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."