From Mainz

The phone has just gone and it’s made my day. I didn’t learn that I’d won the lottery, that David Grossman had agreed to speak in our Synagogue, or that another congregant was about to approach me for help in choosing a good Jewish name for their newly acquired hound.
I picked up the receiver and heard the deep voice of an old man; it took me a second to realise that he was speaking German. For a moment I was bewildered. He sounded exactly like my grandfather, or one of their friends, refugees from Germany almost to a person. They had always spoken with that same resonant timbre. That world came flooding back over me:  there I was, a little boy, then a teenager, offering tea and cakes, and the presence of these old people, their adherence to a culture swept away yet half-recreated in drawing rooms like these, filled me with a strange security, surrounded by those lives which had been so insecure.
The gentleman gave his name and added ‘From Mainz’. Then I realised; it was Magister Pfarrer Mayer. ‘I’ll be showing your group the Chagall windows when you visit’, he said. He didn’t do that so often anymore, he continued; at over ninety he was no longer such a young man, ‘But I hope I’ll make it’.
I had met him just once, a brief encounter which has often made me think of  T. S Eliot’s line ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’. I’d just completed the first day of my walk from Frankfurt to London. It was late evening and I was exhausted. But I’d been taken off at once to a reception in the new synagogue. ‘This is the Magister’, my host said, steering me through the guests, ‘He was the man who persuaded Chagall to make the windows. He has a Jewish background himself’. I recall a kind face; I remember a surge of perplexity: Chagall, minister of the church, Jewish background? Before I could formulate a question he and I were moved in opposite directions by the crowd.
I learnt afterwards that the stained glass windows in St Stephan’s in Mainz were the last Chagall ever made. He was 94 at the time. Unwilling after the Holocaust to have any such connection with Germany, he had been persuaded to the task as a work of reconciliation.
‘It’s extremely good of you to agree to show us round’, I said on the phone. ‘No’, he replied, explaining that nothing brought him more happiness than bringing people together. ‘A hundred thousand visitors come to see those windows each year.’
I found my booklet on the history of St Stephan’s in Mainz, that town famous in the Middle Ages for its Jewish learning, where the community was destroyed once in the First Crusade and a second time in the Shoah. It fell open on a picture of the northern window: an angel reading and flying at the same time, a menorah, a man meditating on a book, – unmistakable Chagall. Beneath it were the words, ‘Your word is a light to guide my feet’, a favourite verse.
I tried to imagine the Germany of those years: on the one hand, wounds, the memories of murders, loss incalculable and irreparable, the slow telling of stories, silence; on the other, shame, humility, also denial, disavowal, also truth. What must have been the substance of the conversation between Magister Mayer and Chagall: ‘Let your art guide us; let it teach us how to be, together…’ When I meet Magister Mayer I shall certainly ask. I’ve been given a second chance.
‘I’ll speak in German’, he continued down the phone, ‘and you’ll translate’. I’ll do my best. One’s life, after all, is an effort at translation, from what the heart knows to what the mouth says and the hands do.

Mistress and Maid

‘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:

Also in memory of her parents
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?

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