Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 50: Death of a Pioneer

It’s taken two years and eight months for me to transcribe Volume One of Joseph Witriol’s Journal. There are 19 more, so I may have to start cutting out passages if I am to finish this project.

Wednesday, 30th December 1959 3p.m.

Nothing good with which to bring the year and this volume to a close. A letter from Sarah to inform me that Uncle Mendel had died (the husband of my mother’s sister). He was one of the early chalutzim [pioneers], had worked with Ben Gurion. Of well-to-do parents, I believe, he emigrated to Israel “to build and to be built” on its soil. He worked like a goy, as a plumber (?installateur? [i.e. dad is wondering what the Hebrew word is]). His daughter was a true Sabra, Hebrew her only language (apart from Yiddish which she used with her parents), a natural patriot. Uncle Mendel lived Zionism, I preached it in my youth.

From the solemnity and nobility of Menachem Kessler’s death – Milton’s lines – “a death so noble” – occur to me (shut up, H.L.[Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur] ) – to life with a small l. I picked up by chance at Alf’s [my mother’s brother, Alf Katz]  a most entertaining book, Rally Round the Flag, Boys by Max Shulman. It describes with brilliant humour the impact of a Nike battalion on a small town with its three vertical social divisions: the Yankees, the New York commuters and the Italians. The various liaisons, frictions, contretemps are brilliantly rendered.

E. [Edith Witriol] out 3-piece-suite hunting, leaving me to hold the baby. I held him on Monday for most of the day, miraculously succeeding in changing my first nappy. Philip is now beginning to grizzle slightly – he gave me a good hour’s quiet to write to Sarah and Aunt Dora and make this entry.

Since, as I believe I have repeatedly stated, I have no illusions about this journal being acclaimed as one of the showpieces of world literature, and my meagre income renders it desirable for me to keep some record of certain items of expenditure, I record

  1. the purchase of a raincoat, £11-0-6 ex local Moishe Burton; adjudged satisfactory by E. & Mum
  2. the purchase of a blazer, £5-19-9, from the same source. Adjudged unsatisfactory by both ladies (my mother was right; it is a tight fit); am going to try and exchange.

END OF VOLUME ONE

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Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 33: Taxing times

Friday, 2nd January 1959. 11.20 a.m.

Writing this in Holloway Central Library, to be out of the way of Mrs Holland – who “obliges” for E [Edith Witriol] – and her little daughter.

Have kept my diet so far! Have also risen virtuously early. Outburst of tears from E. last night. She depressed after mauling at hospital and I out all day and failing to be “communicative” on my return. Very difficult. Had spat with Mum previously re income-tax demand. She wants to pay schedule A tax at standard rate, though her income is bona fide low enough for her to have to pay far less than the standard rate. But she doesn’t want to reveal her income (rent from tenants), etc. Very difficult, but still – abee gezinnt.

I see the J.C. [The Jewish Chronicle] is offering prizes for the best essay on “What is a Jew?” [sic – Who is a Jew? was the title]. Also very difficult – one must be careful to stick to the terms, I imagine, which are that one must put oneself in the place of a recipient of Ben Gurion’s letter to various Jewish scholars asking them to reply to the question: “What is a Jew?” [sic!] However the prizes: £50, £25 and £10 for each essay printed, are worth competing for. A pity this breaks just at the end of my holiday – perhaps will try to get to J.C. library on the last day.

Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 20: Tribute to Zalkind Stalbow

Tuesday 27th May 1958 – 11am

On holiday. Yesterday (Whit Monday) Richard [Stern] and Joyce and Merton [Sandler] to tea. Edith and I busy-busy preparing for the distinguished guests, but we had a lie-in in the morning. I made the rain a pretext for not going to shool. Anyway, we had been on the Sunday morning (1st day Shavuot). Richard is working for 3 months at Cambridge, Merton delivered his paper at Dublin – only I seem to be destined to a life sentence in the Camden Road and its environs. Still, at this particular moment of time one mustn’t complain: one is fit ( no boils, no pruritus, no headache, no cold), one is rested (one got up at 8.35 am, nearly an hour after Edith, who went to work as usual; she likes the late night, or rather, early-morning, shmoozing-cuddling and, unlike me, is quite undeterred by the prospect of an early reveille for the following day’s work), there is no noise apart from the muted roar of traffic which, unlike piano-tinkling and wireless noises, does not drive me up the wall. One is conscious, true, of one’s failure, which it is now too late to redeem, but – oh hell! I used to kid myself I was a “lord of language” and find I can’t express the simplest thoughts. Worse, I have no thoughts.

Rebellion in Lebanon, France on the verge of civil war, the London bus strike in its fourth week, the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle hopes to use my Maftir article in due course (it was submitted to him in September, was man nicht alles erleben muss), I sent off recently my translation of an excerpt from a Hebrew book by one “Fuchu” to Commentary – will they accept. I thought the excerpt genuinely humorous, “universally” humorous, not parochially humorous – and “universal” humour is something I have not yet found in Hebrew writing.

Went to meeting with Edith, organised by “Barcai” [the Zionist society of Cricklewood and Willesden] in honour of Zalkind Stalbow’s 80th birthday. He’s a remarkable man: squat, sturdy, a furrier in London, a citriculturist in Rechovot, a Hebraist, an epikoires, [‘heretic’] a chess-player, a walker – his walk of 30 miles or so in 2 days with the armed forces and the Gadna to Jerusalem was publicised – with embroidery, his son Geoffrey told me – in the J.C. Leon Simon [English Zionist leader] spoke. I liked his story of the rabbi who was asked why there were two Yekum Purkonns in the Shabbes service. “In case one got lost,” said the rabbi. “Then why only one Mi-she-beyrach?” “Well, there were two at first, and one did get lost.”

The reference to Mi-she-beyrach arose from the chairman’s saying that before Mr Stalbow spoke he would call on Mr Landman (who spoke very well) to give a sort of Mi-she-beyrach. The guest speaker was one Grayson, a Conservative M.P. who apparently had walked from London to Brighton once. He ad libbed at a not particularly high level and gave a more or less straight Conservative pep talk.

Have got out Brian Glanville’s much discussed (by our people) The Bankrupts. He has his finger right on the pulse of Golders Green Jewry. The writing is undistinguished, but readable. I gather he’s only 25 and as well as having written 3 novels previously is an authority on soccer.

Joseph Witriol, the (Young) Zionist

My father, Joseph Witriol, “became” a Zionist when he was about nineteen. He recalls his early days as a member of the Brixton Young Zionist Society (He-Atid) in chapter 15 of his autobiography (scroll about halfway down) where he also name drops several prominent Anglo-Jewish personalities,  mentions a monthly column of his in the Young Zionist magazine under the nom-de-plume of Peloni Almoni and, perhaps most significantly, became a “slave for life to Hebrew”.

I have a few copies of the magazine, but none with articles by either Joseph Witriol or Peloni. I found one short letter of his in the Young Zionist and the file also has an anonymous piece of doggerel about the Annual Summer School of the Association of Young Zionist Societies which he went to in 1931 and 1932. These pictures from an old photo album of his capture the exuberance of these otherwise intense young Zionists at the Summer Schools.

The content of the magazine ranged from serious analysis of the situation in Palestine to the minutiae of organisational matters. This from the April 1932 issue is painful reading:

Eighteen million voters demonstrated that Germany disapproves of Jew-baiting…

Still, the Jews of Germany are not yet delivered from the fear of persecution. Hitler has a month of grace before the second ballot gives his hopes of election their quietus….An armed rising is not out of the question. Though it would have no chance against the …Army, no doubt Jewish heads would be broken and Jewish shops plundered – to anticipate nothing worse – before the outbreak could be suppressed….

At this stage, before Hitler’s career closes in the ignominy that awaits it…

A Guide for the Bedevilled

Recently, I came across Mamita Hebrea on You Tube and her monologue reminded me of the opening chapter (I Decide to Write a Book) of Ben Hecht‘s A Guide for the Bedevilled:

“I [his hostess “more famous than intelligent -which is one of the hazards of democracy”] would like to know how you explain the unpopularity of the Jews.”…She seemed to be asking me, as a Jew, to break down and confess something that would clear up the murder of the three million Jews of Europe… 

Written in 1944, I found it a brilliant and devastating analysis of German, American and universal antisemitism.

One of the two reviews on Amazon says that

 Hecht’s lofty vocabulary, though never pretentious, renders this book and its brilliant ideas almost inaccessible…

I cannot agree – most of it is written in what the same reviewer descibed as an “intimate, entertaining and engaging style” (!)

My copy is inscribed with the bookplate of Dave and Babs Blaushild.  Perhaps, based on this archive note, it even accompanied a Jewish American soldier during WWII.

A Guide for the Bedevilled by Ben Hecht

Hecht’s powerful polemic

Ben Hecht was an active “highly partisan” Zionist – so described in the brief summary here – but in the book (an act of deception?) he seems to suggest that he no longer has any interest in Zionism. Although a copy and paste job in parts, this is another interesting mini biography.

Seventy years on The Longest Hatred continues to morph yet thrive, with the “intellectual” left’s alliance with Islamists seeming to harden with every jihadi attack on the Jewish state and the West.

A Note on the Name “Witriol”

That is the title of an aide-memoire that my father, Joseph Witriol, typed up and photocopied. It read:

My parents came from Galicia, in what was formerly Austrian Poland. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Austrian emperor, Joseph II, decreed that all Jews were to register their family names (in German, the language of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Until then they had been known – as they still are in the synagogue – by patronymics, e.g. Israel son of Moses, Jacob son of David, etc.

Those Jews who did not possess a family name (i.e. surname) were offered a choice. Those who could afford it were allowed to assume “good” names, e.g. Rose, Ross, Lilienthal, Birnbaum (German for “rose”, lily of the valley”, “pear tree”). Those who could not pay for these “noble” names could choose, for a lesser fee, a “plain” name, e.g. Stein (“stone”), Feld (“field”), Eisen (“iron”). Those who could not afford a “respectable” name were saddled by the Austrian registration officials with offensive or “humorous” names such as Frochwaig (“frog’s spawn”), Nierenstein (“kidney-stone”) or Grünspan (“verdigris”). In this latter category presumably came the name Vitriol (same spelling in German and English), meaning “sulphuric acid”, which would have been anglicised by my father to “Witriol”.

See s.v. “Names” in Jewish Encyclopedia. [online here is the unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia entry for personal names.]

Joseph Witriol

“What can ennoble sots, or slaves, or cowards?  Alas! not all the blood of all the Howards.       Pope – Essay on Man

As well as typing this for his family’s information and elucidation, I suppose he wanted us to have something to hand should people ask us about our “very unusual” name. “Unique, actually” is my mock-snobbish (but true in the UK) initial rejoinder to said remark.

It was I think in the 1970s that he learnt that someone in the USA had the same name, albeit with a variant spelling. He wrote to him to discover if there was any family connection. This ‘relative’ wrote back stating that my father’s grandfather had come to live with his (ie the American Witriol’s) family and hence adopted the name Witriol. At one point a (different?) Mr and Mrs Witriol visited us from America. She took this snap with the visitor behind me on the right.

An American Witriol

The Witriols

This seems plausible as he also gave my great-grandfather’s original family name(s) which tally with other names in the (sparsely branched) family tree my dad once penned out on a piece of card.

I do not know how the initial connection with the American Witriol came about and any hypothesis (looking in a NYC phone book at the Borough reference library is one that comes to my mind) vividly underlines how the Internet/Google/Facebook has changed  our ability to discover such links.

Lid Off Hasmonean

This article has already been referred to in connection with Journal entries relating to Hasmonean.

Lid off Hasmonean was published in The Jewish Chronicle, dated 4th November 1977 and under that date he added to his cuttings book:

Twelve years since the last feature article in the J.C; 5½ years since my last review in the J.C. In the meantime I had submitted an article – Jewish Forenames – which was accepted, but which I then asked them not to publish because, or rather unless, they printed G-d, which they declined to do.

I also submitted, unsuccessfully, two articles “lifted” from my (unpublished) book on Yiddish, and more recently an article on “Neologisms in Modern Hebrew” which, too, was rejected by the Features Editor Meir Persoff.

My title for the attached article was Hasmo, I wrote Hasmonean Secondary School (not Grammar) and the parenthesis about my retirement was added by the J.C. sub – good (I had mentioned the fact of my retirement in a covering letter).

Both this article and the one on Jewish forenames are mentioned in Part V of The Witriol Dairies as featured on melchettmike’s blog.

Sketches by Edith, Words by Joseph

“The Spring Bride”, a 24 page supplement published with The Jewish Chronicle of March 4, 1960 included Letter to a Baal Simcha by my father.

In his cuttings book he added a note:

13/3/59.  I was asked to do “an article in lighter vein” on “Mechutanship” or “On Being a Mechutan” for a J.C. “Brides and Homes” supplement. This was the best I could do. The best thing I can say in favour is that the whole process from insemination to parturition [did my very recent birth influence his choice of metaphor!?] took only a week or so; the actual writing of the first draft only a few hours. Edith’s sketches, too, took only an hour or so; though rejected for publication they stay here [i.e. in his cuttings book] to testify to a happy collaboration.

My mother’s sketches for the wedding article

In 1951, my father had written an article on Machmanship for The JC. Clearly the paper by now had him down as Anglo-Jewry’s Stephen Potter.

 

Hasmonean – the final chapter

The final part of the diary entries from my father’s journal as it relates to his time at Hasmonean is  here on the excellent melchettmike blog.

Post-retirement, the occasional reference to Hasmonean or contact with ex-colleagues came up. Here are two examples, transcribed from the hand-written entry with my additions in square brackets:

Sunday 28th January 1979, 1850

E J Frank came round on Wednesday. At 70+ he is fit, though constantly blinking. He knew nothing of my “Hasmo” article in the J.C., here , so that my fears that he might have been “broighiss” with me on a/c of it, were groundless….

…The story [E J Frank told] in the name of Mendel Block, who succeeded Rev. Rosenbaum at our  [i.e. dad’s family synagogue, when growing up]old Borough Synagogue, was of a discussion in the Hasmo staffroom, when MB was on the staff, as to whether a Jew could watch opera or ballet. “Certainly not ballet,” said MB, “Al tistakel lakankan (can-can)”. This was off the cuff, and as such first-rate, in my view. [my brother had to explain to me the wordplay – “Al tistakel bekankan” from Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers, meaning “Don’t look at the container”(continuing with”…rather, (look) at what’s inside”.)]

Monday 21st May 1979, 1218

Y’day to reception to Moishe Ellman [pictured in this photo on melchettmike] at Page Street, Hasmo Girls’ School. Very enjoyable. Had been a little surprised to receive invite in 1st place – thought was persona non grata. However Mr Baddiel [see melchettmike’s hasmo-legends-xiv]  was cordiality itself. Cd it be that he had not read my JC article in which he was obviously the target of my criticism of the ultra-O elements at Hasmo? Doubt it. Probably had forgotten it, or just thought it was shtuss and not worth bothering with. WWS [“Willy” Stanton, headmaster], too, was very amiable, though he hadn’t emerged all that well from my article. Albert Myer came over ostentatiously to Sam Balin and ostentatiously ignored me. I don’t quite know what I did to him. He saw me once on the bus with bare head. It’s hardly worth the bother of commenting on.

The whole thing was very well done. Moishe was presented with an illuminated address by a distinguished OB, a Ph D mathematician and, of course, ex yeshiva bachur. Moishe spoke quite well, said he’d been setting himself a multiple choice question as to the reasons why he had gone on so long past retirement age. Of the five possible answers (loved teaching maths so much, couldn’t tear himself away from such a fine bunch of colleagues, needed the money, was dreading his retirement speech and wanted to put it off as long as possible, had come to the conclusion that the last was the right answer. (I have forgotten the fifth choice).

March 4 2018

Going through my dad’s papers recently, I found a letter and a postcard from pupils as well as his retirement card from 1977.