A lot of Kay's friends are turning 18 at the moment and she has been busy several evenings this week making birthday cakes to take into school for them the next day. She has decorated them herself too and made a wonderful job of customising each one for their recipient. Her classmates have been very impressed and have commented how good she is. Which is all rather appropriate because we reckon her grandfather (my father) must have been watching over her and guiding her.
My dear old Dad would have been 85 today, if leukaemia had not struck him down suddenly nearly eight years ago. He had a reasonable innings, I suppose, and considerably more than he would have had, if the nasty Mr Hitler had had his way. My Dad was born in Berlin on 16 October 1923. Because of the post 1914-18 Depression in Germany, my pregnant grandmother had been unable to maintain a nutritious diet. So my father was born with rickets and could not walk until he was six years old. My grandfather came from good old Prussian stock and was a Lutheran, a protestant faith into which my father and his older (by three years) brother were christened and confirmed. But my grandmother came from Jewish parents, who did not want to force Judaism on their children, so much so that my grandmother never even set foot in a synagogue. Maybe my great-grandparents saw which way the wind was blowing. Who knows? But sadly, when it came to Mr Hitler's cleansing programme, any hint of Judaism in the family going back, I believe, six generations meant you were branded a Jew, whether you practised it or not. For my father and his older brother, despite being christened and confirmed, it meant not being able to join the Hitler Youth. Not that they wanted to, mind you, but not to join made you stand out, because everyone was rushing like lemmings to be a part of it. My father was singled out at school when he did not wear the Hitler Youth uniform on special celebration days. It did not however exclude him from being made to write euphoric school essays about Hitler on the Fuehrer's birthday or when he made his big speeches at Nuremberg.
One day in 1938, my father, aged 14, was away visiting one of his aunts, when the SS officers came to take him away. As he was not at home, they took my (then) 17-year-old uncle instead to a nearby concentration camp where he spent 3 months, was tattooed and watched all kinds of atrocities. My grandparents (for some reason the Gestapo did not take them as well) had the foresight to sell off all their possessions to free him again, as it was possible before WW2 to buy your freedom if you could prove that you had a definite passage out of Germany. The family managed to escape to Britain with the help of English Quakers, first the children with the Kindertransport in March and a few months later, my grandparents. Many of the aunts, uncles and cousins were less fortunate and shortly thereafter were taken to concentration camps, where no more was heard of them.
My father, now in England, was placed in digs on a farm (still at the tender age of 14 without his parents or brother anywhere close by) to help out with all manner of work, earning a few pence at the weekend by scrubbing out the stables or the farmhouse, so that he could afford to buy personal things like shaving cream or toothpaste. He could only speak a few words of English which didn't even amount to a sentence. Slowly he built up his vocabulary, after befriending a young man in the village who spoke a little German. After war with Germany broke out in 1939, he was then interned on the Isle of Man for six months while the British government went into his paperwork to check he was not a German spy. When he was given the all-clear, he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture clearing the land to feed the nation. That is how he met my mum, a Land Army girl, about three years later in 1942. My post on 26 July tells how he was pulling out trees with a chain and a tractor and she stumbled over the chain. He helped her up and they started dating. He loved opera and introduced my mother to a different opera showing in London each week with his hard-earned money. They were married in 1947. Times were hard and they had to live apart for the first three years, as they were unable to get even a room together, let alone a flat or house in post-war bombed-out London. Their work dictated that she live with her parents in South London during the week, while he lived with his parents (having meanwhile met up with them again) in North London. They got together at weekends, when they could. There were no such things as social benefits or hand-outs, particularly so, because he was an immigrant... .nowadays it is quite the reverse. So he worked hard for his living and managed to get on the housing ladder and save for a mortgage. He was naturalised as a British citizen and was always proud to be British. He wanted to do his best to settle down here and give thanks to Britain for saving his life.
A few years after the war, Dad took a course in food science and baking and ended up being a chef patissier or pastry chef. Looking at the prima donna celebrity chefs these days, I reckon he would have deserved to be up there with them (by that I do not mean he was a prima donna, but was the best at his job), but in his day, chefs were poorly paid and worked long hours and did not get the celebrity status they do now. He worked for some pretty big London hotels and finally ended up being the patisserie manager of a very high-class grocery establishment in London well-known all over the world as THE Grocer to the Royal Household. In 1960, he made one of the many wedding cakes for the marriage of Princess Margaret to Anthony Armstrong-Jones. He was often asked to send out pastries to the Queen Mother. He later went on to make the desserts for all kinds of high government functions, including those where the Queen and other Heads of State were present. He even once had to go to 10 Downing Street and go through that famous door to make desserts for a function there and regularly worked in the kitchens at Hampton Court, where Prime Minister Harold Wilson insisted on holding his state functions. When he took early retirement aged 62 because of a heart condition, he was still in great demand and would still often do the odd bit of work for friends and family, such as making wedding or birthday cakes.
At one point in his life he had also taught cake-making and decorating at evening school and had many appreciative students - mainly women. They adored him, though he never strayed away from home and always stayed faithful to my mum, and to this day we still receive fan mail from these women at Christmas. Because of his continental upbringing, he would always wear a jacket, collar and tie, even when the temperature was 80 degrees Fahrenheit and over. He was a sort of Captain von Trappe figure - always very reserved, courteous, well-turned out and charming. I never saw him drunk. He might have had the occasional Guinness at Christmas, but even that was a rare sight. He was the sort of guy who had many friends, but yearned for a quiet life at home. The Nazi era had affected him badly. He was not keen to give details of his past to anyone and he refused to take any compensation from the German government for what they had done to him and his family, when he later had the opportunity to claim it. He saw it as blood money. He was terrified of fire, because he had grown up seeing books and synagogues burned, and always made a point of unplugging any electrical appliances before he went to bed. He was happy so long as he was safe in his home, with his wife and child, and much later he was happy to spend time with his one and only grandchild, whom he spoiled rotten. He excelled at (and won prizes for) everything he turned his hands to - be it ploughing or bread-making. An Austrian princess who visited that famous grocery store once told him his Viennese Sachertorte was better than the ones she could buy in Vienna. In latter years, as a hobby, he made the most beautiful, intricate dolls-house furniture for Kay . .. tiny inlaid marquetry tables or cabinets with drawers and glass-doors or even a miniscule television with knobs and dials.
Sadly in 1997 he was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukaemia (CLL), but it was a type that was relatively kind and would not snuff him out. He bore the regular blood transfusions and bone marrow tests with fortitude and I never heard him complain. Then at Christmas 2000 he suddenly started to feel very ill indeed and could not even manage to eat the festive meal without feeling sick. He struggled on for a few weeks until mid-January when he was due to see his consultant haematologist. Further tests were done and it was found that he had developed the more aggressive form - acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) - in addition to the CLL . We were told it was so rare to have two different forms of leukaemia at the same time. He was told he was too ill for chemotherapy and had a matter of weeks or months to live. In fact he died a mere ten days later on 1 February 2001. We were devastated.
My mother has still not got over it after nearly eight years. She misses him dreadfully and still cries for him. They were so in love and were two perfect halves of a whole. As an only child, I adored him and put him on a pedestal. He was loving and loveable. I miss him dreadfully. Today he would have been 85 years old. So when I saw Kay this week icing those beautiful birthday cakes so perfectly for her friends, I believe he must have been watching over her and guiding her hand. Maybe he was sitting on a cloud hoping there was a cake for him today. I would give anything for him to be here to eat it.
Happy Birthday Dad.