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Toffee Apples with Uncle Leo

Kraus-Pessy_wedding-4 Uncle Leo standing next to the writer at the Barmitzvah of her brother Aubrey, 1955, with their parents on either side

Every New Year - Rosh Hashanah - brings with it a pang. A sort of bitter-sweet taste. Not of the titbits of fish head, or apple dipped in honey, but of my cousin Evelyne's annual visit with her father, my mother's brother Oncle Leo Greenberg Kraus - German pronunciation – from their home in Antwerp. We were both about nine years old when Evi, as we called her, came for outfits. Bought by her Aunt Regina, backed by husband Aron, London's West End had rarely experienced deliberations such as those of my little – increasingly taller – cousin. Red or cream coat? Short or longer skirt? Pleated or plain dress? Loyalty dictated that in no way would her agonies of indecision be conveyed to her father!
Rangy, his invariable grey suit, shirt and trousers, sad grey eyes and down-turned mouth created an artistic air. Puzzling though it was, he had returned to the very town from which he had fled in 1940. There, some six years later, this alienated refugee became renowned as Antwerp's champion chess player. His railway-lined forehead wrinkled when focussing on his daily game, seated outside his usual cafe, surrounded by marvelling onlookers.
It is difficult to picture the dapper Dr Leo Langerman who, at thirty-three, was the youngest State Prosecutor Berlin ever had, until removed by Nazi edict from public office. Some, though, might have remembered his wedding to the gorgeous Sarah, the glamorous event of 1931. Or the joy when milk and roses Evelyne was born.
Why didn't she shop with her mother? The answer is that tragically she had been taken by Nazis. Hearing of the round up Sarah managed to beg nuns in a small, far from prosperous, convent outside Antwerp, to take two-year-old Evelyne for safe keeping. Scribbling a note with its address for Leo, who mercifully was not home, she tucked it into one of his shoes, hoping he would find it, before being carted away to her destruction.
The horror haunted Leo, but war's end brought some hope to locate and retrieve his daughter from the convent. A hazy June day found him filled with trepidation standing before a huge engraved metal door. Ring? Knock? He dragged down on a rope. A distant ringing, the door swung open.
'Well?'"
The nun's voice responded with understanding at his explanation. "We did not have to change her name. But Evelyne never seemed to settle in all these six years."
Eventually a straggling child was produced.
"Let go my hand, now. Here's a visitor."
"Evelyne, my daughter!"
"Who are you?"
"I...I am your father."
"Where is my mother?"
Leo blurted out, to his unrecognisable eight-year-old scrawny child,
"She….Your mother…..She is no longer."
"I don't want you, I want my mother," erupted from her pale lips time and again. The symphony played in her father's ears but even as it died down, their wounds never healed. His sincere, clumsy attempts failed to assuage his daughter's sorrow.

Nevertheless, Evi became a beautiful doe-eyed beauty. She gained her school certificate at fifteen, stenographer's diploma at seventeen and a diploma with distinction as a French-English commercial secretary. With that in hand, she left Antwerp and her father, making Brussels her base.
Their paths mainly parted, but throughout my childhood Oncle Leo's visits were my highlight. We'd wander into North West London's shopping parade. It was invariably sunny, when drifting towards the shade, he would fold my hand into his comforting fingers and, looking down at me, came his usual question:
"What would you like? You can have anything you like."
Gleefully, every time,
"A toffee apple please!"
Taking deep bites into its crunchy outer layer contentedly, I held on tight, the toffee apple stick in one hand, Oncle Leo's in the other while Oncle Leo, man of few words, would be intoning...'Protect me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shadow of your wings...' It was catching as together we'd step to those mysterious words.
Arriving back home he'd seat himself at our piano, playing nostalgically, taking turns with my mother - a harmony of unspoken notes. Still, where did those words we'd murmured as we ambled come from?
"Are you playing 'Hide me in the shadow'?"
"Ah, yes! King David said it all!" Producing a small book of Psalms, and opening it at the seventeenth, he pointed to verse eight, adding his own,
"May we all be protected from our enemies."
It was a hope, no doubt, Evi would have echoed, but we mainly spoke in the form of airmail letters. My newly-wed status allowed me to visit her from England, and marvel at her place in a large Brussels office. It was shattering when her secretarial career was interrupted by episodes of running amok amongst hooting traffic, screaming,
"They're bombing on me. The planes are dropping shells on me," with no visible plane in sight. It was her Uncle Aron who boarded a plane to Belgium with no option, but sadly to have her admitted into an institution.
Her father could not respond, painfully being separated from a daughter who wanted only her mother, for whom he also longed. Forever a stone in his gullet was, "I should have been taken, and not Sarah. Eternity will see the end of my tree." Relentless thoughts haunted him until the end of his eighty years in 1981.
Uncle Aron was called on whenever Evelyne's health broke down. When my turn came, visits were from my, by then, Jerusalem home. It was heart wrenching seeing Evi with a body gradually shrinking into child-like proportions. Seemingly, the nuns were unable to offer adequate nutrition. Evi would be wheeled into the garden of the Jewish care home, gaze at trees and flowers, her dark eyes filled with wonder. One of her little gnarled hands would hold one of mine.
When these precious moments finally came to an end, it was my mission, as guardian of her modest estate, to perpetuate her memory. A Sefer Torah in Jerusalem was dedicated with the inscription on its mantle, 'Evelyne Langerman, a victim of the Holocaust.' My Evi is regularly hugged and kissed. A hall in her memory was renovated as a study centre for youth. Many who use it pause to read Evelyne's history on the plaque at its entrance.
How could Oncle Leo be commemorated? Leo means 'lion'. In Hebrew lion is Arye. Serendipity dictated that my two-year-old great-grandson was given Arye as his second name. This little lad is full of energy, yet can sit at a stender facing a sizeable Gemara. As he rotates its pages, he intones melodious sounds. Finally, he stands up, just shoulder high, on the chair. Mightily he slams it shut before planting a gentle kiss on its brown binding. He is the apple of my eye, as well as being lion-hearted.
My Oncle Leo – Chaim Leb - can rest assured that he has unwittingly come from under the 'shadow of the wings'. He is celebrated, as is his daughter, Evelyne. Could it be they were both destined to have their heritage perpetuated here? A sentence from S. Y. Agnon's Nobel Prize acceptance speech comes to mind 'I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.' So history closes and opens. Future generations re-ignite flames which will never die.
At the Rosh Hashanah table my thoughts are, once again, with my precious little cousin Evi, and our shopping expeditions. While, somehow, the apple dipped in honey has a special, Oncle Leo, crunch. Indeed, their memories are for a blessing.

 

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Sunday, 25 February 2024

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