Jewish survivors of the Holocaust
Forster, Sarah (1 of 3) The Living Memory of the Jewish Community
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Second Generation of Holocaust Survivors
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The Living Memory of the Jewish Community
Forster, Sarah, 1948- (speaker, female)
Abendstern, Michele (speaker, female)
Part 1: Father is Holocaust survivor. Sarah [SF] has always been aware of this. Her mother is an English Jew. Parents met after the war, both are now dead. SF has one sister, eight years younger than her, who lives in Israel. From a very early age SF’s father would show her photographs and documents describing the atrocities of the Holocaust. She remembers being shown these when a small child sitting on her father’s knee. He would also talk about his childhood in Poland. Father’s background: born in 1909. One of seven children of a well-off religious family. He was a rebel and SF believes that this is why he was not married off. He grew up at a time of virulent anti-Semitism in Poland. An uncle was hung in the street during one pogrom. He left Poland for Palestine just before the war (aged thirty) against his parents’ wishes. He belonged to a Socialist organisation which could ‘see the writing on the wall’. The rest of the family refused to leave. They had a very comfortable lifestyle in Radom, near Warsaw, where they owned factories and estates. They were leather manufacturers. His last correspondence with them was ‘get us out’, but it was too late. Until that time his parents supported him financially in Palestine. According to SF he had never done a day’s work in his life. He then joined the British army as part of a Polish Jewish contingent and was captured in Crete early in the war. He was taken back to Poland to a prisoner of war camp where he and the other Jewish captives were treated very badly; badly beaten, rations withheld. The Nazis wanted to send them to a concentration camp but their officer fought this successfully. Instead they had to work in a mine for the rest of the war. During his time in the camp he discovered that there were no Jews left in Radom. He discovered after the war that all his family had been in Auschwitz. All but one brother perished. The surviving brother settled in the US. SF’s father blamed his surviving brother for not saving the other brother’s life – he committed suicide. A few other relatives survived and settled in either the US or Israel. There was never a reunion. After liberation he was brought to England. His sister-in-law to be (SF’s maternal aunt) used to open her house to Jewish refugees on Friday nights. He came to one of these and met his future wife. He then had to return to Palestine as he had no passport. Harold Lever, a Manchester MP, helped to get a passport and he returned to England and married on 11th November 1947. SF’s earliest memories: many survivors visited the house. There were always whispers and awful stories. She doesn’t think her parents realised she was taking it all in and they therefore talked openly. Remembers her mother’s family not believing her father’s story, her father crying at night, her mother not knowing how to cope with him. Mother’s background: came from Russia in the 1860s. SF’s mother was the second generation to be born in England, they felt very English. They were socialists, working class and always thought of SF’s father as a foreigner. Parents’ relationship: SF feels that they had a good relationship on the whole. Father became a Conservative. Churchill was his hero and saviour and he cried when watching his funeral. He was very law abiding and had great faith in British justice. He became a British citizen and was very proud of this. Parents’ differing politics didn’t cause any conflict as they were too busy earning a living. Mum worked as a cook in a home for elderly people, father worked for the Beth Din. Her mother was very anglicised and decided when they got married that SF’s father’s name (Jitzak) sounded too foreign and that he should be known as Jack and from that day on he was. He had a group of friends whom he called ‘his landsmen’ who met with their wives every Thursday evening. He continued this all his life, although SF’s mother opted out early on. She was the only English wife and found the gatherings difficult. She could not understand Yiddish, which the group spoke as soon as they were together. SF’s sister does not share SF’s experiences. SF is not sure why. (Not so responsive her father not needing to talk so much later on?) Her father also stopped talking to her as a teenager and she, who had not been able to get enough of it, also suddenly stopped asking. She had had enough. She thinks her father continued to talk with his ‘landsmen’. ‘That was his other life… it had nothing to do with us.’ Religion: Jack was not religious before the war but later he threw himself into it. SF thinks he was punishing himself for surviving. Making himself return to his previously rejected roots. ‘There was no joy in it.’ SF consequently had a very religious upbringing, which she threw off as an adult. Anti-Semitism: SF grew up being told by her father to keep her Judaism low profile because of the fear of anti-Semitism. It made her feel terrified of being Jewish and she often wished she wasn’t. She never shared these feelings with her parents. He was wary of non-Jews and it was understood that SF would not have Jewish boyfriends or bring non-Jewish friends home. Her mother was more open but what her father said went. She hated her name and was very conscious of it. She thought of changing it before she married as she was training to be a teacher and did not want to stand in front of a class as Miss Rotenberg [ph]. She married a man with what she describes as an ‘anonymous’ name and wonders what part her subconscious played in her choice of partner. At school she did not face outright anti-Semitism but remembers always being questioned and always having to explain her beliefs, rituals, holidays. She and the other Jewish girls went to separate Jewish prayers instead of assembly. ‘We were always being singled out. We were always separating ourselves.’ Remembers one experience of anti-Semitism in the neighbourhood where she grew up from a German family whose children said nasty things and who offered her chocolates at Passover knowing she shouldn’t have them. She thinks there is still anti-Semitism but that it is more subtle. Jews have opened their own golf clubs because they have not been ‘allowed’ to join non-Jewish ones. Family: she says she only ever lived with half a family – her mother’s – though she always felt closer to the missing half. As a child she felt a responsibility to her father’s family not to disappear, as she believed they might come back to look for them. She always felt first and foremost her father’s daughter and as a child felt that her family was the one that was not there. Before he died, her father went to the States and made peace with his brother. He returned and told his wife and children how well his brother had done. In fact this was a lie and soon he broke down and told them how he had worked all his life – a survivor of Auschwitz – in an abattoir. It was one of the rare times when SF remembers her father opening up and making himself vulnerable with his family. After his death his brother came to England to ask SF’s mother to marry him. SF’s childhood: father worked for the Beth Din as a supervisor. Lived in Cheetham Hill in a rented house. Father hated it and said his animals had lived better in Poland. He always felt poor and badly done by. As a child she does not remember feeling deprived because ‘what makes you feel secure as a child is love and there was that in abundance’. They bought a modest house in Prestwich when SF was fourteen due to her mother’s determination. Father died when SF was twenty-one, her sister was thirteen. Father’s job: SF hated this as it dictated how they could live. They had to be seen to be kosher. Many restrictions. Beth Din like the Gestapo watching for mistakes and mistakes could cost him his job. It would have been easier not to have been Jewish. She describes her father as being hard on himself and hard on them, meaning there was a lot of discipline and many rules to daily life. You could not leave food and you could not be greedy. It was a fine line. Had to peel and eat fruit in a certain way. Her father was at the same time very loving and over-protective. She was not allowed to have roller skates or a bike. He always waited for her at the bus stop when she came home. She didn’t think this was abnormal at the time. As a teenager her father made an attempt to arrange a marriage for her. Though not normally rebellious (‘you didn’t tangle with him’) she put her foot down at this and after an argument nothing more came of it. It still seems astonishing to her that he would do this and is another example of him living in two worlds. Education: Her father was ambitious for his children. He wanted them to do well so that he could say he had achieved something. He was not satisfied with what he had done in his own right. He wanted his children to get out of the poverty rap through education. She did not go to a Jewish school but did go to Hebrew classes and Jewish youth clubs. After school she went to teacher training college in Manchester. Her father would not let her leave home and she was happy with this at the time. She wanted to study drama but her father said she needed a profession to give her security. She did not want to teach but did not fight this. SF’s identity: describes herself as a ‘Holocaust Jew’. Her whole point of reference to being Jewish is the Holocaust. She knows this is not the whole story but it is to her. It was another aspect of her Judaism that was not a joy. She always identified as a child of a survivor, always felt different. Other children always seemed more carefree. At college she talked about her background and wanted to shock people as there was still a lot of disbelief. She does not feel the need to do this any more. Friends: her most significant and lifelong friendship is with a girl from a similar background (J). They met at primary school. The friend’s parents were both Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors. They recognised each other’s experiences and found some sanctuary together. J was taken to Theresienstadt on a summer holiday. She returned deeply upset and shared this with SF. J introduced SF to the Jewish youth club where she met her future husband. Here they talked about Israeli politics and her Zionist beliefs, nurtured at home, were stimulated. She describes herself now as British first and Jewish second. She lives in a mixed community and likes this. She does not want to be in a ghetto. She still feels that Jews have to be ‘good Jews’ to be accepted. She feels she is well assimilated. Stephen’s (husband’s) background: paternal grandparents from Poland. Came to England before the First World War. Anglicised. Father had been a bomber pilot in the war. Jewish but not religious. Parents were manufacturers for Marks and Spencer. Were kosher at home only. Had a more carefree and easy life. His home seemed jollier and less stressful than hers. They were happy to be Jewish. Stephen’s grandfather helped relatives after the war to settle and he and SF’s father had a greater understanding than her father and father-in-law. Stephen went to university, then into the family business and now has lots of different business ventures. Marriage: SF sought this Jewish yet not religious lifestyle quite consciously at the time. Her father appeared to understand this. She remained kosher until meeting Stephen. He was very helpful in showing her a ‘normal Jewish life’ which wasn’t dominated by the Holocaust. They have a good marriage. They had a large engagement party before SF’s father died. They had an orthodox wedding (but with a mixed reception) in the synagogue where her parents had been married, organised by Stephen’s parents. She described it as ‘a nice normal wedding’. Father’s death: terrible shock. He was sixty. Brain tumour developed after he was hit on the head at work. He had a tough time and she felt it was unfair, he had suffered enough. Relationship with parents: close to both. Easier with mum, more open, wouldn’t be frightened of upsetting her. With her father, you were always afraid of this. She always wanted to please him. When she had her son she thought she had given him the son he never had. She describes it as ‘in many ways a normal relationship with this one shadow which hung over you constantly’. Attitudes passed on from father: she reacted against his hatred of Germans and Poles. She said she did feel uncomfortable when she visited Germany. She would like to visit Poland but cannot find anyone to go with her. Jewish friends described it as the ‘graveyard of Europe’. She feels she might have to make that journey. Children: always assumed they would have them. She wanted to have children young enough so that if anything happened to her they would be old enough to cope. Her father was thirty-eight and her mother thirty-four when she was born. Her mother died when SF’s children were nine and six. Her children are now twenty-five and twenty-two. She was twenty-five when the first one was born. She did not want to carry on working after the children’s births. Her mother had to and she is aware of her privileged position. Bringing up children: she has always been conscious of her own childhood in how she had brought up her children. She has always been aware of wanting to make them feel safe and has encouraged them to talk about their feelings. Important to her that they have Jewish identity but she doesn’t want them to be religious. Her son is interested in the religion, enjoying the ritual of it. She wants them to be open to everyone but to remain Jewish and to marry Jews. Her daughter had had a non-Jewish boyfriend and SF found this quite difficult. She feels that marriage is hard anyway, so that it is important to start with as few difficulties as possible. She has told them about her father’s past but protected them from some of the horror of it when they were little. She does not want them to grow up with her hang-ups. She feels she owes it to her father to keep the history of it alive. It is now part of her children’s identity that they are the grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor. They are sad for their mother and have some awareness of what she has been through. She feels that her children are well-adjusted. The children have been to non-Jewish schools but have attended Hebrew classes and her son has been bar mitzvah’d. She has tried not to be over-protective but has found this hard. Both left home to go to university. She would not have wanted it any other way but still found it hard. They visit a lot and are very close. It is important for her that her children do well. They sent them to ‘good schools’ as they wanted to give them opportunities, which they have never had. Her daughter is currently training to be a lawyer and her son is doing a PhD in maths. Anglo-Jewry: ‘on the whole we’ve prospered’. Britain has been good to the Jews. She feels you could not say that being a Jew in Britain is a disadvantage. Israel: has become very divided but it will survive. It is the only place where you can be any kind of Jew and be accepted – unlike the ‘good Jew’ which other places expect.