I called T, a refugee from Afghanistan: ‘Any news from your family?’

When I was working on My Dear Ones: One Family and The Final Solution, among the most painful documents I found were letters between my father’s uncles after the war.

Ernst had fled to New York with his family; Uncle Alfred was in Jerusalem. He would be killed in the attack on the convoy to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University in 1948.

Their letters circle the question: where are the others? What happened to their eldest sister, Sophie Redlich, who’d felt safe in Czechoslovakia? And their other sister, Trude, in Poland? Most important, was there any news of their mother, Regina, for whom, despite all their efforts, the vital emigration papers had arrived too late?

They explore the contours of the gaps. Twenty Jews have returned to Holleschau, from where Regina was deported: she’s not among them. A Redlich family is listed among the survivors: it’s not the same Redlich. How Alfred must have been shaken when, one day in 1946, a letter arrives, addressed in his sister’s handwriting. But she’s not alive. It’s her last communication before she’s transported, a final testament given in secret to a non-Jewish neighbour and posted after the war.

All this is in my mind as I call T, a refugee from Afghanistan who stayed with us before the pandemic through Refugees at Home. His sister is in London too, married with young children. But their parents? The wider family?

Have you heard anything?
Do you know where they are?
They moved to Kabul to be safer. I’m very worried.
And now, these terrible, shocking, appalling bombings at the airport.

 Rachel Ellison, who worked training women in Afghanistan some years back, wrote:

Last night an Afghan bus driver in London rang me to ask me to help evacuate his brother-in-law. He is in hiding in Kabul, with his wife and five daughters. Like many, he cannot reach the airport. His emails to the British authorities have gone

 During Elul and the Holydays we read Psalm 27 morning and night. It’s a Psalm of longing to be close to the home of our soul. But it’s different verses which call to me now:

God will hide me in God’s shelter in the day of evil…

Will God?

Do not give me over to the will of my enemies…

 ‘Stress how close the Afghan and Jewish experiences are,’ Zarlasht Halaimzai, herself a refugee from Afghanistan, and Gabriella Brent of the Refugee Trauma Initiative tell me: generations of anguish, high aspirations, the longing to give to society. The determination to survive and live.

Zarlasht tells her mother about her ‘hopelessness and despair at what keeps happening to people like us.’ She replies:

‘No matter what they face, people have to survive. We have no other choice.’

Psalm 27 concludes:

Be strong; may God put strength in your heart. Reach out in hope to God…

But it’s never been the Jewish way just to leave matters to heaven. What can we do to help and give hope to those who need it, to strengthen the determination in all our hearts?


For practical ways to help click here.




Elul thoughts from the Scottish Highlands

I’m lucky enough to be writing from the Highlands of Scotland, a land our family loves. All around is wonderful beauty. I climbed until I was surrounded by hills, beneath me a small loch, before me to the west the sun setting over the Inner Hebrides and the Atlantic beyond. The only sounds were the small streams, half hidden beneath grass and bracken, and the baaing of sheep, – a living, gentle shofar-call for Elul.

There are road signs one doesn’t find in London: ‘Slow, red squirrels’ and ‘Otters crossing’ (we’ve seen neither). Over the years we’ve watched reforested moors grow into woodlands of birch and rowan. From the water’s edge we’ve heard the curlew’s soft song, and, above, the mew of buzzards and eagles.

On a human level, there’s kindness almost everywhere. I got lost on a run across the hills; an elderly lady was hanging out washing on an isolated farm, so I asked her where I was. ‘Follow that track,’ she said, pointing somewhere into the mountains, ‘it might take you roughly where you’re going.’ I apologised for troubling her: ‘Och, no; I like talking to people.’ Then I ran back the way I’d come.

Covid has hit hard here. People are trying to make modest livelihoods with small enterprises, a vegan café, yoga classes, artworks from driftwood. We attended a talk about the Shant Islands by Adam Nicholson: from the questions, it was clear that almost everyone there was knowledgeable in some area of marine ecology, local fauna, or rewilding.

But is this, with its kindness and beauty, the real world?

In my inbox are urgent requests: Please write in support of our emergency appeal for Haiti; there are two thousand dead from the earthquake and storms on the way (World Jewish Relief). You can’t be silent about Afghanistan; we need a statement. What about the women? And those refugees who do reach the UK, who’ll help them? From all around are reports of injustice, cruelty and environmental degradation, and appeals for action at COP.

I’m reading David Olusoga’s brilliant Black and British; A Forgotten History. Some sentences about the slave trade require little transposition into now. He quotes the abolitionist William Fox, who wrote in 1791:

If we purchase the commodity we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer…In every pound of sugar used…we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh. (p. 208)

The slave-trade is long abolished (though trafficking and slavery persist). But the trade in commodities continues, often bringing little benefit to local people and leaving their environment decimated. The increasing destitution of some funds the tenuous wealth of others.

So is this really a world of kindness and beauty?

On Rosh Hashanah, just two weeks distant, we pray to the God of both creation and justice. I believe that as we do so, God calls back to us: honour my creation; make my world more just. Of course, there’s no direct voice from heaven; there’s no need. We hear the call from everywhere, from mountains and moor, from misery and wrong. We know it in our conscience and soul.

It challenges and inspires us: what can you do to make this beautiful world less cruel? How are you honouring its wonder?

What else is our life for?


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