Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Holocaust Survivors’ Group

I spent the day yesterday with scores of utterly delightful people. First up was a trip down to Clapham to visit Nightingale House, a home for elderly Jewish people, where I met a very warm and affable Scottish chap called Alistair. I was there to tell him all about 100 Faces in the hope that he’d give me a hand in my seemingly endless search for people. I’m relieved to say that he was very taken by the idea and has offered to support the project. I jokingly told him about the 1925 problem: namely that, seemingly every wonderful elderly person I meet, turns out to be born in 1925! I have found almost no-one born in any of the years running up to 1925, and very few in the next two or three years, but 1925? Chockablock!

Later on, Alistair was telling me all about a particularly lovely lady who lives at Nightingale House, who loves to sing and is a wonderful character. A few minutes later, we could hear a chirpy voice singing Wouldn’t It Be Lovely from down the corridor and said lady appeared as if by magic, almost as though fate were demanding that she appear in the film! Alistair called her over and asked the year that she was born. “1925” she said, proudly. My heart sank!

From Clapham, I headed to North West London to visit the holocaust survivors support group who were having a class called Yiddish and Kiddish, followed by a little tea party to celebrate the coming royal wedding. There’s no group as patriotic and quintessentially English as the Jewish community. All the old ladies arrived in hats, looking fabulously summery and smart.

Yiddish and Kiddish gives some of the survivors (all of whom are over 80), an important opportunity to listen to, and speak the language of their childhood. About twenty people were crowded round a giant table, listening to a middle-aged gentleman telling a tall story in this beautiful, expressive, yet almost dead language. I can’t begin to explain how moving I found the experience. Sitting in a room filled with people who survived the Holocaust is awe-inspiring enough, but listening to them interacting in a language which was basically murdered along with six million Jewish people was thought-provoking and devastatingly beautiful. They sat, like school children, listening intently, and with great excitement, to the story their teacher was telling and, with their enthusiasm, and beaming smiles, the age simply fell from their faces. Occasionally one of them would chip in to crack a joke, unsure as to whether they’d perhaps be told off for interrupting. Of course, it’s Yiddish which reminds them of the parents they never saw again after becoming separated in some of the most brutal scenes which have ever been described to me. But Yiddish takes them back to the happier, carefree, pre-war days. I think the only way that I can find to explain the importance of the language is by quoting one old gent who said “Yiddish kept me alive... As we pulled into Auschwitz in our cattle train, I could see men in prison uniforms digging weeds by the side of the tracks. They shouted as the train passed ‘if they offer you food. Eat it. Don’t try to save it. And they said ‘and if you’re younger than 16, whatever you do, lie about your age.’”

He went on to tell me that he was just 12 at the time, but because he inherently trusted anyone who spoke Yiddish, when it came to everyone being lined up and asked their age, he lied and said he was sixteen. Had he told the truth, he would immediately have been gassed.

I walked all the way home, deep in thought, trying to comprehend the beauty of what I’d seen against the horror of the stories I’d been told. And, almost as though to mirror my internal quandary, the sky, which had been a glorious cornflower blue, turned pitch black, and it suddenly started hailing.

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