Rick has lived in St Albans since he was a baby. His family left Highbury, London, when his father’s workplace moved to St Albans at the outbreak of the Second World War. Rick and his wife Jenny have been SAMS members since 1994. Here Rick talks about SAMS, schooldays, his grandmother’s status as an enemy alien and an encounter with a German soldier:
In the early 1990s I was a warden of the United Synagogue in St Albans and I was finding it difficult to reconcile my membership there with the exclusion of women from the services. Men and women were seated separately, and there was some pressure for a mechitzah – a screen – between us, which would have increased the division. The whole thing was against the zeitgeist at the time. Jenny and I were invited to Remy Strauss’s bar mitzvah, which was held at SAMS in its very early days. We knew people there, we enjoyed it
and we felt very comfortable, although at the time women didn’t lead the service. But that’s long gone. I’m much happier with the fully egalitarian service and I like the relaxed atmosphere.
One of my earliest memories is being on a bus in Sandridge during the Second World War. There was netting on the windows to prevent the glass from shattering during bombing, which may have been targeted at the aircraft hangars near St Albans. I can remember hearing the air raid warning siren, a frightening sound, and not knowing what would happen next. Usually nothing happened and a continuous siren signalled the all-clear. Some neighbours had an air raid shelter, but we never had to use one. I also recall being in my pushchair in Catherine Street – the local pronunciation is actually Catheryne – and going to Garden Fields School, which is now in Townsend Drive. I was a very studious little boy. Books are very important to me. During the war my parents gave me a beautifully presented book on the natural world which I still have.
Later I went to St Albans School, the oldest school in the country. It was formed in 948, but the actual foundation of the school was in 1553. When I started there it was a boarding school, but most pupils were day boys. There were around five hundred and twenty boys altogether, five or six were Jewish, and three of us were from St Albans. It was an inclusive school – the only time we knew there was any difference between us and the non-Jewish boys was when it came to religious services. Every morning the non-Protestant boys would be outside the service – the Jews, the Roman Catholics and the Plymouth Brethren. I am still involved with the school through the Masonic Lodge, which is open to all old boys and masters.
My maternal grandmother was born in 1875 in Cracow, which was then part of Austria. She came to live in England in the early twentieth century, but that didn’t stop her being classified as an enemy alien, so when war broke out she had to register. Her name was Fanny, but she didn’t like it and instead called herself Frances or Francesca. Her last name was Eichenbaum, which was translated as Oakes: all her sons called themselves Oakes. I was very close to her in the short time I knew her because she lived with us and used to tell me about the family. She had ten boys and three girls, the youngest a son called Len, the darling of them all. He wrote to his mother from France in 1940, under strict orders not to disclose his whereabouts. We know he went to India and Madagascar. It has been said that he was very briefly a prisoner of the Japanese and was apparently rescued by Gurkhas.
As a little boy I saw some German soldiers in St Albans. I was on my way to school one very snowy day during the bad winter just after the war. As a British boy, regardless of being Jewish, I was brought up to hate Germans because we were at war with Germany. Some prisoners of war were clearing the snow and one very young man wanted to smile at me, because I was a small boy, and I wanted to smile back, but I knew that I shouldn’t because he was German. I didn’t feel alarmed, just sorry that I couldn’t respond as I normally would because of the circumstances. I never knew about the Holocaust until after the war. I knew it had happened, but it wasn’t until the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961, which I followed very closely in the Daily Telegraph, that I read of the full horror.
Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 28 July 2015