An Interview with Alice Shalvi

Colin Shindler: In your book, Never a Native, you recalled that your parents went to see The Merchant of Venice in Essen in 1932 and were so appalled by the antisemitic comments in the audience that they left halfway through. What do you remember about the rise of Nazism in Germany at that time?

Alice Shalvi: I very clearly recall certain incidents which, in retrospect, were clear indications of the rise to power of Hitler and of Nazism.

Standing by the kitchen window, noticing what seemed like red flowers blooming in the snow and hearing my father tell my mother, “they got the Communists”; my brother returning from school with shirt tattered by a whipping from Hitler Youth members’ shoulder straps; a motorcade with Hermann Goering passing our house, cheered by the crowds lining the pavement; returning from school to find all my toys and books scattered in front of the cupboard as the result of a Gestapo raid in search of incriminating material.

CS: Having left for London in 1934, you heard Neville Chamberlain make his momentous speech on 3 September 1939 that “we are now at war with Germany”.

AS: We were in the midst of taping our window panes, but once the sirens sounded, we grabbed our gas masks to run, panic-stricken, for the nearest public shelter, which was much too far away for us to reach in safety. We had already seen newsreels of the bombing of Warsaw and feared comparable annihilation.

CS: When did you discover the full extent of the Shoah – that it was more than a series of random pogroms?

AS: My father learned about the fate of Polish Jewry from Shmuel Zygielbojm, who had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 and reached London. My father must have continued to receive information, since he was in touch with the Polish Government-in-Exile.

I myself learned more only much later, initially through my first encounter with some young displaced persons who had been brought to the UK and then at the first post-war Zionist Congress in Basel in December 1946, which was a shattering experience.

The roll-call of entire Jewish communities that had been exterminated elicited an uninhibited outpouring of grief — tears, sobs, cries of “Oy, Gottenyu, Gottenyu! (Oh, dear God, dear God!)”. It was only then that I comprehended the full horror of the murderous destruction of European Jewry and its rich culture.

At the same time, both David Ben-Gurion and Abba Hillel Silver launched a bitter attack against Chaim Weizmann at the congress. I greatly admired Weizmann, seeing him as the wise older statesman who had “birthed” the Balfour Declaration. I was deeply saddened by the brutality of this onslaught and by Weizmann’s subsequent resignation from the World Zionist Organisation: a tragic hero.

CS: Was there still antisemitism in the UK after the revelations of the mass extermination?

AS: I was becoming increasingly aware of the antisemitism that existed in the UK. Initially, I was subjected to insults from fellow pupils: “Dirty Jew!” or “You’re all black marketeers”. At Cambridge University, the prejudice was more subtly expressed, in remarks about my observance of kashrut or my “foreign sounding” name.

My tutor, an Orientalist, was openly anti-Zionist, deliberately engaging me in discussion on Zionism only in order to condemn it in the roundest of terms.

CS: On 29 November 1947, you recall your father waiting impatiently for you to return from a trip to the cinema. He was carrying a bottle of brandy and had some important news to tell you.

AS: My father’s profound dedication to Zionism and its goals was borne out by his joy on learning that the dream of a Jewish state might be fulfilled as a result of the UN Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947. My brother and I had not heard the tense broadcast from New York. On returning home, we found our father standing anxiously on the doorstep, most atypically with a bottle of brandy in his hand, waiting for us to join him in celebration. For him, it was the fulfilment of a life-long dream. Three weeks later, we landed at Lydda airport for our first visit to the Holy Land. Alighting from the plane, he knelt to kiss the tarmac.

CS: What do you recall from this first visit to the Yishuv?

AS: My father’s enthusiasm was in no way dampened by the unimpressive shed that constituted the “terminal” nor by the hostile questioning of the British officials who manned the immigration desks.

Not even the warning that we should keep our heads down in the taxi as it drove through the Arab town of Lydda on the way to Tel Aviv could quell our joy. Arriving late at night, we first saw Tel Aviv only the following morning. It was overwhelmingly beautiful. The blue of the ocean, the sun so blinding, the sky so cerulean.

I now fully comprehended the veracity of the Provençal works of the Impressionists, of Matisse, Van Gogh, Dufy. And the vigour, the purposefulness of the population who seemed so fully aware of playing a part in the beginning of a new era of Jewish history.

Yet even at the same time, there was an awareness that an armed struggle lay ahead. In Haifa we watched the funeral of dozens of Jews who had been murdered in an attack by Arab fellow workers in the refineries at the port. Rumour had it that the British guards had wittingly permitted the Arabs to enter carrying weapons, while confiscating those borne by any of the Jews.

CS: What were your feelings on hearing Ben-Gurion’s proclamation on 14 May 1948 that a Hebrew republic had been established in the Land of Israel after two millennia?

AS: May 15 was a day of jubilation following the previous day’s proclamation of the new state. We had an impromptu family party and I have an 8 mm film showing all of us, adults and youngest of youngsters alike, dancing an exuberant hora on the lawn.

A dream had come true. We were no longer homeless. We were a free people in our own land.

CS: Following your aliyah, despite your experience in working with displaced persons, you could not find a job in social work and you fell into teaching English at the Hebrew University almost by accident. You comment in your book that “there is no greater compliment that to be addressed as ‘morati’ – ‘my teacher”.

Oddly enough, once I arrived in Israel — the German-born, English-educated daughter of stateless Galician Jews — I was labelled an “Anglo-Saxon”. The British and their language were extremely unpopular at the time. Lack of Hebrew did not, however, prevent me forming friendships with other new olim from many countries. We were all uniformly somewhat scorned by those who had been in the country before 1948, those who had experienced the long siege of Jerusalem and the acute shortage of food and water.

Although I came to teaching purely by chance, I grew to love the profession and to enjoy the success of several of my students, who became members of the new Hebrew literary community. The most outstanding of these were undoubtedly Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis and Dalia Ravikovitch — all of whom opined that they had learned the practice of close analysis of literary texts in the English Department rather than in the Department of Hebrew Literature in which they also studied.

CS: Was there any figure in Israel in 1948 whom you respected and admired?

Undoubtedly, Ben-Gurion was the towering figure in Israeli politics and in the state in general. He was a man of great courage, an activist.

I also greatly admired and felt deep affection for President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a gentle, scholarly man who, together with his wife Rachel, lived and fulfilled their official duties in a modest shed-like house in Rehavia. Ben-Zvi forwent luxury and formality. He walked along the streets of Rehavia, occasionally escorted by his aide-de-camp, cordially returning the greetings of ordinary citizens whom he encountered with a friendly ‘Shalom!’ For me he represented the genuine spirit of halutziut, which ranked the good of society above that of the individual.

AS: A final and perhaps obvious question. Do you believe that the Israel of 2019 is the Israel of your dreams of 1948?

CS: No, most emphatically — and unfortunately — not. Our society is today too fragmented, sector set against sector: Jews v Arabs, Ashkenazi v Oriental Jews; right wing proponents of a Greater Israel v those who would prefer a return to the 1967 borders and a two-state solution.

Once there was a considerable degree of economic equality with only a very tiny number of people of great wealth. Even these did not vaunt their wealth by indulging in excessive luxury and acquisitiveness.

In the face of these and other dismaying phenomena, what I am most proud of is the incredible growth of civil society. Israel must be among the very few countries that can boast of such a plethora of non-profit organisations dedicated to what one can loosely define as in engaging in Tikkun Olam, “Repairing the World”.

One must hope and pray that it is this sense of social justice and responsible government that will prevail and make Israel the model state that others and I dreamed it would be.

Jewish Chronicle 10 May 2019

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