Part 68: Sunday 20th November 1960, 6pm

Dedication of stained-glass windows at New Synagogue this morning 12.30. Mum had a window put in in memory of my father זצ״ל. [Israel Witriol – who died when dad was twelve] Service very well done, with sherry and refreshments afterwards. Read Roots; entertaining, which in my terminology is complimentary. The theme is of Norfolk farm workers. The heroine is awakened by her Jew-boy lover in London. She tries to communicate to her family the zest which he has communicated to her. Her family is keyed up to meet him; he fails to turn up, but she feels it has been worth it, he has enabled her to see what life could really be. It is amazing that an East-End Jewish boy could have caught so well the Norfolk country milieu.

The children flourishing, Mum too. Keep fingers crossed.

Also read The Crossing Point by Gerda Charles. Again, a thoroughly entertaining Anglo-Jewish novel.


Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 18: Causyth relief

Wednesday, 30th April 1958, 10.15 pm

Since previous entry have developed boil on eyebrow with ensuing bunged-up eye. Usual fears – would the eye ever de-bung, or bung down. It did, following penicillin (oral) treatment prescribed by Dr Haber, to whom I paid two visits. These visits passed off without any incident, probably because the weather was good, and I did not have to wait very long – ½ hr., say – and the waiting room was not crowded. About three years ago, when I went to my panel doctor one evening, there was an unseemly fracas between the doctor and myself, as a result of which I asked to be taken off that doctor’s list. The incident is not worth describing in detail; I may have been initially a little irritating, but at one stage in the proceedings the doctor said: “I haven’t had a penny out of you yet” (or words to that effect) which sparked off an explosion from me. On that occasion it was winter, it was raining, the waiting room was crowded, and it was over an hour before I was called in. – Dr. Haber is Polish-Jewish ( I transferred to him because Richard [Stern] had told me he was his (Richard’s) doctor), youngish, pleasant. He leaves his surgery and pops his head into the waiting room each time to call in the next patient. If he does this as a matter of policy – may his strength increase! – he’s the only doctor I know of who does. Perhaps if his list was twice as long he wouldn’t do it.

[intimate material omitted]

It’s about a fortnight since I sent the typewritten translations to Harold E Temple, and I have received no acknowledgement from him. However, I have his written order to me to do the translations and I have the receipt for the registration of the postal packet containing the translations which I sent to him. Anyway, he’s probably out of town. I shan’t consider chivvying him till Whitsun, if necessary, when I shall be on holiday.

Am writing this in almost perfect quiet. No noise from next door – no sound of washing or ironing or cooking or frying from Edith. The temperature is just right. Although primary activity prevented me from getting to sleep till about 1am this morning and at one stage this afternoon I had difficulty in keeping my eyes open in the classroom, I do not feel particularly tired now. Laus Deo.

Saw, with Edith, Berlin boys beat London boys 3-0. First rate football. To-night with E. to Islington Schools Music Festival. Innovation – boys’ brass band. They played with what seemed to me to be complete assurance.

Saw film Farewell to Arms. Pleasant ramble, Dorking – Ranmore Common – Polesden Lacey – Leatherhead. Weather kept right. Pleased by gentle tempo of leader, Rose Dubinsky.

After the boils, on the eyebrow and chin – the itchy tookhes. Again the fear – was one condemned to a lifetime of pruritis ani? I don’t know if I have recorded in this journal that from 1936 to 1939 I worked for a Polish Jew who had a large pharmaceutical factory in Cracow and was trying to plant an “ethical medical product” in Britain. Later on he acquired the agency for “Calmitol,” manufactured by a Swiss firm, which was indicated in pruritis ani (and now I come to think of it – or is this only my fancy, influenced by my close association with the subject recently?) and pruritis vulvae. It was genuinely good too, I believe – I remember Sam telling me that while he endeavoured to keep “Causyth” and “Calmitol” going when I was in the forces, he received an enquiry for the latter preparation from someone who said it had given him great relief. I wonder what happened to Joseph Sperling. I last heard of him, just after the war I think, from Brazil (or was it Uruguay?). And to his brother, Dr Harold, whom I met in Tel-Aviv looking like a seedy anarchist waiting his chance to throw a bomb.

Joseph Witriol and Hugh Stubbs

As well as typescripts of his articles, translations, reviews, his autobiography, Also Lived, and the volumes of his Journal, my father, Joseph Witriol, also kept many letters from (and also some copies of letters to) family and friends.

One of these friends was Hugh Stubbs whom he met while doing Army training at Blackdown during the war. His lengthy letters to him frequently have the verve and erudition found in his published work. Hugh Stubbs lectured for many years at Exeter University where one of his students, JK Rowling, said he provided the inspiration for Professor Binns, who sends students to sleep with his long-winded lessons. Joseph Witriol wrote in Also Lived:

His closely typed letters, with their wealth of historical and biblical allusion – he never quotes a biblical verse, just gives the chapter-and-verse reference – show up my puny attempts in reply. I suppose it helps if your grandfather was a bishop, even more if your granddad was Bishop Stubbs, author of the Constitutional History of England.

In the wartime letters [large PDF file] my father certainly musters an impressive range of foreign language quotes and expressions while maintaining the role of a junior in what he clearly saw as a battle of wits. What struck me was how this brilliant descendant of bishops employed his mastery of language, history and theology to make what I felt were derogatory observations about Jews and Judaism – their being written during the war only heightening the distaste I felt on reading them.

For Joseph Witriol, however, such barbs were legitimate challenges to be rebutted intellectually. In 1945, however, he wrote:

…does not this remark [“To my mind, the avoidance of pogroms and the smuggling of valuta probably plays as vital a role in Jewish life as do the seedtime and harvest which form the basis of religious life among other communities”]…strike you as overstepping the bounds of good taste?

…it would be idle to deny that it has made the continuation of what had hitherto been an enjoyable correspondence, and in fact the continuance of social relations of any kind between us, other than extremely difficult.

The heartfelt response that came back from Hugh Stubbs was enough to mollify “My Dear Johnny” who replied, in an equally heartfelt letter, still constructed with the precision and eloquence that was the hallmark of this correspondence, that he was:

…prepared to regard [the remark] as one of those Entgleisungen that may occur even in the best regulated families. 

The rest of the letter consists of the justification as to why he was entitled to object to the original remark, but ends with another scholarly reference to indicate that it was now my father who felt he should apologise:

If you suspect me of attempting to put over a Canossagang, then believe me, I am no longer,

Your sincere friend

The letters continued for another forty years or so, the frequency diminishing (at least based on the ones that I have), their scholarly and urbane nature remaining.

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…

Gunner Witriol and the Colonel’s Braces

On leave in Tel Aviv in December 1941, my father, Joseph Witriol, bought a humorous Hebrew periodical called Tesha Ba’ Erev (Hebrew: תשע בערב, Nine in the Evening). He read a piece in it that he thought would be worth translating into English for publication in Parade, the Army’s Middle East weekly magazine.  He assumed (naively perhaps) that this was an original Hebrew story and his (i.e Joseph Witriol’s) translation was indeed published  in Parade in due course . But what Joseph Witriol had innocently translated from Hebrew into English was actually an unacknowledged translation of an original English story, published in Lilliput in August 1941.

He related this tale in Also Lived, his autobiography (handwritten, pages 143-145) and in more detail in a short story competition organised by the Anglo-Palestinian Club in about 1951, Maurice Edelman being the judge. My dad had kept the original Lilliput article, so it only remains for me to track down the copy of Parade featuring Joseph Witriol’s translation in order to compare the two versions.

January 1 2015 update: Following my first visit to the British Library with a Reader Pass, I ordered and scanned my father’s original article from Parade, the Middle East Weekly for MEF in WWII.

Jospeh Witriol’s Apologia Pro Autobiographia Sua

Thus the title of the introduction to Joseph Witriol’s autobiography, Also Lived – The Autobiography of a Failure. He wrote it, on and off, for about six years, from 1984 to 1990. Rather than retype the 60,000 words (which would take me six years or more), I have scanned the typescript (‘inkscript’ on a few pages) which, unfortunately, has many corrections, deletions and so on. In a few places the quality of the reproduction is very poor. In due course, I hope to upload old photos, letters and documents that are referred to in Also Lived.

In the self-justifyingly titled Apologia, he says that he wanted his children to know something of “the rock whence they were hewn” as well as needing to “get it (i.e. writing the autobiography) out of his system”.  Given that when he wrote it he was well into his seventies, was still teaching and translating, involved in synagogue life and had various domestic commitments, it is perhaps understandable that the manuscript repeats certain passages and has much less of the flair shown in many of his newspaper articles. As he himself wrote in a Journal entry dated 24 June 1985 – “…had a bash at my autobiography. Goes on and on, seems nothing but a list of names.”

Much of the family-centred material would only perhaps be of interest to someone who grew up in the same area, served in the same Army unit and so on.  But it is a detailed “ethnic social history” of aspects of Jewish and Zionist life in London as well as a record of his experiences as a Jew in Hamburg in 1934 when Hitler had been in power for a year. The same applies to his wartime service in London, North Africa (including Palestine) and Italy. And – more scary than any military encounter he (never) had – teaching in East London “sec. mod.” schools in the 1950s.

In any case, as I read his words, I feel he wanted them to be preserved for posterity (Equally a few passages have been redacted where I think that is what he would have wanted).  And finally, should the online record of this self-styled “also ran”  be discovered by others who can add anything about the people, places and events mentioned, any such information or comment would be much appreciated, either here or at

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.

Translations from German and Hebrew

The penultimate part of Journal entries relating to Hasmonean are here.

As well as his personal Journal,  unpublished autobiography and Yiddish book,  he also had two significant translations published.  These are two sites which a quick and unacademic Google search brings up:’s_wilderness

God’s Wilderness Discoveries in Sinai
Beno Rothenberg ; in collaboration with Yohanan Aharoni and Avia Hashimshoni ; [translated from the Hebrew by Joseph Witriol].


Heinrich Heine : the artist in revolt / by M.Brod. Trans. from the German by J.Witriol

Serendipitously I spotted the latter book in a Magg’s catalogue of books for sale from Yehudi Menuhin’s library – see also here. It’s worth a look at their site – they are one of the most renowned antiquarian booksellers in the world.

The Hasmo Journal: A Son’s Introduction

My father, Joseph Witriol (1912-2002, Hasmonean 1966-1977), kept a hand-written Journal from 1957 for around forty years, running to some 17 volumes.

Some of what he wrote is highly personal, but there is also the trivia of daily life; the detailed observations of people and places; the sometimes extraordinarily analytical retelling of events; the philosophical, religious, political, cultural, and linguistic insights and musings. And, of course, his wife Edith (1922-2006), children (myself, Philip, born 1959, Max, born 1960, and Susannah, born 1963), other family, friends and work all feature. All expressed with a deep sense of morality and humanity, lightened though by an urbane, self-deprecating, cynical, and occasionally, ahem, vitriolic style.

Barmitzvah speech, Woodside Park shul, with mum and dad
The overarching theme is the feeling of being a failure. Among the many things this ‘failure’ did was to write his memoirs, Also Lived – An Autobiography of a Failure, chronicling his life up to the time the Journal begins. His hope, often expressed in the Journal, was that his children (especially I, his first-born) would not repeat his mistakes and would make something of their lives.

However, had I not stumbled across the superb melchett mike blog (in true failure style, from Googling my brother’s name during an aimless, late night surfing session), I doubt whether I would have even thought of ‘uploading’ these Hasmonean-related entries.  Thanks to the diligence of Mike the entries have gone up on his blog, here, here, here, here and here. He also forestalled some significant transcribing errors made by me.

More typically for me, another ‘project’, to transcribe and eventually publish in some form the work probably closest to my father’s heart, Mumme Looshen – An Anatomy of Yiddish, still remains uncompleted more than four years after I began working on it. Again, I hope to eventually publish it – if only via this site. [2012 update – now online here].

A recurrent theme of dad’s school-related (both Hasmonean and previous schools) entries is the struggle to control his temper in the face of pupil indiscipline, and his more than occasional recourse to physical punishment. This may shock even the most non-PC of readers. In dad’s (partial) defence, I would point out that this was in the late Sixties/early Seventies, before the enlightened, student-centred attitude of our own day. It is also worth bearing in mind that his Hasmo entries formed only a small fraction of his Journal writings, no more than 10% as a guesstimate.

Entries have not been altered unless an error is obvious or the meaning completely obscured. Indeed, dad sometimes noted his misspellings and wondered if they were Freudian slips. The occasional solecism, for example, is, perhaps, natural in an entry usually compiled after a day’s work. There are also minor inconsistencies which may reflect changes of style over time (such as various spellings of compound words, such as “staff room”). He sometimes, as in writing about the induction, in Part I, inadvertently repeated himself. And dad was not given to short paragraphs. Or sentences.

I have overcome my mixed feelings about printing ‘juicier’ items. Given the passage of time and the nature of such revelations, I have opted for disclosure. However, where something is too sensitive, I omit. Sometimes, dad would use a person’s initials if a comment was derogatory. He may have foreseen the possibility of his entries reaching a wider audience. He did refer to his children and grandchildren reading it decades hence and in one passage stated we should be allowed to communicate or publish (my emphasis) their contents. Reading some passages (for example, the description of colleagues) I am also tempted to feel he was not just writing for himself.

I have tried to keep my comments [in square brackets, thus] to a minimum. I rarely explain words and expressions merely because they are dated or obscure. Against my own deepest waffling instincts, I avoid explanation or interpretation. Occasionally, dad imagined how a future Ph.D. student/editor of his Journal (and his Autobiography) would exhaustively footnote a minor point. I hope the reader will get a feel for my dad’s character through his words without any ‘prompting’ by me. Nevertheless, in addition to the general remark already made about corporal punishment, let me break my own rule and make one other: In public, and when speaking with us at home, dad was very modest (and not in a false way). In this medium, however, he did indulge in self-praise from time to time.

Dad in a retirement photo for the school mag
Dad was a polyglot, etymologist and linguist who, without affectation, frequently used foreign words and phrases in his writings. Above all, he was a lover of, and expert in, Classical and Modern Hebrew. As well as a superb academic knowledge of Yiddish, he had grown up with a mother whose first language it was. The aphorisms of mumme looshen were imprinted on him. I keep his transliteration of Hebrew and Yiddish words (italicised for ease), even though these may sometimes seem unusual to the modern reader. The accurate copying of foreign words and expressions – whether in French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Spanish or Yiddish – is limited by the original’s handwriting and my lack of knowledge of the languages. Rather than always labouring to decipher them myself, I hope the meaning is usually inferable(ish) or that research by the still-curious reader will yield results.

Philip Witriol (Hasmonean 1970-1977)