How do you tell your children that if they’d been born just six decades earlier they probably would have been murdered? Or, if they were lucky, have to be hidden by strangers and live in fear of discovery, far from the protection of their parents?
My children grew up in Amsterdam. For four years we lived in the street where the Gestapo had been located in the city. Our street was also where the ‘Central Office for Jewish Emigration’ and the Department IV 4B were based – where bureaucrats organised the mass deportations of the city’s Jews. According to the US Holocaust Memorial museum, there were 79,000 Jews living in Amsterdam before the war. Eighty percent of Dutch Jewry perished.
Amsterdam was a fun place to bring up my children. They paddled and swam in pools, swung on zip wires, played in playgrounds and sandpits, on slides and climbing frames. We drank hot chocolate and ate poffertjes – little pancakes dusted with icing sugar. We went to the big art museums, and to the zoo.
Sometimes I would think about Jewish children exactly like mine, who lived in homes just like ours, whose lives closed down in the 1940s. First banned from schools and playgrounds, then, if they couldn’t escape, desperately trying to hide. In our home’s big basement, I would imagine putting up a false wall, trying to keep children quiet, hiding, terrified for years. Who would feed us? How would we survive?
Growing up Jewish in leafy Hertfordshire, I didn’t suffer from overt anti-Semitism. No one shouted “Christ killer” at me in the street, unlike my husband on the way to school in a working class area of Manchester, and no one ever threw pennies at me, like his fellow students did in Oxford University bars.
School kids did, too, have thrown pennies at my son. He was about 12, at the bus stop wearing a school uniform which marked him as going to a Jewish school. When he was only seven, a girl noticed that he was wearing a skull cap – part of his uniform – and hissed “Jew!” at us, her face twisted with hate.
“What did she mean?” he asked. I didn’t know what to tell him. I still don’t.
In an A-Level economics class, my daughter was part of a discussion group when the supermarket chain Tesco was mentioned. “It’s owned by the Jews, they’re all rich,” said one boy. “They rule the world,” said another.
Israel – a place where my sister has made her home, and where we’d run to if anti-Semitism ever got really bad in the UK – is a subject I know my children need to be briefed on when they reach the teenage years. Preparing them for anger and hostility from contemporaries who believe in a binary narrative in which Israel is only ever portrayed as monstrous.
Jews who won’t denounce the only Jewish state in the world can be made to feel like pariahs. My children, who like to debate and discuss, who both studied politics, tend to keep quiet when the Middle East is discussed; they feel their peers have already made up their minds, and are nervous about the passionate fury the subject seems to evoke.
When we go to synagogue, we walk past security guards. At the end of Jewish festivals we turn on our phones with worry to see if there has been a terrorist attack on Jewish people. When we pray, when we celebrate, when we congregate, we are constantly aware that we might be a target for hate and violence.
I hope I’ve done enough to make them proud of their Jewish heritage, that it will sustain them when life gets hard. I hope that they will be brave and strong enough to speak up.
Despite all of this, we never felt that anti-Semitism was a systemic part of British life. These things were present, but never overwhelming. That has changed in recent years. The balance shifted. The latent threat became a constant discussion, something that kept us awake at night, that made us wonder if we had a future in our country. The changes in the leadership of the Labour Party have helped reduce that feeling, but it hasn’t gone away altogether.
My children are young adults now, going out into the world, making their own choices, developing their identities. I hope I’ve done enough to make them proud of their Jewish heritage, that it will sustain them when life gets hard. I hope that they will be brave and strong enough to speak up when they experience anti-Semitism. But it saddens me more than I can express that part of my job as their mother was preparing them for the possibility that one day they might be hated for their ethnicity.
I continue to tell my beloved children about the relatives we lost in the Holocaust, passing on the scraps on their stories that we have. I pray that they – and their children’s children – will never suffer the same fate.
“I don’t know what you’re scared of,” one of my Facebook friends said to me before the last election. “It’s you that scares me,” I wanted to say, but couldn’t. That’s how deeply ignorant this country is about Jews, and about anti-Jewish racism.
So, instead, I have written a book for teenagers about all the things that scare me. Everything from catty remarks to violent attacks. It was not an easy book to write – it is hard to face your fears and twist them into a story.
But I always felt it was an essential book to write. I wanted to help young Jews, like my children and their cousins feel proud and strong, and create allies for them.
Because maybe, just maybe, a new generation can make things change.
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