My Jewhood 001

In my previous post, About me & this blog, I basically introduce this topic. My Jewhood (I think I’ve coined this word because I need a term more accurate & inclusive than Jewishness, or Judaism) began to affect my life very early. I often think not only how lucky we are but also how amazing it is that I’m here, & with this family, so far from where I was born & from the other countries I’ve lived in; how strange to think that none of this could have happened if I wasn’t Jewish, first by birth, and then by choice. I think that two of the most crucial changes in my life were determined by my being a Jew by birth (& not by any choice of my own): First it made me a refugee when I was three, when my parents fled Warsaw with me in September 1939 on the day the German planes began dropping bombs there. Seven years later it gained my mother and me immigrant status and enabled us to arrive in Australia in November 1946 as part of a quota of Jewish refugees from Shanghai, and consequently, after a few more years, to become Australian citizens. Which is what has made it possible for us all to be living here. (& the next most crucial change in my life, my marrying Nitza, could not have happened without a chain of choices I made that also began with the determining fact of my being a Jew by birth: my choice as a child to accept and embrace my Jewishness, and more choices in my teens that led me to emigrate from Melbourne to Israel in 1959 to become a member of a kibbutz. But this is already another sub-topic, matter for a later post.) We fled Warsaw because my father could see at least some of what was coming. He obviously understood that the Germans would probably occupy Poland without much difficulty, and that they would persecute Jews. He knew that the Nuremberg laws defined you as a Jew if three or four of your grandparents were Jews. All four of mine were, as were all four of his and of my mother’s. An equally ethnic (or racial, or tribal) criterion would have determined my mother’s & my eligibility for immigration to Australia as part of the quota. Sponsors were required too, but to be on the list you probably had to be first accepted by the Jewish committee organizing the movement of refugees out of Shanghai, and what would have determined there would have been the rabbinical, Judaist, definition: you are a Jew if your mother was a Jew. Neither the Nazi nor the Judaist definition (which is also the criterion that enables any Jew from anywhere to immigrate to Israel/Palestine under the State of Israel’s “Law of Return”) relates to how you live, who you interact with, or what you believe. So: first my Jewhood made me a refugee. And even then, and during our long escape (months in Lemberg, and later in Vilna, until we got a Sugihara visa to Japan and a Soviet permit to traverse Russia and Siberia), indeed, not until I was seven or eight, in Shanghai, did I know anything Jewish, or see or hear anything I might think of as Jewish. I probably knew no more than the fact that my parents and I and the other refugees from Poland they mixed with were Jews, but there was nothing of what today I might call “Jewish content” in my parents’ lives or mine. My parents were Jews, but they were not religious Jews, they spoke no Yiddish, and had no little interest in or knowledge of either the Yiddish or the Hebrew cultures that flourished in Eastern Europe during or since their childhood. They saw themselves, and lived, as cultured cosmopolitan Poles, and in Warsaw probably had more Jews than non-Jews in their social milieu. My mother’s first name was Henryka. She was born in the year that the famous Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I suspect that she was named after him. She came from an even more assimilated family than my father: her parents too were highly assimilated, and her grandfather had been a famous architect who (so she wrote in her memoirs) who had been decorated by the Tsar. My father’s first name, the one given him at birth, was Benjamin, indeed a Jewish (Hebrew) name: his parents had been quite religious once, and still continued some Jewish observances (my mother in her memoirs wrote about a few rare occasions when she had gone with my father to a Friday night dinner at his parents’, and his mother had lit Sabbath candles) — but he had left all that far behind him, and had also chosen a new first name, Bronislaw (which, translated, means “Defender of the Slavs”!)…

A surviving pic of my parents, with friends, in a garden in or outside Warsaw, quite possibly before I was born: my mother in the center seat, showing off her legs; my father, with his black mustache, on her right; the men in white -- for tennis?

A surviving pic of my parents, with friends, in a garden in or outside Warsaw, quite possibly before I was born: my mother in the center seat, showing off her legs; my father, with his black mustache, on her right; the men in white — for tennis?

All I know about  our flight from Warsaw in 1939, and also about my parents’ life & my life there before that flight, I know from my mother’s memoirs, which I have typed from the notebooks she wrote for me and am including in my blog. More to come…

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