Lore still writes every morning... at age of 90

AGED 90, Kindertransport survivor and author Lore Segal still devotes every morning to writing.

When I phoned her as arranged at 9am her time this week, she jokingly accused me of stopping her from writing.

By the age eight, in her native Vienna, Lore was already honing her skills as a future novelist.

“I never had a very successful relationship with my father,” she told me. “He was a rather elegant man.

“But my mother and my Uncle Paul were playful and funny, interested in what I was thinking and saying.”

She tried to induce her father, chief accountant in a bank, to describe his work setting.

She recounted: “I would sit on my father’s lap and ask him to tell me what it was like in a bank.

“I was asking the questions of a child who was going to be a novelist. I wanted to know what the bank looked like, who was sitting next to him, whether there were curtains on the windows — questions which would be useful in the future for a novelist.”

But her father, with whom she had a fraught relationship until his death just before the end of the Second World War, just replied that he had a desk and worked with numbers.

But when Hitler occupied Austria, it was her father who arranged for 10-year-old Lore to leave for England on the first Kindertransport in December, 1938.

And it could have been Lore’s literary talents which helped to get her parents visas to arrive in the UK before the outbreak of the war.

When Lore arrived in England, it was a freezing winter. But the literary youngster noticed a rose which had survived the winter snow.

Writing to the Refugee Committee on behalf of her parents, she described Austrian Jews as “roses left over in the winter of Nazi occupation”.

Her parents were granted visas as domestic servants in 1939.

Lore’s first foster home in the UK was with the Orthodox Cohen family, who lived in Fairfield Crescent, Liverpool.

Although coming from a more assimilated family, Lore had told the refugee committee she was Orthodox.

But she soon adapted and became more stringent in her observance than her host family, although, later staying with Evangelical Christians in southern England, she considered converting to Christianity.

Although she was able to conform to the religious rules, Lore’s behaviour in Liverpool did not sit well with her hosts, particularly with Mrs Cohen, who could not understand her at all.

That was not surprising, considering that, worried about her family back in Austria, she would spend most of her time “sitting in front of the fireplace with elbows on knees and trying to get her tears to come up just to the edge, but not letting them spill out”.

Lore told me: “That’s how I was most comfortable. I was with my own grief without crying, which would have brought the whole family around to feel sorry for me. I did not want that. I wanted to be entirely by myself.”

Unwilling to communicate meaningfully with her hosts and not understanding the Yiddish they spoke and which was also spoken at the Jewish school she attended in Liverpool, she would jot down her recollections of Nazism in a notebook.

Her account of the Kindertransport and her stay in England in a variety of different homes, was serialised in The New Yorker in the 1950s and later published as a best-selling autobiographical novel, Other People’s Houses, in 1964.

The book has now been reproduced by Sort of Books to mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport.

In the book, the real life Cohens become the Levys and daughter Ruth becomes Sarah, but the other details are pretty much accurate descriptions of Lore’s stay.

Lore later returned to Liverpool for a film which was made of her story.

She told me: “The filmmaker took me to the house in Fairfield Crescent. I was really thrilled.

“It looked totally different. It is now a kind of a lodging house. I went up to the top floor, which was my bedroom, and looked out over the garden and park right nearby. I walked down the stairs to the second floor and the first floor. It was really exciting.”

Lore remembers Mr Cohen as Uncle Sam but she can’t remember Mrs Cohen’s first name, nor the name of the Yiddish school she attended, nor the name of the shul she went to with Uncle Sam.

But she is still in touch with their daughter, Ruth, who is now in assisted living accommodation in a London nursing home, and with Ruth’s daughter, Shula.

When her parents arrived and were employed in the south of England, Lore was forced to move home several times.

She told me: “On the one hand, moving was horrendous, but on the other hand, I always thought that for a future novelist it was very interesting to live with middle-class Jewish Cohens, in Tunbridge, Kent, with a working class stoker and union man, with a milkman, and later with the very upper class Miss Ellis and Miss Wallis.”

Lore eventually ended up studying very badly for an English degree at Bedford College, London, as she was more interested in her own writing than in a prescribed course.

Her father, who had suffered from ill health for years, died before the end of the war.

After her grandfather became ill, her mother ended up joining the rest of her family in the Dominican Republic, where they had been granted visas.

But Lore, who had become a self-confessed Anglophile, was reluctant to leave Britain.

She said: “I always wanted to stay in England. I didn’t want to go to Dominican Republic or America, where we arrived in 1951. But in those days, one did what one’s mummy said.”

Lore is now busy writing From The Journal I Did Not Keep, in which she hopes to recount all the things she now remembers that she never found room for in any of her other books, like what it was like being a child during the war in England and how she seemed to be the only one at London University to appreciate Picasso’s modern art when it first arrived after the war.

She told me: “I am really good at being old because I was really no good at being young.”

As her youth was spent moving from place to place in strange and new surroundings, it is not surprising.

So what is Lore’s secret of old age success?

She told me: “To be continually fascinated by what’s happening all around you, whether good or bad, and by what you are thinking and then writing it down.”

Considering that her mother lived till 101, old age is also in her genes.

© 2018 Jewish Telegraph