Tuesday 7 August 2012

What I did in my summer holidays...1961 By Adele Geras

Fifty-one years ago, not quite almost to the day but very nearly, I was in Jerusalem while proper History was going on. My mother and I had gone to spend the school summer holidays in my grandmother's flat, which will be familiar to some readers from my book 'My Grandmother's Stories.'

In 1961, I had just finished what we used to call the Lower Sixth. I'd been working hard, because we always did. We had the kind of teachers who watched out for natural slackers like me and made sure we were up to the mark. I must have just finished school exams which happened regularly every summer. I was ready for the holidays. Jerusalem even in those days wasn't as much fun as Tel-Aviv. The wags used to say: "Half the size of a New York cemetery and twice as dead," but that wasn't quite true. I had a gang of friends there from other years and, what's even more important in this story, friends and contemporaries of my cousin, who is two years my senior. One of these was a handsome boy, rather in the James McAvoy mode, whom I shall call B which is not the intitial of his real name. I have looked for him on Google just a moment ago,the first time I've ever done this but his name is too common to allow me to find him.

Since April 1961, Adolf Eichmann had been on trial in the city.

He was tried at Beit Ha'am, which is walking distance from where my grandmother lived, on Rehov Strauss. It's a hot walk in the summer. The bureaucrat of the Final Solution had been living in Argentina and was captured by Mossad, the Israeli secret service and brought to Israel to be charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. His trial aroused enormous interest and controversy all over the world. I'd even heard about it a little while before in my English fastness on the South Coast, but hey, there were exams to be studied for and school plays to be rehearsed for and the whole thing was a news story to me, no more.

What I remember about that holiday was falling in love. B used to take me on rides on his motor scooter around the Jerusalem hills, which are always spectacular, but seen through the rosy glaze of Romance...you can imagine, I'm sure. I was reading things like Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road' and even though B was a scientist and in no way a beatnik of any kind, that scooter made me feel just what it was supposed to make me feel:wild and free.

Looking back after more than half a century, the whole thing was ridiculously innocent. Kisses and scooter rides and trips to the movies and parties in this or that house. Nothing more. But I was in love. And thinking about B took up my entire mental space. Therefore when my aunt (I think it was my aunt) acquired a ticket for me to one day of the Eichmann trial, I didn't realize what a big deal this was. Tickets were enormously hard to get. She had two, and I was chosen to accompany her. The adults were discussing the trial constantly, I'm sure, but I wasn't listening to discussions between my mother and my aunts.My mind was on other things.

I've thought about that day often during the last couple of decades. I've tried to remember how it was in the courtroom, what I felt when I looked at this man, responsible for the most terrible things: things I found it difficult to imagine or comprehend properly. The answer is: most of it has disappeared. I remember Eichmann sitting in his glass box, looking very small and ordinary. Big glasses with dark frames. I remember the three judges sitting on a kind of raised platform. I remember the crowds of photographers round the entrance to the courtroom and all over the place. And that's it. I can't recall a word of what was said. I don't even know which day I was there. I didn't note the date. I do remember dressing properly, as I would for a formal occasion. You didn't go to the trial of the century wearing shorts and a t- shirt. I wore a blue cotton dress, I think, and my best white sandals. And I was thinking as usual of B. He was in my mind all the time, so why not at the Eichmann trial?

Adolf Eichmann was found guilty. He was hanged in 1962. I returned to school at the end of the holidays. I pined for B a bit, but he didn't write to me, nor I to him. It can't have been that intense on his side, looking back. Also, we were both studying hard for exams of one kind and another. The romance disappeared like a puff of smoke. On subsequent visits to Jerusalem, I'd ask about him. I'd ask my cousin if he'd been in contact, but B was always in Haifa or in America or in the army and I never saw him again, not even once, which is odd considering Jerusalem is a bit like a village. I had, by the next holiday, which was Christmas, met someone else....and so it goes. Romance at seventeen is a beautiful, evanescent thing and I sat in my classroom and studied Rimbaud and sighed with new understanding over his lines: On n'est pas sérieux,quand on a dix-sept ans.....On va sous les tilleuls verts de la promenade. There were no lime trees in my memory, but the pines and pepper trees of Jerusalem were a good substitute.

Now I wish I'd paid more attention to what was going on: to a moment in history when I was there but not really doing my job: not really bearing witness. I like to think B is a granddad somewhere in Israel or America. We had good times together, even if now they're bound up with something more important, and altogether darker.

Labels: Adele Geras, Adolf Eichmann, Jerusalem, Romance, Trial


adele said...

Many thanks to Anne Roooney for retrieving my accidentally deleted post! And to Mary Hoffman who suggested that I could schedule it retrospectively, which indeed I can! My other comments are lost but in a few moments, I am going to post part of an email I had from a very dear friend in Israel to whom I sent the link.

adele said...

This comment comes from someone who is a very dear friend of mine. Her parents' flat was just along the landing from my grandmother's place and we were very close from the age of about 3. This is what she wrote to me in an email:

It was very interesting to read your post on the blog. I remember perfectly well this summer . My reaction to the Eichman trial was very different I don't think I went

to the place. My mother did , I think, but I remember only too well many parts of it , as it was transmitted on the radio (there was no TV in Israel then) and I and many of my class mates and other friends were very influenced by the testimonies given there. You have to remember that my grandparents and aunt and her family and other members of my mother's family all perished in the Holocaust' and so were members of Irit's family [a mutual friend of ours who lived across the street ..Adele] and other friends. We talked about the trial all the time. It was only 16 years after the war and Israel was full of surviv0rs that remembered and most of them didn't tell about the horrific things they witnessed, till this trial.

Then we suddenly heard the unbelievable that even today, so many years after, is still unbelievable and unbearable.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Wonderful post. Your description of seeing Eichman reminds me of Hannah Arendt's famous line about the "banality of evil." All the more chilling. But really, it's a good thing your mind was filled with the romance of a 17 year old...that's how it SHOULD be! It would've been heartbreaking if his evil had crushed your starry-eyed,love-saturated, innocent teen self.

Theresa Breslin said...

Oh Adele, this is one the most moving posts I have ever read - evokes youth so sensitively and honestly

adele said...

Thanks so much, Vicki and Theresa...and lovely to see you here, Vicki!