Donald Zec dies aged 102

It is with considerable sadness – though with a simultaneous sense of celebration – that I announce the passing of my uncle Donald, born March 12th 1919 and who died in the early hours of this morning, 1:45 to be exact, having asked for ice cream some 2:45 hours earlier. Only Donald! But what a guy, a brilliant journalist who interviewed screen legends for the Daily Mirror for some 40 years, musician (violin then piano), Award-winning painter, spontaneous wit, raconteur, and a loving family elder who spared no effort in guiding and supporting his nephews and nieces. When in his company Donald – who could easily have waxed lyrical about his star-studded past – never spoke about himself, only about you and yours, how you were faring, how the family was doing, your career and so forth. No-one could have wished for a more loving or supportive uncle. But rather than continue further along these lines I’d like to treat you to a previously unpublished gem dealing with Donald’s early life. My thanks to his son Paul for agreeing that I put this rather lovely essay online. So here it is now, especially appropriate for the Jewish High Hoy Days. “Shanah tovah um’tukah

                              THE MIRROR ON THE WALL: Prologue

         It is nearly a century ago and so recollections of my birthplace are elusive, fading visions.  Number four George Street, London N.W.1, no longer exists.  It was obliterated in the l950s to make way for the underpass which now links the Euston and Marylebone roads. Re-named Gower Street, nothing remains to re-visit and remember.  Not that remembering comes without pain.   Still, it would have meant something to have stood outside the house again. For in its poor, crumbling but strangely secure essentials, it perfectly reflected the ethnic mix of its era. 

At number four George Street lived my parents Simon and Leah. Above us lived the the Poppledorfs, volatile French immigrants who screamed, laughed and otherwise added to the neighbourly noises-off in the tenement experience. Now and again a policeman would tie his cycle up against the railings outside, and with the bicycle clips still round his ankles, would plod up the stone steps and extract fulsome apologies from the noisy Parisiennes. He could do nothing, however, about the widow, Mrs. Coatier, who lived in the basement. At one end of George Street was a public house called the ‘Orange Tree’. Here the lady in the basement would get drunk on draught ale every Saturday night, then stagger home with more of it in a large jug and launch into screeching song, until her voice, and the beer, ran out. Widowed by the Great 1914-18 War, her grief still raw, she kept her late husband’s Lee Enfield rifle, bayonet and scabbard still fixed, outside her door. It stood like a sentry, guarding its half-demented occupant who had warned us that we touched it at our peril.  

George Street was close enough to Bloomsbury to absorb a little of its raffish Bohemian culture. But it was closer still to the costermongers of Drummond street market to know its place. The estate agents, Rutley, Vine and Gurney near the pub, was straight out of Charles Dickens. I sometimes delivered the weekly rent, thirteen shillings and sixpence, receipted by a frock-coated clerk on a high stool.  I remember him as vividly as I recall the Temperance Hospital in the nearby main road. Its ambulances ferried the infant victims of the familiar epidemics of the hard-up classes – scarlet fever, diphtheria and street accidents.   

I was too young to have witnessed the dreadful incident that plunged my family into grief. My sister Mary, at maybe nine years old, had skipped out into the street and was run over by a taxi. A half-severed foot was subsequently amputated. My parents cursed their ill-fortune in colourful Yiddish and then resorted to the ultimate consolation, this was God’s Will … Gott’ll  unz helfn,’God will help us’ became their standby comfort in times of intolerable stress. But if indeed God was helping, I witnessed scant evidence of it over the years. An innocent five-year-old, I just assumed – hoped – that since we were fed, watered, and basically educated God was at least somehow within reach. I quickly learned the basic disciplines of immigrant life – you suffered, you celebrated, you wept, you prayed and whatever the tragedy you beseeched the heavens – and then moved on. Endurance and survival. They were in the DNA.

         In my old age, the mind is densely populated with memories.  Scenes, sounds, images float in and out like characters in a play: tragicomedies involving a volatile mix of plotlines and scenarios. There were some pleasant simchas – like weddings, bar mitzvahs and golden anniversaries where amateur fiddlers played klezmer music, the elders singing weepy songs from the shtetel. These simchas were the welcome highlights in the more dominant patterns of life on George street. 

The images are vivid. There was no electricity. The rooms were dimly lit by gaslight, a combination of gentle hissing and flickering light. Our home occupied two floors in the building with sufficient bedrooms to accommodate the constant increases in the family which finally added up to eleven children, two sons, and nine daughters. The impact on my father, the need to work ever harder, was inevitable. Even as a five-year-old, I intuitively sensed the enormous burden life was for him. It was a burden he was determined his two sons would not have to endure. One day he called me into his cutting room. “Sit down.  Now watch’. Slowly he threaded a few stitches along a seam. ’You see how straight they are? Put on the thimble, you do it!’  My hands trembled. The result was a disaster. He poked me in the chest. ‘Very hard isn’t it? You don’t like it? Don’t be a tailor. Learn better. Study!’ The ragged-trousered psychology of immigrants in the 1920s.

         Number 4 George Street had its own distinctive soundtrack. At night I could hear the distinctive sounds from the tailoring workshop above; the hiss of steam as the presser, a near relative, would plunge the red-hot iron into a bucket of water, then the thump as it was placed on the ironing table, and finally the sound of a solid wooden block stamped on the cloth to release the steam. If there were enough orders to keep the piece-workers busy, I could hear Norah humming while treadling the Singer sewing machine – a minor masterpiece of wrought iron and engineering now highly prized at auctions.  As I sit in front of my large computer monitor, the photo printer to my right, smart phone to my left, a large flat screen TV behind me I think back to a moment of real magic entering our lives. The Crystal set, forerunner to the battery driven radio, was the miracle of the 1920s. My brother Philip created one using an old cigar box, a tiny strand of wire, a lump of something or other as the crystal, and some earphones bought from a market stall and then after laboriously roaming the wire over the sugar like a mine-detector heard music!        My father was the first to take the ear-phones- the eldest son recognized his duty. Simon was doubtful as usual. No time for this nonsense. There was work to do in the workroom. I remember his amazement then joy. The sound he heard was of Enrico Caruso the great Italian tenor, singing ‘Celeste Aida’. But the song of choice for the most devout Jews was Chazan Yossele Rosenblatt singing that most sacred prayer on the eve of the Day of Atonement, ‘Kol Nidre’ My father who rarely shed tears always had one glistening on his twirled moustache whenever he heard it. There were few cars in those days. Heavy goods were mostly on horse-drawn vehicles. Beer was transported on artistically decorated drays … beer lorries without sides-drawn by massive shire horses capable of pulling a heavy-laden barge along a canal. It was to a 5-year-old, a spectacular sight; the drayman wearing a long leather apron would sit high off the ground, spit on his hands, take up the reins and give the horses a touch of the whip. Their weighty horse shoes would spark lightning off the cobblestones before the drays lowly moved forward. Hard to describe the routines and rhythms of life in George Street without experiencing mixed emotions and unsettling images.

There were some episodes which I still laugh over and resonate in my anecdotage. One Friday morning my mother was preparing or the Sabbath evening. She had polished the Kiddish cup (an award to Simon by the Freemasons, Merchant Tailors); she was mixing the batter for the fried fish, when there was a loud knock on the door (there were no push-button bells, just a heavy cast iron knocker which would alert the dead). At the door was my sister Mary and her schoolfriend Winnie Twitchen (you don’t forget names like that). Winnie is cradling a wriggling piglet in her arms. A PIG in her doorway Erev Shabat

‘Look what Winnie won at the fair, mummy’.  Mummy looked and froze. Shuddered, more likely. Her smelling salts not immediately available she decided not to faint. Assimilation had taught her – dignity was called for. ‘That’s a very nice pig, no question about it … why don’t you take it home to show your mother?’. Racing through her mind was the sacred Hebrew injunction, Remember the Sabbath Day, keep it holy.’ She closed the door and as I heard it, sank to her knees with an impassioned cry ‘Oy…mein ..Gott !’

Darkest of all are the images of family bereavements. Deep feelings, even those of an impressionable five-year-old, were not spared when death struck home. The scene I can never erase is of the ritual ‘rending of the garments’ by which mourners are traditionally permitted to demonstrate their anguish. I remember standing in a line of family members as a funeral official with a razor blade went from one to another, cutting into a lapel, a cuff, a waistcoat or a bodice   A chilling ritual, enacted, as I recall, in total silence apart from the clatter of horse-drawn traffic outside. Many of the sadder monochromes I can air-brush from my mind without much effort.  But one particular image resists all attempts to drive it out of my thoughts.  Something about it remains stubbornly in focus; still there after ninety years.

                  The image is of a hanging mirror. It hung on the living room wall, a must-have art deco item in the hire-purchase homes of the 1920s. And I hated it; Not so much for the mirror itself, but for what lay behind it.

  Suspended by two chains, it leaned away from the wall. This left a convenient two-inch slot into which crucially important letters could be stored. Threatening letters. Final notices. Official documents warning of dire consequences failing an instant response. The manilla envelopes, the red-lettered final notices, the threats compounded by the intimidating rubber stamp, sprouted out from the top of the mirror like a Japanese fan. It would have made an interesting still-life for an artist, the multi-coloured documents flowering from the bevelled curves of the art deco mirror. I had no such fine thought at the time. To me, that bloody mirror symbolised misery and fear for my over-burdened parents. I felt enormous pity for them, and a kind of subliminal hatred for whatever it was that caused it. 

         This is not to say that there were not some letters which promised joy. These were mostly invitations to family celebrations which were few, but treasured. But their shiny gilt-embossed italics were upstaged by the ominous typography from assertive creditors. These produced a variety of reactions, fear and anger mostly. One early morning there was a loud hammering on the front door.  The heavy thud of the cast-iron door knocker did not suggest a friendly caller. My father, unshaven, his collar stud unfixed, hurried to the door. I heard muttering, arguing, then the door slammed. Silence. Simon came back into the room, his face ashen, eyes wild with fury. He cursed those he called ‘meine sonem’ my enemies. He thrust a parchment-thick document behind the mirror.

He turned to my mother. ‘What do they want from me?’ She put a hand on his arm. ‘Sha, Schimel, Gott’ll unz helfn.’  For once, that traditional mantra brought no consolation to my enraged father.  ‘What do they want?’ he repeated, ‘Not enough I work from morning till midnight? They want we should starve?’ Suddenly he grabbed the bread knife on the kitchen table. He held it to his throat. ‘They want I should kill myself?’  I was petrified. But also overwhelmingly saddened by this pathetic figure who was clearly beaten to his knees. My mother appeared to faint. Her eyes were closed, her head fell forward.  This vision of my mother shocked my father into sanity. He bent over her with a pitiable torrent of remorse. Now he was rubbing her hands. Then he was fanning her with a newspaper  Guilt, contrition, devotion, all tumbled out in a stream of intimate words in Yiddish. I gathered what he was saying. ‘I’ll work tonight. I’ll get more orders. Don’t worry Lyupke, everything will be alright.’ Then to me, sharply, ‘go to school.’ I went over to my mother to say goodbye. Her round cheeks were redder than usual. I sensed she had been crying.  She straightened my tie.  I didn’t want to leave her. I felt I had to say something. In those days children dared not ask intimate questions of their parents. But I had to know. ‘Are you alright?’ Not unkindly, my mother said, ‘And why shouldn’t I be. Gay shoyne; ‘go already!’ I grabbed my satchel and walked, half ran, to the sanctuary of Exmouth Street school, my mind in turmoil. That episode impacted on me as indelibly and as permanently as the camp number on the arms of concentration camp victims.  But I learned about despair… It was always there. One lived with it.

         The house at Number Four has gone. George street too. I am the last survivor of an improvidently created family of eleven children. What began in a shtetel in Odessa, scrambled into a fearful journey on a cargo ship to Tilbury Dock, and then ended with the chaotic decanting of innocents into uncharted territory A traumatic and defining journey. Not least of these experiences was the imperative of holding on to one’s religion and traditional Jewish culture within an uneasy Christian environment. Somehow, my father contrived a way through the frieze of buff envelopes, final notices, and threats of repossessions, to create a family life.  Some happiness ensued. Respectability and the crucially important human dignity, maintained.  The intimidating literature which glowered down from the wall ultimately did no permanent harm. Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity. But let me admit to a particular foolishness. In all the houses and apartments that I’ve had in my life, there was not a single hanging mirror.        

chapter one

Nobody on this ethnically chaotic planet should consider himself or herself, a member of a chosen race. The term is both arrogant and ignorant, and ultimately dangerously divisive. I was too young to comprehend this. But I had an intuitive feeling that if indeed I was one of the chosen, it might, in fact, do me no favours. It is this unease which only assimilation can somehow mitigate. Gloss over. Don’t act chosen. Don’t be different. 

11 thoughts on “Donald Zec dies aged 102

  1. Cynthia Gamble

    Dear Rob,
    What a fine tribute to your Uncle. I am so very sorry to learn about your loss, but what an incredible life he enjoyed. He reminds me also of Proust who ordered iced beer, and ice cream an hour or so before he died. And what a fine autobiography you have started! I noticed Chapter One, so I look forward to the others.
    With fond wishes,
    Cynthia

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    1. Thanks so much Cynthia. Gower Street is meaningful for us because of its close proximity to Brunswick Square, the birth place John Ruskin. Also the best Waterstones in town and as for Drummond Street, nowadays a haven for the best South Indian cuisine. So, for me at least, it’s an area packed with significance. Whether there’s any other part of the biog in waiting, I haven’t seen one. Donald’s superb book ‘Put the Knife in Gently’ is well worth searching out (there’s some duplication there, but not much), entertaining, informative and beautifully written. Best wishes. Rob

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  2. Thanks so much Paul. I’d had it on my desk top for at least a couple of years and dearly wanted to use it though not under the present circumstances. Still it does convey yet another aspect of a dazzlingly multi-faceted character. Best. Rob

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  3. Les Berger

    Thank you for your movingly written tribute to your uncle, olav hashalom, Rob, as well as your childhood reminisces. I was strongly reminded of my Jewish upbringing in Coventry in the 1950s and my attempts to fit into a decidedly non-Jewish environment. It was joining a youth orchestra that finally gave me a sense of belonging and being accepted.

    I really enjoy your style of writing and look forward to reading further. Shanah Tova!

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  4. Thank you so much Les. Shanah Tova to you too. You do realise of course that ‘The Mirror on the Wall’ was written by Donald not by me. I’d hate to take credit for such a superb pieces of writing. Best wishes. Rob

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    1. Les Berger

      Oops! I misread the end of your tribute and thought the reminiscences we’re yours, too! Beautiful writing, anyway, and a very good read.

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