Rising to Red Ken’s bait does us no favours

Published in the Sunday Times, 27 February 2005

For me it was the words. The physical act of having my first son, Jacob, circumcised had less impact, on me at any rate, than the words I uttered at the ceremony where it was done ? just eight days after his birth.

?Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who commands us to enter our sons into the covenant of our father, Abraham.? As I held him seconds afterwards, those were the words I spoke.

They kept coming back to me. What exactly was this covenant of Abraham into which I had enrolled Jacob? Was I handing him a gift or placing a burden on his tiny, infant shoulders? Those questions nagged away for many months, eventually prompting a search into the story of my own family, as I tried to work out what inheritance I was passing on to my child ? a search which has now culminated in a book, Jacob?s Gift.

Even before I started I knew my son would never be short of evidence suggesting Jewishness was more of a curse than a blessing. He will only have to learn elementary history to see that Jews have been singled out for hatred and oppression almost from the very beginning and for centuries thereafter. One day he will be able to flick open his schoolboy atlas almost anywhere, jab a random finger and find a place where Jews have been persecuted. And, of course, looming over it all will be perhaps the darkest event in human history: the Nazi murder of six million Jews.

This heavy legacy is real and cannot be ignored. It leads Jews who hear the phrase ?chosen people? to reply wryly, ?Chosen for what?? And yet I have become ever more determined that it not become the central fact of my son?s identity.

I don?t want him to believe that to be Jewish is to carry a mark that guarantees suffering and pain. I want him to see that it is, instead, a key to a wide, deep cultural store packed with ideas, humour, food, books, art, music, wisdom and much else. I want his identity to carry a positive, not negative, charge.

There are plenty of people whose Jewishness works the other way. These are the Jews who may never enter a synagogue, but will always make a bee-line for a Holocaust museum. They are the people who may never visit Israel, but are always on the lookout for a hint of media bias against the country. They may never see a Jewish play or read a Jewish novel, but they will be the first to detect a trace of anti-semitism.

There is some of this in the air right now, after what has been a curious few weeks for British Jews. A series of episodes have come together to make Jews wonder whether anti-semitism is enjoying an unwelcome revival.

First to stir anxiety were the proposed Labour party posters, one depicting Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as winged pigs, the other showing Howard as a hypnotist in what appeared to be a Fagin-style pose. Next came the clash between Ken Livingstone and a Jewish reporter for the London Evening Standard, whom the mayor likened to a concentration camp guard.

Gather any group of Jews together and you?ll soon hear them debating those items, one by one. The consensus is that the flying pigs ad was innocuous, but that the Fagin poster was ?dodgy? at the least and maybe much worse. It seemed to depict Howard in a caricature Jewish shrug and the watch-chain image, combined with the slogan about money, all struck a few too many uncomfortable chords.

As for Ken, he was clearly guilty of crassness. To analogise his own treatment at the hands of Associated Newspapers with Jewish suffering under the Nazis trivialises the Holocaust and demeans him. What?s more, the reporter told the mayor he was Jewish and was offended by his words but Ken went right on and compounded the offence.

That counts as insensitive behaviour ? but it does not amount to hatred of Jews. (Far worse, in my book, was Ken?s cosy hug with Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has justified suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, singling out female bombers for special praise.)

Nevertheless, and even if I took a harder line on the mayor?s conduct, I?m not sure I would want to let it dominate my every waking hour. For one thing, I don?t want Jews? history of pain to be the one thing the world knows about us.

So I understand why the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Zvi Hefetz, accuses Ken Livingstone of a ?gross insensitivity? that has shocked Jews and non-Jews around the globe ? but part of me wishes the ambassador had chosen to regard this as a local dispute, unworthy of the attentions of a foreign government.

The same goes for the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. He chose his words carefully, saying that Holocaust survivors had been ?deeply wounded? by the mayor?s remarks and that, even if that had not been the intention, the refusal to apologise was ?regrettable.? Nothing wrong in any of that, but again I wonder whether a scrap between a politician and a reporter merited the intervention of Anglo-Jewry?s most senior religious figure.

As it happens, both Hefetz and Sacks opine about a wide range of topics. But those remarks only rarely get reported. Instead, what the public hears is Britain?s Jewish leadership regularly, even constantly, expressing its vulnerability and hurt. After last month?s Auschwitz commemorations and the rows over Labour?s assorted antics this month, there is a risk that the Jewish place in the public mind becomes one forever marked ?victim.?

If that?s a bad external image, it?s also bad for our internal health. Too many Jewish parents tell their children they have to stay Jewish ? or marry Jewish partners ? because of the lengths their ancestors went through to survive. One eminent thinker called it the Eleventh Commandment: to stay Jewish in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory.

That?s no basis for an identity, to endure simply because we have endured, to stay Jewish to spite our enemies. No, Jews need to find better, more uplifting elements in their culture than listening out for warning signs from those who may dislike, or even hate, them.

That?s my job with Jacob and with my new son, Sam. I hope to teach them to learn from their past, even from its bleakest chapters and to be vigilant about anti-semitism in their own life-times: they should call it when they see it. But I also hope they see that their Jewishness is to be defined by them rather than their foes. And that they have inherited a legacy that includes several burdens ? but many, many gifts.

Did Michael fall out of his family tree?

Published in the Jewish Chronicle, February 25 2005

On the Internet only pornography is more popular. Consult the letters page of the JC and you?ll see someone at it almost every week. It?s become such a cult that major national institutions can barely cope with the demand.

I am speaking of course of the pastime of our time ? the search for family history. What was once a minority pursuit, has become a national obsession. Visit the Family Records Centre in Islington or the National Archives in Kew and you?ll find hordes of people digging deep into their own roots. Most of them will tell you the same thing: that no matter how ultimately rewarding, it is difficult, time-consuming work.

Unless you?re lucky enough to have good friends to help your search. Take Michael Howard, for example. He probably felt the urge to sketch out his family tree long ago, but when did he ever get the time? Life in Cabinet was demanding enough, but as leader of the opposition he barely gets a moment to himself. No doubt, he believed genealogy was one delight that would have to wait until his retirement.

Happily, a clutch of investigative journalists have come along to save Michael the effort. They have poked around in the records, including those at Kew, and found the key Howard family papers. Documents which might have taken weeks to find have been handed to him on a plate. We should all be so lucky!

Except ? and this can happen with uncovering the past ? he did not seem that pleased with the results. First he had to admit that his ?grandfather might have entered Britain unlawfully.? That was discomfiting for a politician who has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a centrepiece of his political programme.

Then last weekend, the Sunday Mirror made its own contribution to the Howard family tree project. It found papers which related not to his grandfather but his father, showing that the then Bernat Hecht had once been turned back from Britain as an illegal immigrant, too. More embarrassment, as the Conservative leader was confronted with the fact that if he were prime minister a man like his own father would be barred from these shores. In the words of the Sunday Mirror, ?The truth is, his own father was the kind of person Mr Howard claims is bleeding us dry and should be turned back at our borders. Shame on you, Mr Howard.?

It?s all pretty uncomfortable, not least the papers? suggestion that the Tory leader is failing to be open about his family history, holding back the truth. Yet one can see his problem. His own story does indeed stand at odds with his get-tough message for today. But he can hardly change that message: polls show asylum and immigration is one of the few areas where the Conservatives strike a popular chord. Most Britons like the Tory promise to stem the flow of newcomers into the country.

For all that, something tells me that that same British public would also warm to Mr Howard?s story, told frankly and directly. The Sunday Mirror described the young Hecht?s voyage to Britain as ?heroic?: he travelled ?by boat, packing only determination and a dream of a better life,? it wrote, clearly expecting the sympathy of its readers.

When Mr Howard gave his first conference speech as party leader last autumn, speaking candidly of his grandmother?s death in Auschwitz and his gratitude to Britain for giving his family a safe haven, he won widespread plaudits. Many consider it the best speech of his career. Indeed, of all the immigrant stories one can tell, the attempt of Jews to escape Hitler?s Europe in the 1930s is the one most likely to win the understanding of the British people.

Even immigrant tales which do not have that same, urgent context, tend to elicit sympathy when told in the human language of families rather than statistics. I have seen that already in the initial reaction to my new book, Jacob?s Gift, which tells the story of three members of my own family ? all of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants. People, even those with no history of movement of their own, have tended to respond with admiration for those who undertook such a great upheaval. They know that people do not immigrate easily or for fun. They usually do it when they are desperate to improve their lives.

Witness, too, the phenomenal success of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are, which followed celebrities as they probed their own roots. Several of those included migrant journeys, and each one carried the same implication: that the once-despised refugee had actually brought something positive to Britain, if only in the form of their successful or talented descendant.

No one embodies that case more powerfully than Michael Howard himself. Seventy years ago his father was one of those condemned as a sponger, parasite or alien: now his son is the nation?s alternative prime minister. Could there be a stronger argument for the dynamic, creative benefits immigration brings?

The trouble is, Michael Howard cannot bring himself to say that. To do so would be to embark on a long-term project to change attitudes. He is in the short term business of chasing votes for an election that is just weeks away. It is a pity though. If he told his own story, and drew its obvious lesson, he could change the politics of immigration forever. And that would be Michael?s gift.

Why Israel is part of me

Published in the Evening Standard, 21 February 2005

What?s been the big story of the last month? Charles and Camilla? Alastair and his Blackberry? Not for me. The news event that had my pulse racing was ? wait for it - the apparently successful peace summit in Sharm el-Sheikh between Israel?s Ariel Sharon and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

For most people that would count as inside-page stuff, foreign news about a faraway country of which we know little.

But I?m part of a community of people who feel differently. I?m a British Jew and, for as long as I can remember, what happens in Israel hasn?t felt foreign at all. I have a distinct memory of my family gathering around the TV set, the children hushed, to see the latest BBC despatch on the Yom Kippur war. I was six years old.

What explains this sense of attachment in me

A loyalty divided

Read an extract from Jonathan's new book-- Jacob's Gift - A Journey Into The Heart Of Belonging, as published in The Guardian . For more details, or to purchase a copy, visit the books section.

Here he recounts how his Uncle Nat longed to be both a good Jew and a good Englishman - and how those two ideals collided

The backdrop is brown, and so are their suits, their ties, their eyes, their hair. The sepia of the photograph makes everything look that way - everything, that is, but their pallid Russian skin and the starch stiffness of their collars. Those are white even now, a century later.

There are five of them in this photograph, handed to me by a favourite aunt perhaps 10 years ago. In our family these men are known simply as the Five Brothers, a phrase I like: it gives them the status of the Founding Fathers. That picture, mounted on a plain brown card, is my own Mount Rushmore.

There, on the far right, is Samuel. He was the eldest, the trailblazer, who left London, taking the ship to New York to seek his fortune. It's true: Uncle Sam went to America. There, too, is my great-grandfather, sitting in the centre. Barnet (born Berel), father of my father's mother, was a tailor who went from nothing, an immigrant who slept under the table in a sweatshop, to owning his own store. And next to him, leaning against the chair, is Louis (born Levi). Uncle Lou was always the oldest person I knew: he lived till he was 103, still leaping on to London buses into his 90s. But my eye does not usually linger on them, nor on the man seated next to Barnet, Uncle Simon.

Instead, I look at the brother standing between them. Perhaps it is the old-fashioned armless spectacles, apparently attached, like a PG Wodehouse monocle, to a chain. Perhaps it is the elegance of his Brylcreemed centre parting, the neatness of his wing collar and tie. Perhaps it is that he is the tallest, that his jacket is the only one not to betray a crease or that, thanks to those glasses, he seems the cleverest. It might be the hint of arrogance, even hauteur, in his lips, slightly pursed, that makes him look every bit the Edwardian English gentleman. Whatever it is, I find myself staring at Uncle Nat.

I never knew Nat - he was dead before I was born - but I knew some of his family; I stayed with them a few times, on teenage visits to Jerusalem. And I knew that Nat had served a British king and that he had been decorated for his trouble: he ended his life as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Nathan Isidore Mindel, OBE.

I never knew much more than that. I did not know of his lifelong search to find the place where he belonged. I did not know that his life had been dominated by the great upheavals of the 20th century, including the end of an empire and the birth of a nation. I did not know that he lived his life racked by a terrible dilemma, by a choice he never quite made.

He was born Menachem, though he was to shed that, along with fastidious religious observance, as soon as he left Dunilovich, the village near Vilna (in present-day Belarus) where he was born - and from where the Mindels, fearing a pogrom, had emigrated in 1902. In London, Menachem became Nathan. He set out to become a proper little Englishman, to leave behind his native Yiddish and master the English of Shakespeare and Jane Austen, the history of Agincourt and Trafalgar.

His success was rapid. In 1912, he became a naturalised British citizen, swearing an oath of loyalty to King George V. A few years later he was wearing the stripes and pips of an officer of the British army. But Nat never stopped being a fiercely proud Jew, a sentiment that led him to become an early Zionist - and set him on course for the conflict that would define his life.

In the beginning, Zionism was a theoretical matter for Nat, an ideological position. In 1917 that changed. Nathan Mindel discovered the Holy Land, and fell in love.

It was the first world war and he was serving with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Their patch extended north to cover Palestine, a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire when Nat had arrived but now the latest possession of the British crown. It was easy to make forays into Palestine and Nat went back again and again. He was bewitched, confessing to Sam Epstein, a pal from school days, "The Orient has captured me."

He was smitten with the actual, physical place: the dazzling sunlight, the cypress trees, the scorched hills. Palestine was no longer an idea to debate but a country to live in. This, Nat told his friends and family back home, was what he had been "dreaming of for a lifetime". He decided to stay, seeking work in the British administration that would govern the holy land.

His personal life was brightening too. Miriam Weinberg was the closest the old Yishuv - the Jewish community in Palestine - got to aristocracy. She was born in Jerusalem and could trace her family's presence in the city back eight generations, a rarity in a community of immigrants where 12 months' residence qualified you as a veteran. Both her parents were the fruit of rabbinic dynasties, scholars stretching back into history. Nat may have seen his Jewish heritage as a national, cultural business but he was enough of a snob to recognise pedigree when he saw it. And Miriam had more than Jewish lineage; she had Zionist credentials, too.

Here was a woman who shared his passion for Palestine: they could plan their future together. They had not been courting for long when they went for a stroll on Tel Aviv beach, gazing into the Mediterranean blue. He took his officer's cap off his head and placed it on hers. "You know, everything that is under my cap belongs to me," he said, by way of a proposal.

They were married in March 1921 and were rewarded with a child nine months later. They would call their honeymoon baby Yehuda Baruch, names rooted in the Hebrew words for "Jew" and "blessing". The child's British birth certificate, however, records him as Julius Benedict. Later Nat would explain to his son that he was doing him a favour: Nathan Isidore had been a handicap, it was so Jewish. His son would have both English and Jewish names: he would be free to choose.

Nat was making his dreams real. By the time he turned 30, he could look on his life with satisfaction. He was building the Jewish homeland by creating a new Jewish family and believed his work would allow him to achieve the same goal - all the while rising through the ranks of the British civil service. He was fulfilling the double ambition that animated him to the end: to be both a good Jew and a good Englishman.

His first job in the Palestine administration was in the department he would serve for more than a quarter of a century and where his two loyalties would eventually collide: the Department of Immigration. At the time Nat could not have been happier. The Zionist movement's prime objective was the creation of a Jewish majority in Palestine. That could only happen through mass Jewish immigration and Nat was stationed at the one post where he could help realise that goal.

If Nat had loyalty to two masters, he could comfort himself that they were at least allies not enemies: in those early years the British and Zionists were not quite as far apart as later Israeli mythology would suggest. Thanks to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the two shared the same horizon: they were both pursuing the creation of a "Jewish national home" in Palestine. They might disagree over pace, scale and details, but on ultimate goals they were broadly agreed. At least at first.

In 1929, the simmering tension between the Jewish and Arab populations of Palestine broke out in violent clashes and rioting in Jerusalem and Hebron. Acting high commissioner Harry Luke - whose Jewish father had been called Lukacs - gave the order to enlist and arm suitable administration officials as special constables. Among them were those British Jews who served in the administration - including Nat Mindel.

He was happy to do it. He knew what the Yishuv were saying, that the Jews could no longer rely on the British to defend them - they would have to do the job themselves. Here was his chance to do the job, but to do it as an Englishman. As he had in 1915, Nat joined up to serve King George. He was handed a rifle and given a refresher course in how to use it.

But Luke had not counted on the Arab reaction to his move. A deputation came to see him, incandescent at the notion of Jews being armed: for them, special constables such as Nat amounted to a British-sponsored militia. Under duress, Luke backed down and ordered that all Anglo-Jewish special constables be stood down. They were to be disarmed.

The Yishuv were stirred to cold fury. Luke was a traitor who would leave his own people defenceless in the face of a bloodthirsty enemy. They demanded his removal. It was no good, though; the decision had been taken. All Jewish deputies were to present themselves to their commanding officer to hand in their weapons. Among those standing in line was Nathan Mindel.

For more than a decade, he had listened to those, Jewish and Gentile alike, who said Jews like him could never truly serve the crown. In the salons of Jerusalem, he was ostracised by his fellow Brits because they never counted him as "one of us"; the credentials of his fellow Jews in the administration were constantly questioned back in London by those who thought "Hebraic blood" a disqualification. He had ignored them all.

But now Nat - the British patriot who had delighted in becoming first one of His Majesty's subjects, then one of His Majesty's officers and now one of his imperial servants - was being told that he could not be trusted with a weapon of self-defence, because of who he was.

He stepped forward and faced the commanding officer. He fixed him in the eye and, in a voice that had been stilled so long, let out a cry of rage. He held his rifle, gripping it at chest height with both hands, as if it were a rail. But he did not hand it over. His eye still locked on the officer, he raised the gun above his head and, with all his might, Nathan Isidore Mindel smashed it to the ground.

In that one gesture Nat had spoken for the countless Jews through the ages who had insisted they could be true to their ancient people and still be faithful to the countries they had come to and grown to love. That was the dream that drove Nat's life - and which would haunt him to his very last day. He wanted to keep a foot in both camps. He never wanted to choose to be this or that, a Jew or an Englishman. My great-great-uncle Nat yearned for something very modern: to be both.

The end of the affair

Read an extract from Jonathan's new book-- Jacob's Gift - A Journey Into The Heart Of Belonging, as published in The Guardian .

To many British Jews between the wars, haunted by poverty and fascism, communism seemed to hold the answer. In this exclusive extract from his new book exploring the dilemmas of Jewish identity, Jonathan Freedland tells the story of his great-uncle Mick's two doomed romances - with the party, and with his closest comrade

My great-uncle, Mick Mindel, was 19 when he fell in love. It was 1929, the year Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist party, contested a parliamentary byelection in Mick's backyard of Stepney, London. Communists descended on the streets where Mick played alleyway football, leafleting, hawking copies of the Daily Worker, advertising meeting after public meeting with the candidate. Curiosity led Mick to a Pollitt rally, and he was seduced.

The room vibrated with excitement. The communists in the hall were passionate, excited and, above all, young. They were people just like Mick: the children of immigrants, fluent in English rather than Yiddish, whose zeal to change the world would no longer be confined to the narrow interests of the Jews.

Pollitt was an inspiration. When the questions came, he had an answer to everything. Mick looked around the room. While his parents seemed shaped by the past, the samovar still on the table, here was a generation striding towards the future.

Before he knew it, Mick was drawn in. He joined the Young Communist League and suddenly he was on marches, or doing his shift selling the Daily Worker on the street corner, or door to door, to his neighbours in the Rothschild Buildings and on Flower and Dean Street. In the winter he would play football with a Communist XI; in summer it was country walks with the comrades. The more he did, the more he wanted to do; his comrades were fast becoming his best friends. But one above all.

The first Mick Mindel knew of Sara Wesker was her name. In 1926, she became, briefly, an East End celebrity; Mick was walking down Commercial Street when he saw the Daily Herald poster blasting the news: "Trouser workers strike for a farthing a pair." The all-female workforce at Goodman's factory had walked out, led by a young trouser machinist called Sara Wesker (whose nephew, Arnold, would go on to become one of Britain's leading playwrights).

Three years passed before Mick met her. They were both at that election rally for Pollitt, he a curious neophyte, she a seasoned militant. She immediately set to work on him, urging Mick to join her breakaway United Clothing Workers' Union, a "red" union tied to the Communist party, rather than the TUC.

She was hardly a natural draw for Mick. Less than five feet tall, she was arrestingly sallow: Mick thought she was ill. But she always looked that way; the Communist party grew so worried they once dispatched her to a Crimean spa in a bid to improve her health. The Soviet doctors could not find anything wrong. Pale and sickly was just the way Sara was.

But when she spoke, Mick felt his pulse race. She was a ferocious speaker, as if the energy of five men was balled up inside that miniature frame of hers. In their communist circle, she was a star - a natural agitator and organiser whom others could not help but follow. No wonder, thought Mick, the Goodman girls had marched behind her in 1926. And she was respected, even by the older generation. She not only understood Yiddish but, unlike Mick, spoke it fluently. She could talk to the old women in the sweatshops, and persuade them to talk to her.

When Mick met her, he was a lad of 19 and she an accomplished activist of 27. She became his teacher, allowing him to see the world through her eyes. Such an age gap was unheard of, in the East End as much as anywhere else. Nevertheless, Sara and Mick became a permanent fixture in the Rothschild Buildings. And eventually they became lovers.

Under her tutelage, Mick soon developed into a formidable speaker and organiser himself. When he made his formal political debut, seeking a place on the social committee of the United Ladies' Tailors' Trade Union, he breezed to victory.

Amalgamation - merging this Jewish union into the wider, national movement - was the question of the age. But it turned on a much larger question, one that had run through Jewish history for centuries and would haunt much of Mick's life: which came first, the needs of his own people or the universal cause of humankind? In the merger debate, Mick and the comrades were quick to go on the offensive, pushing their vision of the Jewish working-class future. In 1937, he stood for election as vice-chairman, and won. Before long Mick had cleared out the aged men above him and in 1938, he ran for the top job in the union. His manifesto could not have been clearer: "A vote for Mick Mindel is a vote for amalgamation."

The campaign was one long row. Tailors would argue the question for hours on end, their fellow workers putting down their lead irons or giant scissors to join in. It continued at homes, over borscht and gefilte fish, and on the porches and over the stairwells at Rothschild Buildings, neighbours clashing with neighbours.

Mick had an unofficial campaign committee, made up of his fellow communists. Among them, his most trusted adviser was his girlfriend, Sara. Her campaigning, addressing groups of older workers in their workshops and in their mother tongue, was tireless. But still Mick could not be sure - until the day of the ballot itself, when he and his opponent had to make their final pleas at a mass meeting, at Mile End public baths.

"It is 1938 and we face a dire threat," Mick declared. "The world is in flames, with the Nazis planning havoc in Europe. I have seen them with my own eyes, on my visits to Germany, and let me tell you, these people are deadly serious and they have a lethal hatred of Jews. Can we fight a threat like that alone? Three thousand of us, alone? We need allies, we need comrades, we need strength in numbers, and that means taking our rightful place in a national union!"

Mick had to battle through applause to get to the end of that sentence. He could feel the room coming his way. "And let me say something else about Jewish 'independence'. None of our parents or grandparents ever imagined independence to mean a ghetto of our own making. Our persecutors made us live like that and we escaped it. That's why we came here! We didn't want to live shut away from everyone else, but wanted to live alongside them. And don't we want that now? We want our children to belong in England, to get along in England. That's why we work so hard to make sure they know the language, or learn how to play football and cricket.

"Jewish? Yes, always. But part of this country too. And that begins with the union that represents us."

By the time he was back in his chair, Mick knew he had won. The room was in tumult, clanging with feet-stamping applause. Soon he was joined by his immediate supporters, Sara planting a firm, insistent kiss on his lips. When the result came, it broke all records. He had won 93% of the vote.

A year later, in the summer of 1939, Mick, who still worked as a cutter, was returning to the home he now shared with Sara and her family after a 12-hour shift. As he turned his front door key, he heard the wireless, louder than usual. He called to Sara, but heard no reply. The moment he was out of the tiny hallway, he could see why. Sara was huddling by the wireless, her ear next to it even though the voice was loud and clear. She did not look up; her eyes were frozen. Her face, always sallow, was now a deathly white.

The room was filled by the voice of the BBC: " ... standing under a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, Foreign Minister Molotov signed the pact in Moscow on behalf of the Soviet Union, while Germany was represented by Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop. General Secretary Stalin looked on ... "

Sara had her head in her hands, moving it from side to side. She began letting out a low noise, a sound Mick had never heard from her before. It was part wail, part growl - an animal wounded and angry.

"The text of the non-aggression pact between the two governments is as follows: desirous of strengthening the cause of peace between Germany and the USSR ... " Mick felt dizzy. He was sweating, he needed to sit down, he needed to drink water, he needed to think. There was obviously some mistake, some terrible act of deception designed to break the will of communism. Perhaps there had been a coup and the BBC was broadcasting propaganda.

Mick put his hand on Sara's shoulder and she at last raised her face. Her eyes were red raw, her cheeks wet; she seemed to be trembling. They stayed there, Sara still holding the wireless, Mick standing at her side, gripping her shoulders for what seemed like hours. Mick's mind was racing as he tried to explain what he was hearing. What elaborate trick was this that could pretend the Soviet Union, the beacon of world communism, would make common cause with its sworn enemy? Communism was to be fascism's slayer, not its accomplice.

That evening Mick and Sara's flat became a shiva house, a house of mourning. Comrades from all over Stepney would knock on the door, shuffle in and stare at their feet. Few could even speak. Occasionally someone might offer a piece of amateur analysis: "Now Hitler's got what he wants. He knows now he won't have to go to war on two fronts. He has closed down the eastern front." "Maybe it's a ploy?" But no one was in much of a mood for debate. They wanted just to share the shock with others.

Morning came and it was no lie. Mick saw the Daily Worker and felt his stomach turn. "Soviet Union and Germany Sign Pact," read the headline. The pact was real and, worse, the British Communist party had not spoken out against it.

On the first Saturday afternoon after news of the pact broke, a meeting was convened at party headquarters on King Street in Covent Garden. Mick and Sara were in the front row. The first to speak was Palme Dutt, executive committee member and editor of the party journal, Labour Monthly. A Swedish Indian by background, he commanded enormous intellectual respect, wearing the proud Marxist tag "theoretician". He was one of the very few British party members to count as a substantial figure in world communism.

Moscow had made its decision, Dutt began. It had made it not only as the representative of the proletariat of the Soviet Union but in the best interests of the international working class. Those distant from the decision were in no position to criticise it since they were not fully apprised of the facts and could not reach the objective, scientific conclusions of the leadership.

Next came Pollitt, general secretary and a personal hero to the young couple in the front row. He spoke for everyone who had huddled together in Sara and Mick's flat that day, articulating the shock they had all felt when they heard the news. He said he could not defend an accommodation with the Nazis. It was at odds with everything that communism stood for.

Suddenly, Dutt was interrupting Pollitt, denouncing the general secretary. His crime had been to disagree with him and therefore with Moscow. Pollitt was now shouting back from the lectern, but Dutt was bellowing just as loudly and gesticulating. Everyone was too stunned to do anything.

Mick wanted to cheer Pollitt, but he and everyone else in the room stayed strangely quiet. Mick even kept silent when the central committee lined up behind Dutt and voted to punish the general secretary for a violation of party discipline, suspending him from his post.

Mick looked around and, almost for the first time in the Communist party, he felt lonely. Why were all these people apparently able to make a pact with the gangsters of Nazism when he could not? Surely the crucial difference could not be that he felt differently because he was a Jew?

***

Before the war, union business had taken Mick to the Stoke Newington clothing shop B Mindel & Co. He had made the Dunilovich connection - realising they hailed from the same shtetl, the same tiny hamlet in what is now Belarus - with the owner, Barnet Mindel, working out that they must be cousins of some remove or other from the old country. How strange that they should be reunited here, in London!

Years later Mick was doing his rounds, visiting factories, wholesalers and retailers, when he called in at Goldstein's on Alie Street. As soon as he introduced himself, several of the workers there had the same thought. "You must come and meet Sylvia. She's a Mindel too!" They surprised everyone by insisting that they had not met before, though it did not take long for Mick to make the connection with Barnet Mindel of Stoke Newington.

"That's my father!" exclaimed Sylvia, her eyes bright. But Mick was not really listening. Instead he was taking a good look at this tall, thin, sparkling woman. Sylvia was an officer in the Girls' Training Corps and she was wearing her army uniform. She filled the room with her talk, charming everyone who came by the shop.

They all seemed to be in love with Sylvia and it was only a matter of time before Mick fell into line. All the determination he had once deployed to transform the United Ladies' Tailors' Trade Union he now concentrated on winning Sylvia's hand. When she was 30 and he nearly 35, she finally relented. In 1944, Mindel married Mindel and the two branches of the family, sundered by time and geography, were reunited not in Dunilovich but in Stoke Newington, north London.

The way Sara Wesker's family tell it, the first she knew of this new romance was when she visited communist headquarters on King Street. "I hear Mick's getting married," the party's industrial organiser, Peter Kerrigan, said, by way of small talk. He assumed that Mick and Sara had broken up a while ago. But then he saw Sara blanch, wheel round and head for home. Her niece, Della, found her there, sobbing in the scullery, her arm on the mantelpiece. "The bastard never even told me," she was saying again and again.

Sara never got over Mick, never fell in love again and never married. Thereafter she devoted all her energies to the causes that had brought them together, the union and the Communist party. They became her life.

The party did not fully forgive Mick either. The comrades loved Sara and resented his mistreatment of her. Worse, he had discarded her for a "mantle maker's daughter", a member of the Jewish bourgeoisie! Communists regarded this the way their orthodox parents would have seen a church wedding: Mick had married out.

The Weskers had their own theories. One imagined that Mick's mother had vetoed Sara on the grounds that she was too sickly to make a wife or future mother. Others would wonder if Mick, who had lived in Rothschild Buildings with both Sara's parents and her sister Ann, had feared the burden of providing for her family. Either way, the Weskers would speak for generations of Mick Mindel and his "terrible betrayal".

Sara herself was more forgiving. After a long hiatus, she became friends again with Mick. He would come to see her most weekends, often bringing his only child, Ruth. Sara looked forward to those visits and Mick did too. The bond between them had been too strong to break completely. Even Sara's sisters eventually allowed Mick to be woven back into the Wesker family fabric.

When Sara died of a stroke in 1971, Mick spoke at her funeral. He broke down as he addressed her coffin: "I always loved you, Sara, and I always will."

Sara’s legacy

Read extracts of the new book-- Jacob's Gift - A Journey Into The Heart Of Belonging, as published in the Guardian.

With the birth of his first son, Jonathan Freedland felt the weight of the identity he was passing on. Was his Jewishness a blessing or a burden? To understand he delved deeper into his own family history, beginning with his mother's story.

Jacob was, if anything, too eager to see the world. In his rush to gaze upon all that life promised, he looked upward, his face aimed at the stars.

At least, that's how I like to think of it. The doctors called it "presenting the brow": instead of tucking his chin on his chest, curling himself into the right shape for a smooth journey out, Jacob was trying to lead with his forehead. He pushed and pushed like that for 24 hours, his brow bashing up against his intended escape hatch. Eventually, the doctors ruled that our baby would have to leave by a more direct route.

So Jacob was born in an operating theatre, pulled from the tummy of his sleepy, elated mother like a rabbit from a conjuror's hat. I gasped at the sight. Jacob's skin was clay grey, as if he had just been moulded, straight from the potter's wheel. Grey all over, but for one splash of colour. His mouth was plump and red.

"We have a beautiful little boy!" I said, breathless with joy and relief. Flat out, all Sarah could see was the screen installed to block her view of the operation. The "beautiful" was my way of telling Sarah that, at first glance, everything was OK. As my mother would say, "10 fingers, 10 toes".

With Sarah still prone and sedated, the nurses handed Jacob to me. After nearly 72 hours in the hospital, with next to no sleep and several midnight medical scares along the way, I was a wreck. I held this beloved stranger with the gentle nervousness of new fathers everywhere - all elbows and shoulders.

And then I heard a string of words I had not expected. They sounded strange in this antiseptic, stainless-steel place where everyone, including me, was clad only in surgeon-green scrubs. But here they were: Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, she'hechiyanu v'kiymanu v'higianu, lazman hazeh. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.

It was the prayer Jews utter in thanks for something new and wonderful, and the voice saying it was my own.

Read further extracts from Jacob's Gift in G2 on Monday and Tuesday next week and on this site.

A week later and Jacob was home. Then - early in the morning, as tradition demands - Sarah and I, our parents and siblings, crammed into our London living room with Alan, a doctor during office hours and, in his spare time, a mohel - the circumciser.

Perhaps all new parents ask themselves this question: what exactly am I going to pass on to my child? We might give them our looks; perhaps a personality trait or two. We certainly give them a name. If we teach them a certain way, we might endow them with a set of values. Even if we do not plan it, our behaviour and actions will certainly affect them for life.

But this was about an influence greater even than the shaping of a personality. The morning of Jacob's circumcision - where I had enrolled him in the "covenant of Abraham" - I had seen it: I was bequeathing him an identity.

All parents do it, consciously or unconsciously. The very moment a child is born, he is enrolled in several groups, whether he likes it or not. His family is one; his place of birth dictates another. Born in Britain, France or America, a key part of his identity for life is already decided: he will be British, French or American.

Though this is universally true, my own case seemed to have a particular edge. For, by the ceremony of the brit milah, the circumcision, and Jacob's naming, I had formally inducted our son into the Jewish people, one of the two or three oldest civilizations in the world.

A person is a Jew if he or she has a Jewish mother, making Judaism, in the words of the scientist Steve Jones, "the most genetic of all religions", but genes cannot tell the whole story. Jewish teaching brands us a holy nation, a kingdom of priests whose mission is to serve as a light to the nations. We tell ourselves we are God's chosen people - but chosen for what exactly?

We are tiny nation - just 13 million scattered across the planet, a speck in a global population of 6 billion and counting. What did it mean to make my son a part of a minnow people that had somehow produced some of the defining figures of human history, from Moses to Jesus, Marx to Einstein and Freud?

Nor was this burden solely a matter of the past. By entering Jacob into this covenant, I was enlisting him into a current conflict - one of the world's bitterest. Strictly speaking, the battle between Israel and its neighbours should have nothing to do with Jacob - born in London, like his parents; a British citizen, like his parents. But it will.

Jacob was also being given a mark that had often brought suffering and pain upon those who carried it. Jews had been singled out for oppression from the very beginning. What kind of inheritance was this to give a child? To make him one of the despised, a victim-in-waiting for what one historian calls "the longest hatred"?

If I were ever to understand what I was giving Jacob - whether it was a blessing or a curse - I would have to look deep into the immediate, intimate clan he had joined that day. He was part of the Jewish people because he was part of a Jewish family. The two could not be separated. For me to understand what I was passing on to my son, I needed to know what I had received from my own forebears. I needed to know their story. I began, as we all do, with my mother.

Sara Hocherman was born on November 1 1936 in Petach Tikva, a small town outside Tel Aviv in what was then British-ruled Palestine. She was two months premature, weighing just three pounds. The doctors were not hopeful. "Her life is hanging by a thread," they told the child's parents. The couple prayed hard. They were people of faith, their lives punctuated and ordered by the stipulations and timetables of religious observance.

Feige, the young mother, was unusual because she came not from Russia or Poland or even Germany, which had delivered the Yishuv - the Jewish community in Palestine - the bulk of its population. Instead, she had made the journey from one of those countries whose Jews the Zionist ideologues coveted most. The true believers yearned for migrants who would come to Palestine not out of necessity, to escape persecution or destitution, but out of principle. They wanted volunteers from western Europe and the US, Jews from affluent, educated communities, who would enrich the new Zion rather than cling to it like a life raft.

My mother's mother did not come from America but the next best thing. Feige was from Britain. She differed from the rest of the Yishuv in another way, too. She had made aliyah once already: in 1926, her father, a milkman based in Old Church Yard in the East End of London, had packed up his barrow, cashed in his savings and moved his entire family to the Holy Land. Ever since he had arrived in London in the last years of the 19th century as an immigrant from a shtetl near Bialystock in Poland, he had made weekly contributions to a Zionist company that encouraged diaspora Jews to buy land in Palestine. He was not a wealthy man, but he was careful, and by 1926 he had become the owner of 112 dunams (about 28 acres) of land in Karkur, near what is now the modern Israeli town of Hadera.

He began his journey to Palestine full of dreams; he imagined himself the owner of an estate, lush, rolling countryside that would burst with the Lord's fruit. What he found was a swamp buzzing with malaria. He and his wife and their three sons and five daughters, along with his own mother and father, stuck it out for less than a year. The struggle was too much. They headed back to London, defeated.

Feige's mother, whose health was poor, did not have the strength for Palestine or the stormy crossing back across the Mediterranean. Not long after their return to Britain, she was dead. Two years later, her husband himself took ill. "It's minor," the doctors said. But he surprised them by refusing to get better. "He lost the will to live," they would say later. With his wife and his dream of Zion taken from him, he saw no reason to go on.

If Feige was a novelty in the Yishuv, her husband Avraham, my mother's father, was just as exceptional. While most of the Jews of Palestine were newcomers, he was virtually a native, brought up since infancy in Petach Tikva. It was his father who had been the immigrant. Yehuda Ze'ev Hocherman had come to Palestine in the 1920s, a pioneer. He was not one of the avowedly secular eastern Europeans who came to Palestine in those early days to build a socialist paradise. Instead, he heard the call of God. He was that rare species in the Jewish world of the time, a religious Zionist.

Of Yehuda's sons, Avraham was the one most like him, intellectually at least. He, too, was a natural scholar, with a knack for language that made the holy texts open up to him readily. He relished the fine, hair-splitting disputes contained within each sentence of the Talmud, within each word, often turning on a single letter. He would sit from dawn till night in the yeshiva, the religious academy. Avraham was noticed. The elders of his Gerer sect of Hassidim marked him out as a man of potential. In 1932, the sect's leader, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, appointed Avraham as an emissary. Aged just 20, he would venture into the diaspora, give weekly synagogue talks in authentic Torah Judaism to those starved of the word of Ger. He would go to London.

The East End was the obvious destination: more than 100,000 Jews were there, crammed into a few streets. On Friday night there would always be someone to invite him back for dinner. Which is how he came to be sitting across the table from young Feige Bitensky. She had many brothers and sisters, but she was the one he noticed.

The attraction was instant and mutual. Avraham sat at the Bitensky dining table, directing his charm, like a beam of light, at Feige. "You would have a wonderful life in Palestine, I guarantee it," he said. "You could wake each morning to blue skies and the sound of waves crashing on the beach. The earth is fertile and the divine promise is being fulfilled: this truly is a land flowing with milk and honey. It is a new life we are creating in our ancient land.

"And, Feige, I have big plans for the future. My brothers are builders and we will build a big house, large enough to house even the largest family."

He seemed so certain, Feige felt he must be right. Why not live in the Promised Land, alongside this man?

And so, for the second time, she set off on the voyage to Palestine. Avraham Hocherman had seduced her. He returned from his three-month sojourn in London having delivered at least one new immigrant to Palestine: his own bride. The couple, both aged 21, married in August 1933.

But Petach Tikva was not quite what Feige was expecting. True, the place was not the swamp her family had had to abandon six years earlier. But Avraham had built a castle in her mind and this was no castle. It looked more like a hutch than a house. Just three rooms, with a steel roof, low-lying and dirty, on the town's main thoroughfare, Ahad Ha'am Street.

Still, she had coped with dirt and hardship before. Back in London, she had had to fill the gap left by her parents, cooking, cleaning and keeping house. The trouble was, she and her new husband did not have the place to themselves. They had to share it with his entire family. In one corner, his father, distant and mostly silent. On the divan, her new mother-in-law, sighing at some new ache or pain. And, all around, her husband's brothers and one younger sister.

Feige was still finding her feet in this new land, and new home, when she realised she was pregnant. They had a boy, curly-haired, a ball of energy. They called him Yisrael Mordechai, in memory of her late father, the thwarted Zionist pioneer. The family would always know him as Yisrolic, or Srollik for short. Feige tried to do her best for him, but she did not know where to start in this shoebox of a house. It was all new to her: feeding the baby, coping in the Palestine heat, tending to a family not her own, surrounded by a language she did not understand. And then, when Srollik was three months old, she became pregnant again. Soon, she had a daughter, a dark, pretty little thing they named Ronni, after Feige's late mother, Ronya. Feige could contain herself no longer. "I can't breathe in this house," she sobbed to her husband. "You have to do something."

So they moved into a place of their own. It was only one room, but it was theirs. Feige believed she had turned a corner; things were looking up.

Avraham would go out every day but, Feige noticed, only rarely would he return with money. Feige soon realised the problem: he found physical work demeaning; it was beneath a man of his talents. He would work for a day or two, bring home a few coins, and then spend the rest of the week in his real home: the yeshiva, the talmudic academy. She could not work out this man she had married. Was he a dreamer, happier to lose himself in his books than deal with real life? Was he just lazy? Did he not care for her or their young family.

Money was so scarce, there was barely enough to buy food for the children. Yisrolic would tug at her skirt, Ronni would bleat: they were hungry. In the middle of it all, Feige fell pregnant yet again, the third time in two and a half years. She was desperate. Avraham was not the protector she had imagined those Sabbath nights back in the East End, when he had bewitched her with his talk. He did not even provide for his family. It was into this world that my mother, Sara, was born.

One night, as Feige mashed a few potatoes for the children's supper, she found herself consumed with rage. Where was her husband? She scooped up the three children, six-month-old Sara tucked under her arm, and strode over to his parents' home. She hardly ever went there, but now she marched through the Petach Tikva streets, rehearsing her lines all the way to Ahad Ha'am Street. "Mr Hocherman, you have to speak to your son!" she would begin. "You must instruct him in the ways of a good Jewish man! You must remind him of the solemn contract he signed on our wedding day. He has broken his vow. He is letting his children go hungry."

She knocked on the door and waited. The door finally peeled back. It was her brother-in-law, Menachem. Feige suddenly felt ashamed; but then she caught something in Menachem's face. He was looking down at his feet - and she realised he felt the shame, too.

Sat at the sparse wooden table was Avraham, his father next to him and his sister, Tova, serving them. In front of them were plates of food. Nothing special, perhaps a piece of carp and a slice of bread, but it was food.

Feige felt her lungs collapse. This was worse than any adultery. To catch her husband like this, his eyes wide with guilt, made the oxygen stop in her throat. He had run back to his parents' house to put food in his own belly while his children grew thinner by the day. In that moment she hated him so much she could not bear to see his face.

Feige's loneliness was broken by just one person. Her eldest sister, Annie, had also made the journey to Palestine: her father had arranged a marriage for her. Her contact with Feige was sporadic, but eventually she made a visit. Annie was shocked by what she saw. It was not the sparseness of her sister's home, though that was striking even by Depression standards. It was the children. They looked pale and sick, Ronni especially.

Annie held Feige's wrists and demanded to know, "What on earth is going on here? What has happened to you?" Feige tried not to tell; she was sure her religious duty was to keep quiet, not to defame the name of her husband. But the tears spoke for her.

Annie left Petach Tikva gripped by sadness. That night, she wrote to their brothers and sisters in London. The letter was addressed to Benny, the next eldest after her. "They are starving," she wrote, "literally starving. I don't know what will happen if we don't do something."

By the time the letter had been circulated around the family in the East End, it was too late. Ronni Hocherman, not yet two years old, was dead. She left no mark behind; there are no photographs or mementoes of her brief life. No one is sure where she is buried, or even what final illness killed her.

Through all this, Feige never once asked for help from her family back home. Perhaps she was too proud, or too ashamed. But Annie had no such inhibitions and now the Bitenskys acted. They had no money of their own - as my mother would put it years later, "They had tuppence ha'penny. They just about had a chair to sit on" - but they had a whip-round and somehow scraped together a small amount of cash.

Benny sent a money order to his sister and a letter: "This money can only be used for one purpose," he wrote. "My dear Feige, you must go to the shipping agent right away and buy tickets for the passage to London for you and your children. If you use the money for anything else, then I have to warn you there will be nothing any of us can do. There is no more money. Please, Feige, I am begging you ..."

Feige read the letter over and over again. She wanted so desperately to leave, to be in a place where her children would not starve. She wanted to have her family close by. And yet she was a Jewish woman, raised in the traditions of piety and duty. Such women did not leave their husbands.

Avraham was outraged when he discovered her intention to go home. She belonged with him, he insisted. "It is a crime to leave Eretz Yisroel and you will be punished. You must stay."

She worried away at the dilemma for days. But she had only to look at Sara, such a skinny, weak child, to know what to do. Or remember Ronni. For their sake she would have to leave. And so, one sweltering day, Feige, Srollik and Sara packed their bags and headed for the port of Jaffa to begin the long, arduous journey back to London.

They arrived in a country on the eve of war and yet Feige felt like a refugee who had crossed the border to safety. At last, she could feed Srollik and Sara properly; at last, she was in a place she understood, surrounded by people she loved. But lodging with relatives in Hackney could be only a temporary haven. The outbreak of war in 1939 meant she would have to get the children out of London and into the countryside.

For a while, Feige and the two children lived in the Hertfordshire village of Wheathampstead. They rented a workman's cottage by the River Lea, the children went to school and Feige worked in a local factory making batteries. Sara was happy there. But Benny, de facto head of the Bitensky clan, persuaded Feige that it was not right for the children to grow up in this place, as the only Jewish family, with none of their relatives around them. Life would be better for them in London; reluctantly, she agreed. Shortly after their return, they found a flat to rent in Hughes Mansions on Vallance Road.

The evenings in Hughes Mansion were fun; it was the nights Sara could not stand. First would come the noise, the droning moan of the air-raid siren. Next would come the hand on the shoulder, her mother shaking her awake. Still dozy, clutching her sheets and blankets, they would head for the cold stairwell. Down they would go, her mother shouting for Srollik to hurry up. He would be watching the dogfights, planes diving and looping, their engines whining, each hurling fire at the other. Sara would blink at the sight of the flames. She was desperate to get away, tugging at her mother's sleeve. "Let's go."

She would be heading down the stairwell, her mother still shouting for Srollik to catch up, and each time they reached another landing, the little girl would glimpse more burning. There were flames wherever she looked. The whole world seemed to be on fire.

There were a few public shelters nearby, several of them in warehouse basements. Sara found these almost as much of an ordeal as the raids themselves. All those unknown, bleary faces huddled in the dark: old men shrouded in blankets, mothers cradling wailing babies - it was a scene from one of those witches and ghouls fairytales she found so terrifying. She shivered against her mother's chest, begging her to make it stop and take her back to bed.

But the air raids were nightly and Sara would stay awake waiting for the siren, twitchy as an alleycat. Then she would be exhausted the next day; Feige would see the charcoal lines under her eyes. She faced what was now a familiar dilemma: she hated to uproot her children yet again, but how could she keep them here?

A solution presented itself when Feige secured places for her children at Avigdor High School, formerly of Stoke Newington in Hackney but now relocated to the Bedfordshire village of Shefford.

Plenty of children became evacuees. It was rarer for an entire school to move itself out of the city and start again in the countryside. And this was no ordinary school. Avigdor was the fiefdom of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who inherited it from his father, its founder. As early as 1938, he had understood the mortal danger confronting the Jews of Europe and had turned himself into a one-man rescue agency. He crossed again and again to the continent, plucking out as many Jewish children as he could. He cut through bureaucracy, soothed diplomatic niceties, arranged transport - anything it took to pull young Jews from the fire he knew was about to engulf them. In one transport alone, in November 1938, he led 200 children from Austria to England. The parents themselves took their young to the Vienna railway station, promising they would see each other again soon, urging their kids to write often, not to crush the biscuits in their bag and to wrap up warm against the cold. They could not come, too, since Britain's hospitality was extended only to these kindertransport. So Schonfeld became known as the Pied Piper; and those who anticipated the coming catastrophe saw his school as a Noah's Ark.

A troop of 500 orthodox Jewish schoolchildren arrived among the white-painted cottages and green shutters, rectories, pubs and bowling greens of Shefford. More than half of them, thanks to Schonfeld, were foreigners, some with only a word or two of English. The newcomers gathered in the market square, where they were to be divided up and allocated to foster families. "I would like to have four little girls," said a Mrs Mitchell, getting proceedings under way. Others took six or one or three. The rector's wife set an example by volunteering for one of the least popular job lots: seven boys, all teenagers. Mr Taylor set a record by taking eight children, aged from seven to 17, all from one family.

By the time Sara and Srollik arrived in 1942, this island of Jewish orthodoxy was well established - which did not stop Shefford feeling strange to Sara. She liked the countryside - it reminded her of Wheathampstead - but she was seven years old, away from her mother for the first time, and she was anxious. Once again she and Srollick were to be separated. He was dispatched to a hostel full of boys. She was to go to 24 Clifton Street, across the river in the next village. She was to lodge with a Miss Slater, who shared the cottage with her sister, and soon came to dote on Sara.

For Sara it was a new world to negotiate, full of new things to be scared of. At seven o'clock each morning she would have to walk herself to school. The walk was fine in spring or summer; Sara quite liked it, swinging her satchel, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of birds and insects. In winter the same lane looked quite different. The trees now struck Sara as looming, baleful monsters, their bare branches gnarled, clawing arms. So Sara would close her eyes and run for it.

Once at school, the little girl was a free agent. For this was secondary school and she was too young for even the youngest class. So Sara was allowed to wander from lesson to lesson. She became well-known in the school - a kind of mascot who would either be drawing in a corner or else trailing after the school secretary on an errand.

But it was not easy to be the smallest child in the school. Each pupil had a government-issue ration book. The teachers took everything save the E-coupon, the one that entitled children to buy sweets. It was a treat. For Sara, though, every week it was the same story. The coupons would be handed out and within seconds the older kids would snatch hers clean out of her hands.

Still, there were times she was glad the older lads were around. Whatever peace adult Shefford had made with its alien guests, young Shefford was not always so sure. Friday nights were often the hardest. As the Avigdor kids trooped out of school, a crowd of the local toughs would be waiting for them in gangs. At first it was just chanting - "Hey, Jewboy", that kind of thing. Then it was attempts to grab the caps off the boys' heads. Before long, there was shoving and worse. All the children were scared, but a girl as young as Sara was terrified. The attackers seemed to be like monster-children, perhaps sent as a spell by the evil, swaying winter trees.

The greatest joy in Sara's life came from the visits of her mother. For reasons the little girl did not understand, Feige could visit only once a month. Sara would wait on a Sunday by the bus stop, willing the vehicle in the distance just coming over the hill now to be her mother's bus.

Miss Slater would always beg Feige to stay. She enjoyed young adult company in the house and knew how much it meant to Sara. Very occasionally, Feige would put aside her other family obligations back in the East End and say yes. To her daughter, this was the greatest bliss life had to offer, sharing her room with her mummy. "Oooh, now this is a mechayer," Feige would say at intervals throughout the night, deploying the Yiddish word reserved for physical pleasure, especially relief. In London she was used to sharing her bed with one of her adult sisters, and the beds were never as comfortable as this one; nor did they look out over lawns, hedges and flowers. Once the war was over, Feige thought, maybe she and the kids would live somewhere like this.

By the spring of 1945, plenty of people were thinking that way, looking ahead to life after wartime. The staff of the Avigdor High School were beginning to wind down, believing that the end of their Bedfordshire sojourn was approaching. The immediate focus was on Pesach, the sixth time the school would spend the Passover festival in Shefford.

The Hocherman children's plan was to be back home at Hughes Mansions for the seder, the first-night meal that launches Passover. The whole family would be there and with the air raids all but stopped, it was safer to return. But on post day came bad news. It was a letter addressed to Srollik, from his mother:

My darling children, I know how much you have been looking forward to spending Pesach here, and I have been too. But I really think it's for the best if you stay at school, just until everything is all sorted out. You enjoyed the sederim there last year, and I'm sure they will be just as nice this year. Don't be too disappointed. To make up for it, I'll come and see you on Sunday and we can have a lovely day together then.

Looking forward to that very much, and remember, eat well and, Srollik, be polite and do as your teachers tell you!

All my love,

Mummy.

Feige felt guilty about that letter. Maybe she was being over-cautious. Everyone knew the war was nearly over; the air raids seemed to be a thing of the past. That was certainly the mood as Vallance Road readied itself for Pesach, the season of liberation and renewal. People were coming home, either from the countryside where they had been evacuees or from the front. The East End was in festive mood, as if impatient to throw off the gloom of the previous five and a half years.

There was only one disquieting note. Yiddi, Feige's pious older sister, kept telling her of an odd dream. She had found herself suddenly sitting bolt upright in bed, shouting, "Feige! Get away from the window!"

Otherwise, Hughes Mansions was buzzing with preparations for Pesach. Everything had to be ready in time for the first seder, on Wednesday. She wished her children could be there for it. As she fell into an exhausted sleep, she realised it had now been years since she had heard her little Sara ask the Four Questions, beginning Ma nishtana ha'lila hazeh? Why is this night different from all other nights?

It was probably around that time, as Feige and her sister Rivvy lay sleeping in the flat in Hughes Mansions, Rivvy closest to the window, that the V2 launch team came on to the dawn shift at their base near the Hague. Their daily task was to fire what Joseph Goebbels and his propaganda ministry had insisted on calling the Vergeltungswaffe 2, the reprisal weapon 2.

The V2 was the fruit of nearly two decades' research by Germany's finest scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, and its transition from wild-eyed scheme to operational weapon was a source of great Nazi pride.

By March 1945, the rocket had been in active service for the best part of six months, pummelling cities in Belgium and liberated France. Antwerp had taken severe punishment and so had London. The team on duty this early morning, March 27, would have checked the logbook and seen the tally. This would be attack No 1358 on the capital. The launch process was now fairly streamlined. And once fuelled and fired, the missile raced through the air, higher than any plane and faster than the speed of sound. No wonder the Germans loved it: it was silent where traditional bombers were noisy. Its predecessor, the V1 flying bomb, announced its arrival with a characteristic buzzing sound. The V2 gave no warning before impact. There was no chance of defence.

So Feige and Rivvy would have heard no air-raid siren and, their family hoped, they would have had no moment of panic as they tried to hide under the bed, cower under a table or find some other feeble shelter from the plume of lead and fire that would descend upon Hughes Mansions at 7.21am precisely.

Yiddi heard a distant thud while loading the shelves in the grocer's shop she ran with her husband, but thought nothing of it. But then word reached her: they had struck Vallance Road. She ran, bleating a kind of involuntary moan that sounded with each step. There were crowds, and instantly she was asking friends, "Has anybody seen Feige? Has anybody seen Rivvy?" And, to strangers, "Has anybody seen two young ladies?"

She thought she would find them; there were so many people there. She saw a coat and hat and shoulders that looked like Feige's and she called out, but it was not her. She found herself remembering what Feige had once asked Yiddi's husband, Max: "What will happen to my children if something happens to me?" And Max had said, "We won't all be killed together. If you won't be here, we will be here, or you'll be here and we won't be here."

She suddenly pictured Srollik and Sara and immediately screwed her eyes shut to push such nonsense out of her mind. She had to find them, had to keep on shoving her way through the throng. They would probably be just around this corner, helping the wounded. That would be typical, Feige and Rivvy, sleeves rolled up, doing their bit. She saw a man beckoning over a team of rescuers, a look of exhausted joy on his face: he had heard the voices of his brother and sister through the rubble. She saw the men dragging behind packs of dogs, trained to sniff out any sign of life. It would not take long to find them.

Soon Max was with her and he gave Feige and Rivvy's names to the officials, who said they would let them know. Later that day, one of the rescue workers tapped Max on the shoulder and led him away. Yiddi could not hear what they were saying, but she could read her husband's face. Max was nodding and she knew. She felt her heart cave in.

They asked Max to identify the bodies. It was easy. "They had hardly been touched," he would tell Yiddi later. "Hardly touched at all. A little bruise on Rivvy's head maybe. Hardly touched. As if they died in their sleep."

In all, 130 people were killed by that rocket, the very last V2 of the second world war. Even though the weapon was notoriously inaccurate, its guidance system too primitive to hit specific targets, the Nazis would have been delighted by their luck on March 27 1945. The V2 made its exit by killing 120 Jews