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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.