Oskar Mareni – the history of Israel
The writer and historian Yelena Makarova shares moments from the life of an incredible person who went to a café not far from his home every morning, drank coffee and read newspapers. “We were neighbors in Jerusalem, and we often visited him. When I asked him what would happen if he didn’t come to the café in the morning, he replied that they would call the police.”
He was born in Moravska Ostrava (now in the northeast of the Czech Republic) in 1907, and in the 1930s, as a Zionist, he moved to Mandatory Palestine, where he lived for many years.
Seryozha and I visited him on the 22nd of June, and he said that the day after tomorrow he would turn 100. Then he asked what year it was. We told him. It turned out that he was mistaken, he would turn 99, as he would have to wait for the round number.
I should have taken a tape recorder when I went to see him, it’s a shame that I’m lazy.
But it’s a good thing I’m curious.
Oskar told me about Zhabotinsky, who knew 11 languages, and spoke them all like a native. Oskar was in his party for 10 years, then took offense at him, in 1932, he thought, when Zhabotinsky saw him and did not greet him. But he gives him his due for his brilliant and tragic insights. When Hitler came to power, Zhabotinsky said that 1.5 million Jews had to be evacuated from Europe immediately. But it was impossible to do this at the time, the Jews did not want to leave, and furthermore few of them were happy with the Haluza idea, of working in Yishuvs on the land. The Jews were afraid of Palestine and expected plague to break out. As for the English, their position in the Middle East towards the Jews was firm, as the Arabs had oil and many other good things, and if the English had raised the quota, the Arabs would have rebelled. (It’s another matter that the quota was not reached from 1933-1937).
But Weizmann was very indecisive, that is true, Mareni completely confirms this. He was a bad leader, a chief should take people with him, but Weizman looked around him. Oskar was for Herzl, he believed that Zionist ideas should be put into practice everywhere, without being ashamed. Herzl even ran for election in parties where no one had heard of Zionism. Just to stake out a place.
Mareni advocated Zionism in Ostrava. He went to the local head, and proposed to organize a meeting with the Zionists, there were 250 of them on the list. The local head said that he couldn’t gather enough people. How is that? 250 people! Then the local head shamefully took a pile of shekels out of a box and said that he had bought them himself. The idea of working on the land generally scared people away, and Jews were not poor at that time.
Mareni’s parents also remained in Ostrava, and his sister, the wonderful poet Ilza Veber with her son and husband, although they sent their child to Sweden. Oskar left for Palestine in 1935. Everyone else, apart from Ilza’s husband, perished. They had certificates to go to Palestine, but for all the horror of 1939, this idea seemed every more terrifying to them.
On the Russian language
“I remember a few words from the First World War. In Vitkovice (now part of Ostrava), Russian prisoners-of-war worked, and I heard them talking. My first wife was a Jew from Russia, but I talked to her in Hebrew, that was very important at the time. (Perhaps that’s why we got divorced, because we didn’t understand each other properly?!)”
On Robert Striker
“Oh yes, in Vienna I wrote an article for him for “Noe Velt” (New World). He was the editor-in-chief, the newspaper was next to the Maximilian café, and we met there. 9 Universitet Strasse, if my memory does not deceive me. This business was not profitable for Striker, you might say it was a hobby, but he didn’t give it up, for ideological reasons. He had a daughter, in Jerusalem, but I don’t remember if she was adopted or not. He was a lot older than me, he was fat, I didn’t know that he was in Terezin. And he died there.
I remember sitting on the windows sill with Striker after a meeting of Zionists from Central Europe. It was the evening, everyone was wearing diamonds and dinner jackets, and later on, after 11 p.m., when everyone started singing, Striker said: “When Jews are sad, they sing happy songs.”
On Freud and the Germans
Oskar was once invited to lunch by a saleswoman from a stationary store. She gave him two books by Kafka.
I said: “Wow!”
“There was no wow about it,” Oskar replied. “We were just friends [that’s men for you, still thinking about amorous relations with women at the age of 99! – Y.M.], she gave me books which were not so easy to find. She didn’t even know that in the 1920s I attended lectures by Freud. In the great concert hall in Vienna. There were lots of people there. And suddenly during one lecture young fascists jumped up out of their seats and started waving truncheons around. For some reason they couldn’t stand Freud.”
Sergey suggested it was because of Freud’s ethnicity.
Oskar thought for a while and said:
“The German nation believes in purity and lofty aspirations, and here someone comes along and says that everything is about sex and libido. They couldn’t accept this baseness, but Freud was actually right.”
On books and dreams
Oskar spends all his free time reading.
“I have four books waiting for me by my bed. Sometimes I read until 3 in the morning. My young nurse sleeps 24 hours a day, I’m amazed by her ability to sleep. Perhaps it’s even a talent.”
The president sent Oskar a present for his birthday – a gilded bird. He was visited by Iuda Bakon, an artist from Ostrava, who brought catalogue of his exhibitions.
Iuda’s parents had passed away, but his uncle and aunt looked after him like parents.
I remember them very well. They perished.
The world is crazy, you can’t live without humor. But it’s a fact that we are sitting here in Jerusalem.
Notes. March 2007
I rang Oskar. Could he see us? Of course, come along! I don’t have to prepare for your visit.
Oskar was approaching his 100th birthday.
At a certain age you no longer celebrate your birthday. But Hanush decided to organize something for him, which was a secret.
Oskar reads the newspaper every day. Sometimes his vision becomes blurry and he decides that it’s time for him to go to the doctor. But he doesn’t – he may decide to do this, but he can’t be bothered going.
“When I was young, I remember a man, Wilhelm Herlinger’s brother, showing tricks – he’d take an egg out of someone’s ear, or something strange like that. The story of Wilhelm Herlinger is very interesting, he was a senator, and was murdered by the fascists.”
“Where does the surname Mareni come from?”
“My surname was chosen at the Usyshkins’ house. They had an open house, on the corner of Usyshkin street, and everyone who came to Jerusalem would visit them at the end of Shabbat. Menachem Mendel Ushyshkin, the son, made sure that everyone’s glasses were full. Usyshkin said, why don’t we choose a new name for you. Let’s change his name. I remember on that day, Yitzhak Grinbaum from Poland was there, and Mrs. Usyshkin, who was in charge of everything, called Shmuel, Grinbaum and me into a separate room. Mrs. Usyshkin was rich, she had three houses built in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa (for her daughter and son). President Bodenheimer married their daughter. Herlinger was the one who was in charge of the fermentation. When Germans made wine, they had a ritual – a drop of blood in the wine. Jews were not allowed to drink this wine. So we drank dry, sour wine. They thought up six names for me, all of them were awful, one was Bisri (from “bosekh”) which is “fermentation” in Hebrew. I refused. I was prepared to change my name, but not to Bisri. And I came up with “Mareni”.
On war (WWII)
“I wanted to fight the Germans. And I joined the English army as a volunteer. I was asked what my profession was, and I said I was a supervisor in a bank. I was hired for this position. I was in North and South Africa, and in Egypt. The English are gentlemen. They took Jews into the army, but on the condition that they wouldn’t aspire to the rank of major or officer. They weren’t allowed to serve in the air force or in the tank divisions. I was supposed to sign this, and I did sign it, but of course during the war this rule was broken. I had Czech documents, I translated them for them, but they didn’t want to create a headache for themselves, and they sent me to the Czech division. The English are gentlemen, and arrogant. For me, a Jew, to receive a rank, I had to write a request to Queen Elizabeth herself. Why did I want to do that?! I was in uniform, I lived in a hotel, I ate at the expense of the English. They spent money on me, but in wartime you don’t count pennies.
In Egypt we had a little house where the entire staff would sit, the boss even had his enormous dog brought out of the house. The doors were wide open, each man had an English dictionary, as it turned out they were all illiterate. For us Jews, languages were a piece of cake, we knew French and German and could write without errors. But they wrote everything out by hand, there were no computers back then, and they kept shouting: “Mareni, how is this word spelt?!”
My mother told me when I was a child that before Esperanto there was a language called Volapuk, which died out. I studied Esperanto at high school, I even had a badge – a blue star with an “E” in the center, I was very proud of it.
I arrived in Eretz with one book – there it is, on the shelf, “Socialism, Communism and Anarchism”, and the first books that I bought here were “Modern Biology” and “You and Nature. Popular Physics”.
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