Simon Smith's Autobiography
Boris gathered the last crumbs of potato cake from his plate while his mother's back was turned. His mouth full he tried for a quiet exit. His eldest sister, Betty, thought otherwise, grabbed him and hissed, “listen you little troublemaker, if you make jokes about my finger again you won't make it to your eighth birthday!” she pushed him away and attempted a slap to the top of his head which he evaded. He roared with laughter as he started to make a more hasty getaway. His mother shouted after him, but he was gone and by the time she'd dried her hands, and walked to the front door he was up the road hitching a lift on a cart bound for the town. It was raining so Boris pulled some straw over himself and through it told the cart driver he was going to the theatre. “When I grow up I shall sing to you from the stage to thank you for this lift”.
Upon reaching the town Boris made his way to the theatre, walked past the queue and took the side alley where unseen he scaled the wall to a second floor window. Once in he found a single empty seat next to a couple. Everyone joined in the sing along whilst Boris thought that one day he would be upon the stage too singing, acting and leading the audience.
After the show Boris looked out for people from his neighbourhood and casually joined them on the journey home. Upon a cart Boris sang to his captive but drunkenly appreciative audience. As the snow fell a cold and hungry child was set to freeze this night. It was only when Boris got home and found the door was locked that he realised the danger he was in.
“Mama, let me in. I'm freezing.”
“Please, I am cold. I am sorry”
Boris could feel the tears welling, but sniffed them back and looked at his inevitable bed for the night, the kennel. He shifted the dog to one side, got in and pulled the dog close. As the night drew on the temperature dropped until Boris' only refuge was to sleep. The next thing Boris felt was his mother pulling him, and the dog, out of the kennel and beating him until he cried for her to stop but she continued until he could only surmise that she didn't love him anymore .
* * *
His mother, Esther Berzin, had dark piercing eyes and long dark hair which had roots in the communities of the Sephardic Jews. When the tour guide was a kid he walked the streets in Rezkne where he would regularly have sticks, stones and hurtful words thrown at him. He'd pick up the stones and hurtful words and throw them back but no matter how hard or far he flung them they would stick and burn a yearning of justice within him.
When his mother beat him, she would scream “Boris why do you do these things to me?” he would tell her he loved her, but the more she beat down upon him the more the lure of the external world, the intrigue of the night, and the excitement of danger beat out a path for him to walk.
If Boris were a child in today's world he'd be labelled as having some kind of syndrome such as Attention Deficit Disorder and most of the other mothers in the school would be thinking what he needs is a good beating but for Boris the beatings were bad ones and certainly didn't make him good.
* * *
Boris' earliest memory was being two years old when he was carried in to a dark room to see his dead grandmother, Yudas, who was covered in a sheet and surrounded by candles. The significance of this death was probably not apparent at the time but this loss possibly set off a chain reaction that links to my own first memory, this being one of sitting in a hallway, looking at the doors of a nursery waiting for my mother to pick me up. I remember listening out for the sound of a taxi. Soon the doors would open, my mother would walk in, pick me up and I would nuzzle in to her neck and hair as she hugged me.
When Esther's husband Samuel's parents had been alive the whole family had lived in one of many houses within a street that the family owned. But when, in 1928, Boris entered the dark room of his grandmother's wake darkness was falling too upon his whole family. Boris' paternal grandfather had died shortly before Yudas had but not a short enough time to stop her from selling most of the houses they owned. She had believed it was time to release the capital but within months a massive rise in inflation created a situation where money really wasn't worth the paper it was written on. This meant that they had moved, literally, from landlords to land poor within months.
After Yudas died, Samuel decided to go to South Africa to find work with an aim of establishing a new home for his family there. He left his wife to look after Boris and the two elder brothers Ruddy and Lazer.
There were also two daughters, one who was already close to grown up, Betty (Beteah) b.1914 and Batia who was only eight. Before leaving for South Africa Samuel took Batia to Riga , the capital of Latvia , to visit some aunts who lived there. Exhausted by the long train journey she fell asleep soon after their arrival. Riga was an exciting city for a 6 year old girl and her father had promised her a tour the next day. When she woke though she found he was gone and was informed that she would be living with her aunts for a while. Years passed before she would set eyes upon her immediate family again.
* * *
Shortly before moving out of their old, owned, house Boris, who slept in the attic, fell down the attic stairs and damaged his testes. Thirty two years later this accident would be used to try and discredit the accident that created me. The new, rented, house had only one floor, and half of that was a mud one.
Within a few months Esther Berzin lost her home, her financial security, her husband, and had been left to look after three sons, one of whom seemed to want to command, demand and self harm!
* * *
I have ordered a microwave for Boris now. It's taken me a few days to get around to it however there's a pleasure in buying for other people. Like casual sex with no consequences.
* * *
The disappearance of Samuel meant that Boris' waywardness would go unchecked further and it began a chain of absentee fathers that stretches to me and possibly beyond.
When Samuel arrived in South Africa he seemed to shirk his responsibilities and became a single man once more. As Esther was left to fend for herself she slowly grew ill while Boris and his brothers experienced their childhood under the encroaching storm clouds of World War 2.
1936 - 1939
Ruddy sensed their need for escape so he made his way to South Africa to join his father and remind him of the original plan. Six years had passed since Samuel had left but within two years of Ruddy arriving he had saved enough money to buy tickets for Esther, Lazer, and Boris to join him.
Boris' sisters both lived in Riga now. Batia had met up and married a school friend, Mishka, who had a sense of the encroaching War and due to his engineering skills was offered work in Russia . As the last train to Russia pulled out of Riga Batia stood firm that she didn't want to leave her country. Mishka picked her up and manhandled her on to the train.
Boris' other sister, Betty, stayed and within a couple of months was rounded up by the Nazis and was never heard of again. Her most likely destiny was to have been marked out as a Jew, rounded up at some point, transported out of the area, and then gunned down by the road side or next to a freshly prepared ditch where her body and those of the others who died with her would have been covered unceremoniously.
* * *
When I visited the holocaust museum one story that moved me immensely involved a witness' account of a father reassuring his frightened child as the soldiers aimed their guns that he was not to worry, “Daddy will be there waiting for you at the gates of Heaven”. This might seem very sentimental however for most parents the idea of our children feeling that we will not be there for them is worse than the thought of our own death.
* * *
Soon after arriving in Johannesburg Boris' mother already emaciated and ill from the journey collapsed and was diagnosed as having Cancer. Boris remembers her screaming in agony and begging to be put out of her misery. Her desire to get her children to safety, to a better life, had been fulfilled but for her there was no consolation beyond this.
* * *
I often have people say to me that because I have short arms it makes them appreciate that their lot is not so bad after all. At one time I used to work with homeless people and I'd occasionally hear them say about me that they thought they'd “had it bad!” ‘til they saw me and I'd be thinking about how much better my life was compared to theirs. But when I think of the likes of Esther Berzin or her mother, or her 13 dead sisters I know how lucky most of us really are.
One advantage I have found of appearing burdened with a tragic life is that homeless people begging on the street rarely ask me for any money. Instead they wave at me and greet me as a brother in arms, even if it's at an arms length that's shorter than normal. On my first day working in a homeless people's resource centre I even got away with hurrying everyone away at closing time with “Come on you lot, haven't you got any homes to go to?”
* * *
Once Esther died Boris' father had him put in to the local orphanage, but Boris ran away so his father let him live at home. Even then he spent most of his time on the streets. 62 years later I sat and watched Boris cry because he couldn't stand to be staying in hospital any longer as he recuperated from a stroke. For Boris any feeling of restriction is an anathema. Ironically the army didn't seem to be a restrictive place in his mind so by the time Boris reached 14 and World War Two broke out he wanted to join the struggle.
He queued in the heat of the Johannesburg midday sun along with the other young men. Eventually he stood in front of Colonel Molineux who asked him his age. When Boris told him he was seventeen he was told he'd need his father's signature and was given a form to bring back later. Boris went away for a couple of hours, signed the form himself, then returned and handed it in. Within weeks he was serving as a medical orderly on the front line in Kenya and Abyssinia against the Italians.
I have a photograph of him during this period and he looked like I did when I was 14 only he was wearing a soldier's uniform that looked too big for him and I was trying to dress like Fonzi. We both looked seventeen by the way it's just I used my mature looks for getting in to pubs.
As the weeks went by Boris befriended another soldier from Johannesburg who sent a letter back to his girlfriend expressing his concern that Boris didn't seem to have anyone back home. Feeling sorry for him she sent Boris a parcel for Christmas. Perhaps this act of kindness jogged Boris' own feelings of connection to his family so he wrote to his father to tell him where he was and that he was safe. A few weeks later Boris' captain, a Finley Edgington, entered Boris' tent and told him that they had received a report that Boris had signed up fraudulently. Boris went very quiet and looked at the ground. Captain Edgington said to Boris, “I know you don't want to go back, and we all like you and don't want you to go either, but if you say nothing we'll have no alternative but to send you back immediately. But if you say this is true and you want to stay then we can send a request back to your father asking for permission for you to continue in the army. If he says no then we'll have to send you back but that might take weeks before we get the orders, which will be better than going today”. Boris opened up to him, and after several weeks waiting he was ordered to return home, which he did do begrudgingly.
As soon as Boris turned 16 he re-enlisted but this time was sent to India where at first he was in the Tank corps and later involved in moving horses and mules around. One of the members of his company had also been a school friend, his name was Barney Smith. One day they were summoned to a meeting at the transportation depot. Their Commander asked for volunteers to go on an expedition that involved travelling by boat. Barney stepped forward, no doubt anticipating a pleasant day out, but Boris grabbed him and told him not to go. Barney decided to take his advice. Nearly all who sailed on the boat died, including the Commander.
* * *
Incidents such as the one I've just described are most likely just coincidences that we like to volunteer or grab as having far greater significance than they actually do have, but there have been some in my life which I have found less likely to be coincidences and which I shall share with you as we go on.
I didn't get to meet Boris until I was in my mid thirties. I wrote only one poem which mentioned him and in it I wrote “Am I psychic or neurotic?” During our first meeting I videoed Boris who said to me “Am I psychic or psycho-neurotic?”
I can not prove to you that there's such a thing as telepathy, or pre-cognition, or the ability to speak to the dead, but this aspect, the world of the sixth sense, is one that both Boris and I seem to share.
Unfortunately there are two other genes that were not handed down to me from Boris which I regret not having. One was his aptitude for languages, he speaks around 12 languages to a practical standard, (which probably means he speaks them well enough to chat women up with) and the other is his thick mop of hair. I used to think I'd like to have his linguistic skills, I speak English, a bit of French and a lot of Rubbish, but now as I'm balding I think I'd prefer the hair!
* * *
Yesterday evening I went to a radio recording of a comedienne, an Adam Bloom, for radio four. During the warm up he interacted with the audience and at one point pointed out that my hair was receding, I nodded at him and agreed it was. As I looked at him I thought that he looked Jewish, and that his name was probably a shortened version of Bloomberg. There was some kind of kinship between him and me because of this. Of course I am not Jewish, especially to a Jew, because my mother was not Jewish, but once a link is made between the Jewish community and myself by other people they often treat me as if I am Jewish. The issue of being Jewish has little impact on me, I enjoy the idea that I have links to a contentious part of the world's population, but I do not belong to it.
When I was a child I was quick to use the term “you Jew” in a derogatory manner and didn't suspect I might have Jewish relatives until I was much older.
A few minutes ago I spoke to my mother on the phone and we spoke about the bombers who blew up people in London yesterday on busses and tube trains. At first she tried to tell me that she had heard that their main concern was that they kill as many infidels as possible and that political motivation was secondary. I said to her that we don't know what their motivation is and to dehumanise them is part of the process that societies use to hate either a section of their own society or another one completely.
A few years ago I leaned out of a balcony at the Hilton Metropole in Brighton and spoke to my mother on my mobile phone. She told me of a time that she had stood outside the same hotel as a child and heard her father spit out the words “See that woman coming out of that place, the one in a fur coat and all those jewels, she's a Jew!” Even when she shopped in London 's Oxford Street her parents would warn her not to go in to some shops as they were Jewish shops and the proprietors “would drag you in and not let you go until you bought something.”
* * *
Boris shoots his gun at a soldier's head. This is the real “unknown soldier”, the one soldier's know they've killed, who they will know for the rest of their lives but who they will never know, who they do not mention, who they try to forget, and who they hope will greet them at Heaven's gates and forgive them because it was war. Boris would rather I didn't mention this episode.
* * *
When Boris returned from the War he knocked on his father's door. An English woman answered, she was Samuel's new wife. Boris told her who he was but she wouldn't let him in and told him to come back later when Samuel was back. Boris went up the street to his aunt's house returning later as requested. As he approached he could hear the English woman and Samuel arguing. To not welcome his son in was tantamount to a mortal sin, even if this was a tad hypocritical given he hadn't helped Boris when he was a child. Soon after this incident, and partly because of it, they divorced. However not long after Samuel married for a third time to a large German woman who Boris seemed to like, which must have been a bit of a relief to Samuel, given his new policy on getting his kids approval when it came to wives.
* * *
Boris like so many soldiers after the war found he was at a loss of what to do. He was unqualified, inexperienced and restless. Life became a series of exciting adventures, bouts of drinking, gambling and getting women to sleep with him. He wasn't prepared to fit in to Civi-street so at first he joined a fun-fair and worked as a show man in a gambling tent.
If you've seen the film Big Fish you might think there's a similarity between my father's story and the main character's. The significant difference though is that Big Fish wraps itself around a love story, but I don't have one to share with you about Boris. Boris and I occasionally argue over whether or not I should give as much as I do when I love someone. It is an abomination for him to feel needy, let alone tell a woman about such feelings. Perhaps it was his dislocation from feelings that made him so attractive to women, after all it can be very off putting to see someone as being needy, it can also be a bit frightening if you think someone is going to be a pursuer, so Boris offered a brief, fun, and non-entangling relationship to most of his prey, except of course the ones who fell pregnant.
* * *
1946 to 48
The fun-fair work was seasonal so Boris decided to work with the merchant navy during the quiet winter months and for the next few years migrated between the two.
In 1948, partly as repatriation for the Arab anti-Semitic position throughout World War 2 and partly due to Zionist pressure on the League of Nations a solution to the “Jewish problem” was agreed. This was to create the State of Israel. The surrounding Arab States of Jordan , Syria and Egypt made it known that they would not tolerate this so as the date for Israel 's independence approached tension was mounting on all sides. Boris' brother Lazer lived on a kibbutz in the middle of Israel and was also a member of the Palmach ( A “strike force” set up in 1941 with the intention of protecting Palestine from the Nazis by the British Military and Haganah (a Jewish paramilitary organization in Palestine during the British mandate of Palestine from 1920 to 1948 and the predecessor to the modern day Israeli defence Force ) . The British trained some of them as “special operations soldiers” with the aim of helping the British invade Syria and Lebanon but in 1942 the British victory at El-Alamein meant the Palmach was no longer of any use to them and they decided to dismantle it. Instead the whole organisation went underground). The call to arms came to Boris who jumped aboard the Danish owned and Israel bound ship, the Birkalandis. Although mainly a cargo ship 15 passengers were also on their way with the same intention. Upon arriving they were loaded upon a truck and taken to a camp. Boris was given a position of machine gunner, firstly on the back of jeeps but later in armoured cars.
* * *
I am round at Boris' drinking tea and writing notes about this time in his life. My partner has decided we ought to split up so I am spending more time with my family and using writing this as an excuse to go round more regularly than normal. “Finally”, I think, “I can get some exciting war stories from Boris”, but he's not having it. Next time I'm going to bring a bottle of Scotch and some truth drugs!
* * *
Whatever one's position regarding Israel is one can't help but admire that in this instance the Israeli's fought off a three sided attack by opponents that seemed to have the upper hand.
* * *
Boris and the Seamen Strike
After this war Boris went back to the navy mainly bringing Jewish refugees to Israel from Morocco and Marseilles . While waiting in the docks Boris noticed that any black Jew was turned away from working on the boats. He'd become involved in the Communist party in recent months thinking that it might help his sister, trapped in Russia, if he was seen as part of the system, and due to this involvement had become a bit more aware of social injustice. Watching these men being turned away left him seething with anger so he decided he'd do something about it.
Most of the waiters, cleaners and general dogsbodies on his ship were non Jewish Italians. Boris started to spread a rumour that there was a possible attack planned by an anti-Semitic organisation on the route back to Israel . The casual staff thought better of the risks involved and didn't come to work on the departure date. When the ship got back to Israel Boris went straight to some of the local left wing papers and got a few articles published calling for a demonstration demanding that black Jewish people not be discriminated against by these companies. Within hours of publication the local hotels were warned off letting Boris reside with them and told him directly that they had been, so Boris spent the next few weeks sleeping in the prostitutes quarters.
When he told me this bit of the story I did wonder if this was all an elaborate story to explain why he spent so much time with prostitutes during this period, but he showed me a few newspaper articles relating to this incident so just to be sociable I'll take his word.
Come the day of the demonstration he and a few hundred striking seamen started their promenade. Two police men approached Boris, both holding sub-machine guns at their waste pointing towards him. He walked up to them and filled with anger said in a hushed but vitriolic tone “You can kill me but these guys all have long knives and it won't be long before you feel one go through your back if you do!”. Their guns lowered slowly and the police backed off. One said “You can have your say, but make sure there's no trouble”. Soon afterwards some black Jewish people started to be employed by the shipping companies involved. But for Boris it was time to lay low, that's if you don't consider lying in the prostitutes quarters low enough already, so he sailed to England.
* * *
It wasn't long before Boris discovered a scam in London . Using people he knew who worked in South Africa House he developed a “fast track” system for those with the cash to not only get their immigration papers sorted but also a place on a boat. For this Boris would get the fee from the “clients” and a commission from the boat operators. A good little number but the secret of a long life is knowing when it's time to leave, so Boris took a ride upon a boat bound to Canada .
* * *
Boris arrived in Nova-Scotia, took a train to Montreal , found accommodation in a Religious Jewish family house, and got a job in a factory. After week one the foreman sacked him for shoddy work so Boris went to the boss and gave him a sob story that his work was shoddy because he hadn't eaten for days. The boss gave him another chance. The factory was making parts that were destined to be used in the Korean war so it was working 24 hours a day. Boris came in on the night shift and watched how they did it. He asked how many they'd make an hour and was told about 20. So when Boris was creating 28 per hour by the end of his first “educated” day he got a sharp warning from his fellow workers. Ever the communist Boris thought “Fuck them, I need the dough” and compromising a bit dropped down to 26 per hour. At the end of the week he was called in to the boss' office. “What now?” he thought but to his surprise he was given a pay rise and an apology from the foreman who sacked him in the first place. Needless to say that Boris was not popular with his work mates.
It was a bad winter, work relations were frosty and his hosts were not much warmer. Boris would lie in bed at night and could hear
“Mary you like it?”
“Mary you like it?”
“Mary you like it?”
“Yes I like it”
Boris laughed and blew smoke rings up to the ceiling.
After a few months Boris realised he didn't like working in the factory anymore and decided it was time to sail off into the sunset.
He read in the paper that an Israeli ship was coming in to a local port and needed a qualified oiler, whatever that is, so Boris contacted the boat company and made his way to meet it but the ship was no where to be found. Boatless and cold Boris looked through the telephone directory and called a local Rabbi. He told him that there was a boat coming in a few days which was the first to come to this port from Israel and what a wonderful gesture it would be to throw a welcome party for them. The Rabbi, probably feeling somewhat cornered agreed. Boris met up with, befriended and lodged with him for the few days wait.
When the boat arrived it only had a few Israeli's aboard the rest were English however the gesture didn't go unnoticed and Boris had in the process ingratiated himself to his new crew mates. One of the crew, the Boson, was a black Jew who Boris had directly got a job for but as he went to greet Boris, Boris put his finger to his mouth because he also recognised the Chief Purser as someone he had antagonised during the Strike. The Purser recognised Boris but couldn't place him at first but a few days later he did and immediately telegraphed ahead that he was on the boat.
Boris was in the engine room when the boat pulled in to Haifa . Four police officers came down and started to arrest him, but Boris informed them that because he was sailing on Canadian Articles that they couldn't arrest him until he was on shore. In fact he told them to fuck off but he did present a good legal case as well.
He was put on open arrest and the shipping company boss came to see him to ask what he was up to, he explained that he wasn't intending to cause any trouble, so an amnesty was agreed.
For ducking, diving and boat engine driving $2000
For high productivity and low popularity $1000
For having a party thrown in your honour and for standing up to the boss. Priceless and jobless.
With an adventure under his belt and a wad of money in his pocket Boris flew to South Africa . If travel makes you look at your home town with a different perspective that is especially true when there's been dramatic changes there in the meantime. In the intervening years South Africa had brought in Apartheid with was essentially legalised racism. It came as quite a surprise to Boris who had suffered at the hands of anti-Semitic peers as both a youth and adult to suddenly find that he was part of the oppressive regime. In an attempt to make amends Boris endeavoured to have sex with an equal number of women from all ethnic groups. This did not go down well.
One evening Boris visited a black neighbourhood, got a bit drunk and started to make his way home alone. Ahead of him two young black women were being quite noisy, laughing and shouting at boys. Then a small group of police officers turned around towards them and one of them shouted “Shut up you black bitch”.
“Hey don't talk to them like that” Boris retorted
Within seconds the police officers started to beat Boris with their sticks. Even though being inebriated meant Boris didn't feel the full force of the law at that moment he was bedridden for several weeks as a result of his injuries.
When Boris eventually came out to play again he was preoccupied with this incident. So much so that he decided to reek out revenge. As it turned out it wasn't as calculated as his fantasies were probably hoping for. Instead he saw the officer who'd shouted at the women walking towards him down a side street. Boris turned in to an alley way where he saw a metal bar and decided to make the best of a bad job. No one else was around so as the officer passed the alley Boris stepped out and smashed the bar across the back of the officer's head. Fortunately for Boris the officer did not turn around and ask what he'd done that for but conveniently dropped to the floor where Boris crashed the bar down upon his collar bone, which he heard crack, and then hit him a third time across his back. Boris looked around for witnesses, none of which were apparent, then walked away.
Boris' eldest Brother still lived in Johannesburg and was a minor celebrity as a long distance (100Km) runner and jewellery shop owner. Also Boris had become quite well known to the police when he worked in the funfair as he'd be the one bribing the police to let the fair gamble. The hot headed and radical Boris was not anonymous enough to get away with this act of retribution so he decided to go back to England .
* * *
It was 1954 and London was beginning to recover from the depression following the war.
Notes only beyond this point
Syd james saw him off stayed in hotel army entertainment met at jewish guild after war, not a bosom pall, just chatting. Saw him in lonodon in a play …. Doorman turned him awayu dresser let him in, gave him tickets, took him for dinner, saw him once.
Esther's birth – a brief history of Esther - Amalia
End of chapter 2