In memory of my great grandfather, Dr Alfred Dahlsheimer z’l,
In my sermon at Rosh Hashanah I presented the thought that human endeavour and the expression of human goodness and progress is an essential quality of humanity. In Judaism, the view of humanity is not naïve to the brutality that human beings are able to inflict on one another. Nor does Judaism regard an optimum expression of self to be one of total altruism. Self interest is an important part of being human and the drive for self-preservation and protection must be recognised. At the same time, we are not born into sin, we are endowed with potential. The potential is always in the balance – that really is the point of the penitential period: if you are not blessed with the ability to choose blessing or curse, good or evil, how can the idea of repentance and atonement mean anything?
In light of this continuous human striving, I think it is true to say that we were buoyed artificially by an optimism of the late 20th century. We saw the Berlin Wall come down (the anniversary was yesterday) and the other anniversary of yesterday, Kristallnacht, seemed unlikely to happen again, after we finally learnt the lessons of multiple genocides and embedded human rights law into the fabric of our society so firmly that it was impossible to ignore. This unbridled optimism made us think the values of equality, of universalism and autonomy were finally going to endure, though many battles were left to be fought, the sense of the arc of progress gave us the impression we would never slip back again.
But if there’s one thing Jews know and one thing that I learnt in my psychology degree, it’s that human nature does not really change and the grounding of values can easily be overturned. The durability of cultural ideas is not permanent. In fact, nothing is really permanent, save the beginning and end of life. Which means that as cultures grow, interact and evolve we must be constantly striving to work hard at them. We cannot take culture for granted, which is, by the way, correlated with not taking our humanities for granted – where students learn to think and imagine about the human condition. Culture, in this sense, is what humans transmit and interact with, that is impermanent and non-biological. It is what makes human beings unique in the known universe.
[By the way, I sense that the durability of Jewish culture (such as Jewish culture stands alone, as if any culture is alone), to some extent, is that the frameworks of existence allowed the Jewish people to exist almost ahistorically. If you wanted to kill us we still went to synagogue and learnt and worked and celebrated festivals and lifecycle moments.]
So from the midst of late 20th century optimism we did not notice that actually religious literalism, fundamentalism and religio-fascism was able to take root. We forgot that identity politics could be easily reignited, especially with the apparent collapse of economic models and geo-political positions. We discovered it was fairly straightforward to degrade the discourse of how we viewed humanity and our vision for the future. And we did not notice that the evaporation of trust of our politicians, economists, journalists and other figure heads, meant the evaporation of truth and respect for expertise. Snake oil merchants had always succeeded because people looked for hope amidst desperation of their health condition, when all else failed. We think we’re rational but the truth is our decision making and our rationalisation is anything but logical. So snake oil could be sold to us by anyone with a modicum of ego, arrogance and charm – straightforward solutions that the experts refuse to take seriously, and so are obviously better, have always worked in theology, politics, economics, medicine. As the complexity of the world, and the speed with which we’re able to access ideas and knowledge has increased, our appetite for simplicity and easy solutions appears to have grown. Now a simple slogan is enough to suck us in. We see conspiracy around every corner – be it the rather annoying MSM (Mainstream Media), Liberal Elites, or Jews.
But we Jews have been here before. This is not the oy vey history lesson – the lachrymose view as it’s known – where everything is negative. But it is true that we’ve built up resistance to our own snake oil sellers – disbelieving anyone who thinks they’re the messiah. And we’ve also borne witness to the politicians, philosophers, religious leaders who have used us as easy targets for their own attempts to whip up hatred. We’ve been through it all. And yet we come out each time and build again. Because even when the arc of progress appears to be cemented into place, we know it can crumble with a puff of wind. So we never stop building and usually do not succumb to naïve optimism.
In our current climate. Regardless of our politics. That is what we must do. Build and build again. Renew our commitment to making the world better and never let anyone or any ideology push us of the path.
Thinking about rebuilding life I wanted to share this:
Yesterday, I learnt again about my great grandfather, Dr Alfred Dahlsheimer. He had a Doctorate in Jurisprudence and was a sort of circuit judge in Munich. Apparently he favoured resolution outside of the courts and my grandmother remembers when he used to come home very occasionally from prisons and would strip and shower straightaway – fearing the lice so prevalent in prison. In 1933, he was removed from office. In fact he was 47 and pensioned off, but thousands of Jewish lawyers and judges were removed from office then. I learnt that he never slept at home after losing his job and Hitler’s rise to power. In March 1933, after my grandmother’s 10th birthday, he never slept at home (or maybe only once or twice a week). When the Nazis came knocking at the door for him, his wife, my great grandmother, would respond and get rid of them. But he wasn’t at home for that reason. He developed depression and paranoia. Later in 1933, he went to England and whilst there, the family member he was staying with phoned his wife to say she should come to him. There was a wisdom to this – he was ill and needed her, but also the family in England saw the writing on the wall. My grandmother remembers that phone call came on Saturday and on Sunday she and her mother packed their bags and left. That saved their lives. Had they not left, in the words of my grandmother, her fate would have probably have been akin to Anne Frank’s – murder at the hand of the Nazi death machine.
In England, Alfred never retrained. At 47 he did not have the energy to re-enter law. But he set up a new business, manufacturing glass eyes. Initially, they were for fox furs, which were very fashionable and a family member was in the furrier trade. But he eventually realised that teddy bears also needed them. So they set up a small workshop in Angel House in Islington. The idea had come from recollection that the glass eyes were not available during the First World War, because they were a German import. Predicting that this problem might recur, the glass eye business seemed a good option. He and his wife variously employed different girls to make the eyes and paint them. The single wire attaching two eyes was cut by the teddy bear manufacturers and inserted into the teddies. The glass was sourced from Stourbridge in glass rods, and eventually they were able to purchase coloured glass. My grandmother vividly remembers the Bunsen burners and workshop. The eyes were supplied to such toy manufacturers as Chad Valley.
I find this family history devastating and hopeful in equal measure. Dr Alfred Dahlsheimer, my great grandfather, never fully recovered from the experience of victimisation in Munich that he endured. He was always depressed afterwards. But here I am, with my children whom I can tell about him. We live in a world that is better than it was, in spite of the blips. I will do everything in my power to ensure Judaism lives on and that my children cherish it and understand how it obligates them to work for a better future for the next generation. There is much to build, but we have great opportunity to do it, like never before.