Preaching prejudice

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MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS have passed since I spent Christmas very enjoyably with my good friends, ‘X’ and his wife ‘Y’. After breakfast on the morning of Christmas Day, all of us except the housekeeper, who considered that most churches were not sufficiently devout for her to attend, used to set off for the pretty church in the nearby village of ‘H’. Some of the party, including Y, travelled by car but I joined X and some others, who preferred to tramp the mile or so across the countryside that separated the house from the small hill-top church. We occupied more than two complete bench-like pews in the small, crowded edifice.

The service was traditional with Christmas carols. When it came to the singing of “Come all ye faithful”, X sung it loudly in Latin whilst all around him the rest of the congregation were singing it in English. Like him, I was introduced at private school to the Latin version, which commences with the words “Adeste fideles…”. Once, when Y was bemoaning the use of English instead of Latin in church services, someone pointed out to her that unlike the rest of the congregation, she was in no position to complain because she only attended church at Christmas and for christenings, weddings, and funerals.

The Christmas morning service at H, which was held for families with young children, included a sermon. The vicar of H started his sermon something like this:

“Christmas is a happy time of the year for everyone apart from the Jews. However, there is one exception. And that exception is Lord Sieff, the Chairman of the Marks and Spencer’s retailing firm.”

I was horrified by this and sat fuming throughout the rest of the service. When it was over, we shuffled towards the door where the vicar was receiving greetings from those who had attended. One by one people wished him ‘Merry Christmas’ and hoped that he would enjoy his Christmas meal. When I reached him, I refused to shake his outstretched hand. I said:

“Even if I had not been born Jewish, I would have found the beginning of your sermon to be in the worst of taste.”

The cleric did not reply, but Y, who heard me say this, told me afterwards that I had said the right thing.

Writing this many years after that memorable Christmas service, I cannot imagine what was going through the vicar’s head when he composed the sermon. If a man of the church, which encourages brotherly love between all men, can say those words about Lord Sieff and the Jewish people to his congregation and, more recently, a prominent cosmopolitan, expensively educated personality in British politics has characterised black Africans as “‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’”, gay men as “bumboys”, and women wearing hijab as “looking like letter boxes”,  is it surprising that so many people in Britain harbour prejudice in their hearts, even if they do not always express their feelings openly?

An awkward moment

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About 20 years ago, we drove to Loket, a small town in the western part of the Czech Republic, a part of the country that was once known as ‘Sudetenland’. It was home to a large German speaking minority, which was expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of WW2.

We stayed in a small but cosy hotel with a fine restaurant. One evening, there was a couple of German tourists sitting at the table next to ours. Their pet Alsatian dog, Harry, was sitting under the table at their feet. We greeted them as they seemed quite jolly. We struck up conversation with them and soon we were clinking each other’s wine glasses.

They told us that they hardly ever travelled out of Europe because they did not want to leave Harry on his own. However, they said to us:

“Once, we visited Kenya”

“To see wild animals?” we asked.

They laughed, and then replied:

“The only wild animals we saw were Africans.”

This unsettled us a bit as did Harry who was, by now, licking our ankles with great interest. Somehow, the conversation drifted around to the Jews of Germany. At that time, the German Jewish community, such as it was, was under the leadership of Ignatz Bubis (1927-1999). One of the couple said:

“Whenever Bubis sneezes, Germany must pay the Jews one million Deutschmarks.”

Detecting a move towards further anti-semitic remarks, my wife said:

“By the way, we are Jewish.”

This brought the conversation to a swift end and also led to the couple failing to meet us for coffee and cakes on the next day, as we had planned earlier in the evening.

In a way, it was good that my wife had stemmed the possible flow of anti-semitism, but I was a bit disappointed. I would have been fascinated to discover how deeply they felt about the Jewish people in Germany so long after the end of WW2.

We never discovered the names of this German couple, but privately we christened them ‘Adolf’ and ‘Eva’. 

A couple of years later, we revisited Loket and stayed at the same hotel. As we parked outside the hotel, we saw a couple packing suitcases into the back of thier vehicle. Accompanying them, there was an Alsation dog. Yes, you have guessed right. It was Adolf and (und?) Eva packing up to return to Germany. We greeted each other politely, but not warmly.