Rose Berl grew up in York, the daughter of a Jewish refugee father who escaped Nazi Czechoslovakia. To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January, she tells Rebecca Russell the story of her father’s family and what it means to grow up in the shadow of such tragic events
Your father, Max Berl, arrived in York in 1939 a young Jewish refugee from Prague. It’s a harrowing story as he left behind many family members, including his mother and sister. They and others in your family were murdered at Auschwitz. Did your father talk to you about the family he left behind?
Dad did not talk about such things in detail. It was only after his death in 1999 that I found out more about the family history while researching my uncle’s (his brother’s) inheritance. He would say “never mind” if I tried to discuss a serious matter to do with the past. I somehow understood that there were subjects too threatening to his fragile ‘hold-it-together’ demeanour to discuss.
How did your father process these terrible events do you think?
He needed a life of routine – always the same breakfast, the same time for the evening meal. He never displayed strong emotions. Instead, he would channel his feelings into music, art and literature. When listening to opera or reciting poetry, you could see that he was visibly moved. He also loved dogs. The first time I saw him cry, the only time now I think of it, was when our pet dog died.
Did you grow up feeling you were ‘different’ from your school friends because you had a Jewish-European father?
Yes, I felt different even though my mother was a York woman [Rose’s mother met her father in York and married during the war]. I remember one day at primary school a boy said, “Your father is a Jew”. When I asked Dad if he was Jewish, his reaction was “Yes, but don’t tell anyone”. So, from an early age I felt we had something to be ashamed of as a family.
Growing up in what was then Sudetenland, Dad was the only Jewish boy in his class. Anti-semitism was rife, and the teacher didn’t like him. But he was a star pupil so that protected him. I think this is what gave me the unspoken message that one has to be the best in order to remain safe. This meant I often despised myself in later life, especially when I would fall short of what I considered ‘outstandingly’ good. I assumed I had to be the best in order to hold everything together.
How important was it for your father to assimilate or adapt to British life? Many refugees and migrants talk of having two lives – a public and a private one.
Dad tried not to stand out, which wasn’t easy as he had a strong accent – although his English was “better than the English” (to quote him). We observed British customs such as Christmas. However, he also attended the Jewish services in Aldwark in York, and fasted for twenty-four hours on the Day of Atonement. We would have a Passover meal of sorts, with matzos and hard-boiled eggs. Dad bought Jewish food every week in Leeds – matzos and herring salad, that kind of thing. But he ate bacon and eggs for breakfast every weekday, and crab when we went to the seaside! This was not to deny his Jewishness. It was simply that he was an ultra-liberal Jew who believed that many religious laws were outdated.
He was successful in his profession and this could cause resentment. For example, because of his work we were the first in the Festival Flats [new council flats in 1950s York] to be connected to the phone network. A neighbour complained to the authorities that a foreigner should not have preferential treatment. My Mum responded by saying ,”My husband has been British for years”, which was true, plus he had served in the British Army.
MAX BERL IN LATER LIFE
Survivor guilt is something that touches many people who have had to flee their country and left family behind. The Holocaust, has had a huge impact across generations. Could you describe how it has touched you personally?
I had an eating disorder for many years. I recall feeling ashamed when I binged on food and then fasted. I imagined my paternal grandmother being disappointed in me. I was lucky to receive treatment, but I believe the illness in part was exacerbated by my family history. The pain is passed down through the generations.
The pressure I felt to be the ‘special one’ was crushingly powerful in my life. The story of my father leaving behind his beloved mother, his younger sister and brother, and other family members when he fled to England was a heavy burden on me. His mother and sister were murdered in Auschwitz. Fortunately his brother survived. However, Dad could not have saved them by staying in Czechoslovakia. He was powerless. I took on the role of being my grandmother’s and aunt’s inheritor. I look a lot like my aunt, which makes it even more poignant.
What would you say to help refugees and asylum-seekers who are struggling with the trauma of leaving behind their country and loved ones?
Asylum-seekers and refugees have individual histories so no one size fits all. What has happened to them could happen to any of us. I would say that it is important to learn about your new country of course, but you have a right to be here and be accepted for who you are. Also, don’t feel ashamed to seek help if you need to talk about your feelings. This is something I have learnt is very important.
Rose Berl divides her time between York and Amsterdam. She is a Trustee of York City of Sanctuary