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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.

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