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Laszlo Ekstein (Easton) - Chad Gadya

Chad Gadya

Laszlo Ekstein“As a child I used to go with my brother, who was four years younger, to my grandparents on Seder night. My grandfather would lead the service and we would sing this Chad Gadya.

I was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1920. My grandfather on my mother’s side married a German Jewish woman after his first wife - my grandmother - died.

My grandparents all came from Hungary and both my parents were Hungarian too, although my maternal grandparents lived in Hamburg after the First World War. My father was a lieutenant in the Hungarian army but he deserted because of the anti–Semitism. His father wanted him to become a rabbi but he joined my mother in the antique trade which was a more comfortable living!

They went to Hamburg because at that time it was relatively moderate as far as anti-Semitism was concerned. My father’s parents stayed in Hungary and so my maternal grandparents were the only ones I knew.

The synagogue we belonged to in Hamburg was separate from the very orthodox synagogue; it was in the Bornplatz, next to the school I went to. It’s now a garden and is not allowed to be built on. I still have contacts there – it was a very lenient place, very cultured, although the synagogue I went to was burned down by the Nazis. We had quite a few Christian friends there who abhorred the anti–Semitism. There was a strong Jewish community in Hamburg and that’s where the first progressive synagogue started. I’ve been invited by the senate, completely free of cost, everything included - they invited ex–Hamburgers from America, Sweden, all over the world - it was quite interesting. I still get correspondence from them.

Laszlo Ekstein parentsMy brother came to England with me. How we managed to get over is an interesting story. My parents had an antique shop in Hamburg, which was actually started by my mother. They had a customer who was a ship’s engineer from Hull and collected antique glass. One day a lady came into my father’s shop with a bag full of gold sovereigns that she said her husband had buried in the garden because under the Nazis you were not supposed to have anything like that. My father bought them from her - in his trade he was allowed to do this - although he didn’t declare them; he didn’t want to give them up to the Nazis. One day the ship’s engineer came in and my father showed him the sovereigns. They were from George III. He said, “What is our clean English gold money doing in this dirty country?” My father told him “I should be very pleased if you would take it to a clean country!” He knew that we wanted to go too and he said he’d do that and “what is more, I’ll take your sons as well”. This was 1937; I was seventeen and my brother was thirteen.

One day when I was working in Welwyn Garden City on a welding course, I had a telephone call from an American ship. The person said, “I bought a table from your father’s shop in Hamburg, it’s being delivered to you and will you please look after it, there is something in it.” I went back to my room in Eaton Avenue in North West London and there was a table and a case outside the house – it was too big to take up. My father came over a couple of days afterwards like a burglar with a bag containing a saw and a drill!

This table was Dutch and had legs about 8 inches square. He cut the legs clean off and drilled a hole – every leg was full of gold sovereigns! And that’s how we opened our business here - selling these sovereigns. The carpenter, who was a member of the Communist party in Germany, had put the gold sovereigns into the table – they had fitted in perfectly. The table weighed a ton anyway and nobody suspected it.

Both my father and mother got out of Germany because they had Hungarian passports and Hitler still had designs on Hungary. My brother worked as a farmer in England and then he volunteered for the army. He was trained in Inverness and got into the Scots Highlanders. He spoke with a broad Scottish accent and you would never know he was German. Sadly he was killed in the Normandy invasions in 1944.

I volunteered for the army too but they didn’t want me at that time – they weren’t sure whether I was an enemy alien or a friendly alien! I worked for EMI in the radio department as I’d taken a course at the polytechnic in electrical engineering. I also trained to be a welder. Later I went into my father’s antique business in Jermyn Street. I was never interned but many of my friends were.

My grandparents in Hungary and in Germany all died natural deaths before the war, before I left, but when we went back my mother could never find their graves.

In Hamburg I went to the Talmud Torah School and so had an orthodox education. I was also in an orthodox synagogue choir but when I came to England with my parents I joined West London (Reform) synagogue. We didn’t continue to have a Seder at home but I did go to the synagogue communal Seder.”

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