A Most Extraordinary, Ordinary Man

This is the post I have been putting off writing for the past two months – the hardest post I have ever yet had to write, or expect ever to write.
My father’s obituary.

Abba passed away on the evening of Thursday, November 24th, 2022 – Rosh Chodesh Kislev according to the Jewish calendar. My brother managed to catch a flight from London that same evening and arrived just a few hours before the funeral, which, according to Jewish tradition, was held the following day (actually, the same day, since in Judaism, the day starts at sunset). As it was Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, we were told the latest the funeral could take place was at 11 am. The alternative was to wait till Saturday evening, Motzei Shabbat, as funerals are not held on the Sabbath. Moreover, as we were informed when we arrived at the cemetery, on Rosh Chodesh, it is customary not to deliver a eulogy as part of the burial service. Since both my sister and I had gone to considerable lengths to prepare what we were going to say, it was a relief to be informed by the rabbi from the Chevra Kadisha that it would still be possible to deliver a few words after the official burial service.

I was luckier than some, in that I got to say goodbye to my father. He had been in failing health since his operation the summer before last and was, in any case, already in his 96th year, so I cannot say his passing was unexpected. Knowing that, and never having overcome my grief at not having had the opportunity to say goodbye properly to my mother ז”ל, who passed away fifty years ago next month, I had made it a practice to take a loving farewell of him at every parting. So it was the day before he died, when I spent the afternoon and early evening with him. And so it was on his last evening on earth. On this particular evening, knowing he was in the habit of going to bed at around 8 pm, I phoned him at about 7:35 pm to wish him goodnight. I told him I loved him and hoped he would have a good night’s sleep and pleasant dreams, as I did every night.
At two minutes to eight, my sister phoned to tell me he was gone.

Of my father’s history, as a child refugee who came to England in 1939 in the Kindertransport, thus escaping the Holocaust which claimed his parents and much of his near and extended family, I have written before, when I reviewed Abba’s own autobiography. I mention it again now, partly because tomorrow, January 27th, is the International Holocaust Memorial Day, but chiefly because during his last months, I would often find him weeping silently, trying to hide the tears when he saw that I had noticed, apologising (!?) for having upset me or caused concern by his “loss of control”, but when pressed, admitting that he was grieving for his murdered family, blaming himself for “not having done enough to save them” – as if a 12-year-old boy could have done anything! I understand now the meaning and depth of “survivor’s guilt”. I understand, too, why it was so important to him to write his memoirs and to build his family heritage website – to preserve as much as possible of their memory and to recreate, at least on paper or in cyberspace, the family that was so cruelly taken from him.
He used to talk about Shabbat evening meals with his parents, brother and sisters and how he missed them – so much so that, standing over his grave that Friday noon, I could not help but think that now, at last, for the first time in more than eight decades, he would once more be celebrating Shabbat with his beloved parents. And not only them, but with his brother and sisters (all of whom survived the Holocaust, but who predeceased him) and, most of all, with my mother.

On Abba’s tombstone, we had inscribed a quotation from Psalms 15, verse 2:

הוֹלֵךְ תָּמִים, וּפֹעֵל צֶדֶק;    וְדֹבֵר אֱמֶת, בִּלְבָבוֹ

(Holech tamim upo’el tzedek, vedover emet bilvavo)

One who walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh truth in his heart.

The Hebrew word tamim (תמים), here translated as “uprightly”, has connotations in modern Hebrew of naivete and innocence. I do not think my father was naive, in the negative sense of the word. In his own biography, he states clearly that the circumstances of his life influenced his attitude to the world. There was a kind of distrust, a feeling that if we Jews do not look out for ourselves, nobody else is going to do it for us.
And yet, with it, he always looked for the good in people and, as a corollary of that, tried to make the best of the cards life dealt him. In this, I think innocence – in the most positive sense – was, indeed, one of his qualities.

Abba sometimes used to castigate himself for not having been able to provide more for his family in the way of material goods or to help us – his children – more, financially. But I know now, if I didn’t then (why didn’t I know then? My younger brother did!) that on more than one occasion, he and my mother denied themselves so that we children could have the best possible. I remember that one year, for my birthday – presumably because they could not afford to buy me something new – Abba gave me his own Parker fountain pen and propelling pencil set, with my name engraved on them in gold letters. I still have it – and cherish it all the more, knowing that he gave me something of his own – although few people use fountain pens these days and ink is hard to obtain.
Would that have been the year I started secondary school? That would have been at the age of eleven. The use of fountain pens was mandatory – no ballpoint pens in my posh, fee-paying girls’ school (to which I won a scholarship). I remember Abba accompanied me to school daily throughout my first year there, at least, navigating the intricacies of the London Underground on a journey that took well over an hour and involved at least one – or possibly two – connections. And when he and my mother decided I was old enough to go to school on my own, I remember that on the way back, by bus rather than train, I would stop off in Lower Regent Street where my father worked in Rex House, to visit him – and then we would travel home together. That stopped when my school moved to new premises in the Barbican.

During the school holidays, in summer especially, when military bands used to give lunchtime concerts in St. James’ Park, a stone’s throw away from Rex House, my mother would bring us three children to meet my father in the park, where we would picnic on the lawn and listen to the band. How unhappy we all were when he had to leave us at the end of his lunch break to return to the office!

And that recalls another memory, still earlier. I could not have been more than about four, as we were still living in a one-room flat – my parents, my brother and sister and myself. When Abba would leave for work in the mornings, I would cry and beg him not to go and then, I would stand at the window looking down into the street and wave goodbye, until his receding figure disappeared around the corner.
Did I, in fact, stand? Or was my mother holding me in her arms as I cried? So many decades have passed since then that I can no longer be certain.

So many memories come flooding back now, welling up from the mists of time, as the tears are welling from my eyes as I type. Myself as a little girl of two or three at the most, sitting next to Abba in the men’s section of our shul (synagogue), on his lap or curled up on the floor at his feet, playing with the fringes of his tallis (prayer shawl).

I remember him taking me to the ballet, to see a matinee performance of Swan Lake at Covent Garden. In those days, like many a little girl, I wanted to become a ballerina when I grew up.

His pride, and that of my mother, when, at the age of eight or so, I won an essay-writing competition sponsored by our local Borough Council, or several years later, another one sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in the UK or when I placed second in the Junior Examination of the London Board of Jewish Religious Education.

His grief when my mother died, when he came into the room I shared with my sister to tell us that the phone call which woke us late at night was from the hospital and that she was gone. I think that was the first time I ever saw him cry, as he asked, in despair: “What will I do without her?” Wrapped up in my own pain, it was only much later that I fully grasped the depth of his sorrow, this new blow compounding the loss of so much of his family in the Holocaust.

But Abba was strong, stronger than even he knew. Just as he had had to rebuild his life after the Second World War, now he brought us to Israel, remarried, adopted my stepsister and rebuilt his life for the second time. And then there were grandchildren, and eventually, great-grandchildren too. He loved them so much. But the pain of losing his original family was always there, as I was reminded every time I found him silently weeping during these last few months.

The theme of this year’s International Holocaust Memorial Day is “Ordinary People“. Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said: “What is abnormal is that I am normal. That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.

My father was not a Nobel Prizewinner. He was not an inventor or a statesman or a great surgeon or a sportsman or a celebrity of any kind. He was an ordinary man. Yet he overcame the catastrophic events of his childhood, he survived, he rebuilt his life – not once, but twice. He lived. He loved. He loved Us, his children. He loved me, as he often told me in the last few months, “even before you were born”.

Not “ordinary” at all.

My Dad.
An ordinary, extraordinary man.

Rest in peace now, Abba – till we meet again.
I love you.


About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
This entry was posted in Autobiography/biography, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to A Most Extraordinary, Ordinary Man

  1. David Allon says:

    Dear Simone, what a beautiful and touching tribute to Bernie.

    As you know I knew your father. I didn’t find him distrustful at all. On the contrary, i found him friendly and welcoming.

    All the times I met him, I found him happy and content, surrounded by love.


  2. This wonderful tribute has made me cry proper tears, Shimona. It is beautiful and very eloquent. I have your father’s book on my kindle and I shall read it with great interest as soon as I can. Losing your dad at whatever age is hard – mine died in 2004 at age 74 – and I send you and your family my sincerest condolences. ❤️

  3. Carole Schulman says:

    Dear Shimona, I have, as my friend Carolyn wrote above my comment here, cried proper tears as well reading this loving testimony to your father. I had a loving relationship with my father as well…he is the parent who reared me. And my two brothers. Losing him was a towering blow. Your loss is, I would imagine, similar in magnitude. My deepest condolences to you and the family.

  4. You have shared so much life events and love, I feel I can picture at least a small bit of your life with your Father. I will never be able to understand the pain he endured due to cruel and unjust war. Thank you for telling us of him. Lynn

  5. I am sorry for your loss. This is a beautiful tribute!

  6. Shimona, I can tell by your words, you and your dad were extremely close
    and are still to this day, and will remain so for all eternity. As you wrote
    his eulogy, things were remembered, and as you go forward, more memories
    will come to pass. Even though you can no longer physically “see” your dad,
    he walks by you each and every day. I hope he has left you a sign, be it subtle
    or apparent, that he is well and happy and he awaits your arrival in heaven
    love to you….laura

  7. With a huge lump in my throat and welling tears, I found your tribute for your Dad to be very loving. It had me thinking about all he endured and yet overcame, because he loved his family SO much. It is engraved on your heart, now and forever.
    The love of a Father towards his children is so tender, yet so very strong.

    Many hugs for you, Shimona. ((( ♥ )))

  8. A very touching tribute to your father. He has been a great man by creating his life twice, carrying his past in his heart. Thank you for the link to his autobiography.

  9. This tribute is so moving. I came here from your cat blog. Peace and hugs!

  10. meowmeowmans says:

    Thank you, Shimona, for this post about your extraordinary father, his life, and the love you shared. May his memory be a blessing.

  11. Dearest Shimona what a moving & beautiful tribute post to your Father!
    In many ways, our Father s were similar. Mine passed away August 2009 @ almost 92 years old. He WAS a Auschwitz Survivor. He also survived The Death March from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen. I only learned of this AFTER his passing. And that when he lived out in British Columbia for a decade he spoke every January 27th @ The Remembrance Day Service in the Government building.
    And funnily enough I too, played with my Father’s Tallit fringes as he practiced his singing or praying as he was a Cantor.
    So many memories. My Father sacrificed ALOT for me when I was a baby & child; more than I realized until he was gone.
    He never told me how ill he was, so I barely remember our last phone call. I do remember saying “I Love you Father” & his reply was “Me too Daughter.”
    (He always had trouble saying the “L” word.
    Our wonderful ordinary extraordinary Fathers.
    May Abba & Henry’s manes be for a Blessing ❤ ❤
    With warm regards & lots of {{{{hugs}}}} Sherri-Ellen aka BellaSita Mum

  12. Brian says:

    What a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to a most wonderful father, the love will be with you forever.

  13. 15andmeowing says:

    Such a beautiful tribute to your wonderful father. I don’t judge people on what they do for a living. I can tell by how much their children and family loved them if they were good or not and your dad was clearly amazing. I am sorry he is no longer with you, but glad you have so many memories to carry you through until you are together again. XO

  14. My Father & I spoke 3 times about what he lived thru’. I could ask questions during those sessions only. When I was in my 30’s my Father gave me the ONLY 2 photos of his Parents. Johann & Helene. ❤ My Paternal Grandparents ❤
    I have their photos framed & I see them every morning & night & I even talk to them. They are a part of me even tho' I never got to meet them…

  15. A mighty fine tribute to a wonderful parent, who, despite all they went through, found the strength to survive, twice over. I am sure his very essence will live on and the good karma created will serve him Abba well in his new life. Maybe you will meet again oneday?
    Gentle purrs to you and your family 💙 🙏 🕉 🐈

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