Anya Ulinich
Anya Ulinich
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A Park Bench in Manchester Tells Me a Story

And I tell it one back

Howard Jacobson
September 24, 2020
Anya Ulinich
Anya Ulinich

I am a bencher. Make what you will of that. First off, you will suppose that means I’ve been “called to the bar,” that I’m a Senior Member of one of the English Inns of Court; more specifically, that I’m a magistrate, say, a judge, a senator, an alderman. Or, less respectably, someone who is regularly to be found on the benches of a tavern. A confusion that might explain the expression “As drunk as a lord.” If you’re Jewish, a bencher could also be one who benches, that’s to say recites blessing after meals—perhaps reading from a booklet of Hebrew blessings which is itself called a bencher. As applied to myself the word has another meaning entirely. I am a lover of benches such as you find in parks or promenades overlooking the sea.

Everyone loves a bench a little. The bored or weary walker is delighted to come upon an unexpected bench on a cliff top or halfway up a hill or even mountain. Nothing is more welcome after a hard climb than a place to sit, extend the legs, lean back, perhaps even stretch out if you have the bench to yourself, especially when it furnishes a view that is as panoramic as it is restful. As an easily bored and tired walker I look for a likely bench almost the minute I set out. But lethargy isn’t my only motive. As much as I am an obsessive bencher am I a compulsive worder. I cannot see a photograph of someone’s bookshelf without reading all the spines, or birthday cards on someone’s mantelpiece without reading the messages, and I cannot pass a bench that bears a dedication without pausing to read every word. You would think from the time I give to the smallest inscription that I have been word-starved half my life. In fact I am overfed with words from books. It’s when the words are out of place that I give them my fullest attention, and when they whisper to me of days passed in quiet contemplation of beauty.

There’s a gentle devotion implicit in the very act of memorializing a bench to someone else. The bench at once recalls the person remembered and the person doing the remembering. Cemeteries offer many of the same sad pleasures, especially Christian cemeteries, which have more to say for themselves than Jewish ones. In life, Jews can out-word anyone. In death they don’t only fall silent—which you could say is understandable—but they enjoin silence on those who put up stones to remember them by. “The rest is silence,” Hamlet says, meaning that while everything else so far has been noisy, enough is now enough, thereby proving what I have been at pains to argue in these pages previously, namely that Hamlet was a Jew. But the reason memorial benches surpass even the most eloquent gravestones is that they exist in the world of the living and so keep warm, as gravestones can’t, the very impress of the person who once sat here. The dead are disposed of in a cemetery. Dedicate a bench to them in a place they loved to frequent and they are still here, not rotting in the cold earth in some forbidding, inaccessible plot, but doing what they did when they were alive.

While walking the cliffs outside Eastbourne on the South East Coast of England, the hero of my 2004 novel The Making of Henry—a man with a passion for bench eloquence equal to mine—encounters memorial benches in such profusion that he fears he will have to remain there forever, reading the inscriptions—MICHAEL O’NEILL, FOR THY SWEET LOVE REMEMBER’D SUCH WEALTH BRINGS, JET’AIME, JANET; JOAN, WIDOW OF JACK, TOGETHER AGAIN, SIDE BY SIDE; KTTY OCKENDER: COMMEMORATING MANY TIMES SPENT IN EASTBOURNE—sitting where they sat, Michael, Joan, Kitty, delighting in the view that delighted them, living in the moment they lived, loving what they loved. On and on he goes, walking and reading, IN MEMORY of LIL or MAUD, of REG or KEN, WHO LOVED THIS COASTLINE, LOVED THIS PATH, LOVED THIS SEA, until he comes upon a bench dedicated to his own mother, EKATERINA NAGEL WHO FOUND PEACE HERE, which sends him spinning into the wildest wonderings. Peace? His mother! Here! When was she here? When did she know peace? And at whose behest does this bench carry her name?

I don’t say I pause at every bench in the hope of finding a plot for a novel there, but without doubt bench-reading makes a writer of anyone who takes the trouble to stop and look and listen, encouraging that act of imaginative repossession of another’s life that is one of the prerequisites of fiction.

My advice to a young writer: Find a bench on which you think your protagonist might have sat, then go and sit on it.

As a gift to mark the publication of my latest novel, Live a Little, my wife has recently gone one better and bought and dedicated a bench to me in what’s known as The Little Park on St John’s Wood High Street in North London, a spot beloved to both of us, equidistant from the Central London Mosque and the best bagel shop for miles. Friends have raised eyebrows at the idea of a bench dedicated to a living person but my wife reasons that as I love benches so much it would be a pity if I had to wait until I’m dead to have my own.

A person with his own memorial bench need envy no man. Or so I thought until I discovered that in Clowes Park, at the intersection of Bury Old Road and Bury New Road, separating Salford and Prestwich, is a talking bench. Literally a talking bench. It is dedicated to the memory of Chaim Ferster, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Poland in 1922 and died in Manchester in 2017. Press a button on the speaker behind you and Chaim will tell you his story. You sit, you listen, you learn.

I know this part of Manchester. Broughton Park. It bifurcates the city’s northern Jews—Orthodox to this side, more liberal to that—and bifurcates my Manchester life—cheder here, table tennis at the Waterpark there; friends with peyos here, friends who wouldn’t be seen dead in a yarmulke there. Broughton Park was a sort of tourist attraction for liberated Jews when I was a kid: We’d go take a look at what life might have been like for us had our grandparents not got away from the shtetl when they did. There were just a couple of streets of Haredim then. They looked like extras in a bad film about life in the Pale of Settlement. Fiddler on the Roof without the songs. Now they’re the principal actors. How Manchester went from being a paradise for relaxed, bareheaded, hill-walking secular Jews to a city of black-hatted men in a perpetual hurry, almost accompanied by careworn wig-wearing women in long skirts, wheeling too many children to keep up, and how Broughton Park became their epicenter, is a subject for a social and religious historian. I merely note the change. I have family who are Manchester Lubavitchers. I give them my respects. But for me Judaism is a questioning faith and they don’t question much. We rarely meet but when we do the first thing they say is have I started lighting candles on Shabbes. Which I suppose is a question even though they know the answer.

Though Chaim Ferster’s bench talks to me, it has no facility for me to speak to it. There’s a button to press to hear him. But no button for him to hear me. I discourse with him anyway. There are things I want to ask you, Mr Ferster.

You came to Manchester in 1946, thanks to the humanity of an uncle. Manchester was not, when you died in 2017, what it was when you arrived in 1946. What do you make of the changes?

You settled in Cheetham Hill and as far as I can tell you stayed in Cheetham Hill. I grew up in Cheetham Hill—a district of back-to-back red houses, where the kids, Jews and gentiles, played football in the streets and rode their bicycles on the pavements, and no one had any money. Not quite Broughton Park but next door. Cheetham Hill Road today is said to be the most cosmopolitan road in the country. No one could say that about present day Broughton Park. You want any kind of curry, you go to Cheetham Hill Road and order it in any language. You want cholent, you go to Broughton Park. And you don’t need language to get it. Only inflexion and a loud voice. ‘Cholent!’ And it comes to you. So, do you feel you’ve gone back in time to Sosnowiec? Does that bother you? Do you mind that you can barely see the light for the black hats? Or do you think that an irreligious thing to say?

I listen to the story of your life again, told in your own strong voice. You went through hell. You were born to an Orthodox family in Sosnowiec, one of four children, of which only two, you and your sister Manya, survived. You passed through seven concentration camps, including Graditz where you almost died from typhus, Auschwitz, Niederorschel, and, on the day before it was liberated, Buchenwald. One more day in Buchenwald and they’d have shot you.

It’s a story we have heard too many times before. Even the miracle of your survival doesn’t amaze us as it once did. But I no sooner say that then I remember how recent, after all, the telling of it is. I never met a capital-s Survivor or knew anyone who’d met a Survivor when I was growing up, and yet there you were, as no doubt many others were, living just around the corner. Our only source of information were old newsreels and Lord Russell of Liverpool’s The Scourge of the Swastika, published in 1954. I wonder what you thought of that. Did it relate events adequately, in your view? Did it not compel you to add your voice? Or were you under that terrible compulsion of silence so many Survivors have since talked about? The process Aharon Appelfeld described as “learning silence” as a means of burying “bitter memories deep in the bedrock of the soul.” And what, then, was it that caused you to let those memories speak? Was it simply the healing passage of time? Or fear that, whatever you remember, the world wants to forget?

There is an urgency in the words with which you now address forgetting from your bench. “Our dearest wish is that our testimony is carried like a baton from one generation to another generation so that the world will never forget,” you say. Your voice rises and cracks. “Never forget!”

And so you go on repeating and recalling—remembering for us—from your eternal bench.As for what else I’d like to hear about from you—the life you made here in Manchester, the changes you’ve observed, what you thought of it before your death—if you’ve talked about this elsewhere you are silent on the subject here. “On the 7th February 1946 we arrived in England to start a new and happier life,” is all you say. And why should you say more? In one sense it all stops for you in 1946. Thereafter, and quite miraculously, you are safe and happy, but happy enjoins no responsibility to tell. The baton you have to pass is the baton of hell not happiness.

Yours is different from those benches at which I normally stop to shed a furtive tear. I don’t sit here imagining I am you, watching the children play and the ducks float mindlessly on the pond. FOR CHAIM WHO FOUND PEACE AND HAPPINESS HERE—no, that won’t work. Indeed, this is so differently solemnized a bench that I am ashamed of the sentimentality that normally brings me to such a place. Your bench reproaches me, Mr. Ferster. With such a devastating history as ours—yours, I know, but mine by association—what business do I have drifting vicariously from park to promenade, revering dreamers?

I envy you your talking bench but I don’t envy you the burden of retelling you bear, doomed forever to walk the night like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, not seeking vengeance, just remembrance. Here’s a question for you, Chaim, if I may: Will there ever be a time when we don’t have to pass on the baton of frightful memory? Will it ever be all right for us to sit looking out to sea or over parkland, and simply enjoy the view? Or is there to be no rest for our perturb’d spirits?

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.