A fighter and educator for a more humane world

I was so sad to hear that a very wonderful person, Esther Brunstein, a Holocaust survivor, who was a living link with the long history of secular Yiddish culture and Jewish socialism, died on Tuesday afternoon this week. We had heard the night before that she was in hospital very ill, and made plans to visit her the following evening knowing that we were most likely saying goodbye. We never got that chance to say goodbye.

IMG_0952.jpgEsther grew up in Lodz, Poland, in a Bundist (Jewish Socialist) family of textile workers. She went to a very progressive secular Yiddish school run by the Bund – the Medem Shule – named after a prominent Bundist ideologue. But her education was cut short at 11 when the Nazis overran Poland. She spent four years in the Lodz ghetto and then survived Auschwitz and Belsen. I got to know her well in the 1980s, and went to 1:1 Yiddish classes at her house. She loved Yiddish literature and poetry, and also acted in the Yiddish theatre in London. Her husband, Staciek, used to paint backdrops for the Yiddish theatre (where they met) and his poignant paintings of Jewish life in interwar-Poland were the backdrop on the walls of their house as we pored over Yiddish stories and poems.

I remember her telling me that soon after she first arrived in Britain she wanted to talk about her experiences but people didn’t want to listen, and then after a while and when she got married and had young children she found it impossible to speak about it, but carried it all the time. And it haunted her. She told me once that she had never slept right through the night since her time in the death camps. The nightmares were ever-present. And meanwhile, she said, people like David Irving were freely going round denying it had ever happened.

But she found her voice again about these traumatic experiences, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had introduced her to some anti-fascist comrades who were interested in Polish Jewish history of the 1930s and resistance during the Holocaust, and they coaxed her to speak at Anti-Nazi League events. She was a wonderful speaker who told her own story so movingly, and drew lessons for humanity, about the need to oppose all forms of racism, support minorities and fight for a more humane world. After a while she was speaking at so many events around the country, especially to school students. And she could empathise with them, I believe, especially because of her own very happy memories of her school and what that meant to her throughout her life.

img_0991-1In her later years she struggled physically but still tried to get to events that were important to her. In 2013 we were so pleased to see her arrive at the event marking the 70th anniversary of the  of Szmul “Artur” Zygielbojm’s suicide as political protest. A prominent trade union leader, socialist and anti-fascist activist, Zygielbojm represented the Bund on the Polish Parliament in Exile in London.  Esther spoke of her warm memories of Zygielbojm when she was a child. She was often at his home playing games with his children. As she spoke I remembered also the day in 1996 when we put up a memorial plaque for Zygielbojm and Esther read, in her beautiful Yiddish diction, his heart-rending suicide letter.

Her long-term memory remained intact but her short-term memory was failing her towards the end of her life. This had its lighter moments. At a Holocaust memorial event at which the ‘great’ and not so good were present, she introduced herself to one of the guests: “I’m Esther Brunstein, an Auschwitz survivor. I recognise your face and I’ve seen you on television.” He replied, “I’m David Cameron…” and Esther recoiled: “Oh, I didn’t vote for you!”

IMG_0940.jpgBy a strange coincidence, on the same day on which I heard how gravely ill Esther was,  I had been scanning a picture a few hours earlier for other purposes, of a group of Bundists, several of them Holocaust survivors, in London. I believe it was taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Esther is in the middle at the front. The values instilled in her through the Bund were the values she lived by every day of her life. I remember her telling me about her involvement with the Bund’s children’s organisation – SKIF – and her pride when she and other comrades “graduated” into the Bund’s youth group Tsukunft (Future), but by then they were incarcerated in the ghetto and the future could barely be imagined.

in 1987 I encouraged her to write a piece for Jewish Socialist magazine about her childhood memories. Here are some short extracts from it:

“There was a great feeling of belonging… we really felt we were being taken care of as little people. As people we mattered… Nothing was compulsory. The school was run on free and democratic lines… Boys and girls did everything together. We were one of the few co-educational schools at the time. There was a great sense of equality…

“At the Medem Shule we had no such thing as a religious assembly. The other schools did but it was not forced upon us. We had a hymn for the school: Lomir zingen a lid tsu der yidisher shule, vos iz alemen undz azoy tayer. Lomir zingen mit freyd un mit hofnung ful, oyf a velt a fraye a naye. (Let us sing a song to the Yiddish school, which is dear to us all. Let us sing full of hope and joy for a new and free world)…

During the school holidays our teacher organised activities at the school. Many children lived in difficult conditions so they organised outings and projects…What this school has given me …was a very strong feeling of what was right and what was just. We somehow managed to carry it within us. And… It helped me in the ghetto in the darkest hours of the war. I always retained this feeling and belief in my fellow human being. I still carry it within me.”

Koved ir ondenk (Honour her memory).

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From ecstasy to agony

They said we were yesterday’s people, nostalgics, unwilling to take a leap of imagination. That we only looked backwards, not forwards. They claimed that what they were doing would guarantee a bigger and brighter future. We said they were trampling on our history, identity and community, and our home, not for the interests they were purporting to serve, but really for a quick buck. We predicted that they were leading us to disaster.

Last Friday night was a disaster.

In the end it didn’t matter what we thought. The 35,000 of us who paid very good money every couple of weeks to support a football team that we considered ours, in a football ground located at the heart of a vibrant, living and breathing community, a place that many of us have been turning up to watch for decades, were not consulted in any meaningful way about giving all of this up. We were subjected to a brainwashing campaign that the Moonies would have been proud of, and in the end the deals were done over all our heads. The curse of “Modern Football”.

That’s why disasters like last Friday night happened.

West Ham played their last game at Upton Park, on 10 May 2016, in a football stadium where so many precious memories were created and implanted for life. That night the stadium was filled to the rafters. The crowd roared, the whole place trembled and exploded into ecstasy, as we won our final game there 3-2 against the mighty Manchester United, who were desperate for all three points, and who led 2-1 with just 15 minutes to go.

7403290-3x2-700x467We used to go to Upton Park for excitement, entertainment, to experience all manner of emotions, and to see our team occasionally upset expectations and deliver a knock-out blow to one of the high and mighty “big” clubs.

Last Friday night all we felt was pain and embarrassment.

That evening back in May, though, when we stuffed Manchester United, we shouted, we celebrated, we laughed, and then we cried as we said goodbye to the markets and pubs, the cafes and shops of Green Street, knowing that we would be watching our next games at a huge soulless stadium, not even built for football, where we would sit far from the pitch, in a totally sterile environment completely lacking in any atmosphere. As I sat over a meal in Brick Lane with friends and discussed our options on the new season-ticket prices for the place we didn’t want to go to,  we joked about having to add a supplementary cost because we would need to buy binoculars to see the pitch.

A few weeks ago I sat there, in “The London Stadium”, apparently  West Ham’s new “home”. A few seats down from me is a guy who actually brings binoculars.  At the old home ground you knew the moment the players were coming on to the pitch, even if you weren’t looking, because of the roar that went up, the exuberant shouting and chanting. Here you are still free to shout and chant but it floats away with the wind. It is so  quiet.

On this particular day in December I watched West Ham lose 5-1 to Arsenal. Many fans had already headed home before Arsenal got their fourth and fifth goals. In the equivalent fixture last year, at Upton Park, with a roaring crowd near enough to breathe down the team’s neck, willing the team on, we came back from 2-0 down, despite playing well, to lead 3-2 but were pegged back to 3-3 at the finish. We knew that we the fans were part of that comeback. Opposing teams used to fear the crowd at Upton Park, not as a physical threat but  they feared our capacity to make the place a cauldron of noise that lifted and inspired our team to exert themselves to the full. The players felt accountable to us. And the relationship was reciprocal. When certain players scored they would run to a part of the ground to wave  or give a thumbs up to some particular fans – family, friends – that they could pick out in the crowd. It was that intimate. That’s all gone now.

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And we are not treated as fans any more.  We are customers, clients.

Last Friday night we managed to go one worse than the 5-1 mauling by Arsenal. We lost 5-0 at home – at home – to Manchester City. They are a top club but last year when we played them with almost the same players in our team, We beat them 2-1 away form home and  drew 2-2 in a pulsating game at Upton Park where City got a late equaliser.

Fortunately I wasn’t at the game last Friday night. West Ham’s season tickets don’t cover cup games, and after the mauling by Arsenal and some fairly lacklustre performances since then (even in games where we have scraped victory), me and my fellow sufferers did not feel motivated enough to buy tickets for this one. We watched it in the pub, which, unlike the stadium, did have atmosphere (although the three tables combined nearby of locals who were going through their drunken repertoire of 70s anthems did grate a little bit).

For just over 30 minutes West Ham competed well, but then we gave away a soft penalty, missed a simple chance to equalise very soon afterwards, and then conceded two sloppy goals before half time. We sat shell-shocked and more thoroughly depressed as each goal went in. The second half just dished up more of the same. Unlike many of the crowd who actually went there on a cold wet night, we stayed to the end in the relative comfort of the pub.

5d654ceb1d309c10095e55209096dc6b1dca7977But the pain doesn’t go away. And part of that pain is not just the five goals we conceded, not just knowing that this could not have happened at Upton Park, but our knowledge that this whole situation was a disaster waiting to happen, that we were steamrollered into. We weren’t complicit. We argued against it where we could. I railed against the plans in the fanzine, Over Land and Sea. But we feel complicit. We couldn’t really get our voices heard. A few well connected moneybags running the club could do what they wanted with this community and its prize asset, its home, which incidentally, was sold off to a property company specialising in luxury flats. If you are going to shit on the struggling community that has sustained the club for more than 100 years, then why not do it big-time?

The propaganda is still unrelentingly poured out. I visited the club’s website and read what one of our Chairs, David Sullivan, had to say about last Friday night’s debacle. Would he say “Sorry”? Would he say “We are arranging for you to have your money back”? No. He said: “We simply have to concede that last night’s performance was just not good enough… However, it was excellent to see so many young faces there and… a 57,000 capacity crowd at London Stadium…for a match on a Friday night, live on BBC One, just two weeks after Christmas. It is something that not many other clubs in the country can boast.”

We could see that crowd on TV – heading for the exits well before the game ended.

A few days from now I will stop thinking about last night’s game, like I’ve stopped thinking about the Arsenal game from a few weeks back, but the more serious damage has been done and cannot now be undone. I will always check West Ham’s results, still use my West Ham bath towel, and probably go to the odd game next year, but I very much doubt I will be renewing my season ticket. And from the conversations I have heard around me when I have gone to the matches this year, I know there will be many other refuseniks. Their greed has completely trumped our need.

I know that not all of you reading this are Hammers fans, so if you see your club heading down this road, learn from us, and take desperate measures to stop it if you can, while you can.