I don’t know my paternal great grandfather’s ethnicity, but the trail of his history has all the hallmarks of him being Jewish. Across the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, he traded leather and shoes from Russia to England. Between the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, when violent anti-Semitism rose, and the first revolution of 1905, he sensed the change that would eventually shake the world and left for England.
Arriving at Southampton with my great grandmother and two young children, they settled in the East End of London, where my grandfather was born in 1900. My great grandmother died there and is buried in Bow Cemetery. My grandfather moved to Glasgow, but his father and brother stayed and eventually went back to what is now Ukraine, and although kept in touch were not heard from again after the Germans swept through in 1941. Whether he was Jewish or not will remain a mystery, but I know from my Jewish father-in-law, and of course from reading the history, that such migrations were very common.
I once worked in Whitechapel, and would love hearing the sound of the muezzin calling people to prayer at the East London Mosque. It was previously a Synagogue, before that a Huguenot church; a great symbol of the ebb and flow of different migrations to London, before people fanned out to different parts of the UK. Rachael Clyne’s two poignant and evocative poems (from her pamphlet, ‘Girl Golem’) echo my own family experience during the massive disruption to the world, and especially Jewish people, in the sixty or more years between 1880 and 1945.
She shows her proximity to the horror in ‘Mine is Not a Holocaust Tale// rather one of those whose kin turned right/ instead of left. Only a great aunt, who worked/ for Coco Chanel, ended in Auschwitz’s ovens,/ and great uncles liquidated by Stalin, which,/ aged seven, I thought meant turned into soup’. She goes on to say how such horrors are experienced by too many people, from all different backgrounds. ‘As if gypsies, Lakota and bison, gorillas/ and black lives don’t count, or a Palestinian/ and tiger have no claim. As if Tatars did not burn/ as fiercely when thrown into engine furnaces/ en route to Siberia.’ Then in, ‘Leaving Odessa’ Rachael tells of a trip to the city and the life of her grandmother Sonia, whose father died in a debtor’s prison before paying what he owed. ‘Just a baby in her mother’s arms, she was forced to repay his debts./ It would take a revolution to forge a different future.// I wait for the Moscow train, knowing that under my feet/ was once a debtor’s prison where Sonia was born’.
Rachael says of this experience: “Grandpa Kokos was supposed to come from the Tatar tribe, called Khazars who converted to Judaism in Medieval times. He and Grandma Sonia were involved in the 1905 Menshevik revolution & he once told me he had to look after a bomb, which I imagined as a Desperate Dan cannonball. Great Grandmother travelled with a friend to Moscow for Lenin’s funeral & had their clothes stolen, while sleeping in a railway station. Her son, another great uncle, died in prison after a foiled attempt to assassinate the Tsar. So, I have revolutionary history!”
I’m unsure how brightly modernity and enlightenment shine these days. It is too easy to be despondent and desperate about this increasingly fractured world. And I’m afraid, I find it hard to end on a note of hope; but that may be down to my own inability to see it. The only hope one can have is the belief, we are living through another terrible ‘blip’ in history; and that the oligarch’s, despot’s, racist’s, sexist’s, and yes capitalist’s days are numbered. And that will be because Jewish, Muslim, Christian, as well as people of other faiths and those who are secular like myself, will not allow it. We will see. Shalom.
RACHAEL CLYNE, from Glastonbury, is a psychotherapist and poet. She has published self-help books and articles. Her collection, Singing at the Bone Tree concerns our relationship with the wild (pub. Indigo Dreams). Recent anthology: #MeToo. Journals incl: Tears in the Fence, Rialto, Under the Radar, Shearsman, Lighthouse, Interpreters House. The two poems published here are from her new pamphlet, Girl Golem, (pub. 4Word Press). Its themes are childhood, family heritage and a sense of being other.
You can hear Rachael read Mine is Not a Holocaust Tale, here
Mine is Not a Holocaust Tale
rather one of those whose kin turned right
instead of left. Only a great aunt, who worked
for Coco Chanel, ended in Auschwitz’s ovens,
and great uncles liquidated by Stalin, which,
aged seven, I thought meant turned into soup.
Others took boats to Hamerrika, Hinglaand
snipped their way through pogroms,
tailored suits for the rich, waged war
behind net curtains, changed names,
learned to blend into suburban walls.
Holocaust clings like a false reputation
and a childhood spent practising for next time,
reading the entire war-section in the library,
learning to hide under floorboards,
play resistance fighters.
Holocaust is not my middle name.
As if gypsies, Lakota and bison, gorillas
and black lives don’t count, or a Palestinian
and tiger have no claim. As if Tatars did not burn
as fiercely when thrown into engine furnaces
en route to Siberia. As if the flame
of a Yahrzeit* candle discriminates,
as it sputters through a day, remembering.
*a memorial candle lit on the anniversary of someone’s death
Grandma Sonia learned early how to finish a sentence,
the one her father left her. He died before his term was up.
Just a baby in her mother’s arms, she was forced to repay his debts.
It would take a revolution to forge a different future.
I wait for the Moscow train, knowing that under my feet
was once a debtor’s prison where Sonia was born.
Now it’s an old Soviet terminus; its plaques to men with sledgehammers,
queue for the loo and a woman who hands me correct rations of paper.
On the long green train, a steward in perky blue uniform
brings glasses of tea. I settle into linen sheets, watch TV soaps.
From the train, I see grandma leaving her homeland,
her husband in his fine astrakhan hat, her own baby in her arms.
I think of how her roof became my ground, how debts are paid
when migrant tales become a holiday destination.
I am free to catch the train home.
*Great-grandfather died in debtor’s prison. Tsarist law, forced next of kin to finish the sentence. The Revolution destroyed such places, later building Odessa’s railway station on top of the site.