An English Girl Finds Palestine
A Personal Memoir
When I was young my family lived in a suburb of London called Blackheath. This was rather a pleasant, old-fashioned part of London, not as sooty as it sounds. There was a broad heath where you could fly kites or run with the dog, and beyond the heath was Greenwich park, full of formal flower beds, grass, and chestnut trees, sloping down to the Thames. My grandmother and grandfather had lived there most of their lives in a tall elegant terrace house overlooking the heath. I had been born in what used to be my maternal grandparents’ house in the same road a few yards away, and Blackheath was scattered with great uncles, aunts, and cousins from both sides of my family. In 1936 when I was thirteen we returned there to live, and my father bought an ugly red brick house in a side road off the heath to be near his parents.
My grandfather was a little man with a dry sense of humor. He lived to be ninety-eight and attributed his longevity to his daily ten-minute walk to Blackheath station where he caught an electric train to Charing Cross. From there he walked to the Marlborough Street court where he had been the magistrate for so many years he had become something of a character. There were frequently items in the newspapers about his remarkable age, and he always cut out and collected these brief notices, thoroughly enjoying his limited fame. His best known encounter was with D. H. Lawrence, who refers to him in two poems, “Thirteen Pictures” and “Auto-Da-Fé” as “. . . a magistrate whose stale sensibilities hate everything that’s well,” and “. . . the Grand Inquisitor . . . in Marlborough Road . . .”
Oh he has put his pince-nez on, and stoutly
has stepped down to the police-station cell
Where my darling pictures, prisoners, await
his deadly frown and his
All my pretty pictures huddled in the dark
awaiting their doom at the hands of Mr.
I loved my grandmother’s house. Her drawing room was full of yellows and white, a yellow sofa with yellow silk cushions embroidered with black dragons on it, Chinese paintings, and a carved Buddha on the white mantelpiece. As I was the only girl in two generations my grandmother always noticed what I wore, would finger the material of my dresses, remarking as she did so on the weight and texture of the cloth. Yellow must have been her favorite color, because I went to see her in a yellow cotton frock one summer, and it pleased her very much. She was still autocratic and full of nervous energy at eighty, gardening, decorating the house, and embroidering more dragons.
I loved the spacious 19th-century calm of her house, the well-ordered Victorian serenity in which everyone knew has place, and no doubts appeared to exist. I was glad I was an English child and could feel safe from all the disasters, wars, and horrors that overtook people in other countries. The bombings of civilians in Abyssinia and Spain were in the news, but these were distant happenings in Europe and Africa. Nothing like that could happen to us, to me or my family. We had, I was sure, a certain God-given immunity from the dreadful things that happened to other people, and nowhere did I feel more secure or certain that things would continue as they always had done than in my grandmother’s house.
She had two maids in frilly caps called Kate and Constance, who worked in the basement kitchens and pantries and slept at the top of the house on the fourth floor. Meals came up from the kitchens in an elevator in the hall, which fascinated my two brothers and me, and were then carried into the dining room. The dining room was darker than the drawing room and was hung with portraits of my grandmother’s and grandfather’s parents and grandparents. My grandmother’s people, the Polands, were the interesting ones with big noses and clever faces. They had originally been Jewish fur merchants from Regensburg in Bavaria who had settled in the City of London in the 17th century and formed a guild that had grown into the Skinners Company. Once a year the company held a banquet in the City to which my father and all the numerous Poland relatives went, treating it as a vast family reunion.
But the biggest attraction of her house to us children were the trains at the bottom of the garden. It was a long, narrow, damp, walled garden with tall trees and mossy paths, and from the wall at the very bottom we could see, quite close, the railway lines and a procession of suburban trains entering and emerging from an underpass on their way to and from the London stations of Charing Cross and London Bridge.
My father was a barrister and had his chambers in the Inner Temple building overlooking the Victoria Embankment in the City. He never became even moderately successful, and what money he did make was eaten up by public school fees for the three of us and all the expensive extras that boarding schools required. So he was always trying to save money and cut down on our living expenses. My mother bore the brunt of this continual economizing and never had any fun, went out, or bought herself new clothes. Of course we could have been sent to any number of good day schools or grammar schools with low fees But sending your children to public schools was such a criterion of class standing in England of the 30′s, so essential to keeping up appearances and maintaining the correct accent, that it would have been a real admission of failure on my father’s part to have sent us anywhere else. As long as we were at the right schools he had his self-respect, and felt he was doing his duty, no matter how strained and tense things were behind the scenes. The unreality of this situation bothered me. I felt acutely the difference between the way we lived and the conventional wealthy backgrounds of most of my school friends, and I wished so much that we were more like them.
My father was unsociable and lacked the warmth necessary to a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, without which success as a lawyer was more difficult for him to attain. As he saw his contemporaries at the Bar become well known through the years, he became increasingly bitter, frustrated, and anti-Semitic. I think that his particular brand of anti-Semitism arose from two sources, both connected with his work. On one hand were the successful Jewish barristers who had been knighted or made K.C.’s, such as Sir John Simon who had had rooms across the hall from my father and had shared a clerk with him at one time. At the other extreme were Jews in court for bankruptcy, Judgment Debtors, whom he had to cross-examine to find out exactly what their assets were, and whether or not they owned a house. One of my clearest memories of those days was my father’s imitation of how these Judgment Debtors spoke, their broken English, sly evasiveness, and efforts to conceal ownership of property under his questioning. His impersonation was funny, and my brothers and I would laugh and ask for more, and he, delighted at our amusement, would continue with gesticulations: “No, ze house is not mine, it is my vife’s”; “No, ze furniture is not mine either, it is my cousin’s”; and so on.
My elder brother was four years older than I, and at this time was working in London as an articled clerk with a firm of solicitors, cousins of the family. My younger brother and I were still at boarding school, and it was the school holidays, which coincided with my father’s legal vacations, that were so boring and dull. Although we had a cook she was more of a hindrance than a help to my mother. Her continual moods and tantrums needed constant mollification, and she complained alternately about my younger brother and me. One week it was “Lady, that great girl in and out of my kitchen all the time.” Next week I would be in favor again and allowed to sit and talk at the kitchen table, while she went on about what a rude and lazy boy my brother was. My mother, harassed between our demands and my father’s insistence on complete seclusion from neighbors’ children or casual friends, engrossed herself in organizing an unending succession of very good meals on the small amount of housekeeping money allotted to her. Food was cheap in those pre-war days, margarine was something for the lower classes, and we ate large and delicious meals. My mother and I went shopping in Lewisham High Street, a crowded commercial and working-class district where there were wonderful street markets and food bargains. It was down the hill from our house, and I enjoyed the bustling pavements and outdoor stalls where fish, vegetables, hardware, and flowers could all be bought in the streets.
All through 1938 my father and elder brother would sit on at the table after meals, discussing at length the Conservative politicians, Dr. Dolfuss and the annexation of Austria, the Sudetenland and Chamberlain’s vanity and stupidity at Munich. My brother felt particularly strongly about the Czechs, as on one of his vacations he had gone by Polish boat from London to Gdynia, port for Danzig, and thence to Prague. He sent me a picture postcard of some national monument or church from Prague, I remember. He knew what Masaryk had done for Czechoslovakia and could not believe that this tiny country where he had stayed so recently would be betrayed and invaded. He thought the British public stupidly complacent for being so pleased with Chamberlain after the Munich agreement, as he shouted from the windows of Downing Street the fatuous remark, “I bring you peace with honor,” “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”
That year I was allowed to travel up to Charing Cross on the train by myself for the first time, and feeling very grown-up and independent I met a school friend and we went to a movie in Leicester Square and had tea together afterwards. I was beginning to appreciate London. One of my cousins shared my interest in the ballet, and he occasionally took me to Sadlers Wells and Covent Garden. I had scrapbooks filled with pictures of the latest ballets and dancers, Lichine, Markova, Anton Dolin, and Margot Fonteyn. During the summer of 1939 my parents told me I would have to leave school that year to enable them to continue financing my younger brother’s education. This news upset me and school seemed doubly pleasant that summer. We acted Shakesspeare’s The Tempest outdoors, worked hard for School Certificate, played tennis, and swam. Even the air-raid drills carried out at night appeared something of a lark. When the school year was over toward the end of July, I joined the rest of my family for the summer holidays. We went, as we had the previous year, to an isolated part of the Cornish coast where we rented a summer cottage. To fetch the mail and newspapers we had to row across an inlet of the sea and then walk through fields and woods to the village post office. When I heard from my father, who had fetched the newspapers, that Hitler had invaded Poland and war was imminent, I was sitting in the rowboat in the middle of the creek, idly letting the boat drift, talking to my brother, and not making much effort to row. That moment in the boat is fixed in my memory as ending my childhood, and the beginning of a different sort of life.
After that summer the family dispersed. My elder brother went away to join his regiment on Salisbury Plain, my younger brother went back to school. My father, much to my disappointment, refused to let us return to our house in Blackheath, and he and my mother and I stayed with relatives in the country waiting to see what was going to happen. Nothing did happen, no bombs dropped. In Guildford, where we eventually rented a house, I worked in a canteen and lived at home, where I found my father more and more difficult to get along with.
One evening he came home from work to find the household in chaos, and no dinner ready. My mother and a French lady who sometimes gave me conversation lessons were cutting out and making a dance dress for me all over the dining room table. He was extremely annoyed and lectured me, “The whole house is upside down because of you! The young men of this country are making sacrifices and it’s time the girls did, too.” The very sight of my lovely taffeta dress irritated him and he certainly did not want to hear about when I was going to wear it, where I was going, and with whom. The day ended in tears and recriminations.
The government in 1941 started to conscript women between eighteen and thirty-five. Early in the year I joined the Woman’s Royal Naval Service and soon found myself at a naval air station at Lee-on-Solent near Portsmouth. This was a large organization intent, among other things, on training young pilots straight from civilian life to fly the clumsy and obsolete Swordfish, Albacore, and Walrus aircraft. These planes were always falling apart on the ground, as well as in the air and on the sea. My job consisted mainly of sending messages by teleprinter to the Admiralty and aircraft factories listing defective parts, and explaining the whys and wherefores of the latest crash. The girls I worked with were largely the same race- and class-conscious types I had known at school. It took more than a war to make a dent in the rigid English class structure, and, as the navy loved protocol anyway, the whole thing was perpetuated in a host of small subtle ways. Girls who had been typists before the war joined the navy as “writers” and typed from nine till five. Coding and ciphering were supposed to entail a degree of intelligence only produced by a good education, so the daughters of admirals, commanders, and the upper classes generally found themselves in suitably genteel company, only once removed from the sixth form they had just left. Their ideas were more uniform than the navy-blue clothes we wore, and they never doubted they possessed an innate and unassailable superiority which allowed them to tolerate in a kindly way foreigners, Jews, and the lower orders. At Lee-on-Solent I lived in a stripped-down requisitioned hotel on the sea front, the Pier Hotel, in which half the girls at least were from lower-class homes; in this situation the elite smoothly sorted themselves out into little segregated pockets, eating at the same tables and sleeping in the same rooms.
Service life, so intimidating at first, acquired its own monotony after a while: rifle shooting practice on the airfield designed to help us repel an invasion that was hourly expected and never came; the air-raid siren and nights spent under the illusory protection of a flight of stairs; my constant preoccupation with the candy ration and what it could be traded for—half a night watch for two bars of chocolate; the asphyxiating rubbery smell of gas masks worn for half an hour a day during working hours; and the care with which I lined up for a small yellow ration sheet before going home for two days, which entitled my mother to buy at her grocer’s a square inch of cheese and margarine and enough sugar for a cup of tea. All seemed as normal as the light of day after a year and a half. My secret ambition in those days at Lee was to go to New York, wearing my hair in a sophisticated topknot.
One day in November 1942 the yeoman came around to everyone in the signal office with a form on which we had to fill in “Yes” or “No” to the question, “Are you willing to serve overseas?” I was feeling fed up with Lee-on-Solent that day, wrote “Yes,” and forgot all about it for three months. The following February the same yeoman came up and told me I would shortly be going abroad. My father was incredulous when I told him I would be leaving England in three weeks, and seemed to think I had acted wildly in putting down “Yes” on the forgotten form.
After a few days at home I went to a training center in London for a week. In Golden Square, a dubious neighborhood between Regent Street and Picadilly Circus, an overseas draft of three hundred Wrens was orientated, inoculated, and outfitted with unlikely looking sun helmets and a tropical uniform. The importance of security, loyalty, and not mixing with the natives was impressed upon us. It was a lighthearted and friendly week with girls from all over England, and we happily looked forward to a long stay in Ceylon, where, it was generally agreed, we must be going. Late one evening in an exaggerated atmosphere of secrecy we went in buses to Kings Cross Station, caught the night train to Gourock on the river Clyde beyond Glasgow, boarded a troopship, the former P & O liner Strathaird, and sailed in convoy with four other liners and some destroyers to an unknown destination.
For some reason I was the twentieth person allocated to a cabin for sixteen, so four of us slept on the floor. This was uncomfortable at first as the ship heaved up and down, but later, around the equator, it became a real advantage, being much cooler and more airy than in the bunks. Every morning I stacked my bedroll neatly in a corner ready for captain’s rounds, and every night I unrolled it again like a little prayer mat. It was rough in the North Atlantic in February and I was seasick. The worst part was being herded regularly on deck for lifeboat drill, fully and correctly dressed and stuffed into bulky lifejackets. Vomiting in angles of the stairs, I would slowly ascend in line to the fresh air on the main deck, where we stood lined up like dummies staring at the huge waves. Although I was allowed to break ranks to throw up at the rail, the wind usually blew everything back onto my companions. I had never known such cold bleak misery and only wished to be home again.
In six weeks the convoy had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and stopped in Durban for three days. Half the contingent disembarked there and I found a vacant bunk at last. It was a relief to know I did not have to stay in South Africa. From what I saw of Durban, it appeared like one large prosperous country club whose white members enjoyed a leisurely social round. After a three-day orgy of candy, fruit, and overeating in restaurants ashore, we sailed north and headed for the Red Sea. The barren red cliffs of the Gulf of Suez closed in on the ship; Biblical and ageless, they were unlike anything I had seen before. At Port Tewfick in Egypt I went ashore and the next day arrived in Alexandria.
I always seemed to end up either living or working by the sea front. In Alexandria I worked in the basement of a flower-surrounded white villa, near the sea. This basement, which might have once been a kitchen I suppose, was now a highly efficient naval signal office in the charge of an irritable warrant officer, Mr. Porter, who had been in the Middle East too long and wanted to return to his family. He was skeptical of our abilities, did not believe in having women in the navy, and silently patrolled the room peering over our shoulders ready to pounce on any inaccuracy or mistake. He scared me for month’s. The villa was headquarters for Flag Officer Levant and Eastern Mediterranean. I never met this august gentleman, only his minions. All the big decisions and talk went on above, on the first and second floors. We in the basement merely sat surrounded by enormous code books endlessly coding and decoding.
The Allied invasion of Sicily and then Italy were the major excitements of 1943, and as the Egyptian summer descended like an oven there was no time for anything but the pressure of work and trying to survive the heat. I worked a system of watchkeeping in which I went on duty at midnight every fourth day. Keeping awake with strong tea and sticky Egyptian cakes, I worked through the night until five or six o’clock, when the sailors in the office announced it was “scrubbing out time” and would we please get out of the way for half an hour while they mopped the floor, tidied up, and made more tea. Tired and bleary-eyed, I would wander out through the flower garden, down the road, and onto the sea front, the curving white corniche which runs the length of Alexandria. The city, still sleeping, showed up at its best in those early mornings with a clarity and freshness missing in the dusty daytime. Underlying the charm and fascination of this flamboyant city was a sense of ancient evil.
My elder brother was with a Gurkha regiment in Burma, and I had written to him from the ship—I knew he had made the same voyage as far as Durban a year previously. In September, two months before he was killed, I had a cable from him for my twenty-first birthday and a letter:
I am glad you enjoyed the voyage out. Durban is quite pleasant for a few days, but not a very exciting place to be stationed in. It should be very interesting at Alexandria, though probably very hot. . . .
The last week here has been rather difficult. We have had some very jungley marches this last week, including climbing up to 8,000 feet. I saw leeches for the first time—caterpillar shape with rubbery bodies which stick on to you and suck your blood—we saw no Japs though. . . .
I wish I was in your part of the world, but I shall come back that way sometime. . . .
After living in Alexandria for over a year I heard there was a possibility of a few coders being transferred to the small naval base at Haifa in Palestine. I asked to be included in this draft if possible, and finally it was settled.
We left Egypt in June. The train from Alexandria traveled all day across the flat delta country, through ancient delta cities. Tanta, Benha, Zagazig, their names still recall the heat, and dust, and flies, the oppressive timelessness of Egypt. In Ismailia at sunset the smell of cooking oil rose from the streets, and just the other side of the canal, at Kantara, the train stopped to take on water before crossing the Sinai desert. It was a hot, gritty night journey across the desert, sitting wedged in our compartment, but with morning came a cool wind and the excitement and exhilaration of a new land. Lemon and orange groves lay on either side, their shiny leaves brilliant with reflected light; everything looked fresh and green. On Lydda station, where we ate big Jaffa oranges for breakfast, all the signs and notices were written in three languages, Hebrew, English, and Arabic.
From the railway station at Haifa we drove up through the town and on up and up along Mountain Road until the Mediterranean was spread out below and on the breeze was the resinous scent of pines. On the top of Mount Carmel I lived in a converted hotel with white balconies and a magnolia tree which partly blocked my view of the sea. Nearby, at the intersection of the two roads down into Haifa, was a small square with half a dozen stores along one side, a bookstore, and a fruit shop where I used to buy grapes. Looking through the books in the bookstore, I felt conspicuous and peculiarly out of place as the local residents called out “Shalom” on entering the store and stood about chatting to each other as though they were very sure that they belonged in Palestine. On Saturdays, when the stores were inexplicably closed, I stood among groups of people out strolling, and, listening to the German and Hebrew voices, I felt excluded, as if standing on the edge of a closed circle dedicated to one overriding idea and indifferent to all else. Walking along the roads on Mount Carmel past the new apartment buildings, I noticed the number of doctors, specialists, and lawyers living in the neighborhood; it seemed as if all the ability and intellect of Europe had been gathered into this one small area. People from all the cities of Europe were around me. I had never been in Europe, but on Mount Carmel it seemed very close, seen through Jewish eyes as somewhere to escape from.
Every day the naval truck took us to the dockyard, swaying down the hill at breakneck speed. The Palestinian sailors who drove had to assure us repeatedly of their skill before we got used to that precipitous descent into Haifa. Inside the dockyard destroyers returning from the Greek islands were tied up alongside the jetty just outside the signal office, and the crews would relax by sunbathing on deck. They told us how the starving Greek children on Khios and Kythera had eaten all their food and canned milk, and how some shore batteries in the Aegean were still firing on them. Messages came daily announcing the recapture of another Greek island from the Germans, and by October 1944 Greece was liberated and the islands free.
At first the only Jews I had a chance to talk to were the civilian radio operators at the naval base, who kept to a system of watchkeeping like ours and worked in an adjacent office. They were an interesting mixture. One of them, Fritz, always looked tired and discouraged and said the warm climate did not suit him. He liked to talk about Stettin, where he used to live. Another, who had been brought up in a kibbutz, told me how corrupt and unattractive city life appeared after the settlement, which for him, he said, was the only way to live.
A favorite expedition on days off was to set out early and hitchhike along the coast road to Tel Aviv. And although we never did anything in particular there, except walk along the sea front or sit in cafés eating ice cream and watching the people, I liked the dazzling newness, the optimism and vitality of the place, unbelievably different from those gray, withdrawn English towns I had known. Once I went to Tiberias, and in the still, airless humidity below sea level, explored along the edge of the lake through overgrown deserted citrus orchards, where I picked warm grapefruit off the trees and ate them as I walked. That was the longest summer, stretching out from Egypt to Palestine. It was summer when I swam at Alexandria in March, and in November it was still summer with swimming on beaches below the hills near Haifa.
Sometimes I went by bus to Herzl Street, and on one occasion went on from there into the old Arab quarter of Haifa. Here I might have been back in Egypt. There were the same Arabs smoking bubbly-bubblies, strange music, decaying houses, broken balconies and stairways, the whole picturesque jumble which fitted in so well with what English travelers to the Middle East always hope to find. Jewish Haifa with its stark white architecture contrasted dramatically with the Arab town and seemed divided from it not by a few hundred yards but by centuries.
A friend of mine, who before the war had lived with an elderly Hungarian Jewish couple in Manchester for several years, discovered that their nephew Karl lived in Palestine and was in the Jewish Brigade. He occasionally came to Haifa on leave and knew a number of people there. One evening he took us to the apartment of some friends of his from Vienna, the Steifs. I wanted to talk to Mrs. Steif, but she only spoke German and most of the conversation was carried on by Dr. Steif, a lawyer, who was an emphatic and voluble talker. He started each conversation by saying “I vill tell you somesing” in accents like those impersonations of my father’s years ago, which conjured up a childish image so different from the kindness and hospitality of the Steifs. Listening to them talk about Vienna, Budapest, Zionism, and Israel, I began to understand something of the tremendous significance of this land to the descendants of generations of city dwellers from Europe. I often went to see the Steifs and met their young daughter Marietta. I still have a photograph of her in her ballet costume, smiling on their balcony in the sunshine.
Later on I met a Mrs. Koehler. I happened to sit next to her at a concert by the Palestine Orchestra one August evening. She was a large, friendly-looking person and, as we waited for the concert to begin, she complained of the heat in the crowded theater. I attempted a few German words in reply and then we talked some more about the music. We were both on our own and she seemed as pleased to have found someone to talk to as I was. After the concert was over we waited for the same bus to take us up Mount Carmel, and she suggested that we meet at her apartment once or twice a week so she could improve her English and I my German. I saw her every week after that until I left Haifa six months later. On each of those afternoons I walked out of quarters in civilian clothes, hurried up the road through a dark clump of pines, and then turned right onto the main road. It took barely five minutes, but I always arrived at her house elated as though I had somehow escaped.
I found Mrs. Koehler thankful to be in Haifa, so glad just to be there after the years in Berlin. She was constantly reiterating what a wonderful place Mount Carmel was, like a paradise for her, she said. When I compared her to the people I had known at home with their careful, well-mannered prejudices and limited outlook, they appeared to be living in a world of make-believe. In the struggle to reach Palestine there had been no room in her life for pretense, and to me she seemed more real than anyone I had known before.
In the middle of the afternoon while we were talking, her two boys would arrive home from school. Sun-tanned, laughing, and full of life, they were always amused to hear me speak German, and Puzi, the younger, would collapse into giggles at my accent until his mother, who treated our language sessions very seriously, sent them out to play. They looked such healthy, self-reliant children that I could easily understand Mrs. Koehler’s enthusiasm for the kind of education they were being given, in which part of the day was devoted to practical work in the citrus groves and fields of the settlement. Peter, the elder one, was able to explain to me some of the farming problems on the coastal plain where his school was, and Puzi knew the names of all the wild flowers that grew on the slopes of Mount Carmel. They started a collection of pressed flowers, clearly labeled in an album for me to take back to England, leaving lots of space for the flowers they planned to find and send me after I had left.
My last weeks in Haifa were full of regret at the thought of leaving. “Wunderbar, wunderschön” was how the Koehlers described Mount Carmel, and in the clear light of January and February it was more beautiful than ever. The warm hillsides were covered with red and purple anemones and fragile cyclamen. The pervasive sunshine shut out everything except the immediate present and intensified my feeling of detachment from home. I felt closer to my friends on Mount Carmel than to my family whom I had not seen for two years, and I hated the thought of leaving.
Nineteen hundred forty-five was the first year I was old enough to vote, and I was determined to return to England and oppose my father by voting Labor. I was there for the General Election in June, but unfortunately the voting lists had been made up during my absence overseas and my ballot had been sent to my father who was sup posed to determine my preferences by mail and mark it accordingly. He simply assumed that my preferences were the same as his and there was really nothing I could do about it, except wait five years for the next election, by which time I was married to an American who let me vote as I wished.