A letter to my grandfather, whom I never met

Kurt in Spain 1937

Although I have written and spoken about you countless times, and though every piece I publish I do so under your name, it struck me recently that I have never written to you. And as you seem to have been waiting for me in all sorts of places over the years, from one corner of the world to another (of which more later), I feel it’s only fair to return the gesture. Having recently discovered that the last thing you ever did on this earth was to write, and given that for the most part words are all I’ve really had to piece together a concept of you, I think a letter is fitting.

So let me start with what I know about you. I know that you were born in Vienna in 1920, and that your father – my great-grandfather Sigi – made your life extremely difficult. I also know that your mother, Tilly, did not show much warmth towards her only child.

I know that in 1936 Sigi – a professional revolutionary, by all accounts – took you from school in Brno at the age of 16 to go and join the Spanish Republican army in the Spanish Civil War, in order to fight against Franco and against fascism. Fighting was apparently Sigi’s life. By then he was already a veteran of the First World War and – according to family lore, although we haven’t yet proved this – the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. He seemingly projected the same outlook onto you, and so it was that as a teenager you had to take part in some of twentieth-century Europe’s most terrible battles.

I know that as the Republican army retreated you went to France, via the Pyrenees, and that you wound up in an internment camp. (Sigi, who made the same journey, continued on his path and joined the Maquis. As I write this he is buried a matter of kilometres from me, in Holon, after his arrival in Israel from a de-Stalinised Poland.) Somehow your mother Tilly – who had by then escaped Vienna either just before or just after the Anschluss and made her way to London – managed to find you through the Red Cross and brought you to London too. Then the Second World War broke out, France fell to the Vichy regime, and the UK government rounded up all adult-age males of German and Austrian origin, classifying them as “enemy aliens.” The fact that most of them were Jews who had fled the Nazis did not seem to strike the British as worthy of consideration.

Briefly interned again, you were then stuffed into a ship – the HMT Dunera – with 2,500 others and deported to Australia. You would speak of the hellish two-month journey to your son, my father Julian, only once. You recalled a man who jumped overboard to his death after one of the British naval officers tore up a photo of the man’s wife and child that was in his wallet, taunting him that he would never see them again.

After you and your peers had already spent months in the internment camp in Hay, Victoria, the British government went back on its scheme and allowed for the deportees to return to the UK. Many of the so-called “Dunera boys” stayed in Australia but you chose to return, and ended up in Wakefield, north England. You enlisted in the British army (which is also when you went from being Kurt Roth to Kenneth Francis Rowland, eventually settling on Kurt Rowland – a nod to a hybridised identity I am all too familiar with). But you were discharged not long after – your nerves, as I recall my dad telling me once, were “shot to pieces.” Even now, I find it hard to fathom that these events all occurred before you had reached the age of 21.

It was also in Wakefield that you joined an art college, where you met Mona, my grandmother. According to my dad, she was the reason you smiled again after everything. After marrying you both moved to London, where the two of you attended the Slade art college. You, Kurt, became quite an eminent art historian and lecturer – and indeed it is thanks to this that I have had the opportunity to hear your voice, because a recording of radio lecture you gave resurfaced in a family loft a number of years ago.

(I remember listening to it for the first time, at the age of 26 or 27. I lost track of what you were saying after a minute or two and just listened to the sound of your voice. It sounded rich and warm, and unmistakably central European.)

It’s thanks to your academic career that I have books that you wrote, which form some of the most treasured parts of my book collection. I feel that they give me a window onto the intricacy of your mind, and the sensitive and complex way you grasped the world around you. They show me a level of insight and thoughtfulness that I can only aspire to.

But above all I have to be grateful for these books because they offer me the comfort that there was so much more to your life than its early horrors and its tragic end. Because after all that you suffered in the 1930s and ‘40s, in the late 1970s your beloved wife was taken away from you as well. Mona died young, from cancer, and I know that when she passed away she took you with her. “She was the reason he smiled again,” I keep hearing my dad saying when I think about how stricken you were after Mona’s death. I don’t even want to try and grasp your frame of mind at that time. But I know that life, to you, did not seem worth living anymore, and that is why you decided to end yours.

I doubt very much whether you felt, at the end of your life, that you could be a hero. But you are a hero to me, and an unimaginable source of strength. In some of the most difficult moments of my life in recent years I have all of a sudden felt your hand on my shoulder, and been able to breathe again.

You brought me to Israel-Palestine in a way that I cannot quite verbalise and do not feel the need to explain. The way I phrased it at the time I made the move was that I felt certain a postscript was waiting for you here. And I suppose, at the risk of sounding selfish, I am that postscript. For although we never met I am still your granddaughter (a label that I wear with indescribable pride) and with everything that I do, I hope that I am living up to your ideals. I hope, whichever dimension you’re in, that you might be proud.

And yes, as I mentioned at the start of this letter, wherever I have gone in the world you have been waiting for me. I feel, in a strange way, that if I keep running into you this often I must be doing something right.

I remember the first strange incident. It was the day after the first rockets came to Tel Aviv in November 2012, eight months after I moved here. I was sitting at the kitchen table in my flat alone, utterly bewildered and numb. My phone was lying on the table in front of me, and all of a sudden you started speaking from it. Remember the recording of the radio lecture? I’d put it on my phone so I could listen to it in the car, and somehow – on that day, of all days – some technical hiccough had happened and, unknown to me, changed my message notification sound to the recording of your voice (out of the hundreds of sound files on my phone). If there was ever a time that I needed to feel you watching over me, it was then.

I dreamed of you some months after that. All I remember is that we met as if we were meeting now, as if you hadn’t committed suicide in 1980, so you were a very old man. We were standing next to each other, and you were at this stage a fair bit shorter than me. You looked up at me and I saw this expression of pure light coming from your face – pure joy. You had a walking stick in your right hand and I took your left hand in mine – and I remember that the skin on your palm, so dry, felt like paper.

Not long after that, just before I left Israel-Palestine for six months, I was sitting in my old flat in Tel Aviv visiting my friend and ex-flatmate. While idly browsing her bookshelf, I saw a copy of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and feeling it was about time I read it, picked it out. I noticed a sketch of Nietzsche on the front but didn’t pay much attention, as I was more interested in finding out when the book had been printed. (I have a predilection for old books, an enthusiasm I suspect you would identify with.) I flicked to the title page of the book to look for a year and saw the name “K.F. Rowland” staring back at me. The illustrator of the book cover shared your name, and had apparently done the drawing around the same time you were in London. I immediately sent a photo to my parents and yes, it was you. Kenneth Francis Rowland, you my grandfather, waiting for me inside a book whose cover you illustrated and that was published in the UK, which my friend happened to buy in a secondhand bookshop in Israel 50 years later, and that I happened to slide out of her bookcase shortly after that.

A few months later, while wandering listlessly around your half-brother Ilan’s house in Berkeley, California on Yom Kippur 2013, I came across one of your books in his bookcase. I opened it up and saw an inscription you had made on the title page. Your words, in your handwriting. I traced the letters with my finger, awed at the experience of “DNA contact,” as your cousin Ditta would have called it. It was the first time I had come across something you had written by hand (a scanned photocopy of your wedding certificate that I had come by a couple of years earlier doesn’t count). Even here, as far away as I could be from home, you were waiting for me.

And then to the present moment. I discovered, on a recent trip back to the UK, that you had kept a diary of sorts in the last weeks of your life. This diary was in fact a series of letters to Mona, who had died two years before, and apparently you started writing them after you had already made up your mind to join her. It was on the bookshelf above the bed in the room I sleep in when I visit my parents (it somehow seems appropriate that most of our random encounters occur at bookcases).

I’m not sure why my mum and dad chose this moment to show it to me, although I am eternally grateful that they did in spite of the immense renewal of grief it brought me. My dad, your son, flicked through the pages and pages you wrote – your handwriting, again, reams of it. I catch one phrase on one page, where you wrote: “Your watch has finally stopped, thank God.” And then we get to the last page. The final entry is dated 30th April 1980, the day that you took the overdose. I again just catch a few words – relief and release, I think – and then the writing unspools into an illegible scrawl. And that is how I came to discover that the last thing you ever did was to write.

As quietly devastating as that is, I also find comfort in the fact that even as you faded out you still had a pen in your hand. Perhaps, selfishly, it is because – as a writer – I feel it creates another unbreakable chain between us. Or perhaps it is because, even in a moment of the utmost hopelessness, you were still able to create something. I think, somehow, that is an extreme version of a dichotomy, a tension, that was present throughout your life.

Still, it is strange to think of all the nights I spent in that room not knowing that I was sleeping with your dying words above my head.

I suppose it is this most recent encounter that prompted this letter, although most of its contents have been circulating in my head for years. Now I am slowly assimilating this new knowledge, this renewed proximity. I imagine that there will be more encounters in the future – or perhaps not. Maybe you have given me enough. I won’t expect anything. For now, I am content with writing you this letter, and listening to your voice, and reading your works. And imagining that you have, at last, found the kind of peace that eluded you on this earth.

So goodbye for now, my grandfather, my hero. Please don’t ever be in doubt as to how many people’s lives you have touched, and in such great measure.

With all of my love, your granddaughter,