Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Passing of a Generation? Well, not quite...

Stuart, in north London, has sent me a news clipping about the death at 97 of a man described as "founder of the Muswell Hill Stop the War group and oldest university graduate in Britain".

Bernard Herzberg died in his sleep on May 16, just after finishing his final dissertation for an MA at the University of London and passing all his final year exams. He was 90 when he completed his BA in German literature and, five years later, he completed his first MA, in refugee studies.

But these were subjects of which Bernard Herzberg had first-hand knowledge. He left Germany soon after Hitler came to power in 1933.

That was not the end of Bernard's conflict with racism, however. He was a lifelong socialist. Living in South Africa, in the 1950s, he took up the cause of black civil rights and opposed the Apartheid regime. Here in Britain, having decided to study Refugee issues at academic level, he readily identified his experience with the problems facing refugees and asylum seekers from other countries.

In 2001, aged 92, he set up the Muswell Hill Stop the War group, and spent every Saturday at the anti-war street stall in Muswell Hill Broadway distributing leaflets and collecting signatures, opposing the wars and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

His son Paul said: "Here was a man who transformed old age into something unique in certain ways, the zenith to his long life. But that's how he was. Always searching for and creating meaning in whatever circumstances he found himself. Always his own man. On a mission to the end. He was a phenomenal guy. I'll miss him."

Robin Beste, of the Muswell Hill Stop the War Group, said: "Perhaps most important and the greatest honour of all for me was to stand alongside Bernard in the political activities through which he expressed his lifelong passion for justice.

"We were proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone whose life seemed to encapsulate so much history of the century that it almost spanned. We were encouraged by the great satisfaction he showed in every leaflet he handed out and every signature he collected for our anti-war petitions - every one of which Bernard regarded as a step forward in the movement for peace.

"His commitment, energy and persistence were inspirational and he will be very much missed by everyone in our group, for whom he became a very close friend."

Another refugee from the Nazis who has died just recently is Henry Guterman, who came over as a child, soon after Hitler's Kristallnacht pogroms. Henry became a leading figure in the Manchester Jewish community and was still keeping up his community enagements until just before he was admitted to Wythenshawe hospital having suffered a severe stroke.

Many youngsters who were rescued from the Nazi persecution by the kindertransport had to leave their parents behind. Henry Guterman's father Berthold Guterman may have been able to come over with his family thanks to his connections with Cussons, the soap firm whose factory scented Kersal moor, where I often went as a kid, and near which my parents spent their last years. Berthold was interned as an "enemy alien" during the War, but retained his belief in British liberal democracy, which probably influenced his son, as well as the experience from which they fled

Henry Guterman earned an MBE for his services in the Jewish community, which included South Manchester synagogue, presidency of Manchester Jewish Representative Council, Board of Deputies Defence Committe, work for youth, and for old people's homes like Heathlands. But he was especially known for working for good relations with other communities, not only in the Council of Christians and Jews but also heading the Muslim Jewish Forum and helping set up the Black Jewish Forum. At his funeral there were bishops, and Jews and Muslims wearing skullcaps.

New Manchester Jewish Representative Council president Barbara Goldstone said: "I will have to find more than five people to do what Henry did." That is fine tribute, considering that not so long ago the Jewish community establishment body in Manchester thought it necessary to publically dissociate itself from Henry Guterman, after outspoken critics denounced him as "unfit to hold office".

What brought on the outborsts, notably from an adviser to the Anglican Friends of Israel, was that Henry, had not confined his opposition to racism to offering pious prayers or establishing good relations at community establishment level, but had supported appeals for asylum seekers, and continued appearing on anti-racist platforms such as those of the left-wing Unite Against Fascism(UAF).

Norwithstanding his memberships of Manchester's Zionist Central Council, Henry Guterman was not a racist. He argued -sometimes correctly - that the Israeli Zionist state was not the same as South African Apartheid, and simply could not accept that its treatment of the Palestinian people was just another form of racism. Obviously on this I'd have had to disagree with him.

Nevertheless, Henry Guterman's wish to argue honestly for what he believed brought him into conflict with the right-wing Jewish establishment, who would prefer Jews to have nothing to do with left-wing movements even when it comes to taking a stand against Nazism, and want to smear anyone who criticises Israel as "antisemitic", and what's more, a "worse threat" than fascism. It was after Henry Guterman had shared a platform with London Mayor Ken Livingstone, at a rally to "Stop the BNP", that the flak started. Responding to critics, he said that though he disagreed with Livingstone about the Middle East, he did not think the mayor was antisemitic.

That was enough to bring down the wrath of the Right -some of whose own links with far-Right racists might be usefully uncovered.

And it should be enough for us not only to find a kind word for Henry Guterman, much as we would have loved the opportunity to argue with him (we grew up on t'other sides of town, and I left Manchester when young); but some harsh ones for those whom he came up against.

I happened to mention Henry Guterman's case at the meeting in London of Independent Jewish Voices, which must have been only a couple of weeks before he died. Among those who also spoke from the floor at that meeting was another refugee from Nazi Germany, Walter Wolfgang. Thankfully, Walter is still with us. He celebrates his 84th birthday this month. An active member of CND and Stop the War, his opposition to war and occupation led to him heckling Jack Straw and getting thrown out of Labour's national conference (and briefly held under anti-Terror laws!), only to wind up on the Party's National Executive. Walter remains firmly opposed to oppression in Iraq and in Palestine. So having written of the death of two other refugees, let me end by wishing him Long Life!

Likewise to the spirit that, in different ways, has sustained all three of them - long may it continue to inspire fresh generations!

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At 2:50 AM, Blogger Korakious said...

Definitely inspiring lives.

When I was reading the first bit, grief overcame me. I am completely unable to reconcile myself with the idea of death.

A huge amount of the resources of a future socialist society should be dedicated to curing our species of this pestilence.


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