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How Chickens helped soothe my Grief

One thing I never thought I would be doing this summer was mucking out a smelly chicken coop. I’m fond enough of animals (well, dogs) but nobody would describe me as the rustic type.

But then I also never thought I would be saying goodbye to my beloved life partner and husband of 43 years. The two are not unconnected.

Death is a fact of life we all know we will face eventually but on July 23 it jumped up and hit me before I was remotely ready. My husband Mark https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mark-sebba-obituary-f0jcnthh2 was a youthful 69, we were planning several activities to celebrate his 70th birthday later this year including a trip to St Petersburg, the city where his father had been born just before the revolution. We had a party planned, having missed the 60th (too busy). But in the meantime we were going to spend the summer in Crete, at a house we had created together in his retirement as a way of discovering and enjoying the grandchildren.

God laughs when men make plans, we often joked before this laughter struck us loud and clear. This year we had built at the bottom of the garden a chicken coop, made out of recycled wooden shutters for five or six hens to live in at night. The idea was that they would roam free in the day time as, we were reassured, there are no foxes in Crete. This, we thought, would be a wonderful experience for small children to understand about caring for animals, what their needs are, as well as learning about the food cycle, where food comes from and to value it as something precious, not to be wasted, and not necessarily bought in plastic boxes from supermarkets.

But, less than a month after the chickens arrived, and just a day after they produced our first egg, my husband had a sudden heart attack and died. Prophetically his last Instagram post was a picture of this egg, something that gave us great excitement but also (and how could we have realised it then) so much hope for the future. A promise of something unknown inside the shell. It was also of course an intimation of the cycle of life. I cannot begin to describe here the appalling sense of shock, grief and loss that our family has experienced but we have always believed, whenever setbacks have hit in the past, that life for those who are left must go on. And so the summer holidays continued, as far as was possible, as we had planned them.

The grandchildren (ages from 2-11) were immediately captivated by the chickens, only a few months old when they first arrived and nervous. But soon they became confident and, joined by a 6th, a rooster, spent most of the day outside, pecking at scraps and seeking shelter in the shady scrubland underneath a clutch of carob trees. They began to tease us when it was time to put them back into the safety of their coop at night and tried to elude us by staying out. Just like small children who refuse to go to bed when it’s long past their bedtime. Even though we all had a hand in trying to make their nesting box as comfortable as possible, providing fresh straw and cleaning it out, the chickens still seemed to prefer egg laying in the undergrowth. We learned that independence comes in many forms and each chicken has its own character, too.

The hens have not exactly hit their stride as far as egg laying is concerned. But most mornings this summer there was at least one, albeit small, egg awaiting us as the children fought over who was the first one to go down, let them out and feed them their leftover scraps (watermelon rinds and corn on the cob husks their favourite) and the one who could have a totally fresh egg for breakfast in return.

My daughter and I, as we contemplated our incalculable loss, spent hours mesmerised by watching the still unnamed chickens. Their water has to be changed, the dirty house scrubbed out and new pellets and grain provided in the chicken food dispenser. At first we resented the amount of time we had to spend cleaning the smelly coop, a deeply unpleasant activity especially in such intense heat. Yet they asked for so little and are prepared to provide us with so much. Of course six chickens cannot assuage the pain of losing a devoted husband and father. But it is hard to discuss death with small children and these creatures made it easier for us to talk about the grandfather they loved, the pleasure he derived from this spot in the garden, as well as the facts of life and the food chain.

Saying goodbye to them until next year was especially painful because this was one of ‘Grandpa’s last plans’. We hope, when we see them again next year, our grief will be less raw and they may be laying bigger eggs.  

If this article has stirred you I would be so happy if you wanted to donate to Cardiac Risk in the Young, which helps detect those at risk of suffering a sudden heart attack like Mark. You can either write a charity cheque payable to Cardiac Risk in the Young (reg charity number 1050845) and send it to CRY Head Office, Unit 1140B,The Axis Centre Cleeve Road, Leatherhead KT22 7RD . Please write in memory of Mark Sebba on the back of the cheque. Or donate online using the following link https://www.c-r-y.org.uk/donations/custom-donation-amount/ and mentioning Mark Sebba. Thank you

 

Putting myself in the interview chair

Putting myself in the interview chair

This weekend, instead of me questioning other people, two interviews about me appeared, one in print and one on the radio. I already knew, of course, how tricky it is, when you are under pressure, to convey exactly what you want to say and yet this really brought it home. This is how other people will see me! 

Listen to the BBC programme here – there is also a podcast of this edition of Private Passion available.

Here’s another article where I talk sexism, Elizabeth Taylor – and women’s lives 

 

The Questions People Ask

One cover, two books

After giving several talks about Les Parisiennes and speaking to reading groups about the choices facing women in Occupied Paris, I now realise what the number one question from the audience is: what would you have done? I also realise that I don’t have a clear cut answer and have found myself saying different things on different occasions. It is an impossible question. I have always shied away from ‘what if’ questions on any historical subject. We cannot re-create all the other variables that go into making one straightforward answer. If I were a mother I would do one thing (sleep with a Nazi if it meant giving a crust of bread to my child and my action was not treasonable?) If I were a daughter of elderly parents I might do another, if I were a singer or dressmaker would I sing to a German audience or make clothes for a German woman? Who knows? On Monday I might do one thing on Friday another, in 1941 what might be murky could be clear cut by 1944. Would I deliberately cause trouble by walking out of a restaurant if the enemy walked in: what purpose would be achieved by that? Would I instigate a revolt in a prison if by my actions others would suffer? How do I (or those of my generation who have grown up in peace) begin to imagine what it felt like to be frightened, to feel a permanent visceral sense of tension?

Every talk I give results in a fresh set of questions focusing on different aspects of my book. It keeps me on my toes. This week I was asked why didn’t French women instigate more revolts against the Occupiers? Why aren’t there more women in French politics today? (Actually, I think there are quite a few).  Which characters do I like best and what have I learned from my research? And it is not just old people in my audience asking the questions. I have had young history teachers who flatteringly tell me they wish they had brought their ‘A’ level class. I am often asked: What happened to all the Franco-German babies?

Often, the questions aren’t questions at all but statements; so many people have stories of their own that they want to share of an aunt who survived a camp, or of an uncle who was killed, or of a friend of a friend. Did I by any chance come across this particular woman or, is it okay to publish the diaries of someone who their mother knew during the war but did not survive? Often there are questions which I am barely qualified to answer but I can usually refer the questioner to someone who would be and then this torrent that seems to have been unleashed usually has to be stopped or we’d overrun our time. None of my other books provoked this amount of questioning.

 

Ten things I learned while writing Les Parisiennes

One cover, two books1. There is always a choice in life. Choice is inside our heads. How do we think even if choice appears to have been taken away, how do we act? Women in Paris faced an extreme: would I have walked out of a cafe if a German soldier entered thereby risking my life? Would I have delivered political leaflets, what exactly would I have done to help a friend in prison standing up for what he/she believed in?
2. Women can handle weapons and are extremely brave under torture sometimes more than men because they have to prove themselves.
3. Right and wrong are not always clearly defined. There is a great big muddy grey area in between. The photographer who took the image on my book cover, Roger Schall, survived four years of enemy occupation by publishing photographs of monuments and buildings in Paris, and landscapes in France with captions in German for the German market. In return he was allowed to take photographs in and could capture the atmosphere of enemy occupied Paris which otherwise might never have been understood.
4. Learning a foreign language may be a life saver … as several camp prisoners said that understanding what their captors were saying helped keep them sane and retain some power over their situation.
5. Never procrastinate or put off to tomorrow…the story of Miriam Sandzer (and many others) clearly indicates that had she gone to England with her fiancé when she had the chance and he first asked her, she would have been spared much of her subsequent torment but she could not abandon her elderly parents and dithered, however understandably.
5. The world has double standards … Look at the way women were punished after the Occupation, often shaven and humiliated, without trial, for degrees of fraternisation with the enemy while the men, many of whom practised economic or industrial collaboration, often got away without punishment after the war because their businesses were necessary in the rebuilding of the country. One reason for punishing the women was revenge, or ancient settling of scores or to cover their own shame at a humiliating military defeat.
6. French women really ARE different especially the way they think about Fashion. Looking your best at all times was considered a way to show the German occupier that they were not beaten, that they retained pride in their own identity. Even arriving at the prison camp in Ravensbrück other nationalities noticed how French women looked elegant.
7. How much of Paris life carried on as normal during the occupation for some people such as those with access to theatres and cinema life flourished. Cinemas were warm places for couples to go even to make love but keeping the opera houses, theatres and cultural institutions open was playing in to German hands as it pleased the enemy to enjoy the entertainment Paris had to offer.
8. How easy it is to close your eyes to things happening on your own doorstep and do nothing. There were warehouses in central Paris, camps for those who could prove they had an Aryan spouse, which were used as sorting centres for looted goods to be sent to Germany.
9. How privileged I and my generation are to have grown up in peace and security as a child of the post-war period of plenty. I have never experienced real fear.
10. Being a mother puts choice into a different category. Some mothers slept with Germans simply to get hold of food for a starving child, others bravely handed their children over to a passeur, a social worker or nuns, rather than risk their certain death, yet had no idea where they were being taken nor if they would arrive there safely .

And number 11 (because I believe in adding one more for luck! )
War can also be a time of fulfilment and an opportunity to meet people from other milieus and can give an erotic charge to an otherwise dull life…Comtesse Pastré, newly divorced, discovered she could be a force for good by opening her Chateau to refugee Jewish Musicians from Paris and Odette Fabius, from the haute bourgeoisie, disillusioned with her husband’s philandering, became a resistante and fell passionately in love with a Corsican communist trade union leader in Marseilles.

Good Community Relations

Interfaith Community Relations in Bradford

The Book of Marriage Records Bradford Synagogue

The Book of Marriage Records Bradford Synagogue

In anticipation of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day and the importance of respecting other communities, I’ve been thinking about a day I spent recently in Bradford where I witnessed a warm coming together of Muslim and Jewish communities. It’s not what you’d expect from reading an average diet of British newspapers or listening to George Galloway, former MP for Bradford West.

I went to visit the synagogue in Bowland Street, Bradford, where my grandmother, the music hall star and Bradford pantomime favourite, Miss Lily Black, was married more than a hundred years ago. The synagogue, founded in Moorish style in 1880 and now a Grade 2 listed building, is desperately in need of funds for repairs if it is to survive. I’d wanted to see it for years but, with the once flourishing community in decline, I knew I could put off my visit no longer. In 2013 the synagogue was saved from closure only thanks to a fund raising effort mounted by the secretary of a nearby mosque, together with the owner of a popular curry house, a local textile magnate and the leader of the local Jewish community, Rudi Leavor. This released much needed funds to repair a leaky roof. It’s a start. After a most delicious lunch at the Sweet Centre curry restaurant, next door to the synagogue, I was reassured by owner Zulficar Ali that he was keeping an eye on the beautiful old building.

Lily was married in Bradford because, barely out of her teens, she had converted to Judaism. She obviously thought it was better to have the ceremony outside London, where she had grown up in a working class haberdasher’s family without much money, left school at 14 and struck out on her own as an artist’s model and actress. In seven years she had made a career for herself and travelled around the country performing, but what did she know of life beyond the stage?

According to Ernest Aris, who went on to become famous as a children’s illustrator and who often drew Lily for several Bradford newspapers, she was “delightful, the most charming Principal Girl this city has seen since Madge Crichton played Cinderella at the Royal. She will make a great hit,” Aris predicted of her while she was starring in Robinson Crusoe at the Prince’s Theatre, “she is sprightly without being vulgar, she has a sweet voice and a personality which would melt even the heart of a Free Church Councillor!”

Ernest Aris clearly had a soft spot for Lily, who was, he added, enshrined in his susceptible heart. However, while performing at Bradford, Lily met and fell in love with my grandfather, Leo Hirshfield from a Birmingham silver making and jewellery family, when he came to try and persuade her to be photographed for a Raphael Tuck postcard. She was only 20 when she accepted his proposal of marriage, converted to Judaism and the couple were married in Bowland Street synagogue on September 25, 1910.

Lily was sufficiently famous for a reporter to attend the wedding. He commented “there were only a few of us present and among the witnesses were Mr and Mrs Henry Cohen of Leeds (Leonora Cohen was the militant suffragette who became famous in 1913 when she flung an iron bar into a jewel box at the Tower of London. She was remanded in prison and went on a hunger strike) and Mr Jacob Moser, Lord Mayor Elect of Bradford. The bride wore a sensible gown of grey silk and was addressed by Rabbi Dr Strauss who told her that “you, my dear bride, have idyllic Ruth of old as your example. You like her have said and verified the touching words whither thou goest, I will go, thy people shall be my people and thy god my god.”

There was a small reception held at the Midland hotel and, immediately upon marriage, Lily gave up performing and rarely talked about her years on the stage. For seven years she had had had a stellar career touring the country and working hard and long hours. She was also in demand as an artist model largely for her spectacular thick and curly reddish gold hair. Now all she wanted was a comfortable and secure home life and she and Leo produced three children, Desmond, who became Lord Hirshfield, a labour peer, Norman who became a Conservative councillor and Mayor, and my mother Joan, who married, in 1946, Major Eric Rubinstein. I was born in 1951 my sister Jane in 1948.
I wish I had asked her more questions as there is so much I now want to know. I am so thrilled at last to have seen the synagogue where her new life began and happy to know that there is new life in the area which is keen to preserve the past. Zulfi Karim, Secretary of Bradford Council of Mosques, who is on the board at the Central Westgate mosque a few hundred metres up the road from the synagogue said: “It makes me proud that we can protect our neighbours and at the same time preserve an important part of Bradford’s cultural heritage.”