‘I never dared think I would see your face again’: how many people who have endured long years of enforced absence from those they love have echoed these words of Jacob to his son Joseph after twenty-two years of separation. How many more people who yearned for the sound of a beloved voice, whose memories sometimes comforted and sometimes taunted them, were never privileged to utter such a sentence because life’s cruelties afforded them no such opportunity.
Last Sunday we consecrated the tombstone of Greta Seligman. She came to this country on a domestic service visa, probably in 1938 or ’39, one of twenty thousand young women to do so before the war. Because she spent so many years in institutions and had been suffering from Alzheimers before she died, it’s proved impossible to ascertain from where she came or what her life story was. There were no relatives or friends at her funeral, only three charming people from Jewish Care, and myself and my son.
The notion that her grave would remain unmarked was unthinkable; I would have felt like an ally to those who, from Hitler down, forced her from her family and imposed upon the next seventy years of her life such trauma and such grief-filled loneliness. I took advice on what to have inscribed. No one knew her Hebrew name, so we wrote ‘Here lies buried Greta, daughter of Abraham and Sarah’, to include her in the parentage of her people. Below, we put ‘God is her portion’, because she inherited no parental home and no children inherited her and yet she belonged to the sacred family of all life. In between we wrote: ‘Fleeing the terrors of Nazi Europe, she came alone’. Below that we added:
and all the parents
who with selfless love
sent their children to safety
in an unknown land.
Bloomsbury House, which helped ensure that the girls had placements, produced a leaflet called Mistress and Maid. It advised the latter to ‘adapt yourself as quickly as possible to your new surroundings’ but warned employers that ‘many of these girls are trying to forget their terrible experiences before they found shelter in this country’. What they were certainly not trying to forget were their families. Most spent whatever spare time they were able to extract from a twelve hour working day and what money they could save from their meagre allowance knocking on every door in the desperate hope of obtaining visas and saving their parents from the narrowing encirclement of persecution and death. Few were successful.
A year ago I was present at the unveiling of a monument in Hoek van Holland to commemorate the children of the Kindertransport, most of whom embarked here for their voyage to Britain. ‘It was such a mercy that England took us in’, said one of the Kinder, ‘and such a cruelty that parents and children were separated.
I was recently in touch with a man from the Congo who saw his mother for the first time after a quarter of a century, years which included many losses. Before meeting her he wrote that he was praying to God to give him the wisdom to bring courage to his mother, and that he hoped to see her happy once again.
What can we do, who are blessed to see each day at least some of those we love, to stop tyranny imposing such suffering upon so many people whose dreams are the same as ours?