Remembering Mr. Popper

In the early 1950s, Mr. Popper travelled each day from Hampstead in North London to Coulsdon, Surrey, where he taught arithmetic at St. Anne’s Preparatory School. I was a pupil of his, and enjoyed the kindly way that he encouraged us to develop facility in the rapid manipulation of numbers. I was only about seven or eight at the time, and did not understand why Mr. Popper spoke with a thick accent. On one occasion, however, my parents invited him and his wife to come to supper: they were always welcoming to new members of staff, and my father (a schoolmaster himself) in particular had an interest in the backgrounds of everybody. I do not now recall whether I witnessed the event myself, or whether my parents told me about it afterwards, but Mr. Popper was so overcome by the occasion that he burst into tears.

My father must have explained that Mr. and Mrs. Popper were Jews, and had suffered so much, that the tranquility of suburban life in 1950s England, compared with what they had lost back in Austria (or was it Czechoslovakia?), and the relatives who had disappeared in the Holocaust, must have suddenly made him distraught. This was the first time I had heard about Jews, and gained some understanding of what happened to them under Hitler. My father did not explain things naturally: as an only child himself, I believe he thought that my brother, sister, and I should discover things ourselves. I remember that he bought me a stamp album, and an envelope full of stamps to be sorted and inserted. There was just one page in the album titled ‘Germany’, and I recall being confused about all the different manifestations of stamps from that country – the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, the stamps with Hitler on them (denoting the Third Reich), and some even earlier, featuring a heavily whiskered gentleman. How could I sort these out? I did not venture to ask my father, and he did not want to volunteer the information. It was not until some time after, when I discovered a Stanley Gibbons catalogue in the public library, that I understood there were several different countries involved, and I could bring some order to the collection.

I did not think of Jews as a separate group of people then, and have rarely thought so since. Most of the boys at school were somewhat menacing (and the rest probably rather weird), and one treated all of them with suspicion. So long as one avoided the bullies, or those who ridiculed you excessively, you didn’t think twice about where they came from, or what their religion was, or how odd their names were. They were just boys. And people like my parents did not mix much: in the corner of our street were various neighbours with whom they did not socialize: not the Ks, as they were Catholics, or the Ws, since Mr. W worked in advertising, and was not a professional; not the Ls, who came from the North, and were thus provincial; nor the Hs, who lived next door, but turned their noses up at us, as their house was somewhat grander, and they moved in better circles. Thus we mixed solely with my father’s and mother’s old school friends and their offspring, and a few scattered relatives (not many of those either.) Above all, we were cautioned never to mix with anybody who was ‘common’, which might mean poor pronunciation and vulgar talk, inappropriate dress, as well as nasty habits like chewing gum, or reading the Beano or the Dandy, or even getting interested in soccer rather than rugby football. We knew where we belonged. Strange as it may seem, that was how life was in 1950s England – strictly compartmentalized in a fashion that Orwell so neatly described. Yet my parents were very hospitable to Mr. and Mrs. Popper.

I thought of Mr. Popper when recently reading Madeleine Albright’s moving memoir about her roots in Czechoslovakia, Prague Winter, where on the one hand, all the Wilsonian nonsense about self-determination of nations, and, on the other, Hitler’s odious racial theories, came to a head. What on earth was the definition of a Jew at that time? As Albright writes: “According to the laws of the republic, Jews had the right, but not the obligation, to declare Jewish nationality. Roughly one half did, while the remainder identified themselves as Czechoslovak, German, Hungarian, Polish, or other. Although the Jewish population made up less than 1 percent of the country, it accounted for more than a third of capital investment and 10 percent of students at university. It was hardly a monolithic group; the rate of marriage outside the faith was the highest in Central Europe, and there were constant debates about worship obligations, ethics, language, social customs, dietary restrictions, and politics. With Hitler next door, many Jews with relatives living elsewhere used those contacts to emigrate. Several thousand moved to Palestine. Still others sought, often in vain, to obtain visas for travel to the West. Thinking to improve their chances of obtaining passage, some converted to Christianity or obtained forged certificates of baptism – which were readily available from the growing (and ecumenical) anti-fascist underground.”

This confusion is echoed in a message sent by the British ambassador in Prague to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, on February 15, 1939: “I was informed that there is a difference of opinion between German and Czecho-Slovak Governments on the interpretation of expression ‘person of non-German Volkszugehörigkeit’ [translated here as ‘race-participation’] in article 3 of optional [sic] Agreement insofar as it applies to Sudeten Jews. Germans contend that it applies to Jews of every description. Czechs contend that it applies only to those Jews whose mother-tongue is Czech, in other words that the majority of Sudeten Jews, whose mother tongue is German, are not entitled to opt for Czecho-Slovakia. The matter is to be referred to mixed commission provided for in article 13 of Agreement. I have thought it well to bring foregoing to you though the point is perhaps academic as even if Sudeten German Jews are allowed to opt they will be threatened with losing their citizenship under decree No. 15 – see my dispatch No 54.”

It is difficult for a reasonably enlightened citizen of a pluralist democracy in 2015 to imagine that politicians seventy-five years ago seriously thought about, and discussed, people in this manner. But they did. And some still do: the New York Times (echoing the absurd U.S. Census Bureau) can think of people solely in terms of pseudo-racial categories. Moreover, in the past couple of weeks, I have read the obituaries of three persons in the New York Times who touched this Jewish question: Peter Gay (the historian), Elisabeth Bing (the childbirth expert), and Anne Meara (the comic actress). The families of both Gay and Bing, growing up in Germany, did not realize they were Jewish until Hitler declared them so. Anne Meara was born a Catholic, but converted to Judaism a few years after marrying her Jewish husband, Jerry Stiller. I also recall Victor Rothschild, an agnostic, requiring his fiancée, Barbara Hutchinson, to convert to Judaism in order to please his own grandmother, as Jewishness is carried only matrilineally, and Grandma would have died on the spot if she thought her grandson was marrying outside the faith. What nonsense!

That is why the terms ’Jew’, ‘Gentile’, ‘Semite’, ‘co-religionist’ all have no meaning for me. I suspect I have ‘Jewish’ ancestors somewhere, but who cares? To confirm this point, Albright concludes her study of Nazi and Communist oppression of Czechoslovakia with some words from the great Jan Masaryk, half-American son of the country’s founder and someone far too level-headed to be a successful politician. They were addressed to his companion, Marcia Davenport, in 1947:

“You’re no more full-blooded what you think you are than I am. I must be Jewish somewhere, though the presentable story doesn’t say so. And you? How the hell do you know who you are?

I don’t.

And neither does anyone else who comes as far back as he can tell, from the parts of Europe that were the battlegrounds of the Napoleonic years. You think you have no Czech ancestry. You’re wrong. Some forefather of yours came through there as a conscript in the Russian armies, and if he didn’t leave a souvenir on some local slečna, then it was the other way round and some Czech in the Austrian army had a bit of fun with some pretty girl in Galicia whom they married off to your great-grandfather. You’re like everybody else whose people fled to America in the eighties and nineties – all the villages and synagogues with the family records were burnt up in the pogroms. Nobody knows anything . . . As for the nobility with  . . .  their thousand-year genealogies, there you get into the fun-and-games department  . .  My father was the son of a Slovak coachman and a Moravian housemaid, who were serfs. I can’t prove what the blood of their parents was and neither can anyone else.”

How right Masaryk was! Sadly, the great humanist met his reward the following year by being defenestrated by Stalin’s creatures, in one of their shabby attempts to stage-manage a suicide. The reasonableness of him and his kind could not avert the horrors of Hitler or Stalin. We all too loosely use the term ‘inhumanity’ to describe behaviours that are plainly human in origin. The pain and suffering of Mr. Popper and his relatives were indeed very real, and I dedicate this piece to their memory.

(As I was completing this piece, I read a searing and very positive review of Nikolaus Wachsmann’s history of the Nazi concentration camps, KL, in the Times Literary Supplement of May 22. Jane Caplan writes: “Behind the numbing totals that are the stock-in-trade of Nazi history lie the individuals whose suffering is incapable of calculation.” Indeed.)

A small set of Commonplace entries for the month can be found here.         (May 31, 2015)

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