BERNARD - Part 1 (from "RIBBENTROP'S CHAIR")
BERNARD: Part 1
“What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism’, Kitto comments, ‘is not a sense of duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate “excellence”.
(From Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig)
I remember when I was six years old running around the rim of a big pool, chasing the crazed reflections of the funnels that punctuated the deck of the S.S. Orcades. Suddenly I slipped on the wet tiles and tipped into the deep blue, too astonished to flap my wings and save myself.
A voice in my head cried “Help me, God!” as I sank. Time froze.
It seemed years before a powerful tug pulled me back into the world. My father had suddenly materialised and without hesitation stretched out his arm, spread his wide palm and caught hold of the yellow threads fanning out over the surface of the water. He pulled my head towards him, and then the rest of me.
That was a memorable holiday. We cruised around the Mediterranean, dropping anchor at Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Corsica. I remember gazing through the porthole of our cabin at the heaving expanse of the sea.
The waiters in the bar knew I coveted the little paper umbrellas and gumdrop-coloured swords with which they decorated cocktails, so I gathered quite a collection. Jackie and I had Chinese silk pyjamas which we kept in little silk suitcases – gifts from Auntie Rose in New York. We flirted with the sailors in Corsica and we flirted with the sailors in Naples (we were little girls and got away with it). We succumbed to heat exhaustion in Spain, where our parents bought us hand-smocked dresses and castanets.
Our father - Marcus’s bright, gregarious son, had one of those roller-coaster personalities. When he wasn’t deeply down he was very high - a fireball of energy and hilarity. One extraordinary day Dad and a new friend tore around the decks of the ship like demented clowns, dressed as giant babies in nothing but bath towel nappies held together with large safety pins. They had somehow acquired babies’ bottles with teats and these were full of whisky. It was meant to be a Dressing Up Party not a dressing down party but naturally my sister and I went as little Chinese girls in our silk pyjamas and I was so thrilled at the sight of our crazy father jumping up onto the tables of the surprised diners and dancing in nothing but a nappy that I wet myself laughing and wrote off my fancy dress.
Seven years later it was our father who nearly drowned.
Dad was born in 1915 in Marylebone – when Marcus and Sadie were living above Roth’s café - and grew up in a flat in West Hampstead, attending Haberdashers and joining the army cadets. There is a photograph of a skinny adolescent looking miserable as sin in his scratchy khaki uniform. Bernard was a powerful long-distance runner. One day this would prove useful.
Neither Marcus nor Sadie made ideal parents. The night my father was born, Marcus was out playing poker. In guilt he ordered a drum of milk to be delivered to his wife for the baby.
Sadie was judgmental and would criticize her son for his ill-fitting sports shorts instead of praising him for his athleticism. (Maybe she inherited her mean gene from her father’s side – her mother, by all accounts, was adorable). Rose on the other hand, beautiful, strong-willed and asthmatic, did a little better.
Then in 1928, when Bernard was 13 and his sister 9, prompted by Marcus’s ambitions the family upped sticks and moved to Paris. This was a seismic upheaval for the young siblings, uprooted from home, school and friends.
However when they arrived, their spirits soared. Paris in 1928 was astonishing: a great European city at its cultural zenith. The Paris Exhibition of 1925 had introduced the world to Art Deco and by 1928 this modern movement had infiltrated every aspect of the visual arts. In 1928 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered two new ballets in the city set to music by Stravinsky, Braque began his revolutionary series of Cubist Still Lifes, and Picasso painted his notorious Ballplayers on the Beach. Josephine Baker was shaking her booty at the Folies-Bergere while black musicians in the nightclubs of Pigalle - as in the clubs of Harlem and Berlin, were shaking up the music of the Western world. The Jazz Age had arrived. Henry Miller relocated from New York to Paris and Coco Chanel held court on the Rue Cambon. Paris fashion was storming the world and the Avadis Brothers, now well-established, were in the eye of the storm.
Marcus, Sadie and children settled in a small, elegant apartment in Monmartre, in the bosom of their family: a wild tribe of artists, designers and canny entrepreneurs. By 1932 Elias had emigrated to Brazil to open branches of Avadis Couture in Rio and Sao Paolo and Marcus was running the family’s boutique on the Rue St. Honore. Life, for a few precious years, was rosy.
The blue-eyed, golden-haired siblings, bilingual, witty and devoted to one another, soon made new friends and excelled at school while their mother did her best to learn the finer points of French cuisine and master the language – which forever betrayed her East End London accent.
Marcus and Sadie’s attempts to keep up their religious practices were abandoned in the move and Fashion replaced Judaism as their true religion. It was at the suggestion of Sadie’s sister Raie and her husband Arthur in London that Bernard was sent back briefly to study, a year late, for his Bar Mitzvah – which he performed impeccably and which his parents did not attend.
After he finished school Bernard was packed off to study book-keeping, though he would much have preferred to study art like Rose and his cousin Jean and become a fashion designer like his father. Although accountancy seemed a practical career choice for his son, I suspect Marcus felt threatened by Bernard’s burgeoning artistic talent.
On his eighteenth birthday Marcus did something else he felt was the right thing by his son and took Bernard to an expensive prostitute for all the tricks. Bernard was unimpressed.
Bernard and his father had an interesting relationship. While Marcus had been the second child in his family, craving attention, Bernard was Marcus’s eldest and in a sense the child carried the father. Marcus was branded at an early age as morally irresponsible and lived up to this expectation, while Bernard was self-sacrificing and affectionate. Now Bernard was no fool: he could sum up another person with surgical acuity, but he loved his incorrigible father deeply and unconditionally. And these men had two things in common: an indefatigable work ethic, coupled with the unerring ability to spend more than they earned.
"Feydeau's one rule of playwriting: Character A: My life is perfect as long as I don't see Character B. Knock Knock. Enter Character B." (John Guare, playwright)
In June 1940 the Germans invaded Paris and the sky caved in. Marcus was in England on business at the time, wining, dining and womanising, but the rest of the family were trapped in France. Taking his uncles’ advice Bernard went on the run, while the Gestapo did their best to round up everyone else. Uncle Marcel the Wheeler Dealer (who would survive most of the war as a black marketeer) contacted the French Resistance, who kept track of Bernard and fed him a regular supply of forged identity papers, some from very odd sources. At one point he acquired the passport of a deceased French actor and learned to recite lines from Flaubert and Feydeau in case he was caught. (Thus he developed a taste for drama and would in later life exploit this ability in amateur dramatics, as a French teacher and as a guide for foreign tourists, holding forth in Trafalgar Square.) And so this resourceful young man kept on the move, picking up work where he could – mostly as a casual farm labourer. In the countryside there was a shortage of manpower and fields had to be ploughed and sown, irrigation ditches dug, crops gathered.
But sleeping in haystacks and barns is no joke. The straw is riddled with bugs, rodents and snakes and sharp stalks that scourge the skin. It is damp and cold in winter. Bernard caught pneumonia during the war from sleeping rough and would suffer from bronchitis all his life. Habitual chain smoking damaged his lungs further.
In 1941 the young fugitive was relieved to meet up with a party of ill-equipped Jewish refugees and handed over his few possessions to their guides for safe passage across the Alps to Switzerland. The party thought they were crossing to freedom, but after somehow surviving the long, hazardous journey, struggling over ice-covered rocks, snow-covered peaks and deep, treacherous valleys, often in freezing night time temperatures, in lightweight suits and unsuitable shoes, they were handed over by their betrayers to the police. Most of the refugees had had a red “J” stamped on their passports by the Nazis and were easily identified and rounded up.
Food supplies were running low and the Swiss authorities had already absorbed more Jewish refugees than they could cope with from all the surrounding countries and had closed the borders and even started to send them back to their lands of origin (and almost certain death). However some were thrown into camps for illegal refugees. Bernard and his friends were imprisoned in an abandoned house in Girenbad near Zurich and more or less left to starve. It was here that Bernard learned to grow what vegetables he could, for sustenance. He also recited Feydeau’s farces - playing all the parts - and told jokes and made everyone laugh.
And here my father’s story became entwined with that of a remarkable man – the opera singer Joseph Schmidt, a fellow refugee. Schmidt had toured the world before the war, renowned for his lyrical renditions of Puccini’s arias but was caught in France when the Germans invaded. He sang for his comrades in the camp to comfort them in their distress but his health deteriorated rapidly and he was eventually allowed to visit a local hospital for treatment. Schmidt complained of chest pains but these were ignored and he was discharged on 14 November 1942.
Just two days later, on November 16, Bernard heard that Joseph had collapsed at a nearby inn on his way back from hospital. Bernard rushed to help him - “ You’re going to be O.K., Joseph – you just need to rest” “Yes, yes – and I’ve applied for a work permit!” - but his friend closed his eyes and died in his arms. Joseph had suffered a heart attack. He was only 38 years old. Ironically his work permit arrived the following day; it would have allowed him the freedom to sing again.
Joseph Schmidt was buried in the Friezenberg Cemetery near Zurich and all 350 of the ragged inmates of the camp attended his funeral in defiance of the authorities.
One day soon after my father walked out of the house – which was poorly guarded as by then even the guards were starving – and all the way to the British Consulate in Zurich. The Consul was able to verify that he was a British subject and immediately secured his release.
The full extent of the Swiss government’s duplicity during the war has barely been acknowledged to this day.
Back in England Marcus received word from the Consulate that Bernard was still alive. They arranged for him to send his son money and Bernard was able to make his way to Geneva, where he lived for the next two years working as a gardener, giving English lessons and falling in love for the first time with a dark-haired girl named Valentina.
In August 1944 Paris was liberated by the Allies and one by one, against all the odds, Sadie, Bernard and Rose returned to their home in the Rue Damremont and were overjoyed to find each other alive. The landlord had locked and bolted the apartment in their absence and everything was exactly as they had left it, but mother, brother and sister were irreparably changed. France held no future for them any more so they packed their bags and left for England.