She used to live as a house-guest in a huge Victorian mansion looking out over Blackheath. In school holidays, I would often meet her in Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand, and after a day out in London we would take to the river at Westminster Pier and cruise down to Greenwich. I would stay for a few nights, made a great fuss of by a ménage of respectable, elderly ladies. There was a revolving summer house in the garden, and a vast kitchen table at which exotic foods not familiar in north London were prepared. There was a grand piano to play, or play hide-and-seek under. She loved music, so preferred the piano to be used for the first purpose rather than the second. Later, she moved to a flat near our home. I was a teenager by then, more able to talk about the things she cared about: music, art, serious television. We didn’t have a TV at home so watching hers felt slightly deviant behaviour. She was only ever interested in the news and documentaries. She was an avid reader of the Manchester Guardian and mistrusted the right-wing press.
There was nothing she was not willing to do with her grandson. Her idea of a well-spent day out was to visit a museum or art-gallery, and we did a lot of that: she believed that education mattered greatly, even in leisure. We went to concerts, opera and ballet. We went to the cinema. Then I discovered train spotting, so we spent long hours on the platforms of London termini where I was oblivious to wind and rain: she must have been bored as well as frozen and must also have questioned its educational value but was too kind and tolerant to say so.
We talked much, for she was a thoughtful, reflective woman. When I felt the first stirrings of Christian faith, she encouraged me to pursue the path I was beginning to walk. And when as a student I began to consider being ordained, she encouraged me in that too. Although not a woman of explicit faith, she had a sympathy for it that I responded to. In a way, I look on her as a kind of midwife of my vocation, though she would not have seen it that way herself. But I sensed that she had lived and that I had things to learn from her experience of life which had been hard and painful.
Her story, briefly, is this. She came from a wealthy middle-class liberal Jewish family in Cologne, and when she married my grandfather they moved to Düsseldorf. He owned a shoe-making factory. They had two children, my mother and her elder brother. With the rise of Nazism, my uncle and mother were sent to England until, as everyone hoped, the crisis was over. However, as things got steadily worse for the Jewish community, my grandparents realised that their only hope was to flee for safety to Holland and begin a new life there. Other members of the family were not so fortunate and ended up in Auschwitz. With the German invasion of the Netherlands, they took refuge with a courageous Dutch family who took them in and hid them underground until the end of the war. Shortly after the liberation, my grandfather died. So she decided to follow her children to England where she settled in the early 1950s.
I only slowly pieced together this story, for understandably we did not talk much about the Holocaust in my childhood: the memories were just too painful. But later on, I began to grasp how significant were two insights this experience had given her and which I now see have been central to my own formation as a Christian. The first was about living with difference in generous toleration. Whether ‘difference’ means ethnicity, religious faith, sexual orientation, gender or disability, you cannot be a Holocaust survivor without having had to confront this lesson, and hopefully, learn it. And the second was about suffering. When you have walked with suffering as my grandmother did during the Nazi era, it changes everything. You belong to the ‘fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain’ as Albert Schweitzer (one of her heroes) put it. And that has to inform the way you think about the world, life, faith, everything. All this, I think, lay at the heart of her wisdom.
She died in May 1987. At her funeral, the coffin was surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She would have been proud. We read our personal choices of poems and prose, and listened to Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, a piece of music she had loved all her life. I wish I had given a tribute, at least acknowledged the 37 years in which she had been a generous,wonderfully kind, and wise grandmother. I have waited 25 years to write this. I hope it is not too late to say thank you. And thank God.
EL: Requiescat in pace.