Carrying the past

When I’m talking to friends and acquaintances from war-torn countries, I don’t ask why or how they escaped. After many months, one friend shows me a video of their bombed home in Damascus. A young man I’ve just met alludes to a nightmarish journey through Libya. Others never say a word to me.

Most refugees will arrive traumatised, many suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With mental health services stretched to breaking point, how many get the support they need to overcome their trauma, while simultaneously navigating our broken-down asylum system?

If wounds don’t heal, how can people carry on? I look to memoirs from my family’s refugee background for some answers. My second cousin Irene May has written a beautifully evocative piece about her mother, who escaped the Polish pogroms as a child, and the impact on her own early life. Here is the first part. [1]

A Shtetl Vision by Irene May

At the age of seven, my mother Esther Goldberg left Poland, empty-handed, with her mother and older siblings, on a boat to England. It was 1920: the First World War had recently ended, and they were to be reunited with her father, Moshe, who had left for England shortly after her birth to join his brother Mordcha. On arrival, Esther was introduced to her father and uncle, at first not knowing which was which.

An illustration of Jewish migrants arriving from Russia and Poland in the late 19th or early 20th century (The History of London)
An illustration of Jewish migrants arriving from Russia and Poland in the late 19th or early 20th century (The History of London)

Transported from afar

Whenever I asked my mother about her childhood, a few words would reluctantly slip out, almost by mistake, as if she herself had slipped out by mistake. I sensed her discomfort, which carried some unspoken shame which I didn’t understand. As a young child I couldn’t accept how she could have blocked out her early years, as if they didn’t exist. It was as though she was pretending she had been transported from afar, landing with her mother and siblings in Brick Lane in London’s East End, with nothing, turning up to be born at the age of seven.

 Migrants hard at work in the East End, Jewish Museum London
Migrants hard at work in the East End, Jewish Museum London

The tunes of youth

When I was around the same age myself, I recall how my world was full to overflowing, my memories vivid. I wanted to hear about my mother’s first seven years. If they were barely referred to, did that invalidate my mine too? Are those magical years a secret? If she had no memory or language to describe the powerful impact of new experiences, then, I asked myself, what had become of her soul? I have no doubt that my mother’s family carried in their memories hundreds of familiar well-loved tunes – prayers, psalms and poems sung daily from the liturgy.

Did Esther dance to those haunting old tunes when she was young? In the early years after their departure from Poland, when the language of their new refuge was incomprehensible, Hebrew and Yiddish articulated all the vicissitudes of life. The lyricism and nuances of these multi-layered languages, the familiar cycle of continuity and familiarity, must have provided some stability and comfort in a challenging world.

East End synagogue, 1948, Jewish East End
East End synagogue, 1948, Jewish East End

I have many memories of my early years. Music was always part of our family experience, and the key to my own soul. Dancing made me feel alive long before my head was filled with words. With so much sheer delight in the rhythm of the cycle of life around me – the seasons, the festivals, the natural world – it seemed the most natural desire to share such childhood delights with those of my mother.

How could childhood not be memorable? I needed to fill the gap left by her silence. I wanted to reach her soul and dance with it.

Memories of the shtetl

Only one strong memory alone remained clear in my mother’s mind, their one possession – a goat that lived in their yard. My aunts told me how my grandmother had baked bread for students who visited Rabbi Israel Yaacov Tapola of Sadowne. She mentioned the mikvah next door, the water for physical purification, where as children my mother and her siblings warmed their feet, and the bake house where challa was collected every Friday afternoon. How my grandmother’s mother had sat with young girls teaching them to read Yiddish and Hebrew so they would understand, and appreciate, both the prayers in the prayer house and the Yiddish stories shared in the home.

Mikvah in Lublin, Poland, photographed 2007, The Jewish Magazine
Mikvah in Lublin, Poland, photographed 2007, The Jewish Magazine

The lost world of Poland

In a cupboard drawer we had a few old black and white photos. We also had large books full of photos of the lost world in Poland on our bookshelves. The faces in my family photos and in those books looked exactly the same to me, as if they were all my family. I must have absorbed these images, as I looked into the unsmiling faces of my grandparents, as I went off to play.

Together with the books, all these photos had a powerful impact on me, as I stared into the eyes of people huddled together, saw the skeletons of buildings destroyed by pogroms and treasured books thrown on to a bonfire. I took these images into my world and I identified with them in the same way as I identified with my toys.

Child beaten during pogrom in Bialystok, western Russian empire, 1906, Museum of Jewish History
Child beaten during pogrom in Bialystok, western Russian empire, 1906, Museum of Jewish History

From Polish shtetl to English garden

I picked up my little wooden houses and tucked them away behind a little wall in my garden. I carved out a small hole in a hedge, just wide enough for a little stick person to wriggle through. Then I made a little path and old stone walls from pebbles, which I heaved out of the garden earth, as if they were ancient desert boulders that had refused to move since the Biblical figure of Moses discovered them.

In one instant, Poland, a small shtetl in Sadowne, the hot dry Sinai desert, Israel, eastern Europe, western civilization, and the Middle East – myth and reality all enmeshed in one timeless journey, encapsulated in a patch of earth in my small English garden.

[1] With thanks to Irene May for permission to reproduce her work, which I have lightly edited.


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