16 July 2021

A child of the Holocaust and
a poet with a vision for
England’s place in Europe

A Holocaust memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Berlin … Tisha B’Av, beginning tomorrow evening, recalls major disasters in Jewish history, including the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow evening (17 July) marks the beginning of Tisha B'Av (תִּשְׁעָה בְּאָב‎), literally the ‘Ninth of Av,’ the annual fast day in the Jewish calendar recalling many disasters in the course of Jewish history, mainly the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans.

Tisha B’Av, which this year lasts throughout Sunday (18 July) is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and it is associated with many other disasters in Jewish history.

Traditionally, the day is observed through five prohibitions, including a 25-hour fast. The Book of Lamentations, which mourns the destruction of Jerusalem, is read in synagogues. This is followed by kinot or liturgical dirges that lament the loss of the Temples and of Jerusalem and recall events such as the murder of the Ten Martyrs by the Romans, massacres of mediaeval Jewish communities during the Crusades, the expulsions of Jews from Spain by the Inquisition, and the Holocaust.

For example, Jewish tradition points out that Himmler formally received approval from the Nazis for the ‘Final Solution’ on 2 August 1941 (9 Av), and the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 23 July 1942 (9 Av).

For these and many other reasons, many religious communities mourn the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av, adding the recitation of special kinot related to the Holocaust.

During the week, I read the news that the poet Michael Horovitz had died earlier this month (7 July 2021).

He was born into a Jewish family in Frankfurt on 4 April 1935. When he was two, the family managed to escape Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in 1937.

‘My father fought for Germany in WWI and received an Iron Cross for bravery,’ he would recall. ‘He was totally plugged into German society. It took one of his clients being illegally arrested and persuaded to hang himself in his cell pre-trial by the SS to bring home to him the irredeemable dead-ends that were under way.’

Avraham Horovitz was active in brokering deals to transport Jews out of Nazi Germany. But he found he was unable to practice as a lawyer in England, the family fell on hard times, and some of Michael Horovitz spent some of his formative years in abandoned farmhouses and flood-prone cottages in the Thames Valley and Home Counties as bombs rained on London.

In many ways, despite his avant garde reputation and his associations with the Beat Generation, this refugee child became a quintessential English poet. His guiding light was William Blake, the subject of his abandoned post-graduate work at Oxford. For most of his life, he inspired outsiders and raged against the machine.

In the early 60s, he was a key figure among artists, actors and bon-vivants in the Soho venues of the time, including The Establishment Club, Ronnie Scott’s and The Partisan – the café in Carlisle Street that was a constant venue for CND meetings and jazz poetry evenings.

He was instrumental in 1965 in organising the first International Poetry Incarnation at The Royal Albert Hall – the single largest poetry event ever in Britain – and his anthology Children of Albion was published by Penguin in 1969.

‘Albion was William Blake’s name for the soul of England,’ he once explained. ‘England as internationalist; England as a joining of all the nations ... as the spiritual Jerusalem. All the Albion anthologies share that Blakean impetus for internationalism.’

Much of Horovitz’s poetry is concerned with radical politics, capitalist consumer culture and the machinations of war. His magnum opus, A New Waste Land: Timeship Earth At Nillenium (2007) is an epic tirade against war and political mendacity and an astute and brilliant reworking of TS Eliot’s classic The Waste Land (1922).

In later life, he fronted the William Blake Klezmatrix band, which performed, among other things, the Nigunim and songs that filled his head from synagogue and Shabbat tables until he left home for Oxford in 1954.

Although Wolverhampton Wanderers gave their name to an anthology in 1971, he was a devoted Arsenal fan and he was a true European too. But the appalling and racist behaviour of some English fans after Sunday’s UEFA Euro final have nothing in common with his understanding of ‘the soul of England’ … ‘England as internationalist; England as a joining of all the nations … as the spiritual Jerusalem.’

A child refugee, it is probable he would never have qualified as a legal immigrant under the new legislation being introduced by Priti Patel a part of the programme of Boris Johnson’s government that continues to dismiss public actions against racism as ‘gesture politics.’

As I reflect on this Friday evening, I think of the many events that Tisha B’Av recalls, including the Holocaust, and I am reading Opening Sections of Synagogue Music, in which Michael Horovitz recalls his father’s experiences, how he was forced to flee the Holocaust, and how he retained his identity:

A sound arrests my blood, then quickens it
a pin-prick of memory that sparks a fuse
straight back to the austere blue-black stitching round the edge
of a white satin High Holy Day tallith bag
from my childhood and early teenage years
– years that I have tried to disown since as mawkishly mis-spent
on a treadmill of insincere religious postures, galley slaving
under the yoke of relentless rabbinic rules
– continually shlepping (except when I managed to skive away)
in and out of synagogue, choir practice, Hebrew classes – gruelling timetable
of duties, prayers, rehearsals, soul-searching and insatiable laws
– imagination hemmed in,
cowed – prodded like a young beast not yet ripe for slaughter
to follow, troop, parade, bleat and bray with the hated herd
– hated for its unquestioning sheep-eyed conformities.

Half a century on,
I hear again the solemn strains of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei
on the radio and recall
the trembling exultation of my father singing it – believing every word –
his impassioned tenor trills soaring from the heart
of the pristine Yom Kippur kittel
that now beshrouds his bones.

Shabbat Shalom

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