I was late for school, two days late to be exact. I had put on my new school uniform for the first time, blazer, white shirt, school tie, short grey trousers, knee length grey socks, and black cap. The blazer and cap carried the school's crest. I felt very grown up and proud of myself as I left home to walk to school on my own. Oma made sure I had some breakfast, and sandwiches for lunch, though I was far too nervous with anticipation to bother about food. When I eventually arrived on the first Monday in October 1941 I had no idea where to go or what to do. I had never even seen the place. I took the footpath which led past the Priory to the front gate. There was no one around. I wondered for a moment whether I had come on the wrong day. Someone who turned out to be the caretaker saw me wandering around. I explained that I was new. "They're all at prayers," he said "You'd better wait in the Headmaster's office" where he led me. The Headmaster, Mr. Routh, turned up a quarter hour later. He was a no-nonsense person, but kindly. Tall and balding he walked with a slight forward stoop as if about to break into a run, his gown billowing behind him. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Oxford with a tendency to snobbishness. He was expecting me.
"Ah, Fishbane," he mispronounced my name but I was too scared to correct him. "Your father did explain that you would be late because of your New Year" he said. "I'm glad to see that you keep your religion. So far as I know you're the first Jewish pupil we've had at this school. I am sure there's a lot we can learn from you. Though you've got a scholarship, because the rest of your year are nearly all at least two years older than you" he went on "I'm going to start you in form IB, and see how you get on. Come along and I'll give you your things and then I'll take you to your form room. Oh, and by the way, only staff and sixth-formers are allowed to use the front entrance. You were seen coming in. Don't do it again. Use the main gate." I didn't dare tell him that I didn't know where that was, but I soon found out.
We went upstairs to a store room full of sports gear and stationery. He rummaged around and took items off various shelves~ he handed me two football shirts, football shorts and socks and boots, two gym shirts, shorts and shoes, and a bag to carry them in, all items new to me. My shirts had green collars. "We have three houses, Challoner (whose colour is green, Pursglove, yellow and Bruce blue. These names all have some particular local historical significance. House points are awarded for scholastic and sporting success. I'm putting you in Challoner" he explained "that's the most successful house at the moment". He then handed me text books, exercise books, pads, pencils and the like. These were all free. The School uniform was obligatory and not free. When I went shopping for this with my mother she complained throughout, not so much about the financial expense which did not exactly please her, but more about the amount of clothing coupons which were needed. In the cold northern winter long trousers would have been welcome but you were not allowed these until you were 14. This rule did not make allowance for differing growth rates and produced some comical sights.
After fitting me out, the Head took me to what was to be my classroom for the next year, to meet the form master, Ken Spedding, a small youngish energetic man who seemed as if about to be let off a leash, and my new colleagues. "Here's another laddie for you, late but welcome just the same," the Head said to him and disappeared. "Glad to see you. What's your name?" Ken Spedding asked. "Freddy," I replied. There was a howl of laughter. I was puzzled; I had no idea what was so funny. I didn't think there was anything strange about my name. Perhaps it was my accent which had not yet acquired a full Yorkshire brogue. "Very funny!" he said coldly, "What's your surname?" I didn't know I should have answered "Fischbein". I had never heard of anyone being called by their surname. I'd always been called "Freddy" and I was "Freddy" ever afterwards to all in the school, from the youngest boy to the Head.
I had missed the first-day-of-term fight for the most desired desks, those at the back. There was only one space left when I arrived, one half of a big black wooden double desk. The other half was occupied by Tommy Dalton who became my best friend. In due course I added my initials to those of previous generations already carved in the lid. Tommy was the son of a farmer from Lingdale. He was small, fair haired and good looking His cheeks had the warm red colouring of an autumn apple. He was a quiet, charming boy, but not one of the academic high flyers.
On the next day, the Tuesday, I took my place with the rest of my form at the front of the school hall. The school day usually began with assembly at which the daily act of worship took place at the comparatively late time of 9.15, as most pupils had a long way to come and the buses were old and slow. The Headmaster and staff sat on a platform looking like unhappy crows in their black gowns. The classes sat in order of their year with first at the front and the sixth form at the back. On sports days and other ceremonial occasions the teachers presented a colourful sight in their full University gowns and tasselled mortar boards. The Headmaster led the daily prayers, one of the prefects read the daily lesson, we sang psalms and hymns. The psalms were sung in what was to me a strange sort of chant; these did not worry me as they came from the Old Testament, but I was a little uneasy about the readings from the New Testament and the Hymns, though I soon got to know them well. I didn't really want to pray to Jesus or revere Mary. I had nothing personal against them, but I wasn't comfortable. I felt rather like a stranger at a party. I compromised by keeping silent. After the prayers the Headmaster read out the day's announcements, and we all went off to our classrooms.
After one full week at school I had to miss further days for Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, which comes immediately after Yom Kippur. It was some four weeks before I completed another full week at the school, and my classmates already envied the number of "holidays" I enjoyed. Being the only Jewish boy in the school was never a disadvantage, except when the Sabbath or Festivals prevented me from participating in activities on those days. Mr. Routh was a lay reader in the Church; all previous headmasters had been clergymen. As a religious man he was far more insistent on my observance of my religion than I wished to be. As for my colleagues I felt that they rather valued my uniqueness. No other form had a Jewish boy; I was rather like a pet rabbit.
Strangely there were comparatively few pupils who came from or lived in Guisborough. The catchment area from which most of my colleagues came included the surrounding towns and villages - Loftus, Lingdale, Skinningrove, Carlin How, Boosbeck, Brotton and other localities with similar wonderful names. They came mostly by school bus. Those who lived near enough walked or cycled to school. They were nearly all the sons of artisans, farmers, steelworkers, miners, small shopkeepers. I was one of the few representatives of the middle class if I could be counted as anything, not that it made any difference to anyone. We were considered to be the local intellectual elite and our parents were proud of us. I suppose many of us had an exaggerated idea of our importance and tended to look down on those who remained in secondary school. Most of my class had graduated from the local primary schools, and already had friends at the school. Though I missed the start of term, knew no-one and had no common background with anyone else, I easily made friends and was fully accepted at once.
We had moved to Guisborough to be near the Factory. Despite, or perhaps because of, the war the business flourished. It was hard work. They had been awarded Government contracts for Army and R.A.F shirts. Officer's shirts were no problem as the materials were top quality poplin. Shirts for other ranks were a different matter. The serge Khaki material was thick and hard to work with the available machinery which was not designed to take such heavy material. The machines kept breaking down and spare parts were hard to get especially as most of the machines had been brought over from Germany and had had to be adapted to work at all. Opa's and my mother's combined skill and ingenuity for makeshift solutions eventually overcame the difficulties, but never entirely satisfactorily. The wearers of these garments, unfortunately, had more important matters to concern them than the fit of their shirts, which in all too many cases sadly soon became redundant.
Opa kept a close watch on the battlefields. To Oma's chagrin he pinned a huge map of Europe on the dining room wall. After Dunkirk, when the centre of operations moved from Europe to Africa, he rolled up the map of Europe and replaced it with a map of Africa. When the war returned to the mainland of Europe, with the German invasion of Russia, he needed two maps. He had no difficulty in understanding the news broadcasts and reading the newspapers. He listened to every bulletin and scoured the sadly depleted daily papers. When I was home from school he and I would plot the movements of armies with coloured pins and flags, often arguing about their exact placement. We discussed every move the Germans and their Axis allies might make and planned our counter-strategies, with the same measure of success as, or possibly greater than, the Allied High Command. We certainly lost fewer men. Every German advance across the desert towards Egypt, with its potential threat to Palestine, caused alarm, and every successful counter-attack by the English Army produced corresponding relief. Names previously unheard of such as Tobruk, Bizerta, Mersa Matruh, Benghazi, to say nothing of El Alamein became the stuff of daily conversation.
Opa limited himself to those centres of operations, and an enemy, he could understand. He had no interest in the war in the Far East. That might as well have been on the Moon.
"Wass treib mann sich arum mit yenem Japanese ganovim. What are they wasting their time for with those Japanese crooks?" he commented. "Sie konnen sie nicht aufhaltenjeszt. und den schon?
They can't stop them, and who cares? Daveil wier verlieren unzere schiffe and flugzeuge und menner die die Nazis besser kempfen sol/te. We're losing valuable warships and aircraft and men who should be fighting the Nazis. Es wird uns vie! hilfen den Japanische ganiff zu schlagen. ganz unmoeglich, und Hitler gewinnt hier. It wouldn't do us much good to beat the Japanese crooks, which we can't do anyhow, if Hitler wins here. Ein sach ein mal und nicht injedem loch kikken. Do one thing at a time and don't go looking in every hole." He resented the waste of effort and manpower which the war in the Far East involved. He had no imperial ambitions, beating Hitler was his priority. Looking at the singular lack of success in the war against the Japanese at the time, the loss of Singapore, Malaya, the sinking of our major warships in Harbour, and disaster everywhere until the Americans stopped the rot, who can say his strategy was wrong?
But the war, despite rationing, the blackout, the absence of young men, the grim headlines, the defeats and disasters, the blitz on London and other cities, still seemed far away from our northeastern corner of the world. Churchill had offered nothing but blood, sweat, toil and tears and he delivered on his promise. However we had not yet had to fight on the beaches or in the streets. For the first time in over a decade there was no unemployment in the area. No one went hungry indeed many had never been so well fed. There was little to spend your money on. Most commodities were subject to price controls, and black marketeering and profiteering were severely dealt with by the Courts, though the area was not sufficiently affluent to attract an active underworld.
The fighting itself was far away, and to us in the North even the threat of invasion in 1940 had no immediate impact. We saw little of the war as war, but I did witness one "incident" during an Army exercise in Guisborough. Civilian traffic was supposed to have been banned from the roads on that day. It was all very realistic and exciting, with smoke, bullets, bombs and the like. Suddenly a motor cycle appeared through the smoke. Blinded, he rode straight into a Bren gun carrier and suffered fatal injuries.
Our part of the North East did not suffer the destruction inflicted on London and the Midlands, and other large cities. We certainly did not particularly notice them in Guisborough. Middlesbrough had air raids, some causing considerable damage. Many attacks were simply "hit and run" raids, which caused more alarm than damage. But damaged buildings were repaired and life continued. There was an official silence about which city was bombed. The local papers would say that a "town in the North East" had suffered air raids, as if the Germans were unaware of their targets. The enemy would immediately identify the town or area in question, in their own news bulletins, and the local papers would then say: "It can now be revealed..." "Who", in the words of the song, "are you kidding Mr. Hitler?"
Our greatest direct threat in fact came not from the enemy but from one of our own aircraft. The Grey House was only a few minutes flying time from the RAF airfield at Thornaby and directly under one of the flight paths. Returning badly damaged from one mission and coming in to land, a Wellington bomber suddenly lost power. It brushed the trees of our house and dived into the house immediately opposite, not 25 yards away. It could as easily have hit the Grey House, which fortunately was empty as we were all in Guisborough at the time.
The effects of the war were felt in ways other than from enemy action. A whole new body of laws was enacted. It now became a criminal offence, among other things, to be absent from work, to fail to carry out firewatching duties, or to breach the blackout regulations. The local papers regularly reported prosecutions for rationing offences, particularly clothing coupon trading. A great scandal was caused - at least the papers made the worst of it - when a well-known local solicitor was jailed for clothing coupon offences. The Magistrates did their bit for the war effort by handing down severe penalties for minor infractions. But much more distressing and serious were the increasing column inches of military casualties appearing in the local newspaper, the Evening Gazette.
As the war progressed it seemed that Teesside, though it had some heavy air raids, had not been chosen as a major target by the enemy. In fact probably as much damage was done by kids with matches who succeeded in burning down the town's largest department stores, Binns, and Dickson & Benson, as by the Germans. As the threat of air raids appeared to have receded, Opa decided we should return to Middlesbrough. The Grey House had never been completely closed as we often went back there at the weekends and for Jewish holidays. We moved back to Middlesbrough in the autumn of 1942. Oma had always hated Guisborough; she found living in such "goyish" non-Jewish, surroundings difficult. Though Opa liked being near the factory because he could spend more time under his precious machines, he too preferred to live where there was a Jewish community; though he was not frum, orthodox, he found comfort in the proximity of a synagogue.
Opa had an air raid shelter built in the Grey House by inserting a reinforced false ceiling in the four feet wide passage behind the dining room. This might not have been strong enough to protect us in case of a direct hit on the house, though more probably it would simply have caved in on us thus adding to the casualty list but fortunately this was never put to the test. The optimism which took us back to wartime Middlesbrough soon seemed a little premature. One night about a week after we had more or less settled back in the Grey House I was shaken awake by my mother, "Come quickly, the air raid warning has gone and we can hear 'planes and bombs." I was fast asleep and had heard nothing. She wrapped a blanket round me and we ran downstairs. I was too tired to be terrified at first, but soon the sounds of the guns firing, the throb of aircraft engines and the sound of bombs falling, it was hard to know where, removed any sense of safety. Oma started wailing "We'll all be killed. What have we done to deserve this?' She was not one for the stiff upper lip. The menfolk had disappeared outside. Mother was so concerned with Oma that she had little time to worry about herself, but then she never did. I never saw my mother show any fear. Yetti, who was with us at the time, I'm not sure why but Karl was off somewhere and she didn't want to be alone, also wept, "What about my poor Karl? Where is he?' We didn't know and no one really cared. Mother didn't stay in the shelter, she went to the kitchen and made us all tea. She had become anglicized to the extent that a cup of tea was second only to chicken soup as a panacea for all ills.
There were other bad nights when we sat cowering in that narrow corridor thinking our end was imminent, terrified by the sound of bombs falling nearby, and even more so by the staccato din of the anti-aircraft guns only a few hundred yards away, when the house rattled as if about to collapse. It was hard to know whether the noise and fury came from our own anti-aircraft guns, or from enemy action. It was probably both. Though the noise was frightening I think silence was even worse. With the sound of guns and bombs you knew that something, however nasty, was happening. In silence the tension simply built up and you wondered what was coming next; the wait for the "all-clear" was an anxious one.
Opa, not one for sitting still, had got himself made an Air Raid Warden like Dad and Max, despite his alleged lack of English. When there was an air raid he would put on his tin hat and insist on patrolling outside.
"Sigmund, bleibt duo Geh nicht aroiz, Sigmund stay here, don't go out," Oma would plead tearfully. I never knew why she called him Sigmund when his name was Selig.
"Ich setzt nich du da weil die bomben fallen, I'm not sitting her while the bombs are falling" He would reply.
"Und wass kannst du helfen mit die bomb en, And how can you help with the bombsT' she went on.
"Ich kann wass ti'in, I can do something," he would reply unconvincingly and unspecifyingly. And he would put on his wellies and stride out, all five feet five inches of him, moustache bristling, puffing his Manikin cigar in defiance of all blackout regulations, holding his stirrup pump and bucket of water to dowse any incendiary bomb which might land nearby. I don't think he ever used them seriously though he always seemed to get water all over himself We did have some incendiaries land in the garden once, but Opa managed to be elsewhere. It wasn't bravery that made him defy the bombs, he said he just couldn't bear to be cooped up with a lot of wailing women. Out in the open he could at least keep in touch with what was happening in the skies above, or so he thought.
The undulating sound of the air raid siren always sent my stomach down to my boots and the "all clear" was eagerly awaited, often for so long that we thought it would never come. I think we were more worried about Opa's pretensions as an Air Raid Warden than any harm to ourselves, because we were protected, though sitting in a air raid shelter at any time under any circumstances is unpleasant. We were lucky; we were spared the experience of really heavy bombing, we were in our own house, not in a large communal shelter or an Anderson shelter, little more than a hole in the ground, and we had heat and light which usually seemed unaffected by the bombing but even when it was, we had candles. We had comforts denied to so many.
The war had one pleasant and perhaps unexpected consequence, which was that towns all over the country which had seen little in the way of orchestras and musicians now began to receive regular visits. Middlesbrough found itself on the concert circuit of players like Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon and Benno Moiseiwitch. The Halle Orchestra under John Barbirolli gave a series of concerts at the Town Hall during the Autumn and Winter months. My parents had season tickets.
One Saturday afternnon in December - I was 11 at the time - my father said to me:
"Your mother's not feeling well. I've got her ticket spare for a concert; do you want to come?" "No," I replied "not really." What I actually thought was that music was soppy, and who wanted to be seen with their Dad at a concert? I had no interest at that time in music. I thought it "cissie" an image I was trying to throw off.
"Come on," he cajoled "You'll enjoy it. Don't be such an old stick-in-the-mud. I don't want to waste a good ticket, and I don't like going on my own. Come on; don't be silly. Anyhow, you'll be doing me a favour." Rather than waste the ticket, I went with him. The car was laid up in the garage "for the duration," as the saying was at the time, its axles resting on bricks. We went by bus, cheapest fares in the country, 1d return for me 2d for Dad.
The Town Hall was Middlesbrough's contribution to the mock Gothic style, but an impressive grey stone building nonetheless, a symbol of nineteenth century civic pride. We went in to our seats. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible hoping no one would see me; fat chance with Dad around. He knew everybody, or acted as if he did, cheerfully greeting all and sundry. Even if he didn't know them, they all seemed to know him. "Hello Jack, how are you. How's Berta?" "Hello Mr. Fishburn how's Mrs. Fishbum? This your lad? Fine fellah!" and so on. "Who's that?" I said to Dad as he waved cheerfully to one stranger. "That's the Chief Constable" and "who's that?" "The Town Clerk" "and that one over there?" "I've no idea". They were all probably people he had met at the barber's.
The lights dimmed not fully, as I had expected, as they did in the cinema or theatre, but only slightly. The conductor came on, bowed to the audience and almost in one movement as he turned he raised his hand and the music started. I had one of the most wonderfully exciting experiences in my life. It was as if I had been struck by lightning. I was entranced, bewitched; I had discovered music. One of the items on the programme was Dvorak's New World Symphony, appropriately, as a whole new world had opened for me. Concerts generally included an Overture, a Concerto, a Symphony and some other piece, possibly a tone poem or Suite. I cannot recall the opening work. The Concerto was Beethoven's "Emperor"- I think: Clifford Curzon was the soloist - and the final item was Bizet's L"Arlesienne Suite." This was not an exacting musical diet, but I had been to Elysium. If I had nothing else to be grateful for to my father, that alone would have been enough.
Dad's barbers, Bell & Dyson, were just across the road from the Town Hall. He went every other Saturday afternoon until television started. I don't know why he needed to go so often because he was nearly bald, and I'm not sure which of his two hairs needed attention, doubtless he alternated them. He really went for a shave and hot towels, a sort of beauty treatment for men, and he would lie back luxuriating in the barber's chair with his nose just peeking out. I think it was as much as anything an excuse to get away from the family, and have a men's gossip, and I can't say I blamed him. I went with him when I could no longer put off having my hair cut, short-back-and-sides, threepence for kids. There were no appointments; the very idea would have raised peals of laughter You just sat and waited your turn. Dysons was a very masculine establishment typical of the time. It consisted of a long thin room, with dark red leather seats. I say "leather" but I suspect they were Rexine and they, like their occupants and their attendants, had seen better days. The barbers' chairs and basins were on the right hand side as you entered You sat as you waited along the opposite wall which also had a few low tables with old newspapers and magazines scattered around, some with pictures that Mr. Thomas would not have approved of. Barbers supplied their customers' requirements beyond and above haircuts but I was too young to know about them.
Despite the return to Middlesbrough, I stayed on at Guisborough Grammar School. I was very happy there and had no wish to change schools, despite the fact that Acklam Hall school to which I could have transferred, was only a few minutes walk from my home. But I also had a transport problem. The distance was no greater than that which many of my mates had to travel but they had school buses laid on. I didn't want to travel with the rest of the family, even had there been room for me. Not only was Bob, their supposedly regular taxi, far too umeliable but I preferred to go on my own. So I went by train. It was utterly reliable, even in war time and whatever the weather. Bob might not turn up, buses were often held up, or unable to cope with the steep hills in winter, but the train never failed. The P bus took me to the station, where the Guisborough train had its own platform. It got me to Guisborough just in time for start of school at 9.15. From time to time we had in the station at Middlesbough, one of the great Pacific 4-6-2 engines, never seen there in peacetime, even occasionally one of the Gresley streamliners, which were being used to pull troop or even goods trains. There was always the potential excitement of seeing one of these.
Dad and my uncle Joe, recently married to Dora, often went for lunch together at the "Fox Inn" just round the corner from their Fountain Street office. This was only a few minutes walk from the school and it was convenient for me to go there in my lunch hour to see Dad from time to time, when I needed a "little extra". This was often the only time that I had the chance to talk to him and I would take the opportunity to have something better than the school lunch. As in nearly every public house or restaurant in the country the radio was always on for the news. One day we heard a broad Yorkshire accent say: "This is the one o'clock news and this is Wilfred Pickles reading it." This was such a shock after the smooth BBC English tones of the usual announcers, Alvar Liddell, Stuart Hibberd with his silky and confidence boosting tones whatever disaster he was announcing, and John Snagge, that even the diners in a North Yorkshire hostelry were all convulsed with laughter. The experiment of having newsreaders with regional accents did not last long.
Opa had never been ill. He was always sprightly and active; his jet black hair showed no tinge of grey. His 61st birthday fell exactly 7 days after my own twelfth birthday. He seemed fit and well. A few days after his birthday he collapsed. He was rushed to Hospital, a tumour on the brain was diagnosed. There had been no sign, no warning, no indication of any sort, that anything was wrong. There was no treatment then available, no chemotherapy, but even had there been, it would not have helped. It was too late. The medical world could do nothing for him, he was sent home to die. Unfortunately Opa was a fighter. He had no wish to die. His greatest desire had been to see my barmitzvah. He fought the illness; his struggles were in vain. There was no resisting the tumour's rapid growth.
My family, in their usual over-protective way, tried to shield me from what was happening, but the crisis, the comings and goings of medical men, the anguish, the tears, the despair could not be hidden. A sense of deep gloom pervaded the house, the factory, the very air. Everything conceivable was done. More and more specialists were consulted. Prayers were said in the synagogue; Opa, in accordance with Jewish tradition was given a new name - Chaim, which means life. It was all in vain. The maloch hamoveth, the angel of death, Oma cried, had him in his grasp. Within three weeks he had deteriorated pitiably. I was not allowed to see him, until very near the end, when he asked to see me. I was taken in to his bedroom. I was horrified at what I saw. He was propped up by several pillows in his huge bed and was hardly visible. His black hair had turned completely white; his face was haggard; his jaw hung loose; his eyes rolled loosely in their sockets, he could barely talk. At first I wanted to run away, but I was paralysed. I could not move; I could not speak; I could not cry; I could do nothing. This wonderfully vital, active man had become some pitiable object. I looked at him for what seemed ages, but probably was no more than a few seconds He looked at me out of his rolling eyes, and said, in Yiddish, in a barely audible voice: "Kim zu mir, kim -Come to me, Freddele, come here". I went to him and he held me close to him, he kissed me and I could not, would not, let him go. I was numb with shock. All I could focus on were the mushroom size and shaped warts on his neck which I used to annoy him by tweaking. This wonderful man, whom I so adored, and who so loved me, was dying and soon would be no more and nothing could be done about it. He died a few hours later, on July 28 1943, 11 months before my barmitzvah.
Opa was buried the next day in accordance with Jewish tradition. Before the funeral the mourners put on old clothes and each had a garment ritually cut or torn by the Rabbi as a sign of mourning. It seems to symbolise the cutting of the life line, or the connection between the dead and the living. It is particularly traumatic and usually accompanied by great wailing and shedding of tears and in my emotional family the wailing was great. The family was well-known by now. An immense crowd, the whole Jewish community and many dignitaries from other North Eastern communities and even from Manchester and London attended the funeral, all assembled by word of mouth. After the funeral Oma, and my uncles and aunts, the official mourners, returned to the Grey House to sit Shiva. This is the week of mourning during which the mourners have to sit on uncomfortable, low chairs, and are not allowed out except on the Sabbath. The house itself seems to mourn. Mirrors are covered, pictures turned to the wall. During this period the bereaved are brought food and sustenance as they can do nothing for themselves; that, at least, is the theory. One of the rooms was turned into a temporary synagogue for the week. Prayers were said at home thrice daily. There was a full minyan, that is ten Jewish men above the age of 13, required to enable the male mourners to say Kaddish, the mourners' prayer. Admittedly the family provided most of the necessary quorum. Rabbi Miller in accordance with tradition delivered a eulogy on the first night, speaking from the heart, and others, some from out of town and representing causes which Opa had supported, also had their say paying warm tributes to Opa. I did not have to sit shiva but I was there most of the time, and for all the prayers. The school holidays had begun so I did not even have school to escape to.
It seemed at times, and this was one of them, that the Grey House had elastic walls. We managed to house all out of town visitors who had to stay over. Responsibility for the domestic arrangements fell on the in-laws and the maids. Jeanne took over. She ensured no one went hungry. During the course of the week, a stream of people came to the house. Though most people came for the evening prayers, there were callers throughout the day who tended to stand around chatting among themselves. So far from bringing provisions, with a few exceptions, our visitors expected sustenance to be provided for them in the form of tea or coffee and cakes. The house became something of a week-long coffee morning/afternoon during the Shiva week. Admittedly in wartime Middlesbrough there wasn't much else to do.
The day after my mother's 36th birthday the factory was destroyed by fire. I am indebted to Mr. Andrew Clarke, a local historian for the following report:
"Disaster came on 22 March 1945 when the whole factory went up in flames destroying not only the buildings but all the sewing machines and stocks of garments. Concern had been expressed at the time about the delay in fighting the fire and in his report to the Council, who were responsible for the fire brigade at the time, the chairman said that the outbreak was first discovered at approximately 1 a.m. by Mr. Barr who occupied the Sewage Farm House. He notified Mr. Norminton a council official, who lived at the West End [about 100 yards from the factory] and in the meantime Mr. Covell, the night watchman [Edgar's father] went into town to summon the Fire Brigade. Shortly after 5.30 a.m. three firemen and a trailer arrived on the scene, found they had no pump and returned to the station for it. When finally the pump was brought, it was found to be out of order. A call was put through for the Redcar Fire Brigade, ten miles away, at 5.59 a.m. and on arrival at 6.15.a.m. they were the first to have water through. The fire was soon under control, but the whole of the factory was gutted and only a shell remained, with rows and rows of charred skeleton frameworks of the sewing machines.
Over the weekend, emergency plans were put into operating to continue production by renting alternative premises. Machines were installed in the Challoner Hall, New Road and in the Priory Hall, Westgate. Employment for the girls was saved."
That these Keystone Cops antics of the local fire fighters should have occurred in the war, when all emergency services were supposed to be in a high state of readiness, beggars belief and makes one wonder what would have happened had there been an air raid or had lives been at risk. From a practical aspect it was better for the factory to be totally gutted than partially damaged, but had there been a semblance of efficiency some of the machinery might have been saved. The first we knew of the fire was a telephone call at about 8 a.m. No one had thought to telephone us in Middlesbrough until then, though it has to be said that there was not much that anyone could have done. Even getting to Guisborough quickly would have been difficult.
There was great weeping and distress. My family indulged themselves in one of their exercises in hysterics. "Oy und veh, oy a broch ", screamed Oma "vass wertt von uns bekimmen. Gott sei dank Papa lebt nicht mehr, ehr het vieder gestorben". "0 calamity, what will become of us. Thank God Papa didn't live to see this day, it would have killed him all over again." Logic was never a strong point with members of my family, particularly at times of emotional turmoil. It seemed that we were facing financial ruin. All the years of effort appeared to have gone up literally in smoke. Fortunately, the bulk of the cloth and other materials was stored in the stockrooms in Fountain Street. Only as much as was needed for immediate production was in the factory at the time. Stock would have been difficult to replace. Hysteria acted as a carthasis. Their temple had been destroyed. With the resilience typical of my family, even without Opa, they set to work to rebuild it. My mother's and Dora's organisational skills were fully tested. New machinery was acquired, not without difficulty, but we did have priority as we were on Government contracts at the time.
Jeanne's family, who owned the Bellow Machine Company in Leeds, were to the fore in supplying replacement machinery and equipment, and the business was soon operating again, albeit in a somewhat reduced and chaotic state. Because the factory and the offices were separate, the administration was not affected. The factory was insured, but insurance did not provide for the employees and their families who depended on the factory for their income.
The new building was completed within a few months. It was bigger and better than before, a more suitable T shape than the old L shape, with a new upper floor, more adaptable, with far better facilities. It did not take long for the phoenix to rise from the ashes, but it did take a great deal of expenditure of energy by those involved, and exacted a heavy price in emotion and ill-health.
On 8 May 1945, eleven months after D-Day, 6 weeks before my fourteenth birthday Germany surrendered; VE day: the War in Europe, our War, was over. The church bells rang, the lights came on again, happy crowds filled the streets everybody kissed everyone else, rationing, bombing and hardships were all momentarily forgotten. People threw parties in their homes and their street, wives and mothers and children looked forward to the return of their husbands sons and fathers. We had a school holiday, a whole day. My great regret was that Opa had not lived to see this day. Knowing the German incapacity to understand when they were beaten, we half expected them to pull some cat out of the bag. The Ardennes campaign, the Battle of the Bulge, had made us nervous, and our fears seemed justified when the V-bomb campaign began. It took a little time for the fact that Hitler was dead to sink in. No-one in our house really believed it, and there was some justification for their doubts in the escape of Martin Bormann and other leading Nazis who turned up years later in South America. We wanted the evidence of a dead body.
Euphoria was soon replaced by reality. There was still a war in the Far East, though its effect on us was less immediate. Sirens were now heard only when they sounded the end of factory shifts. Though the blackout had ended we still had other restrictions, including rationing, and considerable shortages. We did not have any sons in the Forces, whose safe return we could now expect, but there was still some family whose fate was unknown. Then the horrific pictures from Belsen and other concentration camps began to come through. There was a sense of disbelief The joy of victory was abated by the pain of the tragedy, the scale of which became more apparent day by day. It was horrifyingly unbelievable and the actuality was worse than even the most distorted minds could have dreamed up, and these acts had been perpetrated by what had professed at one time to be a civilised country, the land of Goethe, Heine, Bach and Beethoven, to name but a few. There was no pity or regret in my family for the destruction of Dresden or the scourge inflicted by the Russians on Germany. Charity was a scarce commodity where the Germans were concerned.
None of us shared Winston Churchill's philosophy of magnanimity in victory on seeing those photographs and newsreels, and one wonders whether he would have made the same statement had he known the full picture. I was now glad that Opa had not lived to see this. There was a feeling of "there but for the grace of God..", and a sense of guilt, not because you had escaped, but because you were part of a world, a society, which had let this happen. In my youthful innocence and optimism I thought that at least some good would come of this disaster, that such things would not be allowed to happen again, that there had to be an end to "Man's inhumanity to man".
We now, more than ever, realised how grateful we had to be for Opa's foresight. We had had, all things considered, an "easy" war. The factory, busy on war work, was, until the fire, doing well. Though taxation was high at 50% basic rate, there was nothing to spend your money on, so a healthy capital reserve was built up. Travel was difficult, so we stayed at home. There was a spirit of unity and of common purpose, which, however, did not inhibit miners and factory workers from striking for more pay or better conditions. When I saw the pictures of the Belsen babies, the sad piles of children's shoes and clothes, the horrific pictures of children being sent to the gas chambers with their parents, if they were lucky and not separated from them, I realised just how blessed I had been. I had gone safely to school every day, and come home safely every night: I had done my homework, listened to the radio, read my books and comics, spent my pocket money on records and the like, roamed freely and without fear on my bicycle, and paid little attention to the outside world. Of course, I felt guilty, but above all I was angry, angry at living in a world where civilised people could commit, or if they did not themselves commit, abet or just tolerate, such cruelty, such viciousness, and no one was exempt.
The immediate family had escaped unscathed except for Oma's sister and niece who, caught in 1944 by the Germans in Romania, perished at Auschwitz. Her son, Adolph Rockman, who for perfectly understandable reasons, changed his name to Peter, was in England throughout the war, married soon after and emigrated to Israel. We did not then know what had happened to Dad's brother Fritz in Belgium. There were also some cousins of Oma's in Poland about whom there was no news.
We welcomed the Labour victory in 1945. Clement Attlee became Prime Minister, and Ernest Bevin, to our surprise, Foreign Secretary. It was clear even to a 14-year old schoolboy that a new era had started, if for no other reason than the result of the general election. As, I suppose, did most schools we held a mock election, and to no one's surprise in that heavily Labour area, the Labour candidate, my friend Tony Hearn, won. But there was also a Communist candidate who was runner up. Russia was still our friend, and communism was not yet a dirty word.
Though looked upon as, an indeed they were, "capitalists" and entrepreneurs, my family had always had left wing leanings. The youth clubs and Zionist organisations they had been members of in Leipzig were all founded on Socialist principles. It was these ideas which informed my mother's relationship with "her girls". Max supported Labour. "A Socialist government" he said "is always good for business. It puts money in the hands of the working classes, who don't save or ruin themselves sending their children to expensive schools. They have no long term ambitions and will spend whatever they earn, thus creating more demand," with the corollary that Max could sell more shirts, and increase the company's profits. I am not sure in what category that assessment of the working classes placed my family, who spent their money even before they had earned it.
The war against Japan was also over within the next two months, in August 1945. The end came suddenly and as unexpectedly to us as doubtless to the Japanese themselves. The morality of the dropping of the first atomic bombs has been the subject of much argument since, but at the time few, I think, would have felt any qualms. "Serve them right" was the reaction of most people. The ramifications of the nuclear age into which we had been pitched were not yet appreciated.
Now we could all look forward to a return to normality. But what was normality? For most of my generation and even more so my parents' and grandparents' generations, who had survived two World Wars to say nothing of several local wars, revolutions, and pogroms, normality was fear, violence, bombing, destruction, rationing, blackout, shortages, fatherless families, and worry, worry, worry. On the other hand it is strange, looking back, how little the war appeared to affect our daily life, or perhaps, more accurately, how quickly people adapted to wartime conditions, so that these assumed the guise of normality. Life was much easier where we were than for those in London, Manchester, Liverpool and other large cities which had been heavily bombed, and which carried their scars for decades after the war.
Reading the newspaper headlines from those days now, it is interesting to see how they dealt with some of the major disasters, such as Dunkirk, the loss of Singapore or Tobruk, Dieppe, the sinking of our great battleships, the destruction of convoys, and our cities, the V-rockets. It was not that they presented any of these as a victory; it was more that they minimised the real damage and held out hope of survival when there appeared to be none. Conversely, they also treated good news rather cautiously, as if not quite believing it. Life went on. You just accepted rationing, blackout, shortages; "Don't you know there's a war on" became a catch phrase. It was also an excuse for inaction. Robb Wilton, a popular music hall comedian of the day, always started his act with the words: "The day war broke out... " When the war was over he started with "The day peace broke out", but it wasn't the same, and never caught on.
Victory was celebrated by the Guisborough Shirt & Underwear Co. Ltd., by a "Victory Dance, Whist Drive and Cabaret" on Monday 4 March 1946 at the Coatham Hotel, Redcar, which was the local place for such functions. The Dinner menu was traditional English - Oxtail Soup, Roast Beef, Lamb or Pork, Brussels sprouts, green peas, creamed or baked potatoes, followed by trifle or mocha sponge and custard, coffee and biscuits. There was little provision for vegetarians or indeed for those few of my family who only ate kosher, but doubtless special provision was made for the Top Table. The Dance Programme contained 16 items, quick-steps, fox-trots, waltzes, military two-steps and medleys, with the odd Schottische thrown in. The band was a real band with real live musicians playing, with considerable accomplishment, real instruments, saxophones, trombones, trumpets, violins, drums, without amplification, all the popular hits of the day and a few "Old Time" favourites thrown in. The girls made light of the shortage of men by dancing together. Drink ran freely, but in the presence of the management and womenfolk the men were circumspect in their intake. They did not have to worry about driving as very few had cars and there was no petrol for those who did, and coaches were laid on by the company to and from the Ball. Max started the festivities with a speech of thanks to the staff for their efforts, promising a successful future for the company, outlining his ambitious plans, and calling for even greater effort from the staff. He was a good and charismatic speaker, and his words went down well, but no one was in a mood to be critical.