Festival of lights and happy memories

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Festival of lights and happy memories

Jewish Care residents and volunteers recall Chanukah stories from their younger days and share what the festival means to them this year

Nettie Keene
Nettie Keene

Kurt Marx, 95, is a member of Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre. He attends the virtual Yiddish group, which now meets weekly over Zoom. He recalls growing up in Cologne, Germany, and experiencing a happy childhood until the rise of antisemitism. 

He says: “On Chanukah, friends would come to our house to give me presents and we would light candles together with my family. Then I would go to my friends’ houses on Christmas to give them presents under their Christmas trees. 

“At that time in Germany, everyone ate what was called Reibekuchen, which means potato cakes, through the autumn and winter. You could buy them for pennies on the street. Like chips, they were the cheapest things you could buy and were sold on a piece of cardboard with apple sauce. 

“When I went back with my son to Germany more recently, it was nearly impossible to find them except in very exclusive places.”

When he was 13, “everything turned upside down” in Germany and Kurt was put on a Kindertransport, arriving in Britain in January 1939. 

Kurt Marx at Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ centre

He continues: “We stayed in Cricklewood at a boys’ hostel in Walm Lane sponsored by Walm Lane Synagogue. We were then evacuated to Bedfordshire, where a friend and I were taken in by a very kind family. 

“We weren’t really able to celebrate festivals at first as there were hardly any Jewish people there, but later there was a relatively large community.”

After the war, he moved to London, where he met his wife, Ingrid, and they had a son. “We would celebrate together as a family,” he says. 

“Now I celebrate with my son and two grandchildren. We always try to get together to light at the start of Chanukah and sometimes on the last night as well. We give the children presents and we always have latkes with apple sauce. I love doughnuts, but they have to be crisp on the outside and never soggy. If they’re just right, I could really eat a whole bag of them.” 

Sylva Herzberg, who attends Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre, remembers the first Chanukah she spent in England.

She says: “I arrived in the UK on 25 May 1940 with my family. We walked for weeks to escape through Belgium and France and slept on benches before taking a Norwegian coal boat to the UK, landing in Southampton. 

Sylva Herzberg

“We went to Mitcham in Surrey, where there were two houses for refugees. Each family was given a room and we shared our house with Rabbi Muscavitch and his family. 

“It was lovely as he was a chazan, so he made Chanukah a very joyous occasion. He found candles so we could light a chanukiah and sing songs. He would tell us stories and get all the children together to give us Hebrew lessons. 

“As refugees, we stayed close to the other families as we spoke Yiddish at home, not even Flemish. We were very lucky to have that as we were the only Jewish people in Mitcham.”

After a few months, Sylva was evacuated to Highbury with her family because their house was close to Croydon Aerodrome and became
a prime target during the Blitz. In 1958, Sylva married and lived in Hendon, where she raised her son and daughter.

She recalls: “On Chanukah, we gave presents every night to the children when we lit the candles. I’d make latkes with sugar, which is exactly what my mum did before me, but we didn’t eat doughnuts in my family.”

“We usually celebrate with my daughter and granddaughter . I won’t be with them this year – but hopefully we’ll light candles together on Skype.”

Louise Brewer, 90, who is a resident at Jewish Care’s Vi & John Rubens House in Ilford, has been preparing for Chanukah by painting decorations for the home and has made Talking Chanukah cards to send a personalised message to
her relatives

She says: “I really enjoyed painting the decorations because it made me think back to when my father went to synagogue and I would go with him. We were members of the beautiful Bevis Marks Synagogue, where I was married and my father sung in their choir. He had a wonderful voice and they would give beautiful Chanukah concerts. 

Louise Brewer makes Chanukah cards

“When I was younger, my family all lit the Chanukah candles together and we lived in Stepney Green dwellings in the East End. My father’s four brothers lived upstairs and they all sang, so it was very musical.  My mother would make latkes and doughnuts for us all and that’s what I did when it was my husband, Alfie, and our three children as they were growing up.

“My children live across London and Scotland. Although we are scattered, we are very close and we will all be together in our hearts.”

Nettie Keene, 86, is coordinator of Jewish Care’s Friends of Sinclair House, which has donated the cost of the Chanukah candles, chocolate coins and cards delivered by volunteers to recipients of Meals on Wheels in Redbridge. She has volunteered at Jewish Care’s Redbridge Community Centre for 48 years. 

Sharing her Chanukah memories, Nettie says: “In the past, we’d all get together at home when my husband and my younger son, Saul, were alive. My older son, Danny, and Saul would take turns to light their candles. 

Nettie Keene

“I’d make my own latkes and we’d get doughnuts from the bakery. Later on, we enjoyed celebrating Chanukah with the four grandchildren too.  

“This year, Chanukah will be very different as I’ll be lighting the candles with my family on Zoom and joining Jewish Care’s virtual activities.” 

• Jewish Care has organised a virtual candle-lighting for residents, led by spiritual and pastoral advisor Rabbi Menachem Junik and chief executive Daniel Carmel-Brown. There is a virtual Chanukah concert, featuring entertainment from singer Yuri Sabatini and the Akiva Chamber Choir.

For details, email Simber@jcare.org or call 020 8418 2114. For support and advice, call Jewish Care on 020 8922 2222


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