1. Poland 1937-39
Yes, it's really true that I was born on top of a church.
The church was dedicated to Emmanuel, and it was on the first floor of a mission house in Warsaw, on a street called Sewerynow. My parents had a flat on the second floor, and it was there that I was born, on 25th February 1937.
To find out how my parents came to be in Warsaw you really need to read 'Emily.' I shan't repeat the story here.
My mother once told me that she refused painkillers or gas-and-air or epidural or whatever was available then, because she wanted to experience childbirth to the full. I must have been a real pain, because she never tried that experiment again.
Polish winters are pretty cold, but I was wrapped up warmly (I imagine) and was put out on the balcony, to the astonishment of friends and neighbours.
I was baptized on Easter Day 1937. This fact pleases me, because Easter Day was the traditional day for baptisms in the early church; people prepared all through Lent for the great occasion. As a tiny baby I was spared the rigours of observing Lent, but I was surrounded by prayer. My father told me that he and my mother used to sing a chorus at my cot-side:
For the Lion of Judah shall break every chain
Why they chose that to be my special song he couldn't remember, but it must have seemed obvious at the time.
And give us the victory again and again.
One of my godfathers was Dr Jacob Jocz, who was what was then called a Hebrew Christian, and is now known as a Messianic Jew. He was a learned scholar, who went on to write many books, and settled in Canada. My mother's brother, Charles, was my other godfather, and my godmother was Eileen Sinton, who became Mrs Weller. The only one I had any regular contact with as I grew up was Uncle Charlie. Eileen Weller got in touch just recently.
I remember nothing of Poland, because we left the country in 1939 as Hitler threatened invasion, but I know a little about my life there from my father's memoir and from photos.
I once even saw some silent, black and white film of my mother pushing me in a pram through the streets of Warsaw. Some enthusiast visiting the Mission had brought his cine camera with him, and the resulting film was kept in the CMJ archives, but must have perished long ago.
Here is some footage that was shown on TV, taken in 1939. It is 20MB, and is in colour, all of the Jewish Quarter.
One regret about having to leave Poland when we did, is that children of English-speaking parents grew up in Warsaw tri-lingual, speaking Polish, English and German. I have never been fluent in any language other than English (well, in Chinese perhaps, but only for a short period).
When the Berlin Wall came down, Sue and I had a trip to Poland, and I was able to visit the road at least where I was born. The buildng itself was destroyed by German bombs. Much of the old centre of Warsaw had been painstakingly reconstructed with the help of Russia, so it is possible that the buildings in Sewerinov, our road, are like the old ones. Certainly the statue of Copernicus in the open square at the end of the road has been reconstructed. My parents told me about that. Apparently those in charge used photos and paintings of the city to get it right. In fact I think they chose the best period of each building and reconstructed that. The result is really good. In the Old Town the main square was deliberately let out to ordinary people, so that it is a working area, not a museum. There is a museum there, too, with a harrowing film of the something like 90% destruction of Warsaw. Much of it was done out of sheer hatred and vandalism as the Nazis were driven out by the Russians.
I am told that the train journey through Germany in 1939 was a bit worrying. I tell in my Mother's life how she had to account for the money she brought into Germany from Poland, when we left Germany again and how a friend had given her some marks on a German station. This worried Mum, and she spent all she could, put more into collecting box which, she said, might have been for the Nazi party as far as she knew, and secretly threw the rest out of the window. She was not herself strip-searched, but she spoke to a man who told her that they had searched his wife 'ganz nakt'.
When my mother fled with me from Poland she took me to her own mother in Co Dublin, Ireland. She did in fact leave me there in Foxrock while she went back to accompany my father, and I quickly grew to love and trust my grandmother as a kind of second mother.