By Mark Perry-Nash
My great-grandmother Koppen came from an Ashkenazi (German) Jewish family which had settled in London. Another forebear was a Sephardic 'Ben Hamo' who had once been a Ben-Chaim and who finally evolved into a British 'Benham'. As a child I knew nothing of these people from whom I had partly sprung. My parents knew very little and what they did know they either denied or chose to ignore. Having grown up as Gentiles in a Gentile culture they had rather 19th century notions of what it meant to be a Jew, or even a 'half-Jew', assuming that such a thing had existed. Long black coats and side-locks, black hats and beards. All very un-English, don't you know.
I was introduced to my Jewish roots without realizing when I was six and we emigrated to the USA and found ourselves in a largely Jewish community. Most of my school-friends were Jews and my first three girlfriends were Jewish. It was all very interesting but I could never understand why it all felt to incredibly natural and comfortable. Many of my friends' families had come through the fire-storm of the Holocaust and had their own stories to tell. I would listen attentively, secure in the knowledge that it could never have happened to me. I regarded it as something utterly alien to anything my family could ever have come close to. It had no more to do with me than if they had been African tribesmen describing a tribal massacre in Uganda.
Then, when I was 45, I made the discovery of the aforementioned Koppens and Benhams. My Dad remarked that there never seemed to be anything very Jewish about his grandmother Koppen. I don't know what he would have expected; a rather bossy little lady charging about the house complaining that 'her children never phone, never write and why is she being made to suffer?' Or perhaps a fierce but loveable matriarch exclaiming 'Oy Vay' at every opportunity?
In 1939 my Dad volunteered for the RAF. He had wanted to be assigned to Bomber Command but they had him working on Radar installations instead and only later as a navigator. But in the summer of 1940 he was in England, as were all the Koppens and Benhams, known and unknown. The invasion as we know never came off, but if it had, it wouldn't have been rocket science for the Gestapo to have eventually got around to grandma and hence to him. As a Jewish friend reminded me just the other day he would have been 'Jewish enough for Hitler'.
I've had it explained very well to me many times: how I cannot be Jewish because my mother wasn't. I am content to be counted as one of the Righteous Among the Nations and (God willing) accorded a place in the world to come. But the uncomfortable fact remains that had the Nazi war machine rolled over Surrey in that lovely sunny summer of 1940, my father would have eventually have been rounded up and I would have been in the strange position of being a victim of the Holocaust even before I was born.
It makes me wonder sometimes how many of us there are? People who are only half aware or perhaps completely unaware that their families carried within them what would have been a death sentence. We, too, are in a sense part of the story. We, perhaps as much as anyone, need to keep the memory of the Shoah alive, for if things had been just a little different, we would have been denied the chance of any life at all.
I have been blessed in having been able to make these discoveries and further blessed in the many friends I have made and am still making in the Jewish Community. I may have to rest content in my identity as one of the Goyim, but as one who, nevertheless, would have been quite 'Jewish enough for Hitler'.
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from the July 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine