I was always an incredibly trusting child, hung onto my parents’ every word, believed everything they said even though years later, once my mind started venturing more along analytical lines, I questioned much that I had previously taken for granted, such as ‘the only good German is a dead German’. Of course, being racially Jewish and born not too long after the Camps had been liberated, Jewish anti-German bitterness was only to be expected, even from Jewish Austro-Germans. I can vividly remember standing in our North London dining room on the Sabbath watching darkly garbed people walking past the window on their way to Synagogue (which my parents virtually never attended) and unconsciously matching that image with the death-haunted tales that my parents – whose families included no Holocaust victims – had told me. Because my hard-working Ukrainian-born maternal grandfather, or Zayde, (a tailor by trade) was deeply religious, and I wanted to explore thinking beyond the materialist borders of my own household, I flirted with Judaism on a practical level, wouldn’t as much as flick a light switch on Shabbat, nor smoke (which I did in those days) or listen to music. I was defining my inner self but being a passionate lover of poetry and a potential devotee of philosophy, psychology and world religion (only as an enthusiastic amateur I might add) I was using the steps of Judaism to reach places beyond orthodox practice. Before long the open sky replaced the Synagogue’s roof and my reading ranged beyond Judaic texts to major works from disparate sources. It was my coming of age though I retain the greatest respect for genuinely religious people, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims or whoever.
All this is a preamble to a difficult and uncomfortable admission. When at school although we had no music lessons as such, a German pianist by the name of John Gunter played at our school assembly. We got to know each other well, even wrote a song together (I was 13 at the time), ‘Far from me’ which got as far as a test (45 rpm) record and a potential performance from crooner Matt Monroe. John wrote the tune, I wrote the words, the opening line ‘Here am I, just an unimportant ripple on the sea …’ I’m sure it wasn’t terribly good (my words that is) but still I appreciated the faith that John had in me. We also shared a love of Wagner and I’d go to his pad near Golders Green – later on with my wife – listening to his 78s of great performances by Melchior, Leider, Mengelberg, Furtwängler, Karl Muck and others.
Here was a German who was most definitely good, I thought, and I was right. But one day I saw Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda spectacular The Triumph of the Will and I have to admit it thrilled me to the core. I can admit it now, but I could never have admitted it then, not even to myself. Years later I posed the difficult question: if this sensitive, trusting child, had he been born an Aryan German rather than a Jewish Londoner, could I have swallowed all the toxic Nazi propaganda? Had my beloved parents referred to Jews as evil vermin, as expendable, grasping, a bothersome drain on the nation’s resources, as inferior, both physically and culturally, would I have believed them? I’m terribly afraid that as a naïve, doting son, I probably would have done.
Let’s say that I attended a recital by that notable, and great, Ayran anti-Nazi violinist Adolf Busch, went backstage wearing my Hitler Youth insignia and Busch affectionately put his arm around me saying, ‘have nothing to do with them son, they’re evil,’ would I have appreciated his words or believed my father who (fictionally) called Busch a ‘Jew kisser’ (a stock German reaction to Oskar Schindler after the War). Don’t forget, Dad’s never wrong.
Then, once the War was over, the Holocaust exposed, and the whole fetid business of Nazism revealed in its blood-drenched colours, would Rob as-was become newly-born, try to understand just what had been lost, either killed or catapulted into exile, millions of innocents amongst whom were great scientists, artists, musicians (performers and composers), philosophers, psychologist, poets (including the writers of the humanist Hasidic tales), novelists, academics, war heroes and so forth? I shan’t patronise the cause by naming a single one of them, but I don’t have to: you already know who they are. Could I really have forgiven my people, but far more important than that, might have I forgiven myself, a youthful innocent whose unthinking faith contributed, in some tiny way, to what happened? I just don’t know the answer to that. But what I can say is that the elevated canon of Austro-German music and literature, from Bach to Wagner (yes, Wagner), and from Hölderlin to Heine and Rilke, and so much more suggests a self-replenishing core that can never be corrupted. That I hope would have provided the basis for my new faith.