A Jerusalem Childhood

'One of my most vivid memories, though, is the weekly visit from "the Arab with the eggs", as we called him. The arrival on our doorstep of this mysterious figure never failed to thrill and terrify me. There he would stand, wrapped from head to toe in layers of what looked like grey blankets, his swarthy face barely visible beneath his Arab headdress'

Miriam Gross

My mother, though Jewish, was not a “Jewish mother”. Quite the reverse. She never in her life cooked a meal, as far as I am aware. She was reserved and austere. She disliked all displays of emotion. She often criticised and rarely praised. She was not in the least maternal. I was her only child, but she had wanted a boy, as she often told me — and others in my hearing. In her opinion, most women were frivolous and intellectually inferior. She was a short, slim woman with cropped hair and very good legs. She wore elegant, mannish clothes and glasses. Despite all this, she seemed to be very popular among her peers and she was attractive to men. How otherwise could she have captured my handsome father? When I was in my twenties, she became a high court judge in Germany.

I was born in Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. My parents had met there (my mother was married to someone else at the time), both having left Germany in 1933 soon after Hitler came to power. My mother, who was half Russian and half German, had had to abandon her legal studies in Berlin when the Nazis decreed that Jews could no longer practise law. My father (who was ten years older) had chosen not to work for the family retailing business and was at that time already a successful lawyer. He was exempt from the Nazi ban because he had won an iron cross in the First World War. However, he had defended a Social Democrat, accused of being a communist, in a high-profile court case: defending communists, whether you were Jewish or not, also disbarred you, under Hitler’s new rules, from continuing as a lawyer. Not that he would have stayed in Germany. Both my parents, like many German Jews who could afford to start a new life, left their families behind and set off for Palestine. They married there in 1937.

Neither of my parents were Zionists. On the contrary, my father’s wartime experiences had put him off all forms of nationalism. My mother, too, was at that time doubtful about the idea of a Jewish state. But they wanted to live in a place where Jews were free. Nor were they religious. In common with many German Jews, they did not observe Jewish customs or traditions in any shape or form. Throughout my childhood, I never once entered a synagogue — I barely knew there were such places — and I was brought up in total ignorance even of the most basic tenets of Judaism. 

I have often wondered what effect, if any, such a totally secular upbringing has on the development of character. Secular people have never seemed to me less good or kind or honest than believers. But then of course we are all brought up in a Judaeo-Christian culture, so there’s no way of telling what we would be like without it. Equally, though I’ve always been aware of a “God-shaped hole”, religious faith of any kind seems to me to be completely irrational and self-deluding. Would I have felt differently if I’d had a religious upbringing? Impossible to know. 

When he arrived in Jerusalem my father — whose family owned a department store in Meiningen, a small town in Thuringia — set up what became the largest women’s fashion store in Jerusalem. All the installations for the store were shipped in from Germany (which was still possible in the early 1930s), with the help of my father’s brother, who was at the time running the family business. The large glass panes for the shop-front windows were transported from Belgium and apparently caused much trouble by breaking several times.

Our name, May, was carved in stone above the entrance of the shop in three scripts — Roman, Hebrew and Arabic — and the store thrived. Even the Queen of Jordan sometimes shopped there. So did the Emperor Haile Selassie and his entourage, for whom a meal was specially cooked on the premises. Jerusalem was very much smaller in the Thirties and Forties and this large store has now become one of the city’s average-sized banks.

Meanwhile, in 1938, when news from Germany became more and more bleak, my father travelled back to his home town to help bring out his brother and his mother. His brother had already been sent to Buchenwald (at that stage known as Ettersberg). He had been warned on the day before Kristallnacht by members of the town’s SA (Hitler’s brownshirts) — some of whom were husbands or lovers of non-Jews who worked at the store — that something awful would happen during the night. The perpetrators would not be the local SA but members from other areas who did not know the Jews personally. He would not be harmed, my uncle was told, if he offered no resistance. All Jewish men (at this stage only men were targeted) would be put on lorries and transported somewhere. This was exactly what happened. 

My uncle, dressed in his warmest overcoat — it was a very cold November — was placed on a lorry and taken to the camp. He later gave his coat to the town’s elderly rabbi, who had also been arrested.

But it was still possible to get people out of the camp if one could afford to pay the considerable sum of 1,000 marks. So my uncle was able to come back. He and my grandmother (my grandfather had died some years previously) sailed on the last ship to leave Germany for Palestine.

My mother, too, went on a journey back to Berlin to persuade her parents to leave and live with us in Palestine. They declined, arguing that things would surely improve. She never saw them again. Although she didn’t talk to me about it, I know that for the rest of her life she felt that she had not tried hard enough. Many decades later, when she was in her nineties, senile and disoriented, my mother would often suddenly ask: “But where are my parents?”

A lifelong regret and a broken promise: Miriam Gross’s mother, Vera

In Jerusalem, we lived in a large flat above the shop. My father and his brother ran the business and my mother did the accounts. A succession of cook/housekeepers, usually Arab women (I had had an Arab wet-nurse — breast-feeding was not something my mother could countenance), would look after me in the daytime, though my mother would appear from time to time to ensure that her strict rules were being observed. During mealtimes, for example, I often had to hold books under my arms to make sure that my elbows weren’t sticking out. If I didn’t finish my spinach at lunchtime, it would be served up again for supper. The Arab ladies cooked European food.

Before I started school, I spent a great deal of time playing on my own or following the housekeeper around listening to her complaints. Two other children, sisters who were about the same age as me, lived in our building but I was not allowed to play with them. They were deemed unsuitable by my mother. She did not consider their Polish family to be sufficiently cultured or respectable. But I remember these two girls, whom I never properly met, more distinctly than many later friends. We used to call to each other, and throw things to one another, across our respective balconies. People often assume that only-children are spoilt — and at some level that may be true. But what chiefly impressed me about these sisters was that there were two of them. How lucky that seemed.

Not that my childhood in Jerusalem was unhappy. I recall frequent trips to the city’s best ice-cream parlour, holidays at the seaside resort of Netanya (now a large town and latterly the site of several Palestinian suicide attacks, most notably the Passover massacre in 2002), whizzing around the shop on my tricycle, being cosseted by the shop assistants. One of these later married Victor Weisz, the brilliant cartoonist known as Vicky, who emigrated to England in 1935.

Best of all, I remember an annual excursion to pick flowers with my adored father. He would take the day off — presumably with the aim of putting in what is now called “quality time” with me (though at the time I felt that we were covertly conspiring to get away from my mother) — and we would walk hand-in-hand to the outskirts of Jerusalem. We would clamber across rocky hills looking for the long-stemmed wild cyclamen, pink, purple and white, which sprang up every year in the patches of dusty earth between the rocks. We were always alone on this stony high ground, with its panoramic view of the old city surrounded by olive groves. Even as a small child I could sense that there was something historic and mythical in this landscape, or so it seems to me now.

Apart from our housekeepers and the westernised ladies who shopped at our store, I didn’t meet many Palestinian Arabs. Hostilities between Jews and Arabs had considerably increased as more and more refugees from Nazi rule struggled to enter Palestine. After 1939, when the British government decided to limit Jewish immigration, relations between Jews and the British Mandate also deteriorated. I remember many days on which curfews were imposed on the city. I would spend hours leaning out of our window, throwing sweets and chewing gum to the friendly British soldiers patrolling the street below. I very rarely entered the Arab parts of the city, as they were regarded as too dangerous.

One of my most vivid memories, though, is the weekly visit from “the Arab with the eggs”, as we called him. The arrival on our doorstep of this mysterious figure never failed to thrill and terrify me. There he would stand, wrapped from head to toe in layers of what looked like grey blankets, his swarthy face barely visible beneath his Arab headdress. He would reach deep into the folds of his garments, fumbling around in the area of his chest until, at last, he would pull out an egg, covered in bits of straw. Sometimes he produced two eggs. Eggs were a rare luxury in those wartime years, and he would charge for them accordingly.

I spent three unremarkable years at a school in Jerusalem. The children mostly came from the same kind of immigrant families as I did, though there were some who had lived in the city for generations. I made many friends and was even allowed to bring some of them home — though not others. Nearly every day when I came back from school my mother would insist that, when I’d finished my homework, I spent a further hour learning to read and write in German, using the Roman alphabet (as opposed to the Hebrew script taught at school). This seemed to me tyrannical, but it was to make life much easier later. 

I don’t think my father had much say in my upbringing. Or if he did, he was overruled. The contrast between my parents’ characters could hardly have been greater. My father was at all times good humoured and tolerant — I never heard him say a cross or unkind word. Nor did he ever complain about anything. He inspired the loyalty of everyone who had dealings with him. Meanwhile, he put up with my mother’s criticism and disparagement with saintly patience.

Adored and tolerant: Kurt May in German uniform in the First World War

My parents were never very happy in Palestine. They did not succeed in learning to speak Hebrew fluently, they didn’t like the heat, and they both, particularly my father, wanted to resume their legal careers. Above all, they abhorred the terrorist tactics that, since the end of the war, were being deployed by Jewish underground organisations against the British. The bombing of the King David Hotel — site of the British Mandate’s military headquarters and central offices — in July 1946, was a turning point. As it happened, this imposing grand hotel had been one of the highlights of my parents’ social life — they went dancing there every Friday night.

I had no idea, when we set sail for Europe in 1947 (I was nearly nine), that I was never to return — or not for more than 30 years, as a tourist. Presumably my parents thought that to explain that we were emigrating would upset me too much; or perhaps they feared that I would cause trouble. In any event, I was not given the chance to say goodbye to my school friends or to anyone else. After a brief stay in Switzerland, my parents travelled on to America and to England to look for work and to decide where they wanted to settle. Meanwhile, I was sent to a Swiss boarding school, in Celerina, a small village in the Engadine, where I was overwhelmed by so many new impressions and demands that I soon began to forget my old life — and also the Hebrew language. 

I spent almost a year there but very few things from this time stick in my mind. One is the way packages were instantly confiscated. Every month my parents would send a parcel of sweets from America (sweets were still in short supply all over post-war Europe, even in Switzerland). This was opened by the school’s headmistress and its contents locked away in a cupboard. Once a week the cupboard would be opened and the sweets equally distributed in tiny portions among all the pupils. Needless to say, I found this very distressing. Another memory is being told the facts of life by a Russian girl called Ludmilla. She was known as a bit of a fantasist, so I didn’t for a moment believe the disgusting proceedings she described to me. Still, it must have made an impact, otherwise why do I remember the occasion so clearly? I also recall being overwhelmed by the power of Schiller’s poetic drama Don Carlos, brilliantly read aloud by the literature teacher. And I certainly haven’t forgotten how, when my parents finally came back from their travels, I wasn’t allowed to see them because they arrived at the school after bed-time. Although I could hear them, I had to wait till the next day. 

Meanwhile, my father had been offered an important and very suitable job. The United Restitution Organisation (URO), an Anglo-American legal aid society to assist and compensate the victims of Nazi persecution, was set up in 1948, initially as a five-year project. But in the course of the next decade it grew into a worldwide enterprise, with offices in 19 countries and 1,000 staff. Over the years, it assisted and recompensed more than 200,000 people, mainly Jews but also Gypsies and others. My father, who became its director general in 1955, ended up working for the URO for 40 years, until the age of 91. “There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who may never have heard the name of Kurt May,” said his obituary in the Independent, “but who are heavily in his debt. He conducted his work with a passion for justice, an unshakable belief in the right to demand the redress for wrongs and always maintained the greatest degree of dignity in the pursuit of this cause.”

There was, however, a downside to this job: the URO’s central offices were in Frankfurt and, needless to say, the last thing my parents had intended was to return to Germany. They reluctantly agreed, partly because of what they thought was the temporary nature of the job, and partly because they would live there among Americans — as part of the post-war American occupation of south-western Germany.

What they couldn’t accept, though, was that I should be brought up and educated in Germany. My mother had already visited England to search for a suitable boarding school for me. At that time, the kind of girls’ schools she looked at — Roedean and Cheltenham Ladies College — did not accept pupils who spoke no English. So she opted for Dartington Hall, the co-educational, experimental school in south Devon based on the “progressive” ideas of the American philosopher John Dewey.

My mother was not a great believer in the unstructured approach to education or in the laissez-faire attitude to learning that were Dartington’s guiding principles. But she liked the school’s teachers, and its setting — as well she might. The teachers were for the most part idealistic and interesting individuals some of whom had, for one reason or another, opted out of conventional society. Quite a number were refugees from Nazi Europe or Franco’s Spain. The setting was the beautiful 1,000-acre estate, with its grand medieval Hall, which had been bought in 1925 by a philanthropic couple — the Elmhirsts, a Yorkshireman and an American heiress. One of their objectives was to build a school in which children would be free from the constraints and restrictions of the educational system that prevailed at the time. 

I was just ten when my mother deposited me at the “Middle school” — a set of ultra- modern, Bauhaus-style buildings that housed children aged from six to 13 — and left me there to sink or swim. I sank, temporarily, at least. Most children at that age are not particularly kind when someone who can’t speak their language and doesn’t know how to play their games or follow their routines is placed in their midst. Even if they are kind, it is a miserable experience to be completely cut off, without a single family member or trusted friend in the whole country to speak to or confide in. Every evening I used to hide in a corner of the school’s large, dark gym so that I could cry without being seen.

My mother would occasionally phone from Germany — a very difficult procedure in the late 1940s — and I would beg her to come and take me away. She always told me to hold on a little longer because things were bound to get better. Finally, she promised to fetch me if I was still unhappy after six months. When this longed-for day arrived, my mother broke her promise. She didn’t come — and I never really forgave her.

Looking back now, as a mother myself, it is incomprehensible to me how any parent could abandon a child in this way — unless there is absolutely no other choice. It’s true that the perception both of childhood and of parenthood in Western societies has greatly changed over the past 60 years. At that time, it was regarded as normal for parents who could afford the fees to send their children away for weeks on end at the age of eight. Innumerable memoirs of unhappy childhoods attest to this. 

Since then, we have become much more sensitive to the vulnerabilities and needs of children and to the importance of parental support. Nevertheless, I think my isolation, first in Switzerland and immediately afterwards in England, was unusually heartless even in those days. But then my parents were faced with a cruel dilemma, created by Hitler and anti-Semitism.

As it turned out, my mother had been right. Not long afterwards, I began to speak English fluently, I made many friends and became a fully integrated member of the school. Very occasionally my parents came to visit me, but my chief memory of these occasions is the embarrassment I felt because of their German accents. For the next eight years I was very happy at Dartington Hall. So much so that, during the holidays which I usually spent in Frankfurt where I had no friends, I used to wait feverishly for the beginning of the next term. As my parents had hoped, I had become thoroughly anglicised.

Much, perhaps too much, has been said and written about the importance of  “roots”. Does being uprooted from the country in which you were born and where you spent half your childhood, leave some indefinable emotional scar? I don’t believe so. In any case, it has been a commonplace occurrence ever since the beginning of the 20th century. I did, however, have a rather surprising experience when I went to see the Hollywood epic Exodus, sometime in my twenties. Before this very mediocre film begins, while the credits are rolling, the wide screen is filled with some beautiful panoramic scenes of Jerusalem and its surrounding hills and olive trees. As soon as I saw this, I unexpectedly burst into tears. 

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