Don's Diary'

May 19, 1995

TUESDAY. The invitation came out of the blue. A photograph of grimy old houses in a grey street. One of the buildings, towering over the others, is crowned by one large and two smaller golden cupolas. These I recognise instantly. It is the New Synagogue in what used to be East Berlin.

The invitation is to attend the inauguration of the Centrum Judaicum, a research centre dedicated to the history of Berlin Jewry. One third of the old (ie new) synagogue has been restored to its new (ie old) glory but the remaining two-thirds, which housed the actual place of worship, is to remain bare ground, an everlasting scar on history. I shall now be able to enter it for the first time since my childhood in Nazi Germany.

WEDNESDAY. Attend a branch meeting of the National Union of Journalists to hear an old friend, Henry Clothier, deliver his anecdotal farewell.

THURSDAY. Continue writing my history. Provisional title - The University of North London: One Hundred Turbulent Years. It is to be published in time for next year's centenary. So far I have completed 74,000 turbulent words in three months. Additional chapters are being contributed from present and past staff and directors (yes, Terence Miller has already provided me with his, and it makes interesting reading!).

FRIDAY. My day in the office.

SATURDAY. Fly to Berlin and have dinner with Liane and Wolfgang. Liane is my cousin, just one month younger than I. I still have pictures of the two of us taken when we were about six or seven. Her father, my mother's eldest brother, did not survive the Holocaust. Her mother Mary was a Roman Catholic and fought ferociously and successfully for Liane's life. As a half-Jew, the child was arrested and would have been transported to the gas chambers had it not been for her mother's courage. Liane married a Berlin policeman; they had twins who now have children of their own.

SUNDAY. The day starts badly. A synagogue in Lubeck, Schleswig-Holstein, has been set on fire by fascists - the second time in a few months. In the afternoon there is a demo not far from the synagogue I shall be going to. The Left insists that May 8, 1945 was the liberation of Germany from Nazi oppressors. The Right claims it marked a shameful defeat. There are skirmishes with the police; some demonstrators are badly hurt. Later one of the many distinguished speakers at the synagogue ceremony quotes Hegel: "The only thing history teaches us is that people learn nothing from history."

Streets leading to the Oranienburger Strasse have been blocked off. Security is extremely tight. Three times I have to produce both my invitation and my passport. More than 3,000 guests file through the beautifully refurbished building, studying the remarkable exhibits, photographs, posters, memorabilia. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the silver oil lamp which has housed the Eternal Flame from the day the New Synagogue was inaugurated in the presence of Bismarck on September 5, 1866.

When Nazis set fire to the synagogue on November 9-10 1938 (Kristallnacht) the lamp disappeared, presumed plundered. About five years ago, two building workers dug it up - more than 80 metres from the altar. Some consider it a miracle.

The ceremony takes place in the open space where most of the original synagogue had stood. My mind wanders from the speeches and the many eminent guests to the unknown faces around me. All around me are the ghosts of those who did not survive. My mind's eye spots the seat high up in the now absent gallery, where my mother and I used to sit, peering down to where my father stood in prayer among the men. And I see other children with whom I played in the courtyard of the synagogue. Echoes of their laughter still haunt the cobblestones.

Historian Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum Foundation, attempts a speech of thanks. Not easy among so many ghosts. When he thanks his parents, he chokes back tears and stops. We can all identify. We all have our ghosts.

Later at a reception given at the Berlin Hilton by Eberhard Diepgen, the mayor of Berlin, I approach a group of Jewish New York police officers in full dress uniform who had spectacularly marched into the earlier ceremony. "So who," I asked, "is protecting New York in your absence?" "Irish cops", came the snappy reply. Thank God there is still some humour left in the world.

MONDAY. I return to London still blessing the NYP for the laughter they gave. More humour is in store. The joy of the Hyde Park party and the Queen throwing the switch that sent a laser of pyrotechnics to the Post Office Tower provides a good laugh. By contrast, the Queen Mum singing along with Vera Lynn and a nation observing a two-minute silence were most moving and produced a tear. Laughter and tears. With the right mix, we can all become survivors.

Director of public affairs at the University of North London and chair of the Higher Education External Relations Association.

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