Memorial Service speech given by Tamara
Thank you so much for joining us this evening. It is very special to be at Hendon Reform Synagogue and an honour to be the final event here in the synagogue and afterwards for coffee in what we will always remember as “the adjoining Kingsley Fisher Hall”.
I’m glad that we have filled the front row. If it wasn’t full when we came to synagogue mum would always make her way up there, to the embarrassment of my teenage self. In response to my objections she would say she wanted to be “up near God and all the action”. Of course I now do exactly the same to my children.
I have a lot of strong family memories of this synagogue. The speeches to the barmitzvah boy delivered by Rabbi Katz the elder addressing the family, that began “we have never seen you in synagogue before … and doubtless we will never see you again”. And the founders Mr Kingsley and Mr Fisher coming up to the bimah on Kol Nidre in black bowler hats, and as the sounds of the solemn Kol Nidre prayer sounded Daniel would lean across to me and say “look it’s the home pride men”, ruining for all time for me the solemnity of that annual melody.
My mum would have been part chuffed and part embarrassed to see you all here today. She would certainly have told me to move on swiftly to the main business of the evening. I will do so but this evening is in memory of her and I will dwell for a moment on who she was.
To be honest as far as I’m concerned she was just my mum. As I said at the shiva we had an uncomplicated relationship. I thought she was marvellous and she thought I was marvellous. We were our own mutual appreciation society. My only complaint to her was that when my women’s group talked and agonised about mothers and our relationships she had left me with no “stuff” to deal with and talk about. In the months since she died the hardest moments are when I see an adult daughter and mum interacting – a touch, a smile, an initimacy – I recognise it and I miss it. But as friends have said to me, many people never have that relationship so I remain grateful that I did have it for nearly 50 years.
As well as a great mum to us, she was a truly great friend to many of you here. Even when she was ill and frail she could be great company and provide support and advice even to those who came to support and help her. Bnai Brith was a feature of her life from her youth to her death. It was where she met my dad, where they built many friendships, and in the end from whom she got so much support. She would be delighted so many Bnai Brith friends are here this evening. And she gave back not just in her hospitality and cake baking, but in her leadership, administrative skill and creativity as joint President with my dad.
She was an amazing wife and support to my dad. His first invitation on a date was to an exhibition of electrical engineering products but she could see beyond his earnestness, and always had the ability to both support his intellectual endeavours and career, while bringing out his sense of humour and fun.
And after an early career as an industrial chemist she became a teacher and a truly extraordinary one, able to make maths accessible to those who found it a challenge and introducing many young children to the excitement of science with creative experiments that she tried first at home.
Above all I am grateful for the Jewish life my parents created for us. Memories of family Friday nights that they built with care and which we continue together. Cooking for 20, tolerating grandchildren playing football games in the hall, babies put to sleep in various rooms of the house, last minute additional guests. They did not just create memories, they seeded tradition and commitment. That is her legacy.
And as she would say it wasn’t meant to be like that. That was not what Hitler intended. When I spoke at the shiva it never occurred to me to talk of my mum the survivor. While she would always speak about it if asked and her history was never a secret, never a taboo, it was also not what defined her. But when I listened to one of the many talks she gave at schools across the country about her experiences which is captured on video and which Michael has now put on a great website in memory to my parents, she answered a question about whether she ever talked to her own children about her experiences. She told them how when I was at Oxford and she came to visit one time I said I wanted to go to a restaurant for dinner and for her to tell me the whole story, just for me, starting at the beginning and finishing at the end with no interruptions. I had forgotten that and I was glad to remember because it was as she clearly recognised very important.
And there is a particular bit of the story that I find hardest. It is the part about my grandmother who early in the twentieth century earned a PhD in economics, who suffered the death of her son from appendicitis and then managed to see her children out of Belsen on a rare prisoner exchange train in early 1945. And then she died, that first night of freedom in Switzerland, from mistreatment and starvation. Tonight as this evening is in aid of the Wiener Library it is not just in memory of my mother, but of her mother Margarethe Wiener and of her sister, my mother’s aunt Nutti, who died in Sobibor concentration camp with her son Fritz. And in memory of my aunts Ruth and Eva who left Belsen with my mother and built lives and families despite their experiences.
A few years ago my mum sent this email to us and tonight feels the right occasion to read it out. I think she would have wished it.
“Dear children, nephew, nieces
Just a few lines about something I have been thinking about these last few days and thought I might tell you about. This month on the 3rd of June was the anniversary of my aunts birthday. Not a shattering event but it made me think of her and her family and how little I knew her. She was my mother’s older sister born about 1893. We called her Tante Nutti, her name was Gertrude Abraham nee Saulmann. She had a husband Jean Abraham and a son Fritz, a little younger than Ruth with dark curly hair . They also came to Holland and she and my mother, your grandmother, were very close. We all were taken to the transit camp Westerbork and in July 1943 they were transported to Sobibor. Basically they were wiped off the face of the earth together with about 100,000 who were transported this way. I write this not to cause horror and dismay but to bring a spark of her existence back, after all she was my aunt, a very close relative.”
Today mum would want us to remember Tanta Nutti.
Before I pass on to Anthony I want to end remembering my mother’s sense of humour. I was searching through old emails from her and came across a couple that made me smile:
A reply to one of the many endless family exchanges about what to buy for someone’s birthday read:
“What on earth are these earphones made of? I will contribute £50, but that does not even purchase a whole earful!” Or another
“I am attaching my short talk at the Jewish Museum. Reading it is not compulsory, there will just be a short test before dinner!”
That is my mother’s voice, that is what I miss, and that is what I will remember.