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Friday, February 12, 2016

"Good or Bad for the Jews"

Many years ago, and for many years, I would travel to Morocco to visit uncles, cousins, and my paternal grandmother. Some lived in Tangiers; others, including my grandmother, lived in Larache. She had been born there, and eventually died and is buried there.

A big harbor town, Larache served as an important center of Spanish rule during the years of the Protectorate, 1912-1956. General Franco had commanded a major detachment of Spanish and Moorish soldiers based in Larache. Those troops had suppressed the Asturian miner revolt of 1934, and formed the spearhead of Franco's 1936 assault on the Republic, flown across the straits to the peninsula by the Luftwaffe.

I remember Larache as a fun and exciting place in the 1950s, 1960s, and even into the 1970s. I have misty somewhat inchoate childhood recollections of running through its streets with a herd of cousins and servants' kids, eating shaved ice, and who knows what else. We would drop in on one uncle's pharmacy to have our various cuts, scrapes, tummy aches tended, and then dash over to another uncle's office at the port from which he ran a small fleet of fishing boats left him by my grandfather. I loved watching him talk to the boats on his radio. We would run back to grandmother's house for lunch, nap, then repeat. We, somehow, all survived.

Jews at one time easily had comprised one-third of Larache's population, owning many of the businesses, providing most of the doctors, the lawyers, and the pharmacists (I had uncles in all three professions) and staunchly supporting Spanish rule. Most had backed Spain's monarchy, and had disliked the Republic for the instability it introduced. Even in the 1970s, Spanish rule long gone, old-timers at the still functioning synagogue and at the Spanish Club, spoke glowingly of Franco, and of his years in Larache. They admired his honesty, the strict discipline with which he controlled his troops, the absence of crime and unrest, and his friendliness towards the Jews--not the version in most history books. They also remembered that Franco's diplomats had saved many Jews in Europe from the Nazis by giving them Spanish travel documents.

By the end of the 1960s, emigration had taken a serious toll on Larache's Jewish population. The remaining Jews, generally older folk, who in the manner of such, stayed because they did not want to give up homes and businesses, and start anew elsewhere. One of my uncles, for example, ran his pharmacy in Larache well into the 1990s--although he had a house in Spain, too, "just in case." They felt fairly safe under King Hassan II, supposedly a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. Young Jews, especially after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and even more so later after the 1973 war, went to France, Spain, Israel, Canada, Venezuela, Panama, and some to Australia and Britain. A small number made it to the US, mostly Florida--which decades later secured me a 20% discount at a Miami auto parts store (another story.) They feared that the growing radicalization of Moroccan Islam eventually would triumph over the "benign" monarchy.

An odd little lady, grandmother stood no more than five feet tall, and had the bluest eyes imaginable. A big ring with what seemed a thousand keys swung from her waist; I never saw her without those keys. At the ripe old age of sixteen, she had wed my grandfather, one of the wealthiest men in town and nearly thirty years her senior. This sort of marriage, the first for both, was common. Grandfather had refused to marry until he became successful. He did not live long after--bad diabetes--but did sire six sons and one daughter before going to his reward, leaving behind a wealthy young widow. Despite having pretenders, she never remarried. She, however, did turn over the family businesses and finances to the older sons, and, well, things did not go well--but, another story.

She had left Larache only twice. Once to Madrid, during the Spanish Civil War, and another trip during WWII, in which she had sought to return to Madrid; she got as far as Tangiers only to learn that the captain of the ferry to Algeciras had canceled the transit. The British Royal Navy, on the warpath for Axis submarines off Gibraltar, had declared an exclusion zone for the duration of the operation. For the ferry captain, a relative of some sort, the better part of valor meant not risking a run-in with the angry guns of the Royal Navy. Grandmother, therefore, did not get her second trip "abroad." Thirty-some years later she still resented that. As we will see, this would have grave consequences for Britain, and to this day, British mothers frighten naughty children by telling them . . . but,  perhaps, I exaggerate.

My oldest uncle, later a prominent doctor in Tangiers, joined Franco's army at the start of the Civil War in 1936, and rose to Colonel in the medical corps. This, subsequently, would prove useful to my youngest uncle who found himself at school in Republican-controlled Madrid when that war began. Drafted as a 16-year-old into the Republic's forces, he participated in a famous bombing of a pro-Franco Civil Guards barracks, killing not only Civil Guards, but wives and children, too. Franco vowed to execute those involved. Soon after the end of the war in 1939, bomber uncle got captured, and sentenced to death by firing squad. On hearing this news, Colonel uncle, put on his dress uniform and medals, and went to see the man himself, General Franco, to seek mercy for the condemned brother. He reminded Franco of his own loyalty; of their years together in Larache and in the war; and of the young age of the offender. Rare for him, Franco rescinded the death order.

Bomber uncle left death row, spent a year on a prison labor gang, somehow ended up back in Larache, got married, and then, one night, slipped into the nearby French protectorate where he sat out WWII, moving to France after that war. He returned to Spain only after Franco's death and lived in Madrid. He spent the rest of his life seeking a pension as an ex-combatant and former "political prisoner." The Socialist government eventually granted Republican veterans that pension; a couple of months later, he died, never having received a payment. Not long after, his widow, visiting a son in Israel, got killed by a car in Tel Aviv as she left the Spanish Embassy after inquiring about the pension's survivor provisions.

Grandmother's large house had five or six floors, and what seemed innumerable rooms, stairways, hallways, coveys, pantries, an interior patio, and doors everywhere--for me, as a child, this was the world's most amazing place. It also had several balconies--terrific places to sit at sunset or to throw things on passers-by below. As an adult, however, I preferred the roof: there I would sip tea, and like Zeus with an Art Garfunkel Jewfro, sit, watch and listen to the city as darkness crept in. A large gaggle of servants once had tended to the house and its occupants. Over the years, however, as family size and fortunes declined, so had the staff. By the early 1970s, my grandmother's caretakers consisted of a large, kind Berber lady named Tamu, maybe in her 30's or 40's, who sported lots of jewelry, tattoos, and flowing garments, and spoke several languages, aided by her two almost invisible daughters, who cooked, cleaned, and did whatever else Tamu told them. These shy and silent girls slept in a small room off the kitchen. Tamu slept on a mattress on the floor outside my grandmother's room--on call 24/7. I once asked grandma when Tamu got a day off and how much she got paid. Those blue eyes bored into me; she could not abide my radical American foolishness, "She lives here. She's like my daughter. She comes and goes as she wishes. Tamu and her children can eat anything, and have anything they need. She does better here than as one of her husband's five wives!" Tamu's mother and grandmother had worked in the house; Tamu expected that her daughters' children would, too. I, therefore, laugh at Downton Abbey.

Before this gets too boring, let me get to the point: The Special Room. As its door remained locked most of the time, I considered it an honor to gain entry to it. Not very large, it had a small dirty window which looked out onto the street three or so floors below. The Room had a tiny TV for grandma to watch Egyptian soap operas, a mostly empty bookshelf, a glass cabinet, a few ratty chairs, and a large table full of French, Spanish, and Arabic magazines and newspapers--grandmother spoke those languages, plus Hebrew, often all at the same time. One wall was nearly covered in photographs, some framed but most blurry, yellowed, and curled pictures cut from newspapers or magazines, and taped or pinned to the wall. The Room held one other notable object: the dusty glass cabinet guarded a small wooden box allegedly containing the key to the house in Illescas (near Toledo) my ancestors lost in 1492, when the Catholic Kings expelled the Jews from Spain. I never got to see inside the Special Box--too sacred an item to handle.

The Special Wall contained pictures of persons "Good for the Jews." Two biggest pictures? Franco and Stalin. I already had heard sung the virtues of Franco, but Stalin? I pointed to the mustachioed Georgian criminal, and scolded, "You have a picture of Stalin but not of Churchill?"

"Stalin fought the Nazis."

"Churchill fought them a lot longer, and was never their ally." I pointed to a picture of Leon Trotsky on The Wall, "and, Stalin killed him."

"Churchill did not want Israel to exist."

She then relayed the story of the aborted trip to Madrid which, apparently, proved Churchill did not favor Israel's creation. I could file no appeal from the Ruling of the Supreme Judge. To have gone on arguing would have made me sound like a defective smoke detector: an irritating chirp, eventually fading into the background of consciousness. Stalin, yes; Churchill, no. Hammer down.

I saw a small fuzzy, faded picture of what looked like an early 20th century British general. I asked, "Who is this British officer?"

"Not British, but a Jewish knight from Oceania whom they had to call to save England and France from the Turks and the Germans."

This served as my introduction to Sir John Monash of Australia, perhaps the best general of the First World War. "A Jewish knight from Oceania," however, has such a nice ring. No appeals entertained. Hammer down.

She then said, "You study science, right?" I then still had pretensions of becoming a scientist--this before eventually admitting my mediocrity. "You should live in Israel."

"Why? I love America."

"To build atomic bombs! Jews build atomic bombs for everybody else, now we must build them for ourselves!" Hammer down. No further arguments entertained. Grandmother began clipping pictures for Tamu and her daughters to put on The Wall. That served as my cue to head to the roof, tea in hand, to think about what I had learned.

On my last visit to The Special Room, in fact, the last time I saw grandmother, she relayed, scene by scene, the film "Exodus." Two things struck me. First, how had she seen the movie? Second, many scenes in her version I did not remember in Otto Preminger's. I asked my pharmacist uncle about this, as he drove me in his big black Mercedes to Tangiers for my flight to London and then home. He laughed, "She's never seen the movie, but read about it, and developed her own story." Her version, actually, was not half bad. Hammer down.

About a year later, 1972, as I left a physics lecture at UCLA, my roommate caught up to me, and said my parents had left word that grandmother had died. End of an era. Hammer down.

I never did use my "knowledge" of physics to build an atomic bomb for Israel. Sorry, grandma.

Apologies, also, to you readers. This has become much too long.

This rampage was triggered by my wondering what grandmother would have said about Bernie Sanders. I think she would have ruled him "Bad for the Jews" since what he wants is "Bad for America." At least, that's what I hope.

PS: In years since, I asked various uncles and cousins about the fate of the Special Box. None knew anything about it; they thought that if it had existed it had gone into the trash with most other items from the house. As a cousin told me, "Only you listened to her crazy stories." That same cousin, by the way, one with whom I had run in the streets of Larache, became a low-level gangster in Israel. He fled to Spain to escape the Israeli cops--yes, a Jew fleeing Israel for Spain. Last I heard, he had a clothing store in Spain.

Soon after grandmother's death, the authorities declared the big house unoccupied and abandoned. As explained to me, as per Moroccan law, they seized it, and turned it over to the local population, who chopped it into "apartments." I don't know what became of kindly Tamu and her family. I hope, at least, they got to stay in the house, if they wanted.

I visited Larache once more in 1986, with my wife and our two small kids. I don't know what I expected. The old house looked almost unrecognizable--enveloped in smoke from cooking fires, TV aerials jutting everywhere, balconies draped in laundry, the yard full of animals and debris, holes knocked into walls, some sort of tent against the side of the house. I passed on an invitation to go inside. The city also looked run down and dour: not like the sunny vibrant place of memory. Foolish, of course, but I now regret having gone back, as I would rather recall it how I think it was when my grandmother talked of politics, history, religion, Hollywood movies, and, of course, of what and whom was "good or bad for the Jews."

42 comments:

  1. Enjoyable post. Made me think of my mother who died three weeks before 9/11/01 which was very thoughtful of her as, if she had lived another month, we would not have been able to all go to her funeral. She was three months short of her 103rd birthday. She lived in three centuries, born in 1899 and died in 2001.

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  2. Excellent story, Dip. These are the stories that form a family's tradition.
    And then put together, these family traditions are what forms our cultural tradition.

    I'm not sure our modern generations, tied to their mobile phones, internet, and video games, appreciate the value of wonderful people like your Grandmother. I hope you have preserved this story for your family.

    Graham

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    Replies
    1. Thank you. I am trying to get my kids interested in all this, and, I think, I am succeeding. Hammer down.

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  3. Well Mad,
    The World is a wonderful, terrifying, and mysterious place. Maybe not an Einstein, but writing of memoirs could end up being your metier. A Jewfro! The Art Garfunkle of State. I can hear the sounds of silence now.

    Ps. I had a running argument with my Grandmother. She was adamant that with perseverance one could dig a hole by hand shovel directly through the Earth to the other side. No amount of scientific counter argument made the slightest impression. Perhaps she was right.
    James the Lesser

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  4. Nice post. Sometimes a person's view on a matter of earth shaking importance can be shaped simply by viewing it from where you live and how it touches you if at all. One grandmother's hero can be another's villain. This is the rub of history. It is this rub that will need to be preserved for disinterested young people for the day will come when their world is turned upside down. These young people will want something solid from the past to cling to that might last.

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    1. Exactly why I write historical novels, trying to bring back a sense, and a sense of trying to make sense of it all.

      My Scots-Irish grandfather nearly became an American citizen - but tore up the paperwork when he was turned down for service in the US Army in 1917. His son - my Uncle James - was killed in action as a B-17 gunner in 1943. Uncle James kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings in the late 1930s and early 194os - which I did lay eyes on, once upon a time. A third of the clippings were sports stories, a third were about aviation, and the last third ... about the possibilities of war. The scrapbook is lost with the simple suitcase of Uncle James' relics, unless one of my brothers has it, since my parents' house burned to the ground in 2003.

      That's the past ... and we view it through some very odd and eccentric lenses.

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    2. I hope that suitcase is found and the treasures within. Are your novels widely available?

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    3. Oops, I clicked your name and got my answer. Very interesting.

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    4. Hi, Whitewall - yes, I;m on Amazon, Barnes & Boble -- print and ebooks.
      I just don't know about the suitcase; I saw it one, when my grandmother was still alive, but when she passed away, all the stuff from her house gravitated to my parents' and then the fire in 2003 pretty well cleared out all the family relics.

      If I hadn't sat down in the mid 1990s and transcribed all of the letters he wrote in service, and kept a copy for myself, we would have lost those for good as well. (The originals were in the house, too.)

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  5. What a wonderful remembrance! Thank you for sharing with us.

    The Spanish Charge d'Affaires when I served in Tanzania was a good friend, hunting buddy, and co-owner of a small sailboat. We talked of many things over campfires in the Masaai Steppe and cocktails on the verandah of the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club (such as it was), but one that still stands out in my memory was his story of receiving a Tanzanian national in his embassy. The Tanzanian's request baffled him, he said: an immigrant visa. He could find no regulation grant him the right to issue an immigrant visa.

    He inquired of his Foreign Office, who claimed ignorance on the subject.

    I was surprised at this bit of intelligence as I knew Spain had taken people in from all over Europe and North Africa, but lacking better information to the contrary, I took his story as accurate.

    One other fun bit of history: Emilio and I had hung a wart hog carcass in a tree in the hope of luring a leopard for him to shoot. No, in truth, we had not: our white hunter (who is American and a good friend who has written the definitive work on Mauser rifles) had done the hanging with our less-than-helpful help. Two nights with no success left us ready to head to Arusha for a resupply mission.

    While in Arusha we learned Franco had died. Emilio was horrified: he had not informed his Foreign Office that he would be away from the one-man office, and he would be found out. We had a quick change of plans: we would drop him at the airport so he could return post-haste to Dar, and we would return to our leopard bait.

    Four or five hours later we were driving slowly toward the baited tree when we passed a Land Rover heading to Arusha. Stopping to talk we learned they had just shot a very nice leopard -- over a bait that someone had obligingly left hanging in the tree! Ours! We had decamped at just the right time for them.

    Emilio did not lose his job, and he and I would laugh about it all later, but at the time it seemed like a terrible loss. Great times.

    Thank you for sharing the story of your grandmother.

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  6. Long ago, in The War, one of my father's men murdered some German prisoners. He was from a Spanish Republican family. Not a nice boy.

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    1. Alas, he was in the Service, and therefore outside DCI Foyle's jurisdiction. Otherwise, we all know, he would hang.

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  7. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
    Alas, Mr Dip, people like you, me and many posters are fast approaching the past. We would do things differently if the present would allow us to.

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  8. How profoundly sad is the Democratic fetish with turning America into Europe. Seems like it was never a place of harmony, virtue, or success.

    Were it not so that everywhere and all the Jews are on the path to Larache.

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    1. My mother's father, his brother and two cousins left Spain in the late 1880s, ceded the family business to their sisters, and never looked back. To them, Spain was "never a place of harmony, virtue, or success," as you so aptly put it.

      My mother sold the house my grandfather built in Puerto Rico to the municipality, before the PR debt mess hit the fan.

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    2. Love your blog especially your coverage of the collapse of Venezuela.

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  9. Sir John Monash was indeed the best general officer of the WW1 on the allied side...perhaps any side.

    He was also a brilliant engineer. I'm also an Australian, an engineer and an (ex) infantryman.

    I appreciated your story and your brief mention of one of my heroes. Thank you very much.

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    1. Sir John Monash was the greatest general of the First World War. No arguments. Hammer down.

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  10. Replies
    1. Be too boring, no? I'd have to juice it up.

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    2. Aaaah, I believe you're being coy.
      James the Lesser

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    3. Ah . . . shucks, guys . . . .

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  11. You even have the title, "the Special Box"

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  12. Fascinating. Well worth the time I put aside my work to take a break to read this post.

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    Replies
    1. Hope you're not a pilot or a bus driver . . .

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  13. Replies
    1. Thanks. And you, sir, have the best-looking, most entertaining, educational, and fun blog on the internet.

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  14. Thanks for a very interesting post.

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  15. Hi!

    Excellent story about our family. I love it. One small correction, though.
    You say "My oldest uncle, later a prominent doctor in Tangiers, joined Franco's army at the start of the Civil War in 1936, and rose to Colonel in the medical corps". Well, my father was in the republican army. He become a colonel by the end of the war, but fought Franco during his whole life.
    The person who helped the bomber was a brother in law of my first father's wife.

    My father, being a republican his whole life, deserves the correction. He suffered prosecution after the war and, for instance, was never able to teach at the university.

    Thanks and regards!

    Carlos

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  16. Hi DiploMad,

    I'm Ana, one of your cousins. With this post, you made me remember old things: the house with corridors, the mysterious Tamu, Larache ... Nice post !
    But I think you've mixed stories, specially concerning my father. He has been a Spanish Republican all his life, always fought against franco and "sometido a consejo de guerra". He escape shooting by his medical condition but exiled far of Madrid. He then, went back to Larache and later to Tangier.

    Thanks of these words about our family !

    Regards,

    Ana Amselem

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  17. Fascinating story. Thanks for writing it, ¡y gracias a los parientes también para aportar!

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