Atlit, the British Mandate internment camp – and a serious blot on British history (photo: Vic Lennard Aboudara).


Sooner or later, someone will remind you that you’re Jewish.

I was about 15 when my father said this to me. While I wasn’t denying being Jewish, and never have, I was questioning a number of aspects of my religion. This was my father’s response without qualification as to how and when this had happened to him. Many years later, I found out the truth.

My father was born in Paris to Sephardi Jews who had travelled there from Constantinople. As a child, his parents spoke Ladino (the Sephardi equivalent of Yiddish) and while my paternal grandfather was a religious man, my father showed little interest in Judaism. Not understanding a word of Hebrew, he learned his barmitzvah parrot-fashion.

In August 1941 my father lived with his parents in a flat in Paris, in an area primarily inhabited by Turks – a bit like the East End of London. Life for Jews changed dramatically after the German occupation of Paris in June 1940, including the requirement to register at the local police station and wear the Star of David on their clothing. My grandparents made the decision not to register, as did my father.

Very early on the morning of 20 August 1941, each end of their road was blocked off and the French gendarmes went house-to-house with a list of names from the register, arresting the Jews. They were first taken to the police stations and then to the internment camp at Drancy where they remained until transported to Auschwitz to be murdered. Over 4,000 Jews were rounded up in two days.

My father saw what was happening from his window and made the decision to escape. He told his parents to bolt the door after him and not to open it under any circumstances. Being in their 60s, the chances are that they wouldn’t have been taken away as the round-up concentrated on those aged between 16 and 50. He walked up to the roadblock where he could see both gendarmes and German soldiers. He knew that the gendarmes would recognise his accent as being French so he went to one of the Germans and asked what was happening. On being asked whether he was a Jew, he spat on the ground and said: “No, I’m an Arab.” With that, they let him leave. He travelled to Lyon where he became the manager of the department that distributed potatoes nationwide. While there, he ensured that his parents received a sack of potatoes a week to barter with until the end of the war. When he had to escape again, after another employee reported him as a Jew, he came to England via Spain (where he was arrested and imprisoned as a spy) and Portugal, joining the French commandos.

As for me, it took until the day after my 63rd birthday for that moment to happen.

I grew up in Redbridge, an area densely populated with Jews. My secondary school assigned two classrooms for dedicated Jewish assemblies such was the cultural make-up. I went to Jewish youth clubs and a university with a substantial Jewish Society. While I have seen anti-Semitism first-hand on a number of occasions, at no point did I feel it raised questions beyond the existence of racism and bigotry.

On 21 February 2019, I flew out to Tel Aviv to run the half marathon the next day. Seated next to me was a gentleman with his wife and two children. We started chatting. This was their first trip to Israel and while they had an itinerary, he was still looking for some interesting places to visit.

I suggested Atlit, the British Mandate internment camp for Jews attempting to enter Palestine in the 1940s, which is now a museum. My wife and I visited there in 2011 and took a guided tour. With its barbed wire fences and shower blocks, it bore more than a passing resemblance to a WWII concentration camp. I remember commenting to my wife that, at that moment, I really didn’t feel very proud to be British.

The guide spoke Ivrit most of the time and was clearly less than happy to be showing Brits around. Then my wife said to her: “My grandparents were here in 1940.” “Were they in the British army?” she enquired. “No, they were interned here,” my wife explained.

In November 1940 they had arrived on the SS Pacific from Romania. The intention was to deport Jewish refugees to Mauritius and so they were transferred, with about 1800 other such refugees, to the SS Patria, the ill-fated ship that sank in Haifa harbour on 25 November. The Haganah (the Jewish paramilitary organisation) had intended to disable the ship by holing it beneath the waterline. Unfortunately, they miscalculated the amount of explosive required. In about 15 minutes, the ship sank with the loss of 267 lives. The survivors were interned at Atlit; all of the survivors who had arrived on the SS Pacific were ultimately allowed to stay in Palestine. Our guide’s attitude towards us changed dramatically after this explanation.

On hearing this, the gentleman next to me uttered five words that rendered me speechless:

What else could we do?

‘We’? To whom was the ‘we’ intended? Not to me as a Jew but to me as a Brit. It forced me to choose which am I first: a Jew or British? And for that moment, it hit me that I was a Jew first and British second. It brought into perspective my inability to vote for Labour while Corbyn is leader of the party (and I am Labour through and through) and why on my way home from Tel Aviv (via Luton airport) I took part in an LBC phone-in, giving a Jewish view on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

While the incident hasn’t changed my almost atheistic religious belief, it has certainly reinforced the pride I feel as a Jew. And I now understand what my father meant all those years ago.

In June 2017, students in England sat the new 9-1 maths GCSE papers for the first time. The change was more than a simple altering of grades from the previous A* – G to 9 – 1. Many topics were moved from AS-level maths into the Higher level GCSE syllabus with a similar dropping down of over 15 topics from Higher level to Foundation level. For example, a barely numerate student struggling with Foundation level now had to tackle the likes of trigonometry, factorising quadratic expressions, vectors and simultaneous equations to name but a few.

The drive for harder exams was fuelled in no small part by the UK’s poor showing in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tables. These provide education rankings based on international tests taken by 15-year-olds in maths, reading and science. In 2013, the UK ranked 26th in maths. Education Secretary Michael Gove said that since the 1990s, test performances had been “at best stagnant, at worst declining” and promised reforms.

Even though the exam boards made resources available for teachers and schools, it became clear early on that there were problems. The Sample Assessment Material created by three of the exam boards was found to be so difficult by the maths regulator, Ofqual, in 2015 that each had to issue new, easier sets. “They fail to differentiate effectively across the full range of ability. This is due to the assessments being too difficult,” Ofqual concluded.

Then there was the confusion as to what a pass grade would be. Grade 4 was referred to as a ‘standard pass’ and grade 5, a ‘strong pass’ by the then education secretary, Justine Greening. Ofsted, the school inspectors, stated that schools would be measured on their number of GCSE passes at grade 5 or above. So is a grade 4 really a pass? Schools accept a grade 4 as a pass that allows students to move on to A-level subjects; universities also stated that a grade 4 will be accepted as a pass.

When the first set of results came out in August 2017, students needed a mark of just 17% to achieve a grade 4 pass at Higher level. A grade 7, which Ofqual aligned with an old-style A grade and most schools had intended to use as a benchmark for progression to A-level, was just 51%. To achieve a maths GCSE grade A the previous year required a mark of 70%.

This begs two questions:
• In what measure in a developed country can 17% ever be acceptable as a pass mark?
• How can students who effectively failed half the questions on the papers possibly progress to A-level?

At the top end, where a grade 9 was given to just three per cent of students, the grade boundary was 79%. Only three per cent of students achieved over 80% in these new exams – yet both Ofqual and the exam boards stated they were satisfied with this state of affairs. Really?

In the November 2017 exams, the grade boundaries fell even further: 13% for a Higher level grade 4 and 47% for a grade 7. Given that these could only be sat by those who had taken the June exam, the decrease in grade boundaries was hardly surprising.

The Foundation level maths course is intended for those who find maths challenging. But given that maths heads of departments in schools are under pressure to deliver pass grades, it is going to take a very brave person to sit any students for Foundation level when a Higher level pass requires such a low mark and obtaining a grade 4 at Foundation level requires a mark approaching 50%. The fact that Foundation students will be getting the vast majority of each homework, test and exam wrong is a soul-destroying situation yet that is what will be happening. The educational wellbeing of students no longer comes first.

How did we get here? The green-eyed envy of PISA achievements by countries in the far east has led to an untenable new education system. In Japan, teaching maths in primary school requires a maths degree; in the UK, it’s a GCSE pass in maths – and that’s the real problem. Maths needs to be taught by specialists in primary schools (rather than the current situation where a single maths specialist acts as an authority on the subject within a school) to bring up the general level of numeracy before transfer to secondary school. Reasoning and problem-solving skills, cornerstones of the new 9 – 1 maths syllabus, also need to be developed.

A 2011 government report stated that 26.6 per cent of secondary school maths teachers did not have a maths degree. While having such a qualification doesn’t necessarily make for a good teacher, it does give the required depth of knowledge. Honing teaching skills can be done through continued professional development.

Just for a moment, fast forward five years. The student who ‘passed’ maths with 17% last June has taken A-levels in, say, philosophy, sociology and politics, obtaining good enough grades to go to university. Towards the end of their course, they decide to become a primary school teacher and do a PGCE (where 99% of those completing the course pass). Next stop: teaching maths to a primary school class of students. And we think the situation can’t get any worse? It really is an absolute farce.

This blog is dedicated to everyone who has ever tried and failed but never given up…

Back in the 1960s, an annual sports day was held for the various synagogue Hebrew classes. My parents didn’t have a car so the coach trip from Redbridge to Clapham Common was quite an adventure. There were all the typical races of the day including the sack race, the three-legged race, the 50-yard dash and my favourite, the egg-&-spoon race. I was never the most sporting of kids but I was happy to participate and it was a great day out.

I must have been about six years old when I took part in the egg-&-spoon race and came third. Third! For me that was an incredible achievement – until I realised that only the top two received a prize. But third – wow! About 10 minutes later I saw the boy who had come fourth walking around with his prize, a ball. Why did he have a prize for fourth when I didn’t get one for coming third?

I asked my dad why this was so. His reply? “He didn’t win the ball. His father bought it for him.” I have never forgotten those words or how it felt to believe that another boy’s father loved him enough to buy him a ball but mine didn’t.

Over the years I’ve tried, and failed, to win a sporting award. Swimming, putting, pool, darts, snooker… always the bridesmaid, never the bride!

Fast forward 55 years. Having had to stop running for almost 20 years with a serious lower back problem, I started jogging about two years ago and found little reaction from my back. Apparently the stiffening of ligaments due to age has stabilised my lower spine and allows me to run again. Since October 2015 I have completed two London Marathons and dozens of 5k, 10k and half-marathons including regular Saturday morning 5k parkruns.

On Saturday 9th September 2017, I was in America visiting my son and his wife. Being the 9/11 weekend, there were numerous commemorative 5k and 10k events including one in Bridgewater, New Jersey, the 9/11 Heroes Run for the Travis Manion Foundation. As this was only 20 miles from where I was staying I thought, “why not?”

America is never short of patriotism and the speeches before the 5k run inspired everyone. I was amazed at the number of first responders running who were dressed in full uniform including fire-fighters replete with oxygen tanks! I ran around 27 mins 30 secs, which was OK given the hills and heat, and placed 57th of the 200+ runners. I picked up a drink and a banana and drove home.

Next day I saw some photos of runners with a medal round their neck. I should know better – there’s always a finishers’ medal in UK events and I’d missed picking this one up. I emailed the organiser only to be told that medals were reserved for the top three in each age range. On checking the results, I was amazed to find that of the 13 people aged 60 and over, I’d come third…

At that moment, the memories came flooding back. I was a six-year-old again completing that egg-&-spoon race only this time I didn’t need my father to buy me a prize – I’d actually won one by right.

The organisers mailed the medal to my son. He must have thought I was mad when I asked him to post it rather than wait a few months until he came to London. I even insisted on him using a tracked delivery method!

Had my father bought me that ball all those years ago, I wouldn’t feel this sense of achievement. I realise now that it wasn’t because he didn’t love me. It was his way of preparing me for life’s disappointments and instilling in me the ethic that winning something has to be a worthwhile experience. Prizes have to be deserved. He was right.

Sunday 16 July 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of Vel d’Hiv, the rounding up of the Parisian Jews to the local velodrome and eventual deportation to Auschwitz. Over 13,000 Jews were taken over a two-day period; only a few hundred returned.

While being the most famous of the Paris round-ups, it wasn’t the first. That occurred in May 1941. My father witnessed first-hand the events of the third one in August 1941. The first time I heard the story was when my son was 15 (around 2003) and wrote a biography on his grandpère for school.

In August 1941, my father lived with his parents (Vitali, 69, and Estelle, 61) in a flat at 77 Rue Sedaine in the 11th arrondissement (district), an area primarily inhabited by Turks. Life for Jews changed dramatically after the German occupation of Paris in June 1940. The publication of the premier Statut des Juifs prevented Jews from doing civil, commercial or industrial work, or from holding public office. At the same time, the law concerning Jewish foreigners was proclaimed and authorised the immediate internment of non-French-national Jews. The Vichy regime under Marshal Pétain wanted to be rid of all such Jews.

By late 1940, all Jews had to register at the local police station and wear the Star of David on their clothing. Although born in Constantinople, my grandparents were Sephardi Jews rather than Turks but made the decision not to register, as did my father.

Very early on the morning of 20 August, each end of Rue Sedaine was blocked off and the French police went house-to-house with a list of names from the register, arresting the Jews and taking them first to the police stations and then to the internment camp at Drancy where they remained until transported to Auschwitz to be murdered. Over 4,000 Jews were rounded up in two days.

Macron has stated that: “Not a single German took part.” While the German soldiers may not have gone door-to-door, they certainly manned the blocks at either end of the road.

My father saw what was happening from his window and made the decision to escape. He told his parents to bolt the door after him and not to open it under any circumstances. Being in their 60s, the chances are that they wouldn’t have been taken away as the round-up concentrated on those aged between 16 and 50 but younger children were certainly taken. For example, in the November 1942 round-up, records show that the Aboav family at the same address (Clara aged 43 and her daughter Jeannette, aged 2) were also deported to Auschwitz.

Walking out of the front door, my father saw one of his cousins lying in a gutter and dozens of friends and neighbours being herded to the end of the street. On walking up to the road block, he could see both French gendarmes and German soldiers. He knew that the gendarmes would recognise his accent as being French so he went to one of the Germans and asked what was happening. On being asked whether he was a Jew, he spat on the ground and said: “no, I’m an arab.” With that, they let him leave.

He made his way to Lyon in the Free French Zone to the south where, he said, he became the manager in charge of the national distribution of potatoes. From here, he made sure that a sack of potatoes was delivered to his parents in Paris on a weekly basis. Even after being informed on as a Jew and having to escape again, he ensured that the delivery continued until the end of the war. This single act saved his parents’ lives.

I was never sure whether this story was true or fabricated until after my father died. In a locked black briefcase I found all his documents from World War 2 including his National Insurance card for 1941, a season ticket for travel in Lyon and pay slips from the Bureau Départemental de Répartition de la Pomme de Terre (The Department for Distribution of Potatoes) dated from October 1941 to December 1942.

Between January and April 1943 he made his way to Spain, was imprisoned as a spy, escaped to Portugal and then made his way by boat to England where he joined No.10 Commando. I’m still researching the raid on the island of Sark of December 1943 in which he took part and received the award of Knight of the Legion d’Honneur shortly after he died in 2015. But that’s for another blog…

Sunday 9 July 2017 was a memorable day for two reasons.

The first was the Virgin Sport British 10k for which I had a place. Even at 61 I’m still competitive and I’m always looking to run personal bests so gigging the night before and getting to bed at 1am probably wasn’t the best preparation!

So, up at 6.45, porridge, shower and dressed to run, I made my way to a nearby underground station to get to Piccadilly Circus. Standing on the platform, I could see a number of other people carrying the special drop-off bag – over 10,000 people took part.

Being near the end of the line, getting a seat was no problem. With headphones and an iPod, I was soon in a world of my own, listening to Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence. I must have closed my eyes for 20 seconds or so. As I opened them, I was aware of the song still playing in my ears, and the person opposite me looking at me in a concerned manner. As I looked around I could see a number of other people also staring at me. Then I became aware of the air on my cheeks and as I touched them with my fingertips I realised they were wet. I’d been crying and given how wet my cheeks were, they must have been floods of tears.

Why else was Sunday 9 July 2017 a memorable day? My mum would have been 90 had she lived that long. She died two years ago, shortly after my dad, and while I think about my dad more often than her, she had been in my thoughts for the previous few days. Something about that song triggered a painful, emotional response over which I had no control. I sat there, a tad embarrassed, wiped away the tears and the journey continued. I thought a little about what I would have done to celebrate her birthday had she been alive. Perhaps a birthday cake or a trip to a local gastro-pub in a similar fashion to Father’s Day for my dad some years ago. For five minutes or so, time stood still as I allowed myself to dream about what could have been. Then we arrived at Piccadilly Circus and my thoughts turned back to the race.

The 10k was hard work in 25° of direct sunlight. I finished but way outside my personal best. In the scheme of things it didn’t really matter.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve written a number of blogs that have struck a chord with many readers. This is probably another one. Many of you will relate to being caught out by a memory, smell or action that brings on tears. You’re not alone.

I’m starting to believe it is wishful thinking on the part of some people that time is a healer. For some of us, it isn’t. The emotions are as painful as they were originally, perhaps a little less raw but just as strong. All you can do is roll with the moment until the feelings subside – and never, ever feel guilty that you are an emotional human being.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have written this blog had the circumstances been different. Last week was the second anniversary of my mother’s passing and Sunday was Father’s Day. Even though it’s also two years on, I’m still coming to terms with my father’s death and the discoveries I made about him after he died. So when an old school friend posted a photo of Goodmayes Hospital in a facebook group, I mentioned that I had been there for treatment. When prompted, I admitted that I had tried to commit suicide at the age of 18.

This is not common knowledge – my wife is one of the few people who know the truth about this – but if revisiting this event will help someone else then this blog has a purpose.

I have made mention in various other blogs of my childhood. It wasn’t a happy one. My frustrated father was physically abusive; my controlling mother, psychologically so. By the time I could have had a relationship with my older brother, he had left home. I spent some years being bullied at school on a daily basis. The result was an awkward youth with few social skills – I certainly didn’t know how to make friends or retain the few I had. That came much later. I was also prone to dark moods and outbursts of uncontrollable temper that continued until three years ago when I finally sought professional help.

I didn’t start going to a youth club until I was 16 and a year later I had my first real girlfriend. Eight months on when her younger brother had his barmitzvah in June 1974, I was invited. What happened that evening is somewhat sketchy but a black mood came over me and I went home early.

To understand what happened next, you have to try to put yourself in my shoes. I had few friends and I had just been a major source of embarrassment to my first girlfriend and her family. In that state of mind it’s not surprising that I’d had enough.

With my mother, I’d hardly had a good role model for treasuring life. A few years earlier I’d hauled her out of a gas oven to save her; she suffered from depression and often spoke about taking pills to end it all. She remained that way throughout her life. After she died, I found a large stash of painkillers hidden at the back of a drawer.

I remember mixing Veganin with red wine and trying to swallow it. It was so bitter that I retched. Instead, I swallowed the tube of painkillers, washed them down with the bottle of wine, laid down and passed out.

Somehow I woke up next morning. I shouldn’t have. I’d overdosed on painkillers mixed with alcohol. I really shouldn’t have been alive. I remember how disappointed I was at waking up. When I got up, I couldn’t balance. It took many hours before I could.

I must have spoken to my girlfriend about this because it got back to my parents. After seeing my GP, an appointment was made for me to be seen at Goodmayes Hospital, a mental hospital in Redbridge, and my father came with me to the first visit. I was intelligent enough to know that if I told the truth there was every likelihood I would be medicated or detained so I lied. I played down the events and said it was just a cry for help. Trust me, it wasn’t. After a second visit I was discharged.

Over the years, depression has hit me so hard at times that I have fallen asleep praying that I wouldn’t wake up. I’m not sure to whom I would have been praying as I’m an atheist but perhaps that reinforces the mental turmoil and anguish I went through.

It hasn’t always been like that. Having learned Reiki and meditation to counter the pain of being weaned off hormone replacement steroids 15 years ago, I tried to follow one of the five Reiki principles: “Just for today, I will not hold on to anger.” Sometimes I succeeded, often I didn’t.

What finally drove me to seeking the help of a professional counsellor was a typically pointless argument with my son that I had instigated and the realisation that unless I did something I ran the risk of ruining one of the most important relationships in my life. And that was on the back of over 30 years with my wonderful wife who has put up with sheer hell from me at times.

The three months I spent with the counsellor changed everything. She unpeeled my life like an onion, layer by layer, and got to the root of my continual anger. Although my parents both died within six months of the counselling, and I never really rebuilt my relationships with them, I bear no malice to either of them. My anger towards them has fully subsided.

If you have read this and any aspect rings alarm bells, do these three things:
1. Find a counsellor. It might take a few attempts to find the right one for you but it will certainly change your life for the better.
2. Apologise to those you’ve hurt. They will appreciate your honesty.
3. Reconcile your differences with those you love – before it’s too late.

There’s a first time for everything. Your first wedding anniversary. Your first child’s first birthday party. Completing a year at your first job. Events that are memorable for all the right reasons. But not all such landmarks are happy ones.

My father died on 5th April last year. Losing a parent is one of the most painful experiences anyone can go through but for me it’s exacerbated by having an almost photographic memory. I remember every moment from him being hospitalised last February until his death two months later. Being told he had terminal kidney cancer and the interminable meetings regarding continuing healthcare, all the way through to being told that the general doctor had misdiagnosed the cancer and that my father could go home – and him dying in that hospital bed three days later.

Every day I relive another episode. Asking why the word ‘cancer’ wasn’t mentioned in his continuing healthcare notes, arguing with the oncology doctors, repeating verbatim what I had been told about the tumour, insisting on further scans and then the final realisation that there wasn’t a cancer. Seven weeks. Seven painful, wasted weeks.

As my father died very late at night and without warning, I didn’t get to say goodbye to him. I had to wait 13 hours before being able to see him in the mortuary. No one can prepare you for the sight of a dead person let alone your parent but it gave me the opportunity to get some degree of closure. Writing this now starts to bring back the weight of emotion I felt at the time along with the clearest of memories of how he looked. Had I not known he was dead I would have thought he was sleeping. It was the most peaceful I had seen him in many years.

I also relive my mother being taken to the same hospital with a chest infection, being in the adjacent bed when my father died. Her delirium and refusal to take medication. Being told late one Monday night that she probably wouldn’t survive until the morning. She did. I even managed to get her into a care home where she lived for just five weeks until passing away last June. I have the reliving of those memories to look forward to.

There has to be some balance, some better moments to remember. Like my last conversation with him when he praised me for working with children, something he had never said before. And finding out three weeks after he died that he had been made a knight of the national order of the légion d’honneur. As a proud Frenchman he would have appreciated that. I received his medal and showed it to my mother at my last meeting with her before she died. The ladies around her were really taken with his award but my mother’s delirium had returned and she barely acknowledged it.

Reliving all these moments has taken its toll on me. I have lived under a black cloud of depression for the past month or so, unable to share what I feel with anyone. I have to accept that nothing I can say or do will make any difference to what has gone but has the very real risk of damaging the relationships that remain.

Yes, there is a first time for everything and over the next few months I will have to relive both of my parents’ deaths and their funerals. What I hope is that when the anniversaries return next year, the intensity will have started to fade a little.

First published on Huffington Post