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19 October 2023

Where do we belong now?

The world British Jews and my family took for granted no longer seems to exist.

By Rachel Cunliffe

On 7 October, as the first reports of the horrific Hamas terror attacks on Israel were coming in, my family was gathered in a community hall in north London distributing smoked salmon rolls and cups of tea. 

There were more than 40 people in the room. This gathering was years in the making, made possible only by the tireless insistence of my mother and aunt. Most people there only knew a handful of others. I had not met the majority before that day. It was the first time ever we had all been together in one place.

The story starts with five siblings: four brothers and a sister, born in Berlin in the early decades of the 20th century. A normal middle-class Jewish family. Their parents watched the political tide turn in the 1930s and sought to get their children to safety. They went to France, or to England, or to what was then called British Palestine – anywhere they could go to escape what was happening to their home. One brother went to Spain to join the resistance against Franco. The sister died at the hands of the Nazis. Three of the brothers – including my grandfather – were sent by the British to an internment camp in Canada.

When the war was over, they made new homes for themselves. One branch of the family returned to Berlin. My grandfather married a woman who had been their childhood neighbour and at the time lived in Palestine. The other brothers married non-Jews. Over the years – children, grandchildren – they drifted apart. Today, their descendants are scattered across the world. 

My grandfather – my Opa, to use the German term by which we always called him – died when I was 12. I don’t know if he ever hoped for a reunion. None of his brothers are living now; nor are their spouses. But after he died, my mother and aunt found a family tree he had been working on, going back centuries, to 1795, his spidery, heavy-inked handwriting painstakingly listing the names of distant and not-so-distant relatives. They would periodically talk of completing and updating it, but something would always come up and there was never time. Then Britain voted to leave the EU and suddenly we were poring over old papers – birth certificates, passports, documents of statelessness – to see if there was a path towards restoring the German citizenship Opa would have conferred to us. 

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My sister and I became German citizens in June 2019. Something about that exploration into familial history made my mother more determined than ever to bring the family together, to continue what Opa had started. Covid put the project on hold for a few years, but finally on that October Saturday there we were. Cousins, second cousins, half-cousins once removed, in a small community hall in north London eating smoked salmon rolls and chocolate pastries, with copies of the family tree blown up on A2-sized posters adorning the walls, and space left for people to fill in the gaps. There were albums of old black and white photos and newspaper clippings; a scrap of paper suggesting the history behind the family name – a German-sounding name, but an unusual one. No one knows for sure where it came from. We stood in a circle wearing name badges and went around the room, introducing ourselves and how we fitted into this family. Four generations, from all over the world, most of whom had never met one another – all in one place, to piece together the story of those five siblings and how it is we all came to be there at all.

[See also: The strange discord of being British and Jewish]

“You wouldn’t know they were Jewish from the names,” one cousin remarked studying the family tree. Joachim, Juliette, Alfred, Siegfried, Hans. This was a German family. But when the time came, their Jewishness mattered more than their Germanness. I have Juliette’s ring, a gift from my mother, who inherited it from her father, who had in turn been given it by his sister’s husband, who managed to escape with their child.

None of this is all that remarkable. The long-awaited gathering might be somewhat unusual, but the stories? I doubt there’s a Jewish family in the UK that doesn’t have similar tales to tell. Of ancestors forced to flee their homes. Of lost loved ones. Of settling (in more ways that one), making a new home somewhere else. These stories are a core part of the Jewish identity – far more so than the prayers and the rituals, especially for those of us who have never been sure about this idea of God.   

I’ve been thinking about my grandfather this week as the news from Israel gets bleaker and more horrific with each passing day. The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza is abhorrent; the impact of Israel’s military offensive on civilians too heart-breaking for words. Hamas knew how Israel would react to a massacre – that is why it acted as it did, to provoke a response so terrible it would shock the world and radicalise a new generation. That does not make the reaction right – as so many Jews, in the depths of grief, are nonetheless trying to articulate. What the vast majority on both sides want is the return of the hostages and some flicker of hope of a path to peace.

But something else has been revealed this week too. A darker discourse: of settlers, colonisers, land-grabbers who brought upon themselves mass murder – the kidnap and killing of Holocaust survivors and babies – because they are Jewish. The protesters in Britain celebrating with images of paragliders – which Hamas used to attack a music festival – the rape and murder of civilians. The people tearing down posters of kidnapped Israeli children at London Tube stations. The academic institutions that, having spent years handwringing about micro-aggressions and cultural insensitivity, turn a blind eye to some employees implying that Israel had it coming. Settlers are not civilians, as one viral Twitter post put it. The message, overwriting or ignoring centuries of history, that the Jews do not belong in Israel.

So where do we belong? Once, five siblings thought the answer was Berlin. But there we were, 40 or so cousins in a community hall in north London, on the day of the single worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. I don’t know how many of them consider themselves Jewish now, or feel any connection with Israel, the Jewish homeland, a place where none of us have ever lived. But I know that all of us there – children and grandchildren and nephews and nieces, names in spidery handwriting on an unfinished family tree – only exist today because nearly a century ago, those five siblings thought they had a home. And it turned out they were wrong.

[See also: Where are all the family dramas?]

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