“I was born in Kenya in 1953 and spent a very happy childhood in Nairobi - a very ‘Jewish’ childhood in a community of a few hundred people with a rabbi, cheder, synagogue and communal Seders. My sister still lives in Nairobi but I came to school in England when I was twelve.
Music was terribly important in our home but not religious music. The Jewish music I remember my parents singing to me as a child were secular Yiddish songs. My parents didn’t sing much in the way of Jewish music otherwise and Friday evenings involved spoken prayers when my father would read the Kiddush from the book with his heavy Ashkenazi accent. I do remember a lovely Friday night Kiddush which seemed to appear in Nairobi when I was a teenager and I also recall hearing it in synagogue and in my sister Vera's home. This recording is of my sister’s son David Somen singing it.
We did sing around the Seder table but that wasn’t in our house. We went to my brother-in-law’s uncle, who was the Consul for Israel from about 1949 or 1950 until Kenya’s independence. We used to have 30 or 40 people to Seder in his house and, as the youngest, my job was always to sing the Ma Nishtanah - to the traditional tune. We used all the traditional British tunes.
My father Sanyi and mother Nelly both came from Eastern Slovakia, from a town called Presov (Eperjes in Hungarian, meaning strawberries). It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when they were born, my father in 1907 and my mother in 1912. Their mother-tongue was Hungarian and when Czechoslovakia came into being in 1918 they found themselves in Czechoslovakia - my father always said that the borders just changed over his head - and their schools changed from Hungarian to Slovak schools. They spoke Hungarian at home but, as educated Jews, they also spoke German. The text books at my father’s medical school in Prague in the late twenties were also all in German.
My father belonged to the reform community, the so-called Neolog community in Presov, and my mother’s father was president of the orthodox community. My parents got married in 1934 in Kosice which was the nearest big town - it was a double wedding with my mother’s sister who married my father’s best friend, also a doctor. They moved from Presov to live in Zlin which is now in the Czech Republic. I can’t imagine her parents were too pleased about her marrying into the reform community!
There was a big Bata shoe factory in Zlin and the community had its own hospital where my father worked for some years. The director of the hospital foresaw what would happen to the Jews and he had plans to send his Jewish doctors out before the Nazis invaded. There were Bata plants all over the world and it was decided that my father and his family would go to Singapore and his next door neighbour, also a doctor with a family, would go to Kenya. My parents’ neighbour didn’t want to go to Africa, so they swapped destinations and that is why I was born in Kenya and grew up there.
Shortly after these arrangements were finalised but before my parents could actually leave Czechoslovakia, Hitler invaded earlier than expected and no one could leave without a Gestapo exit permit. My father went to the Gestapo office in Zlin every day where he was interrogated. After ten days he said to my mother, ‘They’re never going to give us permission to leave, I’m not going any more’. But my mother, who was unbelievably beautiful, went to the Gestapo office herself without telling my father. She took the family’s passports with her. She said, ‘I’ve come to get permission to leave because you won’t give it to my husband’. The Gestapo officer said, ‘Why do you want to leave?’ and she replied, ‘Because I’m Jewish and if you don’t let us go, my daughter, who is one, will perish’. ‘Madam, are you crazy? And you are so beautiful it’s impossible that you’re Jewish’. She said, ‘I’m afraid I am, and I’m not leaving here until you give me visas to leave’. He replied, ‘I don’t know why, but I’m going to do it’. And then she said, ‘And while you’re at it I’m not going until you give my neighbours permission too. They also have jobs waiting for them in another country!’ She handed them their passports which she also had with her.
So they went by ship from Trieste to Mombasa. My father wasn’t allowed to work as a doctor so he worked as a chiropodist for Bata. When he volunteered to join the British army he was allowed to work as a doctor in Abyssinia and Somalia and when the war finished he came to London to requalify and then go back to work in Nairobi as a GP with a British qualification.
Meanwhile my mother went back to Czechoslovakia with my sister while my father studied. In 1948 my father was in London and heard that Communism was about to erupt and the borders were about to be closed, so he sent a cable to Presov saying, ‘Come immediately to London - my studies are over’. He had not finished studying but my mother and sister travelled to London and immediately afterwards the borders were closed.
Between 1942 and 1944 my four grandparents and 30 to 40 other members of my family were deported and perished in Auschwitz. Ninety percent of people in Auschwitz died without trace but one of my father’s brothers, Andrej, was a brilliant pianist and played in the band under the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign. He died there of typhus in 1942 and his name is recorded in the camp archives - the only family member’s name we found when we visited the camp a few years ago. Two of my mother’s sisters also survived. One had no children and so she wasn’t immediately gassed. The other sister had a baby son called Ivan whom she hid with a Christian family under false papers. He is now very active in the Jewish community in Bratislava.”
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