Unlocking the Past

Shira discovers her late mother’s diary from the 1950s.

Shira SebbanShira Sebban

We did not expect to find the diary. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies with her daughters … We will never know.

Naomi in May 1952 on an excursion to Wattlesea FarmI had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life.  Now, as I turned the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I felt grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.

Written in English in the mid-1950s, when a postgraduate traveling scholarship had taken her back from Melbourne, Australia, to her birthplace of Israel for two years, the diary provides a glimpse of what life was like then for a single, 20-something woman. Attractive and bright, she was courted by a host of mostly unsuitable admirers, although occasionally, one would become the focus of her hopes and dreams. After all, as she notes, her mother had advised her to “secure a future” for herself, urging her to work hard to accomplish her purpose: in other words, “get married”.

IMG_2055Part-travelogue and part-social commentary, the diary reads like a film script, the vividly portrayed characters flitting in and out of various settings. One moment my mother is at a party or concert, describing the dating scene: “Noticed some very good looking men in the audience. Wonder where they usually hide.” The next, she is on a crowded bus, discussing the four young Yemenite girls seated behind her: “probably recent arrivals to the country. Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in high pitched voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus.”

A picture builds of what life was like in what was then the recently established State of Israel. Many of those she meets are keen to move elsewhere, believing there is more opportunity overseas. A certain unease lurks behind the pages too, and on one occasion, she even has to identify a suspect at the police station after an elderly woman is raped across the street from her home. More often, however, she is scared to walk alone in isolated areas, having heard about “some unpleasant and unfortunate encounters with Arab infiltrators”.

The term, “infiltrator”, with its connotations of menace, danger and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when there were several attacks on Israeli settlements, resulting in around 100 casualties and culminating in the “Prevention of Infiltration Law” of 1954, which defined those citizens of surrounding Arab states, as well as Palestinians, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators”, punishable by law, especially if they were armed or had committed crimes against people or property.

Emotions certainly ran high within Israel itself too. On a morning walk through the Carmel market near the family home in south Tel Aviv, my mother describes police arresting an “old Arab who was selling baskets … He was yelling his protests. Bystanders said he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the market.

“Further on I heard terrible cries, saw a young fellow who had slashed his own throat in protest at having had his cart full of vegetables taken to the police station. Apparently, he too had no permit to trade in the market.”

I had long known that after leaving Israel, my mother had undertaken an epic sea voyage to Italy, also visiting Paris and working in London before deciding to make her way to Montreal, where she would ultimately meet her future husband and my father. Until now, however, I had thought that those often-recounted stories had been buried with her. So imagine my delight to discover that the diary also contains a record of the first part of the journey she undertook by ship from the northern Israeli port of Haifa to Venice via Greece and then on to Milan by train.

Penniless, she could only gaze longingly at the elegant Italian shop window displays, but could “afford nothing no matter how cheap the prices were”.

Arriving in Milan and not wanting to stay on her own, she was on the verge of boarding the night train to Paris with nothing to eat bar a box of biscuits, when she finally managed to contact the aunt and uncle of one of her best friends in Tel Aviv, who invited her to stay with them. Successful furriers, my mother writes, they had “made a name for themselves”, their shop frequented by “a good class of clientele”, including members of the aristocracy and movie stars.

Although most of the numerous names that appear in the diary remain unfamiliar to me, the family name of my mother’s good friend stood out. Hadn’t I gone to school with a boy of the same name?

It so happens I had been reminded of that particular family at the beginning of this year – before we discovered the diary — while on holiday in Israel, when I had learned that Michael, my old school friend, was staying in the same hotel. We spent some time catching up and also exchanged contact details.

Naomi in 1950 (official portrait)Now, as I turned the pages of the diary, I realized that the characters so vividly depicted by my mother included various members of Michael’s extended family.  My mother’s friend was Michael’s aunt, meaning the Milan furriers must have been his great aunt and uncle. I sent an email to Michael, who immediately put me in touch with the Italian branch of his family and all was confirmed. Even better, his elderly and frail aunt in Tel Aviv could still remember my mother and recalled the deep friendship between various generations of our families.

As it transpires, our familial ties date back at least a century to Poland via Tel Aviv and on to Australia: A tale of friendship and support, harking back to the days of our great grandparents, with the diary key to piecing together the puzzle of just how we are connected.

The ravages of Alzheimer’s disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young, passionate woman searching for intelligent companionship and the man of her dreams. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.

Shira Sebban – Life Issues
Shira is a Sydney-based writer and editor, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. The mother of three sons, she also serves as vice-president on the board of her children’s school. You can read more of her work at http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/
Life Balance = Abandoned. The. Search. 

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