Shiva speech given by Anthony

A few months ago, my father spoke some words at the funeral of an old family friend. Immediately preceding him the Rabbi had spoken movingly, finishing with a biblical quotation. My father came to the lectern, slowly and shakily, as he did in his last years, and without a blink of an eye, and as was typical, without notes, continued the quotation – at length, in Hebrew and accompanied by the relevant commentary, blending it seamlessly into his eulogy. As we left, the Rabbi smiled wryly and said “never perform with children, animals or … Professors”. You can see therefore that anything I say now will be deeply inadequate.

My father was a man of so many dimensions: engineer, religious scholar, family man, that any summary account of his life would risk me speaking too lengthily. His legacy in each of these areas is so well known to friends here, that it is unnecessary to say much about it. In his last few weeks, knowing his illness was terminal, my father was concerned to talk about those things he felt he had achieved. So securely, were his achievements embedded, so widely recognised, and so carefully passed on to friends, colleagues and family, that there was little to say. In the end we were left discussing his membership of the Editorial Board of Journal of Physics, inadvertently left off his professional CV.

So, what can I say? If I speak too personally, my grief will be too raw, so I will attempt to speak of a dimension of my father, less known and well understood. One I have only really come to fully appreciate over the last few months. I will speak of my father as a Pole and as a son of Lwow and I will say something of how his wartime experiences shaped him. How can I speak of my father as a Pole when he was so passionately loyal to Britain, its institutions and its values? Precisely because his patriotism was in the Polish mould, he loved this country and what it stands for, with the tinge of romantic nationalism that was precisely and characteristically Polish.

So too, my father’s service in Civil Defence. He spoke often of seeing his father in uniform and of his pride. He spoke of his father on the beach in Iran marching with his column and seeing his brother who he had not seen for two years and not breaking rank or step, with his eyes forward. Perhaps most movingly when he described the arrival of a Polish solider, my grandfather’s batman, at the settlement on the borders of Siberia where he and my grandmother had been exiled.

My father’s family were very wealthy, leading merchants, part of an established intellectual community in Lwow. My grandfather was a town councillor and officer of the army reserve. My father was marked to take over the family business. All this, the houses, the cars, the belongings were taken from them. The community and the extended family were exterminated. The communists ensured that scarcely even the memory remained.

On arriving in the UK as part of a Polish refugee community my father observed those around him, including his own father, who had lost not just possessions but also professions and livelihoods. His determination to be an engineer and his pride in engineering and its fellowship (in the broadest sense) was in reaction to this. He felt that engineering was something truly transferrable and global. Further it was focussed on people’s universal and practical needs – his concern for engineering was not only intellectual but was marked by his own experience of hunger and material want. His particular approach to engineering drew strongly on the German and Austrian approaches he admired and were part of his Polish cultural heritage too.

My grandfather attended the great ‘Tempel’ synagogue in Lwow, a progressive synagogue established in the 17th Century but rebuilt in magnificent style in the 1840s. It was destroyed in the 1940s. My fathers family were typical haskalah – ‘enlightenment’ – Jews. Identifying, but not observant. My grandfather was elected to the council principally by the orthodox Jewish community because of his influence in Polish circles obtained through success in business.

When my father came to the UK, and particularly when he married my mother, my father ‘constructed’ his Judaism. It was not the continuation of family practice, rather it was my father re-interpreting and adapting Polish enlightenment Judaism, enriched by the German tradition of my maternal grandfather, for our life in the UK. His doctorate and his studies were dedicated to understanding Polish Jewry in the context of Polish political life and exploring the complex relations between them. His fascination with bible studies and interpretation are the hallmark of haskalah Judaism.

Anthony Finkelstein
September 2011