Daniel - A Life by Dorothy Davies

EXTRACT FOR
Daniel - A Life

(Dorothy Davies)


Daniel - A Life

I was born on the 16th November in the early part of last century in Potsdam in Germany, the last child of David and Eva Goleznovitch.  There were already three children living in the small flat above the pawnbroker’s shop: David Junior, Rosa and Solomon.  David was five years old when I arrived; Rosa and Solomon were three, the only twins in the family and a source of great interest to the relatives.

Of which there were many.

My earliest memories are of the small flat: just three rooms and crude toilet, those rooms endlessly crowded with loving aunts and uncles, grandparents in thick black coats trimmed with curly fur, of hats with flaps in the winter and yarmulkes for the men the rest of the time.  Beards I remember, thick, curly, long, straggly, multi-coloured beards and the smell of kosher cooking and perfume mixed with the mustiness of clothing and footwear from the shop below.  I remember too the loving embrace of the female relatives, of looking up into faces filled with love and kindness, of smiling eyes and smiling mouths, of cooing and daft words as any child hears for the first two years of their life. 

I remember love.

I remember love with sadness, for the whole family was love, no one fought in front of the children, no one swore or even looked angry in front of the grandmothers, both revered ladies with corseted bodies and strict views on the behaviour of children.

I remember love with sadness for it is something I have sought ever since.

The male relatives were just as kind in a different way. They patiently spent time with a little one, showing me over and over how to tie a bow in a lace, how to button trousers and shirts, how to make something out of a piece of wire, infinite patience, infinite kindness, infinite love.  Grandfather Moishe was my favourite, he of the longest whitest beard and kindest bluest eyes and wrinkly face and large squared off hands set with rings and a huge mole that always fascinated me.  I would touch it with disgust and yet unrestrained curiosity and he would smile and say:

“Such intense concentration from the little one, Eva, one day he will be a scientist or a doctor, for sure.”

But grandparents were always wishing the finest professions for the grandchildren: was not David Jnr about to become the finest lawyer Potsdam had ever seen, even though he was not yet ten? Was not Rosa a nurse of some kind and Solomon a doctor and they not yet done with running wild through the fields not so far from our street of tightly packed houses and shops, of roofs which leaned into one another as if having conversations about the strange people who lived beneath them.

For we were a strange, motley lot indeed!  Father worked as a tailor, stitching the clothing for the fine men who came to order, to be measured, to choose the cloth and to choose the design of a fine suit to fit a fine expensive body.  Poor Father with his poor eyesight and cheap reading glasses so he could see the thread in the needle’s eye and the holes in the buttons to be stitched on tight, for no gentleman needed a button falling off his new expensive suit.  Father would hunch all day over the aged sewing machine, watching the dark material slide by, held together by even darker thread, none of it doing his eyes any good.  Poor Father, even now I think of him as Poor Father, so small, round shouldered from the hours of sitting behind the table or the machine, sewing, sewing, sewing.  He was a meek man, almost colourless, with a gentle smile and the quietest of voices. 

And the man who owned the tailor’s shop, the man who hired and worked to death those who would labour for him, the Russian immigrant, Ivan Ivanovitch, was loud and boorish and arrogant and demanding and Poor Father and the other poor wretches who needed the work, cowered under the weight of words thrown at them day after day from the large man with the huge body and even huger voice.  I think Poor Father was even quieter than he would have naturally been, living and working under such a loud man made him that way.

He would come home with fingers raw from strong thread, from stabs with the needles, with an aching back and tired eyes from the machine and the dark cloth.

I ventured once into the shop where he worked, surrounded by rolls and rolls of dark cloth, some with stripes, some with patterns, most with darkness woven into it, saw the lantern hanging from the ceiling, the single light by which they all worked.  I saw the men, cowed by the voice of the Russian who held their lives in his hands, for work was not plenty in the early 1900s for Jews who were immigrants; we might have been second generation German but we were immigrants for all that, for we could not trace a perfect German line back through our ancestors. 

I do not know where we came from originally, perhaps even from England, for we had English names handed down to us through the family: were there not Aunts and Uncles Rosa, Solomon, David, Daniel?  I do not know for I did not ask.  I thought I was German, I thought myself a German Jew, living in a small town in Germany, a country which was my whole world.

I repeat, I saw the men cowed by the voice of the Russian.  The men were all small, like my father, round shouldered, meek of face, quiet of voice, quick of fingers - and desperate for work.  I smelled the smell of misfortune, of despair, of gratitude, of subservience and I hated it.  I never went in the shop again.  If Mother sent me to ask Father for something, I would stand at the doorway and call to Mr Ivanovitch that I needed to see my Father for a moment - and I would only keep him for a moment.  It was a rare happening and Mr. Ivanovitch knew my Mother would not ask unless it was an emergency.  One time it was when Rosa fell the entire flight of stairs and needed a doctor and she wanted to ask if we had the money - oh the thought of those burdens!  Another time David was in a fight in school and Father was needed to talk to the teacher and sort it out, for it was a dangerous and difficult time.

For those who believe the problem with and for the Jews started in the Second World War, think again.

The tailor’s shop was in a row of similar shops in our main street.  Dark brooding buildings, they were, with overhanging balconies like huge eyebrows and the windows above like eyes, watching every move a child made. I was a fanciful child even then, living on Grimm’s fairy tales and other myths and legends that filled my heart with delicious fluttering fear. 

Two doors along from the tailor’s was the milliners where Mother worked, stitching the pretty hats and scraps of silk and feathers women wore on their heads, for it was a time when no woman uncovered her head, especially if she was Jewish. There was a demand for scarves, for hats, for coverings of all kind.  So Mother and Father worked two doors away from one another, but a million miles in difference!  For Mother worked with light, colourful, pretty things: ribbon, silk, artificial flowers and that in turn reflected on the shop itself, which was lighter, more welcoming, more encouraging, for ladies needed coaching, enticement, incentives to come and buy, where the men just bought dark dour suits to cover their bodies and look respectably dull at the synagogue.  Here we were welcome, provided we did not touch and Frau Heinemann would smile at us - for Rosa was often with me, she being enchanted by the colour, the styles, the scraps of silk and feathers - and offer us dark tea and hard biscuits.

Other ladies worked there, only two or three, the number changing as the shop’s fortunes fluctuated: Fraulein Himlin, a big lady with tight clothes and rolls of fat but motherly and ever welcoming, (Mother would often wonder aloud to Father why she had never married, suspecting some romantic tragedy in the past and embroidering it in her mind), Frau Bittenhau, a small lady with sharp eyes, sharp nose and chin, a model for all the witches in all the fairy tales I learned to read, and Frau Kleinser, who never seemed to stop laughing.  It was Frau Bittenhau who lost the job when times were hard but somehow was always asked back when things were good again.  Mother was so quiet, so good at her work, so inventive with her styles and her ability to make a hat look just that little bit different from the one she had just made that Frau Heinemann would never let her go.

Mother.  The word alone brings tears and a lump I cannot bear.  So beautiful a lady, in body and in soul.  Pale face with the gentlest of smiles, pale hands with the gentlest of touches, could I say a pale voice for it was gentleness itself, ever soothing, ever there.  She was golden haired, my mother, the beautiful gold she passed on to me, for all the other siblings were dark of hair and dark of eye.  I was always the different one, from birth, through the life I had ahead of me.  And it was this very difference which made a clown of me, for to clown, to tumble, to joke, to laugh, to play tricks, meant attention getting and I was ever in competition with those very siblings, they being older and more intelligent than I, they being first and second born, and how grandparents dote on the firstborn grandchild!  The last, although loved, is and always will be the last.

 

Memories.

Hot days in summer when the dust rose choking around the cluttered clustered houses and shops, when the rooms were like ovens and we could hardly breathe for the thickness of the air.  Father and Mother at work, David supervising us younger ones, keeping us entertained with games of spinning tops, wooden trains, carved farm animals and other delights of childhood which we treasured.  All toys were shared except for the rag doll Rosa carried with her at all times, the doll I hated, for its laughing face seemed at odds with the world we lived in at times.  I envied the closeness of the twins, envied the fact they communicated with no more than a look, a touch, that they shared common thoughts, spoke at the same time, stopped at the same time, even sat across the table from one another would begin to eat the same thing at the same time.  David was amused, from his oh so superior position as head of the house, when our parents were at work: I just felt insignificant and lost at times, being the last one, the baby of the family.

Summer days, playing with friends in their gardens, drinking home-made lemonade, eating fine cakes and Jewish food from the local baker and kosher shop.  Sound of Hebrew as natural to me as German, hearing it from the parents of friends, from their friends who came calling with their children, one huge happy friendly family, all trying to make a living in a hard time when work was scarce and we Jews were not universally liked. Still they laughed and dreamed and spoke of the good days ahead.  I spent most of my childhood, the early years when I did not understand, waiting for these good days to come, wondering what treats they would bring poor Daniel, the baby of the family, the one who had the cast-off clothes and the toys the older ones no longer wanted.  I remember the laughter, the closeness, the word ‘dream’ often mentioned, and ‘the good days to come’.  Ah, we are a people who have lived on dreams all our history.

We still do.

Autumn days, leaves changing, falling, coolness and chill mornings, sunshine, my own coat with a curly fur collar to snuggle into against the coldness, everyone muffled up against the cold to come.  One sharp morning and out came the winter coats, scarves, gloves and boots.  Mother would insist on our wearing our winter clothes even when it was not really so very cold, not yet.  Just that lovely Autumn chill. 

Such a performance to go out!  All four children had to be dressed in winter coats, hats with flaps for the ears, gloves, scarves, boots.  Rosa always wanted to look good, was always in front of the mirror, admiring the dark curls and dark eyes which everyone said were her special features.  Poor Rosa, no one had the heart to tell her she would never turn heads, would never win any competitions, would never attract whistles down the road.  We knew it, we all knew it, from a very early age, for poor Rosa was Solomon’s twin and looked just like him.  Square face, thick neck, thick hair, typical Jewish nose, very unfeminine.  But I have to say here and now I loved Rosa more than either David or Solomon, for Rosa was full of heart, full of giving, full of energies of life which spilled over to all around her.  I don’t believe she saw herself then as anything but pretty, never thought of herself as anything other than feminine and who were we to disillusion her?  Oh my dear sister, it has been good to be reunited with you!  You know what I speak is the truth, you have never been truly blind to your own shortcomings, but that is only the face you present to the world. Inside you were always the most wonderful of people.

Rosa was, as I said, like Solomon and was ever anyone more aptly named!  Always solemn, always serious, everything judged and thought about from the first.  Give Solomon a toy and he would consider it from every angle, study the lines, the shape, the movement of it, set it down and stare at it as if waiting for it to perform on its own.  A strange boy, with serious, strangely logical thoughts.  Not for Solomon the joys of fairy tales and myths and legends, he was ever with his head in books which told of facts: science, geography, history - I once asked him if history was all fact, were not the historians writing what they considered to be history? This was when we were much older and able to have such conversations.  It was at some family gathering or other and he was again with a book under his arm, some hefty tome of philosophy.  He looked at me as if I had said I had met the Messiah.  Then logic took over and he shook his head.

“If I can’t believe in the written word of these men, there is no point in my reading any written words ever again.”

Oh my brother, my dear beloved brother, I am glad you did not live to see what men who had written history made of the new history being written - using the blood of the Jews, the Poles, the unfortunates, to do it.

The David of the Bible went out to slay a giant with no more than a stone and a sling.  My brother David was well named, for many times did he try to take on giants, with or without a sling, and sometimes won and sometimes lost.  He looked like a Jew, for we as a race have interbred to some degree and ended up with a sort of stereotype, all the women are small, round and fat with prominent noses and dark hair and all the men have hook noses, long beards and dark hair.  David, of course, did not have a beard at that age - but to fit the stereotype he grew one as a teenager, much to Mother’s mixed feelings, for he looked so much like Grandfather Moishe it was not true. He also had Grandfather Moishe’s temper and could not stand back when the taunts of ‘kike’ and ‘Jewboy’ were thrown at him at school or outside the gates, where no teacher bothered to intervene for then it was nothing to do with them.  Not that they intervened much at school either, we can see, looking back, how the ‘standing back and letting the Jews take it’ was taking part of their minds and souls already.

I diverted: talking of my dear sister and then my brothers, diverted from other memories which was where we started. 

Winter.  The cold of Potsdam in winter.  Biting cold that penetrated every layer of clothing to bite the bones and nip the skin and chill the blood as it raced frantically around the body in an effort to warm it.  Oh the snows of winter in Potsdam, huge mountains of it, everything blanketed and the men with shovels clearing the roads for people to walk, struggle, fight their way through the freezing clinging mass of flakes to shop, to visit, to go to work.

And the visiting was so important at that time!  Hanukah approaching, time for celebration, for family togetherness and the joy I remember, the light-heartedness I remember, the happiness of being part of such a big loving family. 

But when the festival was over, the cold seemed to grind us down, pulling at our hearts and our souls, the relentless cold bitter grey skies, the cold bitter teethed wind, the cold bitter fingers that crept under the many layers of clothes and caught at the skin to chill and to bite and to say, ‘you will never escape!’

There were many deaths in the winter in Potsdam: many an old person found frozen beside a meagre fire, for food was expensive and scarce, companionship hard to find for who would venture out on such a bitter night to talk to someone who was not family?

Yet Spring, with all its glory, was coming, even if the long lonely days dragged out in coldness denied that fact at times.  Mother and Father would go to work, struggling through the snow, the cold and the rain to earn the money to keep us.  David, Rosa and Solomon would go to school and I would be left to be cared for by one or other of the countless aunts, uncles, cousins, even neighbours if no one else was around to take care of little Daniel. 

That is why I said the winter days were lonely.

There is a cadence, a rhythm to the days of the week, the weeks of the month, the months of the year which in turn are regulated by the seasons. There is a cadence in the lilting sounds of Yiddish and even of guttural German, a rhythm caused by the higher female voices and the lower gruff male voices, countermanding one another, counter mingling with one another to produce a sound I will never ever forget.  Any more than I can forget the smell of kosher cooking, or the hot lemon tea in glasses with silver handles, or the thick milk drinks given to us children to make us strong and healthy to withstand the Potsdam winters.

Everything comes to an end, even the terrible winter days finally gave way under the influence of Spring: slowly the grass reappeared from its long hibernation, trees you would have thought dead slowly emerged into life again, each bud and leaf creeping slowly from its shelter as if afraid of what it might see.

And as the leaves emerged, so we emerged from our winter clothes into the lighter ones of the warmer days. Windows were opened again, the sweet smell of nature came surging through the place, driving out the cloying winter smells of warm wool drying, of ash and coal, of bodies long kept too close together.  It was only when it all changed did you realise how cloying and close it had all become.

Spring is still my favourite time of year, when everything is new grown and new blown and the life seems to surge through everything and everyone, as if the buildings took on new life, as if the streets were made of rubber, you could bounce along them.

And in the Spring the persecutions began again.  In the winter the ones who hated the Jews were locked inside their homes as we were, afraid of the cold, afraid of the slippery streets, afraid of those who lurked in dark alley-ways to pounce on the unaware, those who might have gold to steal. In Spring we were all out again and those who hated us would walk the streets, calling out their vicious names, sometimes chalking their vicious comments on the walls. And I, coming up to being five years old, saw this and did not understand.

Now I do.

By the time I reached five, my brother David had been at school for some years.  I envied his ability to read anything he picked up, envied his easy way of handling money, figures, knew facts and data about the world around us, could quote all sorts of things at me from history or geography.  I felt insignificant, stupid, useless in some ways.  Rosa and Solomon had also had some schooling but were not as advanced as he, who had the brain of quicksilver for facts and figures anyway, always did.  Kindly relatives would pat my head, so different from my brothers and sister’s, and say ‘ah but our Daniel is different, he has a different gift’ as if I could not read or write and never would. I knew some words, could spell my name, could write my address, I had the beginnings of letters before I went to school.  So I would hide around chairs and jump out on them, take their cups of tea before they could pick them up, hide their books and papers, play tricks to make them laugh.  And deep inside knew the moment I got to school I would be a model scholar, I would study hard and learn well and be as good as David any day of the week.