims, as well as Muslims, were forbidden to lend money for interest.
XII Finally, Jews were not permitted to study the Torah outside the synagogue.

In Yemen, Jews were subjected to the above legislation in varying degrees of intensity, up to the time when they left.

In addition to the Covenant of Omar, regulations specific to Yemen were imposed upon Jews, who were often called upon to carry out tasks thought to contaminate Muslims. Tobi (1999) relates that the introduction of discriminatory laws began in Yemen in the 15th century with a significant change in attitude of the Zaydi government towards Jews. When the Ottomans governed a large part of Central Yemen 1872 to 1919, they tried to raise the status of Jews to a level equivalent to that held by Jews elsewhere in their empire. But their efforts ceased in the face of opposition on the part of sectors of the Yemenite population and religious scholars. However, tribal sheikhs did not strictly enforce these laws. For example, while in San’a (Yemen’s capital) Jewish houses were lower in structure than Muslim houses, there was mostly no difference between their heights in rural districts. In the North and North East of Yemen, Jews, similarly to the local tribesmen, carried arms, and in Northern Yemen, Jews were even taught to use guns by tribesmen.

According to Tobi, the Yemenite governments were among the most extreme of the Islamic countries with regard to their treatment of Jews as anjâs (unclean). In San’a, the decree of the “scrapers” or “dung gatherers” was revived from 1846 until 1950, having previously been imposed on them from 1806 to 1808. This decree stipulated that Jews be forced to clean the sewers in the city. Jews were also obliged to remove camel and horse carcasses as part of the decree, and clear accumulated filth from Muslim streets, and the dead body of a Christian had to be buried by Jews. In practice, a small proportion of Jews were willing to carry out these tasks for a higher than normal remuneration on behalf of the Jewish community, and Nini (1991) relates how this resulted in a type of “caste” of “untouchables” among the Yemenite Jews, this status being passed down within the families, and with other families refraining from marrying from among them. These Jews were not called up in the synagogue to read the Torah, nor invited to festive occasions. Their children were excluded from studying with other children. Under Arab rule, the “dung gatherers” were unpaid for this work, but under the Ottomans, they were paid gold pounds and silver coins, and their economic situation improved. This decree was a strong motivating factor in the migration of San’ian Jews to Palestine from 1881, and the dispersal of Jews throughout Yemen and into Egypt. In 1949, Muslims in San’a prevented the migration of “dung gatherers” to Israel.

Upon the capture of San’a by the Ottoman Ahmad Mukhtar who was well disposed towards the Jews, the “decree of the dung gatherers” and the “orphans’ decree (see below) imposed on Jews were temporarily abrogated. However, this met with strong pressure applied by the Muslim religious dignitaries of San’a to reinstate these decrees. Similarly under pressure exerted by these Muslim religious dignitaries, the jizzyah (poll tax) previously imposed on the Jews of San’a was revived and raised from 27 to 77 riyals per month. Despite the positive intentions of Ahmad Mukhtar and the initial Ottoman administration towards their Jews, according to Nini, illegal taxes and bribes and their arbitrary and forceful extortion, became more prevalent under the Ottomans.

According to Nini, between 1882 and 1900, payment of jizzyah was one of the greatest burdens endured by the San’a community. During the Festival of Succoth 1990, Ottoman troops broke into the Jewish quarter of San’a and arrested ten of the most prominent community leaders, who were the overseers of the jizzyah payment. They were incarcerated and tortured for three months, while the Ottoman administration appealed to the Jewish religious court to make payment. This situation motivated a number of Jews to migrate to Palestine.

Jews under the protection of the Zaydi tribes in North and North East Yemen, where the Ottomans were not in control, were obliged to pay jizzyah to the central authority in San’a and also to pay the tribes under whose protection they were living. A compromise was reached where a symbolic payment was made to the tribal Sheikh.

Another calamitous regulation imposed on the Yemenite Jews by the Ottoman authorities was the “decree of the stretcher-bearers” in 1875.  This decree imposed on the San’ian Jewish community the task of carrying wounded soldiers from San’a through Manakha to Hudayda. This was a treacherous journey along narrow winding paths at the edge of precipices, which was dangerous even for an unladen traveller. On the eve of the festival of Succoth, they were ordered to send 80 Jews to carry wounded Ottoman solders. This entailed desecrating the holy festival. Therefore the Jewish community leaders refused to comply with this command unless those commandeered were specifically requested by name.

“On the following day a manhunt was held in the Jewish quarter, and those apprehended were cruelly beaten. Some of them succeeded in bribing the local Muslim soldiers and evading arrest. Those caught were thrown into jail when four were allocated a wounded soldier and the terrible journey to Manākha commenced. The accompanying troops urged the Jews on with whip lashes.” (Nini, 1991, 74)

A number of stretcher-bearers died by the wayside on the treacherous route. They had been forced to desecrate both the Sabbath and a holy festival, which was something unheard of under the Zaydi regime before the Ottoman occupation. Zaydi Imams and local rulers were most careful not to incur such desecration. Any Jews summoned to the Zaydi authorities on the eve of the Sabbath could evoke the Prophet’s protection of the Jewish Sabbath, and delay presenting himself until after the Sabbath.

Another hardship specifically suffered in the 19th century by those Jews who were in charge of minting coins, were accusations of counterfeiting coins. According to Nini, these accusations were almost all groundless.

From the time of their conquest in 1892, the Ottoman Turks forced the Jewish community of San’a to mill grain for their soldiers, failing which Jews and Yemenite Muslims would be beaten by Ottoman soldiers. Jewish women were therefore forced to mill flour for the Ottoman troops, and when this was too strenuous for them, they would be helped by their menfolk. At the turn of the 20th century, after years of drought and famine, many Jews had moved to the villages of Yemen, or to Palestine or Egypt. Thus the Jewish population of San’a diminished considerably, and yet the milling quota imposed on them remained the same. The imposition of this “flour-milling decree” entailed the violation of their holy festival of Passover, as the Jews were unable to keep their milling stones kosher in accordance with the rules of Passover, and led to the migration of many Sa’nian Jews to Palestine.

Another great hardship and violation suffered by the Jews of San’a in the 20th century was perpetrated by Imam Yahya al-Muta Walkil after ascending to power, when he had all the synagogues built in San’a during Turkish rule destroyed.

In accordance with Orthodox Islam, conversion to Islam should not be achieved by force, and according to Nini, there is no mention in Muslim law of a religious injunction to convert to Islam the “People of the Book”. However, in Yemen, in their eagerness to gain proselytes, an edict issued in 1921 and enacted upon with vigour from 1925 dictated the forced conversion of orphans. This decree was in force in the 19th century up until the Ottoman conquests in 1840 – 1872, and 1872-1905, and was then revived in the 1920s under pressure from “fanatical religious dignitaries”. Tobi describes Zaydi-ruled Yemen as unique among the Muslim states in its promulgation of the Orphans’ Law and Dung Collectors Law. (Besides religious zeal, another factor which gave rise to this edict may have been the Imam’s need, from time to time, to fill vacancies in his “orphanages”, which were in fact military academies.) An orphan was defined as one whose father had died before he or she had attained puberty, and was to be converted even if in the meantime he or she had grown up and married. According to Goitein, the legal basis for this is found in a statement attributed to Mohammed, that everyone is born into a natural state of religion – that is, Islam – and that other religions are merely customs taught to a child by his parents. As the mortality rate was very high in Yemen, mothers were often separated in this way from their children, and brothers and sisters separated from each other. Attempts were made to save orphans from such a fate. They would be sent to other villages, where they could be passed off as the children of relatives, or anyone who would look after them. Such attempts were not always successful, and it was not uncommon that they were betrayed by their own people. This is the law which Yemenite Jews found most intolerable, and felt most bitter about. In Zaydi tribal areas, however, Nini informs us that conversion was not enforced, and orphans would therefore be sent there for refuge.

There were also other circumstances in which proselytes were made. Jews converted to Islam to escape the consequences of false accusations, and other desperate situations. In times of famine, many Jews (apparently, mostly women) accepted Islam as the only means of obtaining food from the Imam for themselves and their children. An example of this was in 1905 when Imām Yahyā Ibn Muhammad Hamīd al-Din planned a rebellion against the Ottoman rulers. He ordered his followers to lay siege to Ottoman-ruled cities, including San’a, where an estimated 6000 Jews starved to death: 80% of the Jewish population of San’a. Mass conversions to Islam occurred at this time among the Jewish population, as the Muslim clergy cared for converts.

The right to leave Yemen was denied to Jews, for once they left the territory, they forfeited their right to security of their persons and property. The reason for this restriction was perhaps the desire to keep their craft skills in Yemen, or else to inhibit their trading. In particular, the territories of the enemy: Turkey, and those under the British protectorate, were considered out of bounds. In practice, however, there were many Jews who managed to leave Yemen. This was facilitated by the British conquest of Aden in 1839. Many of Aden’s 800 original inhabitants were Jewish, and as a British protectorate, the city became a flourishing port, attracting Jews from other parts of Yemen. From here, they were able to migrate to other countries. Nini states that Jews migrated to Aden, Egypt, Ethiopia, India and Palestine, while Muslims also migrated to neighbouring countries.

The Jews of Yemen lived separately from Muslims, in separate villages, or different quarters in the towns. In San’a, this prohibition originated in the time when its Jews were expelled to the uninhabitable region of Mawza (1679-1680) where their population was decimated. When it was subsequently realised that there were no craftsmen left in San’a, those Jews surviving were allowed to return, but were forced to take up residence outside the city walls, rather than return to their homes. However, in the case of smaller villages where there were only a few Jewish families, Jewish communities did not live separately from the Muslim population.

The interpretation and enforcement of the restrictions and prohibitions imposed on the Jews in Yemen varied from district to district, and from one period to another. For the two centuries preceding the Jews’ departure from Yemen, their majority were mostly located in Zaydi regions. The Northern tribes were independent of the government in San’a, and in their regions, the status of the Jews was in effect determined by the tribal code of honour rather than any restrictive regulations derived indigenously, or from the Covenant of Omar. Eraqi-Klorman (2009) states that tribal law would override Shariah in these regions. Y. Saphir (1886) reported in the second half of the 19th century that in almost all the Jewish communities in central Yemenite plateau, Jews were found who had fled from San’a because of oppression encountered there.

The extent to which the laws were imposed upon Jews depended a great deal on the good-will of their Muslim neighbours. Habshush, the San’ian Jew who narrates Travels in Yemen (Goitein,1941), informs us, for example, that the Jews in al-Madid were relatively well-off since the Nihm tribesmen were “good-natured”, and it did not matter to them if a Jew raised his voice or built his house too high. In this part of Arabia, he continues, the tribal code of honour alone counted, even to the exclusion of the law of Mohammed. According to the former, “the overlord is judged according to his protégés”. Therefore, the welfare of the Jews of Nihm was an indication of the quality of the tribe of Nihm itself.

This point on Jews’ welfare depending on the goodwill of their neighbours is also borne out by Tobi. For example, despite the restrictions stipulated in the Covenant of Omar against Jews’ bearing arms, and this not being “customary” in Yemen – (although it was Jews who manufactured weapons) – he states that Jews in northern Yemen were not bound by this restriction and went about armed and unfearful. In fact, they identified with the tribes among whom they lived, and supported and co-operated with the Imams in their revolts against the Ottoman occupiers, sometimes joining the forces against them. (In this way, they contrasted with the Jews of central and Southern Yemen, where it appears they favoured the Ottoman and the British rulers, according to Tobi, in the case of the Ottomans, presumably before their rule became oppressive. When the Ottomans conquered Yemen in 1872, “The Jews greeted the event as a miracle”.  [Nini, 1991] This joy was particularly held by the Jews of San’a who lacked tribal protection, and were vulnerable to tribal attacks. They thought that the Ottoman presence would protect them from the sieges and starvation these onslaughts incurred.)

According to Tobi, there is a great deal of evidence that in central and Southern Yemen, the prohibition against riding on horseback was enforced. Only a sick Jew was allowed to ride a donkey, and then was required to yell: “’ala ra’yah” (“By your leave!”) in order to placate any passing Muslim. In San’a, in 1936, Muslims were allowed to haul Jews off their donkeys. In N.E Yemen, by contrast, riding was permitted to Jews even on horseback.

In Central Yemen, Jews wore black only in obedience to a government decree against fine clothing, and for fear of arousing envy among Muslims. In 1667, the Decree of the Headgear was implemented, forbidding Jews to wear elaborate turbans . However, in North Yemen, Jews are depicted in colourful and resplendent clothes and turbans.

Following “messianic activity” in 1667, Jews were ordered to grow sidelocks – which was not in force in Northern Yemen.

In accordance with the Covenant of Omar, Jews were forbidden to build houses higher than those of Muslims. While this was the case in San’a, and perhaps in other cities and large towns, again, in Northern Yemen, this stipulation was not enforced, and Eraqi-Klorman states that there was mostly no difference in height between Muslim and Jewish dwellings in rural areas. Tobi relates that in Sa’dah and Haydan, there were some grand Jewish houses 5 or 6 storeys high, with some 15-20 rooms. In the district of Barat, Jews and Muslims did not live in separate quarters.

Other stipulations specific to Yemen or deriving from the Covenant of Omar – relating to the “uncleanness” of Jews in the eyes of Zaydis, a Jew’s obligation to pass a Muslim on his left side, and the disqualification of a Jew’s testimony, were not in force in Northern Yemen.

The majority of Jews depended for their wellbeing on an institution called “protected comradeship”, whereby a Jew, or a whole village of Jews, submitted themselves by a solemn ritual of sacrifice to the protection of a powerful tribe (or even several) – in particular its Sheikh – for whom it was a matter of the highest honour to administer justice. (Subordinate Muslim groups such as the Qarawi, also acquired tribal protection in the same way.) A tribal chief was obliged to accept a request for tribal protection, otherwise his reputation would be at stake. Eraqi-Klorman states that the obligation of a tribe to protect a jar (protected subject), and the shame of any failure to do so, was related to viewing the Jews as a weak group within the tribe, and to “perceiving their men as having a blurred gender identity, as not being real men”.

The following account (Goiten, 1947) indicates the efficacy of the institution of “protected comradeship”. Joseph Shukr, a Jewish protected comrade of Bait Luhum – the most powerful tribe in the district – was repairing a leather bucket at a farmer’s house, when a “half-witted” Muslim approached him and, before Joseph realised his intention, struck him on the head with a piece of wood so violently that he died immediately. Afterwards, the murderer asserted that the Jew had bewitched him into murdering him. The news of the murder spread quickly throughout the whole village and to nearby hamlets, until, that evening, 2,000 farmers of the Bait Luhum tribe had armed themselves while a similar number had made their way to Ibn Mesar, the advocate for the murderer, also prepared for battle. Eventually, the noblest sheikhs of the four greatest tribes of Yemen were called upon to judge the matter, and decided that since the murderer was not in full possession of his faculties, he was not really responsible for his crime, which could not therefore be avenged with blood. Instead, his advocate was ordered to pay quadruple blood money: twice for the family of the murdered Jewish man, and twice for the protector, and in addition, he had to meet the very high legal costs. This judgement was accepted and fulfilled by Ibn Mesar, and the murder was thus considered avenged. This was essential to the Muslims, for if the crime had remained unavenged, the murdered Jew would “ride on the murderer” at the last judgement.

Muslims can forgive one another, but Allah himself takes care of the unprotected Jew’s revenge. (Goitein, 1947)

Therefore, while Jews may have been considered as “weak”, we can see that fear was a factor in their protection: that they were feared – particularly in the hereafter.

Yemenite woman

Woman in rustic dress.  Photo from Daughter of Yemen, edited by Shalom Seri

Economic Situation
The Jews of Yemen were scattered throughout the whole of Yemen in more than 1,000 localities: villages, towns, and some cities. 85% of Yemenite Jews lived in rural or tribal areas in order to be near their clients who were generally farmers.

By law, Jews could not engage in the same occupations as Muslims who, in Yemen, were predominantly agricultural. Nevertheless, Barer (1952) was told by Yemenite Jews that about half of their numbers were farmers: that Jewish villagers frequently had their own fields, wells, fruit trees and olive groves. However, they were not permitted to be freeholders, but had to lease their land from Muslims. In San’a and the seaports, some Jews were merchants, dealing especially in coffee. Primarily, the Jews filled an occupational niche in Yemen as craftsmen, whose skills were passed down from father to son. As the country’s craftspeople, the Muslim population was dependent on their skills.

Nevertheless, the Jews were far more dependent economically on the Muslims than vice versa, for in the considerable times of famine and drought, the Muslims could temporarily dispense with the products of the Jews, whereas the Jews could not do without the agricultural produce of the Muslims. The Jews, therefore, felt such calamities most severely. In particular, Nini refers to the drought and famine of the 1890s, and subsequently of 1903 which “decimated the population” of San’a.

For most of the period dealt with here, it seems Jews were safer and better off with the tribespeople particularly in the North and North Eastern regions of Yemen, than they were in San’a and the major cities. Yet they were nevertheless subject peoples: clients, and there was therefore a significant power imbalance. Moreover, while fear was a factor motivating their protection, it was also something which could place their lives in great danger even in these very regions where they were otherwise relatively safe, dignified, and well-protected.

Therefore, it cannot be said that relations between Jews and Arabs in Yemen were fine until the establishment of Israel as a modern state. Throughout their long history in Yemen, they went through periods of enormous hardship and suffering. Even in the tribal areas where Jews may have been relatively well-off, their position was precarious and in times of drought and famine, they were at a great disadvantage. Since their position was tied to the need for protection and the goodwill of their neighbours rather than any fundamental human and civil rights, this placed them in a very dependent position, which could change with the ecological or political situation.

YJ 3 generations

Photo from Shalom Seri & Naftali Ben-David (Eds.) A Journey to Yemen and its Jews.  1991.  Tel Aviv.

References:

Barer, S. 1952. The Magic Carpet. London, Secker and Warburg. 101.
Bujra, A.S. 1971. Politics of Stratification: A Study of Political Change in a South Arabian Town. Oxford University Press.
“Economic History” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, VI. Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem Ltd. 1972.
Esposito, J.L. 2004. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford University Press. New York.
Eraqi Klorman, Bat-Zion. 2009. “Yemen: Religion, magic, and Jews”, in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 39. 2009. 125-134.
Goitein, S.D. 1964. Jews and Arabs: their contacts through the ages. Schocken Books, New York.

Goitein, S.D.  1947.  Tales from the land of Sheba.  Schocken Books, New York.

Goitein, S.D. (Ed.) 1941. Travels in Yemen. (English synopsis.) Jerusalem, Hebrew University Press.
Nini, Yehuda. 1991. The Jews of Yemen 1800 – 1914. Harwood Academic Publishers, Oxford, Zurich.

Rodinson, M. 1977. Mohammed. (Translated: A. Carter.) Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Saphir, Y. 1866. Even Sapir. Jerusalem.
Tobi, Yosef. 1999. The Jews of Yemen. Studies in Their History and Culture. Brill. Leiden, Boston, Köln.

Rachel Rozsa *************************** In memory of my grandmother on Holocaust Memorial Day

 

silver-leaf-rose

My grandmother, Rachel* Rozsa, was born in Nagy (pronounced “Noj”) Szolos in Hungary (now Vinogradiv in the Ukraine).  An idyllic spa town nestling in the Carpathian Mountains, whose name means “Large grapes” – indicative of its wine production.  (Also famous because the composer Bartok moved there with his mother.)

nagy-szolos-1

ns-5

ns-10

NS 11.JPG

Her father was Rav (Rabbi) Itzhak Braun, who was renowned for being a miracle-worker.  At the end of WWI, mothers would come to him to find out where their sons were.  It was described to me that he would close his eyes and grab hold of the mother’s arm, then after a while, he said:  “He is crossing the border NOW!” banging his cane on the ground at the precise moment at which the returning soldier was crossing the border, and it would turn out to be accurate.  It was also described to me that he would take children who were sick in their spirit into his home and they would heal in his atmosphere.

I was the first family member to visit Nagy Szolos in 70 years.  The previous visit was by Rachel Rozsa, who went to her father’s funeral taking my father when he was just a baby.

When I visited Nagy Szolos, I tried to find Rav Itzhak Braun’s grave in the Jewish cemetery.  The Mukaceve Rabbi’s driver took me there, and we stopped at a house on the way to pick up the key to the cemetery from the lady who lived there, returning it on our way back.  I spent 2 or 3 hours in the cemetery searching, but couldn’t find the tombstone.  Half of the cemetery was overgrown with weeds, so it was hard to access those stones.  Even where the weeds had been cut or trampled down, I was getting grazed and scraped by weeds, and burnt in the hot sun, trying to find it.  Many of the stones were eroded by the elements, so it was difficult or impossible to read the script.

cemetery

Overgrown with weeds:

Cemetery 3.JPG

Rachel Rozsa’s marriage was arranged by a matchmaker.  So after her marriage, she made the journey – a whole day by ox and cart (now an hour by car) from Nagy Szolos across the border into Mukacevo in Czechoslovakia, to live with a man she had met once or twice.  This is the view along the way:

Journey to NS 2.JPG

My aunt told me she was not happily married.  Her mother-in-law would come into the kitchen, lift the lids off her pots on the stove, and exclaim:  “What?  Is this what you give my son to eat?!!!”  So one can imagine this did not go down very well with Rachel Rozsa!  Being Hungarian, she made goulash.  She also made dumplings and pancakes.  When food became scarcer – probably after they were closed inside the ghetto – she was able to make a chicken last for 3 meals for 6 people.

My father couldn’t remember the colour of her hair.  Probably she kept her head covered most of the time.  I think it must have been brown – her daughter had brown hair, and her sons  had almost jet-black hair.  She loved reading and was well-read, took pride in her appearance, and one of the very few things I know about her is that she used to sing a song with the chorus:

Van London, van Nápoly,
van Konstantinápoly,
Van Róma, Barcselona,
Madrid, Csikágó

There’s London, there’s Naples,
There’s Constantinople,
There’s Rome, Barcelona,
Madrid, Chicago

…. and that she used to dream of going to these places.  If she had known that two of her sons would end up living in London and the other son in the States……said my aunt (who lived in Israel)!  (And of course …. if she had known that she would have 24 great-grandchildren, plus one brand new great-great-grandson…so far….)

When I was in Budapest (the nearest airport to Mukacevo & then a 7-hour train journey) I tried to find this song, and asked in a number of shops and museums.  Eventually someone told me it came from a film called Kek Balvany (“The Blue Idol”), and it was quite a feat to access a DVD copy of this film from the National Film Archive in Budapest, with the indispensable help of a Hungarian friend who also watched the film with me, patiently translating it!  I think my grandmother must have seen this film at the cinema in Mukacevo.  The family was religious, like all the Jews of the region.  But they sent one of their sons to the Zionist school (which the Mukaceve rebbe referred to as “that goyishe (colloquial & derogatory term meaning non-Jewish) school”, which indicates that they were not ultra-ultra religious.  And therefore I imagine she would have gone to the cinema.  Although my grandfather would consult the Mukaceve rabbi if he had any concerns about anything.  The song must also have been broadcast on the radio.

My father felt that his mother knew what was happening to Jews during WWII.

In 1944, Rachel Rozsa was transported to Auschwitz with her family.  They were forced off the train by barking SS with whips, and lunging alsations.  She was forced to separate from her sons and husband.  Someone, or some people, had decided that she should be exterminated, and had plotted, planned and collaborated to achieve this.  Someone made her strip.  Someone made her enter the gas chamber.  Someone had designed the gas chamber to accommodate her and others like and unlike her.  Someone released the gas into the chamber.  Zyklon B.  She would have been in her early 40s.

Before she was taken to the gas chamber, she told her 15-year old daughter, Miriam:  “I have lived.  Just that you should survive.”

A silver leaf in her memory was affixed to the silver tree installed by Tony Curtis outside the Great Synagogue in Budapest, each leaf commemorating a Hungarian Jew who was murdered in the holocaust.

Silver leaf + rose.JPG

75990014.JPG

Apparently Rachel Rozsa did go to Budapest once with her father (and sister – I’m not sure how many sisters she had), although it is so far away from Nagy Szolos.

* * *

* Rachel is pronounced with the “a” sounding like the “u” in “up“, the “ch” sounding like the same letters in the Scottish word “loch“, & the “e” sounding like the “e” in “bell“.

Ah! But is it racism?

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

The recent poll claiming to reveal “what Muslims in Britain really think”:  claiming to have identified “a community within a community”, and a proliferation of attitudes unpalatable to what we assume to be predominantly liberal Britain.  On the one hand, I am sceptical that a poll conducted on 1081 adults can really tell us what 2.71 million Muslims in England, and 80,800 in Scotland and Northern Ireland (2011 census), all think.  Among these adults, we have different ethnicities, different generations, different countries of origin, different degrees of religiosity/secularity.  If we break up the 1081 “polled” adults equally into different generations alone, we have approximately 360.33 young adults, 360.33 middle aged adults, and 360.33 elderly adults.  Is it valid to treat these “polled” Muslims as representative of their generations of co-religionists in Britain, let alone their entirety?

On the other hand, this news item drew me back to a certain memory.  We may assume that some more unpalatable, unliberal and violent views may be held by those who dress differently from liberal Brits, segregate the sexes more; attend their place of worship more regularly; etc.  In other words, those who look less acculturated.  So, my memory….

At some point while I was completing my thesis in Oxford, a photo competition was organized in my college, and winning photos were blown up, mounted and displayed in the college common room. I shortlisted a few photos from my doctoral fieldwork in Israel, and from a subsequent visit to Ethiopia, to submit, and asked my neighbour to help me choose from among them.

Above, is one of the photos I chose (which also appears in my book, Gondar’s Child). The period of my fieldwork in Israel included the first Gulf War, and these children are in a shopping mall with their gas masks. Saddam Hussein was threatening to use mustard and nerve gas in attacks on Israel – a prospect which terrified me, as there was a precedent: he had already murdered whole villages of Iraqi Kurds using these chemicals. Everyone was issued with a gas mask, which we had to take with us everywhere at all times, and children had all decorated the boxes containing their gas masks at school.

Israeli Passport_20160502_0001

Family Defence Manual_20160502_0001

Back in Oxford, I was living in postgrad student accommodation, and my neighbour, in the next room, was a science doctoral student of Iranian descent (“Y”). We were in and out of each other’s rooms most days, and I considered her to be a warm and supportive friend. When she saw this photo, she thought I shouldn’t submit it for the competition because she considered it to be “controversial”, because “there are people who think that Israel shouldn’t exist!” Why is it controversial that Saddam Hussein wanted to gas these children? – I asked her. But she just repeated her assertion as if it were self-evident. This caused a lot of tension between us. A few days later, I brought up the subject and gave her the chance to take back what she had said, but she just repeated it again, and I let her know in no uncertain terms that it was an anti-Semitic view. After this, I did not feel that we could continue being friends, but of course, how could she ever have been a friend if she considered it “controversial” that Saddam Hussein had wanted to gas me?!  Having an enemy, once considered a “friend” who is still a neighbour, living in the next room in the same house is not something to be recommended!

Perhaps if I had told her these children were not Jewish, she might not have thought it controversial? After all, these lovely children who let me take their photo might have been Muslim or Christian. Would she then have minded that they too were threatened by Saddam’s chemical weapons, which he had incidentally used against Iran?!

It was such a mindless assertion by a British-born entirely secular Muslim of Iranian descent! So we can’t necessarily judge people’s views and values – for example, the extent to which they may justify extreme violence and evil against a certain religious, ethnic or national group – according to whether or not they are wearing the religious gear!  Other Iranians who have come into my life – Iranian-born secular Muslims – do not appear to hold such views! One only has to look at the Israel Loves Iran and Iran Loves Israel Facebook pages to see that there are plenty of people living in Iran who do not hold such views! I have read that there are a number of Iranians who are supportive of Israel especially in defiance of their own government.

To return to Oxford, two former housemates, one a Jewish doctoral student from Germany (whom I characterised as having a mouth like a sledge hammer, before Y showed me a true sledge-hammer mouth!), another a Norwegian PhD (“K”), (yes – we were a diverse lot! – probably unlike most of the undergrads!)  both commented that Y “isn’t political”, but, K wrote to me from Norway, she should know what she’s saying and who she’s talking to!  Surely she should have known what she was saying whoever she was talking to!  So:  “not political”, highly educated (in science), but expressing the view that the threat or use of chemical weapons on a group of human beings is “controversial” – i.e. “open to debate”, and having obviously come down on the side of the “controversy” that would state that this might be valid in the case of Jews in Israel, since there are people who don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist!  (So if we apply such a conclusion to the aforementioned poll, could it be that there are some “non-political” Muslims who  nevertheless find the threats and actions of Islamic extremists to be “controversial”, possibly justifiable?!)

Shortly after this incident, another housemate and friend, a British doctoral student of Nigerian descent, “L”, came into the kitchen one day, agitated and perturbed.  A stranger had stopped and asked directions, addressing her query to L’s “white” friend. L helpfully gave directions, but the stranger refused to acknowledge her, and asked further questions, continuing to address them to L’s friend, and to ignore L and her further attempts to be helpful. (It could not have been that she could not see or hear L, blessed with a resonant voice and a tall stature.)  This was offensive enough, but what troubled L perhaps even more was that her own friend had unconsciously cooperated with this, and then questioned and doubted whether the stranger’s behaviour had in fact been racist.

L was in a grumbling mood for which she apologised. I said it was OK – she was angry, and she was right to be, and this acceptance of the validity of her anger, and acknowledgement that she had in fact been subjected to racism, seemed to lift some of the burden away from her.

I then told her that Y and I were not speaking because she had said something anti-Semitic, and related the incident to her. “Ah!  But is that anti-Semitism?” L asked.  My expression must have been full of indignation and outrage.  As I opened my mouth to respond, she quickly answered her own question: “Of course it is, because it can never be right to use chemical weapons against anyone!”

I submitted the photo of the children with gas masks to the competition, and it was not selected to be displayed in my college common room!  These two photos were, however, displayed:

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Ethiopian Jewish boy who had just arrived in Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991, posing for me when he saw me with my camera!

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Shoeshine boy, Addis Abeba, 1992.  The colours in this photo are not right – when I had jpeg files created from the 21 year old negatives, I was told this is because the negatives had become “magenta” with age, but I don’t think that’s true!  I have the original photo somewhere…

 

How did he survive?

 

sc379When I tell people that my father was imprisoned in Auschwitz, the question that invariably follows is: “How did he survive?”

As is the case with most of “The Boys” (732 child and teenage holocaust survivors admitted into Britain after WWII), the fact that my father survived is almost inconceivable.   And as we know from Martin Gilbert’s book, The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity, survival depended on a combination of factors: kind acts by others, chance and luck against improbable odds, the will to live in the face of all that was happening; and physical and mental strength and stamina.

Since Transcarpathian Ruthenia, where my father, Abraham, lived, was occupied by Hungary in 1938, Jews in this region were not subjected to deportation until 1944. However, by this time, the Nazis were in a hurry to complete the job of exterminating the Jews. This was their priority.

Deported from Mukaçevo not long after his Bar Mitzvah, Abraham was among the youngest concentration camp survivors, and the only survivor of Birchashof Birkenau – one of the camps – a farm complex – at Auschwitz. Almost all of his entire age group were exterminated with all the other children upon arrival at Auschwitz, but as is the story with many of the other “Boys”, he observed the advice of one of the Polish inmates upon arrival, given in Yiddish: “Say you’re 18!” As his family were being selected either for work or for immediate extermination, he insisted that he was 18. It seems someone wanted to believe him, and so he was steered in the direction of those selected to work and starve to the point of death, as his father did, rather than face immediate extermination in the gas chambers, as his mother did.

The photo shown is the earliest photo I have of him. It was attached to his form held by the Jewish Refugees Committee, and seems to have been taken immediately upon his arrival in England, when he was 16. This is more than three years after someone accepted his insistence that he was 18, and let him live.

In the Auschwitz barracks where he and his father were imprisoned, there were two kapos: “a nice one and a nasty one”. The “nice” kapo was a German man called Peter: “a very tall fellow: 6’6” or thereabouts” – who had been serving his sentence in a German prison after being caught just after robbing a bank. The “nasty” kapo was a brutal, heavy-set Ukrainian man called Otto. When Otto hit a prisoner, that prisoner never got up again:

“He was a real criminal. He was a murderer. He must have murdered at least one a week there beating him to death giving him twelve lashes and from him, they didn’t last long. He was doing all the beatings you know during appell. He was always doing it. People were really shuddering.”

 Peter, the German kapo, took Abraham under his wing, looking after him, bringing him extra food, and protecting him from the brutal kapo: “He told this Otto that if he does anything to me, he’ll kill him!”  When the SS there wanted fruit that had ripened on some trees, Peter recommended Abraham for the job of climbing the trees and picking the fruit, and while up in the trees, he was able to eat his fill of fruit.

“So I remember we went with a horse, a German guard with a gun, there was this German kapo [Peter], and me. We had lots of baskets. So we went, and I picked fruit for them.That was in [the summer of] 44.”

Abraham derived food from other sources:

“…there were the Polish boys Jewish, who would go and work on transports. Theyd bring some extra food back. Often it was green [with mould]…but it doesn’t matter. It was still good enough.”

Another source of food came from a Hungarian guard who had “ some German-speaking girlfriend”.

“He asked if I would write a letter in German for him. I said: “You write it in Hungarian, and I’ll write it in German.” I had learned German. before the War. I started German, I think I must have been five or six, I started to learn German at school. And my father spoke German, and I was writing the Gothic German the reason I was doing the old-fashioned German was because my father knew the old-fashioned German. Of course I learned it at school as well.”

 I understand that this demand for Abraham’s translating skills was an ongoing state of affairs, as was the extra food he received in appreciation.

Although Abraham would give some of the extra food he received to his father, instead of eating it, his father would give it to the Mukaçeve rebbe (rabbi) who was with them, since the rebbe would not eat the food they were given apart from the bread, as it wasn’t kosher.

There seems to have been a relationship of trust between Abraham and Peter, the German kapo, as Abraham discussed with him the possibility of escape.

“I was in situations where I could have escaped, but I didn’t know in which direction. I did discuss it with Peter, I remember… He said theres no way. I’m in the middle of things. Right in the middle. If I manage to get through this wire, which is easy enough.because we did get out… but you’ll not get through further. There were wires within wires within wires within wires. Theres no way. At least not from there, and with this tattoo, Id be recognized anywhere. Yes, the only other thing I had was prison uniform. Not a very good thing to cover it with.

Dad-earliest photo copy

Abraham’s father grew weaker and weaker with starvation and labour; he was taken to the hospital, and Abraham never saw him again:

….he was writing notes for two weeks. And then they stopped, finished.”

In my father’s dossier, a summary of Abraham’s background provides the information that his mother (Rachel Rosza) was sent to the gas chambers in May 1944, and his father (Chaim) was sent to the gas chambers in July 1944.

When Auschwitz was being evacuated and the prisoners were forced to go on their first “death march”, the German prisoners were free to join the German army and head for the Russian front (which I doubt Peter would have done!) or to go wherever they wished or could get to.

Recently I have been wondering about Peter.

“….he looked after me – the tall fellow. He told me his story: he was robbing a bank, so he said, on a motorbike, and they were chasing the robbers, and he said: ‘Over there! Over there!’ So they didn’t believe him. They arrested him.”

I have been wondering what kind of person he could have been, to plan and embark on a bank robbery, and then, in Auschwitz, to make it his mission to protect and look after a young Jewish boy. My father assumed that his own father had asked him to do so, but Peter must have wanted to help Abraham regardless. He obviously hadn’t been susceptible to Goebbels’ anti-Semitic crushingly heavy-duty brainwashing and propaganda campaign.

Having lost his father, and without Peter to protect him, it seems Abraham wasn’t completely alone: during his first “death march”, he walked alongside a Hungarian doctor who kept himself alive with pills for as long as he could.  Abraham, having been based on the only farm in Auschwitz-Birkenau, (along with his father who had declared his trade as “farmer”), had to walk with the horses and carts containing agricultural machinery which he and the other prisoners helped to push.

“We were in Birchashof farm complex, and the Germans decided they were going to save the machinery and take it to Germany with their horses, carts. And it was winter, December, 1944…. or maybe even the beginning of 1945….

“So there was a long line of people, about four or six abreast…I remember it was about six….and that line must have been miles long because they had been evacuated from other camps at the same time. Only we were at the end of the line because we had these carriages, horses, carts, machinery….and we were marching – starting to push it.  Now it appears that the Russians were advancing pretty quickly, so we were going day and night….. And anybody who couldn’t keep up just sat down and he was shot. There were soldiers at the back who would shoot them. Nobody could escape.  Every time somebody sat down you would hear a shot after, as we passed. And in any case, as we were at the back, there were other transports in front of us, who had marched before us, half an hour or so earlier, and the sides were littered with dead prisoners shot all along the line.”

“While we were marching, walking, the soldiers would take it in turn to sit on the carts and have their sleep. As we were pushing uphill …..there was a road once upon a time there, but there was a little track –  a snow track – we had to push the carts uphill, and there were always the Germans with their truncheons: “Los! Los! Aufgang! Los! Los! Los!”, and hitting, always hitting – some of them were just hitting in any case for no reason at all….that if you were on the outside of the line, you had a very good chance of being hit….and one hit of that on the head, you’d fall down, you’d stumble, you’d stay there, you wouldn’t get up anymore. In any case, many people couldn’t keep up so they just sat down, they just gave up.” (1984 interview)

“We were marching for two weeks. At that time, all the horses…had to be shot. The horses couldn’t march any more either. They can’t go on forever….People couldn’t push anymore.” (1989 interview)

During the last stretch of the journey to Buchenwald, the surviving prisoners were squeezed into open-top train carriages, exposed to the elements. At the last stop before being forced onto these carriages, Abraham’s Hungarian doctor companion encouraged him to try to grab some carrots from the kitchen, which he managed to do without being shot, as others were. In the absence of any other food, these carrots kept him alive.

“Now I’m going to give you an episode which sticks out in my mind. Now where I come from there were two brothers. They were hardy people – they were selling coal….they must have been 19 or 20 – and to carry coal in sacks to sell – so they were really used to hardship. There were two brothers, and they were with me on one of these open trucks…. railway carriages. After a number of days – since the total travel was only about two weeks – without food – all we had was snow for water – one of the brothers died. Then all of a sudden, somebody saw the other brother eating the flesh of his brother. And then he was pointed out: ‘Look what’s happening! Look what’s happening!” And this person all of a sudden stood up – we were all huddled together in an open carriage – stood up as if to walk on all of them: “I’m going home for Shabbes! I’m going home for Shabbesl!” As if to walk over the people, as if nobody was there. And the guard shot him. Others died, but more calmly. Just fell asleep and they never woke up. But that was something which…. It’s not that he was shot – that he was ‘going home’, that his mind had gone. [It’s] that he had eaten of his brother.”

The Hungarian doctor did not survive this stage of the journey.  My father noted that about 10% of the prisoners on the death march from Auschwitz survived the journey to Buchenwald.

Upon arrival at Buchenwald:

“We get food there, and it seems to be a bit better than the others, but every day I see people pulling carts – skeletons – dead people – to the crematoria to burn – all the time they’re pulling them, pulling them. Therefore this event of people dying there like flies seems to be an occurrence wherever we were. However I’m told: ‘Look, you’re a young boy, you’re under 16, you can stay in the childrens ward. And you will be all right.’ I said: ‘No. I’m 18 and I want to go to work. I thought to myself: If I work I’m all right. If I don’t work, I’m useless and we dieI was healthier when I left Buchenwald than when I had arrived there. Because we did have regular food. And not only that, the person who was serving the food, seeing I need a little bit extra, he gave me the extra little bithe just gave me the bit which just had a bit of meat in it. These are these little perks which made the difference between people surviving or not.”

From Buchenwald, Abraham was taken to Rhemsdorf to work in a factory which was serving the German war effort, and which was being bombed by the British, day and night. 

“…There were 30,000 prisoners, and for the first time I saw American prisoners, British prisoners, Russian prisoners….all there, trying to work, trying to … rebuild the factory after it had been bombed.  And the bombs kept falling almost any time.”

“So there [in Rhemsdorf] they did give us food simply because we were doing a useful job….so to speak, but not very much of it.  People still kept dying all the time.  There were always the ‘musulman’.  The ‘musulman’ is the person who was skin and bone.”

In the case of the American, British and Russian prisoners of war, however, “…we were not together.  They were looked after better…..they were demoralised, but they seemed to have been fed well.  But there’s no comparison.”

In Rhemsdorf, he found his brother, David who was carrying out carpentry work.   “…the point is, he was there. That is important.  And now we were two together.”

The allies were advancing. 

“We were told again that we were going to be evacuated, and I saw people were running to the kitchen to find some food for the journey.  I also ran to the kitchen, and I found, and I took, three carrots, and I ran away.  But others managed to get shot for their troubles.  I did get away with three carrots.:   Now, we were put on the trains….after one or two days, their locomotive was bombed….The train came to a sudden halt, and as the aeroplanes came and our guards were frightened, they ran away.  And many of us, prisoners, started to run away into the woods, only to be rounded up by local Germans – old people and young people, and most of those running into the woods – not knowing where to go – they were all shot by the local people, local Hitler Jugend.  All young people were taught how to handle guns in Germany.  Therefore I don’t think anybody will have escaped that.”

“After that we had to walk, and we were walking….I think a couple of weeks ….maybe even longer – through German towns and villages, and most of our shoes had long worn out.  Some had rags [on their feet].  We did stop now and then, for a bit of soup….”

“They didn’t shoot the prisoners in the towns, but as soon as we got a certain distance from a small town or a village, we’d stop, and those they thought unable to continue were shot.  Or they would just take a group of people and shoot them in any case because they wanted to reduce some of the guards.  Some of the guards wanted to go away.  Some said they wanted to go to the front to fight, others who had other reasons.  So since there were too few guards, they reduced the number of people in the march.”

During this “death march” to Theresienstadt, Abraham and David shared the carrots Abraham had managed to take from the kitchen at Rhemsdorf – one between them each day:

“…and it kept us going: half a carrot for me, half a carrot for my brother, and it makes all the difference between whether you live a few days longer or not whether you make it or not.”  

They would eat grass along the way, and then would get stomach cramps, and want to sit down and give up. If they had done so, they would have been shot by the German guards. But neither of them would allow the other to give up – mercifully, it seems, their stomach cramps were not simultaneously severe. David and Abraham enabled each other to survive the “death march” from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt, which alone, each would not have survived.

Part of the story of my father’s survival is a Czech woman who gave him bread when the “death march” was proceeding through Czechoslovakia. While they had been marched through Germany, my father recalled that women, old people and children – the Hitler Youth – would smash bottles at the prisoners’ bare or rag-bound feet in order that they should tread in the broken glass. 

By contrast, when they were being marched through Czechoslovakia, the Czech people were throwing bread. However, for every piece of bread thrown, there was such a scramble that the bread would get broken into little pieces and no-one would get any. One of “The Boys” said it was a form of sadism: that bystanders were deriving amusement from these scenes. Whatever the case, one woman wanted to be sure that my father received bread, and ran out to place it firmly in his hands, even though the German guards were threatening to shoot anyone who gave food to the prisoners. The Czech woman who wanted my father to live, to the extent that she risked her life to make sure he got his piece of bread, then had a rifle butt slammed down on her head by a German guard as she was running back out of the line of prisoners.

When I was in Prague in the summer of 1998, one day, as I stood waiting for my friend to turn up, an elderly woman kept staring at me. When my friend arrived, he noticed how she was staring at me. I wondered: was she the one who helped my father? Did she recognize my father in me? Recently, it dawned on me that the woman who had given my father bread probably never got up again after the rifle butt crashed down on her head. I had always assumed that she had lived on, but it seems, in all likelihood, she gave her life to make sure my father got some bread. That the last thing she did in her life was to hand my father the bread, and then try to run back out of the line of prisoners.

This act of hers obviously made an enormous impression on young Abraham. The German Nazi Reich was focused on hunting him; its military machinery was designed to exterminate him and other Jews; German women, elderly people and children smashed bottles under his feet; and suddenly, here was someone, a gentile, who not only wanted him to live, but probably gave her own life to this purpose.

As with Peter, I have recently been trying to imagine this woman and the kind of life she came from. For her, we do not even have a name. Probably she was fairly young, as she was depending on her speed and agility to get swiftly in and out of the line of prisoners, and out of reach of the guards, which she didn’t succeed in doing. A kind-hearted, brave and defiant young woman, as the Czechs in general were defiant at having their country occupied by the Nazi imposters.

Dad-earliest photo copy

The Hungarian Jewish doctor who had walked alongside Abraham during the first “death march” had told him: “After the War, when there is food, don’t eat too much. Just have a piece of bread and a piece of cheese.” Once he was liberated from Theresienstadt, and able to go out of the concentration camp and find food, Abraham remembered the words of the doctor. Abraham was obviously someone who took advice very seriously – whether to say he was 18, or to eat moderately after starvation. Others found food and died from eating more than their starved systems could take. One of Abraham’s uncles, having survived up to that point, went out and found a piece of fat which he ate, and then, after everything he had gone through, contracted typhoid and died.

“People still kept dying, because it doesn’t end at a certain point. People got used to not eating. They couldn’t take food anymore. And when they got food, a little bit of food, [they] got typhoid. [They] died of it.”

Abraham, as advised, ate a piece of bread and a piece of cheese. As long as I remember, my father always ate in moderation, despite having been so severely starved at such a young age. After Yom Kippur, he would break the Fast with bread and cheese.

The net result of all these factors is that – against all the odds – my father survived.

“…..one day we saw the first Russian motorcyclist, and that was the end of the war. And we weren’t allowed out straight away, but as soon as we heard there were no more Germans, some of us found a hole to climb out of Theresienstadt, and there were strawberries there. Some of us had some strawberries.”

An interviewer once asked my father: What kept you going mentally? And my father replied:

“Oh – the war will end and then everything will be fine, and one day I’ll have enough bread, butter and milk…. If I keep alive long enough, the war will end and I’ll still be there.”

Having survived all that he survived, he then faced the task of living the rest of his life having experienced and witnessed the horrors of Auschwitz and the “death marches”. This, it seems, he achieved largely through music. In Munich DP Camp where he spent a year waiting to go to Palestine before deciding, instead, to join his brother, David, in England, he sourced two lots of food rations. He would exchange the extra food (with the exception of chocolate which, as far as he was concerned, was not extra and not exchangeable!) for piano and violin lessons from teachers who taught at the Handel Conservatorium. In a letter to the Jewish Refugees Committee in September 1950, requesting help with fees for continuing his piano studies at the Toynbee Hall, he wrote:

“I began to play the piano at Handel Conservatoire in Munich four years ago. There, not possessing a piano, I walked every morning three miles to the street-car where I continued my journey, by street-car, for another 30 minutes to the Conservatoire, and there I was allowed to practice on one of the College pianos (if I bribed the school-keeper) until 9 a.m., when lessons started.

“Since then I have been keeping up my studies in music.”  

In fact, my father’s recently released dossier kept by the Jewish Refugees Committee during his early years in the UK, is full of documentation relating to the urgent nature, and great priority, of his need for piano lessons (and his depression before accessing these), a piano to practise on, piano repairs, further training in piano.

Abraham’s brother, Zruli, while he was in the DP camp together with Abraham, studied opera at the Handel Conservatorium, and my father seemed disappointed that he did not become a major opera singer, which he felt was within the range of Zruli’s abilities and talent.

I have no doubt that it was largely through playing the piano that my father returned to humanity, received healing, experienced the sublime, and rose from the ashes.

Thus, my father survived. Because of someone who accepted his insistence that he was 18 when he looked and was in fact only 13; and thanks to Peter – the German bank robber; thanks to his fluency in German and Hungarian; thanks to the advice of the Hungarian doctor and to my father’s strict observance of his words; thanks to the person serving food at Buchenwald; thanks to joining forces with his brother, David; thanks to an unknown heroic Czech woman; thanks to the carrots he found; thanks to his ability to eat in moderation even after having been so severely starved; thanks to the piano, and to Schubert, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Manuel de Falla; thanks to his physical and mental constitution and his will to live. And with all this, essentially, thanks to remotest chance, and luck, my father survived.

* * *

Note: Except where otherwise stated, quotes are from interviews conducted with Abraham Herman in May 1984 and March 1989.

Postscript:  From an interview in 1984, my father talking about his time in a DP camp in Munich:  “And for studying I had extra rations.  Now I had two lots of food , and for two lots of food I could pay for some of my private lessons in food, to a German music teacher, because music was not provided as part of the learning.  All the other lessons I had free….I attended Handel’s Conservatorium …….there was a woman teacher who who gave private [violin] lessons in exchange for tinned food…..She invited me to her home and she had very many musical instruments:  violins and others.  So I said:  “You have very many musical instruments.  Where do you get them from?”  She said:  “Oh, my nephew was an officer in Poland.  Whenever he came home on leave, he always brought me something.”  And I remember particularly that she showed me:  “This is an Amati,” and then she mentioned the others…..  And if you think about it, there must have been between thirty to forty  musical instruments in that room, it will give you some indication of what was going on.

“Well, after that I left her.  I didn’t go back to her anymore.  I didn’t want to know her….”

“So I went down [to]…a place who arranged the administration of people leaving.  So I said:  ‘Look, I think I should go to England now.'”

 

 

Dad-earliest photo copy 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the virulent anti-Semites lurk

My mother was born in Palestine in 1938. As a Jew born in Palestine, her birth certificate states that she was Palestinian, like all the Jews living in Palestine.  When she was a child, the medical establishment was “treating” ringworm (gazezet in Hebrew) with very strong doses of radiation to the head, and my mother was subjected to this “treatment”. It seems they were doing this as a preventative measure, as well as a “treatment”, and that this same method of dealing with ringworm was being used in some other countries, including the United States.

A documentary: The Ringworm Children, was made on this subject in which it is imputed that in the 1950s, this method of treating/preventing ringworm was routinely administered to Sephardi Jewish children who were migrating with their families mainly from North Africa – especially from Morocco. In adulthood, those subjected to this treatment developed brain tumours and many died before their time. It is presented in the video as something that only Sephardi children were subjected to, and as belonging to some sinister eugenics programme on the part of the Ashkenazi leaders against the Sephardi population.

And here on the internet, under the Youtube video, in the comments section, congregate some of the most virulent anti-Semites, spitting out and unleashing their toxic hatred, their venomous vitriol, towards Israel and Ashkenazi Jews.  Referring to a “Zionist”-perpetrated “holocaust” against the Sephardi population.  (Of course, the North African Jews who came to Israel were also Zionist.)   Google the term “radiation for ringworm” and a plethora of horribly extreme anti-Semitic posts appear for pages and pages.  I cannot believe for a second that these virulent racists, with their “reverse-speak” and projection – their predilection for labeling Jews as “Nazis” – have even the tiniest particle of concern about the Sephardi Jews in the video, any more than they have concern for Palestinian Arabs who are their main excuse for being overtly anti-Semitic in the guise of anti-Zionism.

I added a comment explaining that my mother had been subjected to this “treatment” by the Israeli medical establishment as a young child, and that she was Ashkenazi. That she developed recurring brain tumours in adulthood (the first one was diagnosed when she was about 34), and died at the age of 44.

It is very unlikely that she could have been mistaken for a Moroccan Jew, or for a newcomer – Sephardi or otherwise. Her parents migrated to Palestine some time in the second decade of the 1900s from Russia and Poland. While many Ashkenzi Jews can be  dark with black hair, my mother was so fair that her skin went pink in the sun. Her eyes were lightish blue. Her parents were well entrenched in Palestinian – then Israeli – society, and her mother drove trucks for the British during WWII. They would not have allowed her to receive any treatment they considered to be discriminatory or harmful. I have not yet found out the numbers of Ashkenazi children treated in this way for ringworm in Palestine/Israel in the 1940s/1950s, but I don’t see how it is possible that my mother should have been the only Ashkenazi child to have been subjected to this “treatment”.  However, I have come across numbers of Ashkenazi children who were irradiated for ringworm in the USA by an American Jewish insurance company, OSE, who:

“…radiated the heads of 27,000 Ashkenazi Jewish children who arrived in New York from Eastern Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s, about 4,500 Ashkenazi children who arrived were found to have ringworm, and about 2,500 were treated with radiation by OSE.”

http://www.jpost.com/Health-and-Sci-Tech/Health/BGU-medical-historian-seeks-1940s-irradiation-victims-in-US

My words in the comments section under the YouTube video explaining that my Ashkenazi mother had been subjected to the same treatment as a child, seemed to cause some consternation amongst the virulently anti-Semitic internet community who had attached themselves to this video, and who upheld it as “evidence” of Israeli “apartheid”.  On the internet, words such as “genocide” and “Nazi” are attached to “Ashkenazi” in relation to the gazezet affair.  But the information about my mother had put a spanner in the works, it seems, and my comment seemed to stem the flow of vitriol somewhat.  I received a couple of responses. One seemed quite innocent. He wanted some clarification on the circumstances surrounding my mother’s subjection to this “treatment”, and I responded.  But something did not feel right.  You could almost feel the hatred pulsating from that internet page.  I performed an internet search on “Gunther” – one of the people who had responded to my comment. He was a member of a group which looked shockingly anti-Semitic – hard-core Nazi in fact. I deleted my response to his comment and reported it to the CST, which deals with anti-Semitism in the UK.  After a while, I decided to delete my comment altogether. Why would I place myself right in the cauldron where virulent anti-Semites congregate? Anti-Semitism is something I would travel far to get away from!

Yet, it seems that wherever you have Jews criticising Jews, Jewish Israelis or diaspora Jews criticising Israel, Jews or Israeli Jews expounding theories which can be taken as challenging Zionism, Jews who are inverted anti-Semites (for wherever there is racism, there is also inverted racism), there you will find the virulent anti-Semites, or even the non-virulent anti-Semites, congregating!  Anti-Semites love a self-hating Jew; they love a Jew who will criticise other Jews, or Israel.  (Did they love Otto Weininger, the Austrian philosopher (1880-1903) who, being Jewish, as a consequence of his own anti-Semitic philosophy, committed suicide?)  Israelis who criticize Israel feel entitled to express as much anger, outrage, discontent, opposition to their government’s policies and actions as any citizen of any country may feel entitled to do about her/his country. They don’t necessarily realise they are providing fodder to fatten the collective hatred of these virulent anti-Semites. Or that their words are being used to substantiate a claim that their country is illegitimate and not entitled to even exist!  A claim which I do not believe is made about any other country in the world, no matter what the circumstances under which it was founded.

I’m not aware of any other kind of racism working in this way. Do racist bigots love people of colour who will speak against other people of colour? Do they congregate around people of colour who are inverted racists? I don’t think so. Anti-Semitic hatred shares much with other racisms, but also takes on forms which seem not to apply to other racisms, such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

I think this wish of anti-Semites to “align” themselves with Jews who criticise Jews/Israel, along with expressing Jew-hatred in the guise of anti-Zionism, is a post-holocaust phenomenon.  In the aftermath of the holocaust, it is not PC to openly express anti-Semitism.  Therefore anti-Semites – who exist even in places where there are no Jews! – have some very crude tactics for unblocking the path to their urge to express their powerful and irrational hatred. For example:
(i) Holocaust denial. If the memory of the Holocaust is blocking the path to openly anti-Semitic expression, then by denying it, minimising it, or trying to erase it from history, one can then hope to open up the path to, and validate such expression.
(ii) Alignment with a Jew who, as above, criticises other Jews or Israel, again in the hope to validate their hatred.

It appears, then, that what anti-Semites feel the need to do, which they don’t apparently feel the need of in respect to other racisms, is to validate their racism, to avoid being labeled as the anti-Semites that they are; to avoid being labeled as the Nazis some of them are – a label they wish to project on Jews – perhaps in some cases in a wish to cancel out the Nazi guilt.

That is not to say that everyone who adopts a position of anti-Zionism is therefore necessarily anti-Semitic. But that is a subject for another blog.

What the Israeli medical establishment did to my mother and other children subjected to these massive doses of radiation to the head, and the consequences to these people and their families, were terrible. It was not known what the consequences would ultimately be. Radiation was not understood at that time as it is today.  Nevertheless, it was terrible.  As was its negligent and criminal use without the understanding of the long-term consequences; without deep research into what had already been discovered, but not disseminated into a wider awareness, about radiation’s destructive potential – therefore the experimental nature of its use on children.  The ruined lives…. dreams turned into nightmares.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringworm_affair_%28Israel%29

*

Someone commented on this post, utterly flabbergasted that I was “defending” Israel and thus manifesting “unconditional love” for Israel, after what “it had done” to my mother.  I was quite taken aback by such a response, which missed the entire point of my article.   For this reason, and and also because I did not want to attract virulent anti-Semites eager to find out where their ilk were congregating, I made this post private until I felt inclined to address this point, and long after.

So there are 3 main issues here:  firstly:  who exactly “did this” to my mother?  I do not think it was Israel that “did this” to my mother.  It was not the land of Israel.  It was not the general population of Israel – she, after all, was part of Israel – a “sabra” – the term in use for an Israeli-born Jew.  And my mother certainly loved Israel, belonged there, and always longed to return.  She was quintessentially Israeli.  It was part of the medical establishment, and certain government ministers at the time that irradiated and damaged her previously perfectly healthy brain when she was a young child.  Was the USA implicated as is strongly implied in the film?  I am not sure of the extent to which my mother may have made an association between the “treatment” she was subjected to and her brain tumours, and it was something she experienced solitarily – unaware that others who had undergone the same “treatment” were suffering similar fates.

The second issue relating to the reaction to my post is:  would the same question be asked of other countries whose children received the same treatment?  The 30,000 children treated in the early 1950s in Portugal?  The 50,000 children treated in Serbia?  The 27,000 children treated in Eastern Europe?  Would someone be amazed that a Portuguese person, or a Serbian could love their countries?  That it was these countries that “irradiated” their children?

Would the same reaction be evoked in relation to other toxic “medical” experimental treatments?  In Britain, for example, I have enormous gratitude towards my mother that while she was pregnant with me, she refused to take any medication whatsoever for any pain or discomfort – not even an aspirin.  This was the time when the Thalidomide drug was being routinely administered to pregnant women for morning sickness, with subsequent devastating consequences.  In the States and in Britain, pharmaceutical companies cooperate with the psychiatric profession, motivated entirely by the maximization of profits, in creating an artificial ever-increasing market for powerful mind-altering, mind-disabling drugs which are zealously administered to millions of adults and children which can and often do have fatal consequences.

Would it be said that Britain “did this” to children born with Thalidomide-induced deformities?  Would it be said that the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, or any other country, “did this” to those children and adults whose lives are ruined or ended from psychiatric drugs?

The third issue relates to Buddhist ethics;  practising Buddhists try to cultivate equal loving kindness for all of humanity, whether towards our immediate family, whether it is towards someone we have very little to do with, or whether the person is our worst enemy.  Someone who is enlightened will be understood to have achieved this, while others will ideally aspire to achieve this (or perhaps aspire to this aspiration!)  According to this ideal – it is irrelevant whether or not the person who has suffered such damaging treatment is one’s mother or not;  one’s concern would be just as great whoever the sufferer may be.

***

My final word is directed towards any virulent anti-Semites, who found their way to this post in a quest to discover where others of your kind lurk.  What I have to say to you is:  “Shove orf!  Or else I’ll butt you with my horns!”