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

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…