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My Grandmother and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

My Grandmother and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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My grandmother’s passport picture. You can see the Nazi seal in the corner.
My grandmother’s passport picture. You can see the Nazi seal in the corner.

When I saw the headline announcing author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s death on April 3, 2013, at age 85, my first thought was of the slim volume by her on my bookshelf.

It’s been there for years—decades, really. My grandmother gave it to me when I was a teenager. “This is quite amusing, Yvette,” she said in her refined Viennese accent. “You might enjoy it.” I put it on my shelf to keep for later, but somehow I never got to it.

Yet I kept it with me, through moves across continents, through changing houses. It survived numerous purges of other never-read books. I would never give it away, for in all the years my grandmother was alive, it’s one of the only books she’d ever shared with me.

My parents My grandmother gave it to me when I was a teenagerand I have other, seemingly more important books that belonged to her. Her complete set of Schiller sits in my parents’ house, in the original German, which nobody in our family can read. But the Jhabvala novel, handed to me casually years ago, seems more personal. I remember my grandmother each time I look at it.

Given all this emotional baggage attached to one slim paperback, it might seem odd that I’d never read it. But the novel didn’t really grab me. Like many of Jhabvala’s books, it takes place in her home country, India. The humor is subtle, and the main character’s challenges are so far removed from my own life and experiences that I never had the energy to finish it.

So I was shocked when I read Jhabvala’s obituary. Born Ruth Prawer in prewar Germany, Jhabvala was Jewish. Her father, Marcus, was a lawyer from Poland, and her mother, Eleanor Cohn, was born in Germany. The family fled the Nazis, moving to Britain in 1939. By all accounts, little Ruth reinvented herself, devouring English novels and embracing life as a British schoolgirl.

Despite her adjustment, though, it couldn’t have been an easy time. After the war, as news trickled out of Europe about the horrors there, the Prawers began to learn the fate of the relatives they left behind. Once he had established beyond a doubt that all his relatives left behind in Europe perished, Marcus Prawer killed himself. Three years later, Ruth—who was then at university—married Cyrus Jhabvala, an Indian architect studying with her in London. Shedding her life in Britain, she moved with him to Delhi, where she immersed herself in her new homeland.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s story is unusual, but her family situation reminded me of my grandmother’s. My grandmother and her parents also left Austria at the last possible moment. They also left behind relatives and friends. Grandma even initially lived in London for two years, at the same time and in the same neighborhood as the Prawers. Working for a succession of British Jewish families there (her temporary residence visa allowed her to work only as a servant), my grandmother felt a similar feeling of dislocation. In fact, for the rest of her life, she recalled her years as a wartime maid in London with some bitterness. One family she worked for locked up their good food and fed her scraps; another relegated her to sleep in the attic—on a reclining chair—when they wanted her room for guests.

My grandmother in London—a stressful time.
My grandmother in London—a stressful time.

Interestingly, the only time she ever felt at home in London was on Shabbat. My grandmother’s family was not traditionally observant at all in Austria. But in those lonely years in London, Grandma befriended and even lived for a few months with another refugee who was religious. This girl would never compromise on keeping The only time she ever felt at home in London was on Shabbatkosher or Shabbat, and she and my grandmother spent many Shabbats together—my grandmother’s first tastes of how sweet that holy day can be. Those moments not only sustained her during her two long years in London, but she talked about them often for the rest of her life.

In 1939, when she’d been in London for two years, my grandmother and her parents finally received the news they’d been hoping for: A relative in Chicago had sponsored them, and they all had received visas for America! My grandmother’s parents—still in Vienna—filled in the necessary immigration forms and set sail. All that was left was for my grandmother to join them, but then disaster struck: unable to have my grandmother (who was then in London) sign her immigration form in person, her mother had signed for her. This “forgery” was discovered, and my grandmother was barred from entering America. Her two-year visa in Britain was coming to an end and, on the eve of World War II, she faced deportation back to Austria.

Summoning all her courage, Grandma appealed to the American embassy in London. Daily, she visited the embassy and ceaselessly put her case to the officers there. Finally, after several weeks, she received word that the ambassador himself would see her. Joe Kennedy, America’s wartime ambassador, was no friend to the Jews. Throughout World War II, he made sure America’s already-small quota of Jewish refugees was never filled. But on this occasion, he saved the life of one Jew.

Decades later, Grandma would say her main memory of that meeting was how thick Ambassador Kennedy’s carpet was. She stood on that carpet and, in broken English, explained why she couldn’t possibly have traveled back to Vienna to sign her visa, why she couldn’t return there now, and how she hoped to join her parents in Chicago. After listening, Ambassador Kennedy sat back in his chair, regarded the young woman before him, and saved her life. “All right, Miss Dubsky,” he told her, “I’ll give you your visa. America needs more girls with spunk like you.” In a moment, her life was altered.

Grandma moved to Chicago just as war was breaking out in Europe. She shared a cramped apartment on the West Side with her parents and five other refugees. Months after arriving, she married one of them, a young engineer from Vienna. During the wedding, which took place in the study of another refugee, my grandmother’s mother cried nonstop, “This isn’t how I pictured your wedding.” When the rabbi’s wife brought out a homemade coffee cake for the wedding meal, my great-grandmother In a moment, her life was alteredsobbed even harder.

Grandma was unfazed, though. She realized the magnitude of the destruction in the home they’d left behind, and was grateful for her cramped and crowded apartment, grateful for the wedding and the coffee cake, and grateful to America for letting her in.

My grandmother in Austria before fleeing with her family.
My grandmother in Austria before fleeing with her family.

Her few family members who did get out of Europe with her—or, in the case of one of her sisters-in-law, survived the concentration camps—found themselves, like Jhabvala, unmoored in strange new surroundings. In later years, Jhabvala described herself as homeless: “Really blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel—till I am—nothing.”

I see this dislocation in my own family even today, three generations later. Over the years, I and some of my relatives have tried to find our way back to the religious lifestyle our grandparents left behind. One cousin contacted me and told me she didn’t even know her refugee grandparents were Jewish, so completely had they hidden their past, fearful of revealing their Jewish identity in their new country. Another relative reached out to me for help in connecting with other Jews, as her parents and grandparents had settled in a place with no established community, and she didn’t even know where to turn.

After I read of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s death, I finally opened the book my grandmother gave me so long ago. I was hoping to find something that appealed to her, something that would help me understand why she found the book so amusing.

I’m in the middle of the novel, and am enjoying it at last. But if I was looking for something about our shared family experiences in it, perhaps something that would speak about the past that my grandmother might have identified with, I doubt I’ll find it. I don’t think there’s much about our shared Jewish heritage in the novel at all, except perhaps for one passage.

A character in the novel tells a brief tale, and it reminds me of a classic Jewish story I once heard. Perhaps Jhabvala heard it back in Europe, and it stayed lodged in her memory:

A father and son are taking a ride through a forest, and the son asks if they can stop and pick flowers for a while. The father says they have many more miles to travel and the day is getting long, but the son insists they stop, and gets off his horse.The son insists they stop, and gets off his horse

“We can rest,” the father tells his son, “but listen to me. You might stray far from me. If that happens, I will call out to you, ‘My son!’ You might wander so far away, though, that you won’t hear me. If that happens, you must call out to me.”

The son wandered in the forest, and it came to pass just as his father had said. The son wandered so far away that he didn’t even hear his father calling out to him. Then the son did as his father instructed, and cried out “My father! My father!”

The story is an allegory. We are all that son, and the father in the story is the divine. Even if we wander far, we each have a way back. By calling out to G‑d—and by reaching out to connect to our fellow Jews—we each have a way of going home.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s daughter reported that before her death, her mother, who at that point lived in New York, consented to meet with a rabbi. I hope that at the end of her life she felt at last able to connect to the Jewish community she had fled so many years before.

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D., is a mother and adjunct professor of political science living in Chicago. She is the author of Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum, 2011).
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Pauline London UK December 8, 2016

What was the novel or story? Dear Yvette I am a researcher working on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A kind friend sent me this lovely article of yours. I am intrigued that you don't mention which novel of hers your grandmother shared? Ruth wrote many novels , short stories and plays but is even more famous for her scripts with Merchant Ivory for which she won two Oscars. She is a stunning writer but the one story where her Jewish heritage knowledge displays itself is the story 'Refuge In London' which was published in 'The New Yorker' and then in a collection. She left her papers to the British Library in her will and I am cataloguing them for future researchers. Her three daughters each live in her various home countries: in in the USA, one in India and one in UK. Reply

Martin Rhodes Israel April 29, 2014

Ruth Prawar Jhabvala This is what my mother told me. When Ruth Prawar Jhabvala first came to England, she went to a school where my mother was attending having been evacuated from Coventry to the countryside to avoid the German bombing. She was the only other Jewish girl in the school, yet for some reason although they were the same age and in the same class they never got on.

What she did say was that she was the cleverest girl in the class. She came to the UK with no English yet within a year she was top of the class in English, so it was no surprise to my mother that she became a world famous writer and author, but although beautifully written, I find her work often depresses me.

As Ellie Wiesel points out, it is not for us to make judgements on those whose lives were turned upside down by the terrible events in Europe all those years ago. Reply

Gail Harris Springtown, Texas April 29, 2014

I really enjoyed this story as well. My heart is so moved by the suffering but amazed at the courage and strength of so many. I pray for your safety, for your peace, for joy to abide in your hearts as long as you shall live. Reply

Michal Tel Aviv April 29, 2014

Very touching, I have tears in my eyes. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous new york via old.chabad.org April 28, 2014

B"H

Nice article. I did some research on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and seems to me that she still has kids living in India who are obviously Jewish. I hope someone lets them know of their Jewishness. i also found out that her daughter has a child in India who is also Jewish. i wonder if the kid knows he is Jewish. i hope some chabad emissary gets him before G_d forbid he gets lost in that country and loose hisself identity. Reply

Anonymous new york via old.chabad.org May 20, 2014

Nice article. I did some research on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and seems to me that she still has kids living in India who are obviously Jewish. I hope someone lets them know of their Jewishness. i also found out that her daughter has a child in India who is also Jewish. i wonder if the kid knows he is Jewish. i hope some chabad emissary gets him before G_d forbid he gets lost in that country and loose his self identity. Reply

Anonymous April 28, 2014

"One family she worked for locked up their good food and fed her scraps; another relegated her to sleep in the attic—on a reclining chair—when they wanted her room for guests."

“Really blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel—till I am—nothing.”

These two sentences resonated the most with me. There's so much that I can say. The woman was very reselient and she seemed not to become embittered by those experiences that others might have easily been affected by negatively. After living abroad for many years and experiencing reverse culture shock, I often feel similar to her in the second quoted sentence above. But I realize that everything happens for a reason, so I remain patient and open to learning new things necessary for my character growth as well as that of others. This woman never imagined that she would affect others' lives years later after she passed away. Yet, through her granddaughter's story about her, she has affected at least one life. Reply

Dan Liebenthal April 28, 2014

Ditto My mother's family - same story: from Vienna to England at the last possible moment, my maternal grandparents arrived there on domestic servant visas (my mother escaped previously courtesy of the Kindertransport). Then to America (not India). As for the parable - Der Erlkonig. Reply