Back to Methuselah Again by Nigel Jarrett
While growing up in the Welsh valleys, I attended a Church-in-Wales primary school, simply an establishment next door to a religious house referred to by my non-Conformist family as ‘high Church’ because geographically it looked down on our village but also because its procedures were more sophisticated than their spartan forms of worship.
All this I worked out later, but one of my most vivid experiences of being at the school, which had a public right-of-way running beside it and through its playground, was the sight of an elderly couple, a man and woman, who made their way along the path once a week after shopping in Pontnewydd, the village below. Though there were simple explanations – the man was fitter than his wife or they no longer sought comfort in proximity – it always seemed curious to me that the husband walked roughly six yards in front of his spouse. Having seen them on earlier parts of their homeward trail, I knew that this separation was established at the start and almost comically maintained.
When I asked my parents about it, they told me the couple were Jewish, so I naturally assumed that processional precedence was something married Jews observed, and this was the extent of both my parents’ information and my own curiosity. I didn’t even know what Jewishness was, though I had come across it in books at Sunday School. The important thing for me at that age was the discovery of people whose rituals marked them out as different.
Certainly, there was no superiority or disdain implied in what my parents told me, and the couple took their place with the Italian expatriates who ran cafes and ice-cream parlours in Valley towns I knew, not lesser folk but part of a proliferating kaleidoscope of humanity. (It would be easy to be naïve about this and ignore theshameful anti-Semitic riots at Tredegar and Bargoed, for example, in the early 20th century. But skin colour has given racists more immediate access to enmity, at least diverting for a while, but not mitigating, their hatred.)
By the time I had begun writing seriously, things were different. I had learned of persecution, flight and systematic massacre but was being sucked up to by prejudice, which I hope I have seen off. Could any of this be the stuff of fiction for a non-Jew? I asked myself.
Almost the first story I had published was inspired by what Graham Greene called ‘a fugitive event’: some fleeting glimpse, printed anecdote or snatch of conversation that begs to be placed in an imagined, extra-dimensional context, in the case of my story Salvias of Ravensbruck, a national newspaper ‘brief’ about a floral garden tended by inmates at one of the camps.
This I turned into a narrative featuring Mr Dombrowski, a Jewish painter and camp survivor under threat from anti-social neighbours in a block of flats. I stole the name from a squaddie who’d chauffeured me around Berlin while I was on a Press trip with the Army. (This was before the Wall came down and while Rudolf Hess was still being guarded in the jail overlooked by my barracks bedroom.
I now view the experience, despite subsequent news stories about sequestered old Nazis, the vigil of Simon Wiesenthal and other reminders, as the beginning of the decline of our collective memory of horror, at least for non-Jews.) In my story, Mr Dombrowski is befriended by a tenant in thrall to the attentions of women and jolted into an appreciation of, for want of a better description, the importunate lives of others. Unfortunately, the story ends in a conceit as Mr Dombrowski, having succumbed to an act of unspecified violence, simply disappears overnight, never to be seen again.
The trouble with conceits of this kind in fiction is that they reduce characters to stereotypes, though in a way far less abhorrent than the sort that involve demeaning generalisation. One solution is to substitute the stereotype for its opposite to prove that notions of uniformity can be confounded by making a character as prone to appalling behaviour as anyone else, irrespective of race, creed or expectation.
This was attempted in a TV play by Jack Rosenthal set in the Hasidic community and at the end exposing the principal character as a common wife-beater, an identity he had sought to conceal. Here the objection from Jews was virtually the same as that raised against blanket description conditioned by narrow-mindedness: the idea that the individual could not be separated from the mass for the purposes of specific description without the connection being made between them; in other words, Jewish men were no more prone to domestic abuse than they were to the pursuit of usury and other anti-Semitic tropes, but in fact were also as capable of assault in the home as much as they were born to the responsibilities of patriarchy and community leadership.
The Hebrew congregation of Newport, Monmouthshire, described by Sir Robert Waley Cohen in 1922 as ‘that band of Jewish workers who had become famous throughout Anglo-Jewry’, was founded almost 150 years ago. Sir Robert’s praise was for the growth and consolidation of a community that enjoyed cordial relations with others in Wales. It had built a school and a synagogue, served wider society in innumerable ways, and made supreme and lesser sacrifices in the Great War – Captain Nathan Harris, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, for example, having won the Military Cross, was mortally wounded in August 1918. It also billeted Belgian refugees and families fleeing the Zeppelin raids on London, predecessors of scores of GIs found lodgings in the Second World War.
At Newport’s Nathan Harris Memorial Hall on one occasion, over 100 American-Jewish servicemen attended a communal Seder. As a newspaper reporter, I came to know of this history by default through meeting people whose Jewishness at the time was immaterial, such as Flanders veteran Isaac Solway MM, and Harry Poloway, toastmaster to Royalty, who wisely took cover when the British heavyweight boxing championship fight at Porthcawl between Brian London and Dick Richardson, at which he was officiating as Master of Ceremonies, degenerated into an unseemly brawl inside and outside the ring.
I had therefore learned enough about Jewish communities in South Wales to attempt something different in fiction. So, in another story exploring the relationship between my own environment and a Jewish one embedded in it, I gave my main character not a violent tendency or a meeting with familiar destiny but a medical condition, and I set his Jewish family among the sort of people I had known as a boy.
St Brides lighthouse
Charabanc, inspired loosely by the outings to the St Brides lighthouse organised by preacher and headmaster Alexander Hyams, began unravelling from an incident on the night of September 13, 1940, when a German bomber returning from a raid on Swansea Docks became entangled in the cables of a barrage balloon over Newport and crashed on the home of a Jewish couple, Harold and Marjorie Phillips, killing their two young children, Myrtle and Malcolm. It was such an incredibly powerful, or powerfully incredible, image, the sort of thing one couldn’t make up, that I used it at the end of the story as an occurrence envisioned by Mosie Druiff, the epileptic boy whose malady rather than cultural background is the point of union between his family and the neighbouring non-Jews. I couldn’t have fictionalised it directly without the strangeness of truth being raised to justify a real but unlikely event. Judaic and local customs mingle in wartime, therefore, not as a source of conflict but as evidence of social diversity. Of course, there are villains; but being young, their enmity is inchoate: they have not (yet) wrapped it in spurious and disagreeable philosophy.
Charabanc throws Jewish and non-Jewish communities together to see what happens. In handing over truth to fiction, I hope to have made it and its deeper terrors more vivid. In any case, there is as much evidence for us non-Jews born in the middle of the war to understand what took place as there is a dearth of literature in which one group of people are seen in terms not only of what others think and feel about them but also how they themselves respond, and this at a time when we are still learning about others – Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane being recent examples among novels – from inside fraternities themselves, not always with a consensus among those written about.
But, if I ever forget or, worse, ignore what took place while I was a suckling infant, I had as my witness a Chepstow neighbour called Mady Gerrard, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, who has just died. We had much in common, except one appalling experience. Why would a writer grappling with Jewish awareness in fiction find himself living across the road from a Holocaust survivor? Is it because Gentile writers have failed time and again to give voice to something that, in the end, is literally unspeakable but are stalked by the embodiments of conscience to give it another try? I don’t know.
But, unknown to her, Mady inspired another of my stories, El Cid, about a famous fashion designer in New York, which was what Mady became. She ran up clothes for Dionne Warwick, Mrs Pat Nixon, Susan Hampshire, Shirley Bassey, and many others, inlcuding the silent film star Celeste Holm. In my story, an aging silent movie actress flies to Manhattan to be fitted out by my Mady character. But in the background is the legacy of personal horror, as regular communication with a survivor friend back in Hungary suddenly and inexplicably breaks down.
Readers of Mady’s self-published biography, Full Circle, sometimes asked why she had given so little space to her experience in the camps and so much to her survival and fame. She would smile and say it was a way of fixing her priorities; that the unutterable could be put in its place by the life that had triumphed over it. Mady said she and I were probably the only people in the world who knew Pat Nixon’s bra size (she told me). There must be a story in that; redolent, I would hope, of the Jewish humour to which she introduced me.
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction and the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He’s published three story collections, a poetry collection, and a novel, and has co-edited a book about Arthur Machen the journalist. He also writes for Jazz Journal, Acumen poetry magazine, Slightly Foxed, Wales Arts Review and others. His work is included in the Library of Wales’s anthology of 20th– and 21st-century short fiction. He lives in Abergavenny.
Salvias of Ravensbruck was first published in Panurge and Charabanc in New Modern Stories 3 (USA). El Cid appeared first in Wales Arts Review and was included in Jarrett’s 2019 story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? (published by Cultured Llama).