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Five Amber Beads - sneak preview


Amber is freighted with the weight of time and history. The tears of trees, turned from emotion to an almost-stone over tens of millions of years. It has more of the fluvial than the alluvial about it; a slow river of sap that holds life and memory, inert yet intact inside itself like a kernel or an essence. While fossils in stone are shrouded in the inner space of a cold, hard womb, those in amber shine out through reds, oranges or yellows as if caught in a permanent, beneficent x-ray.

Five amber beads, ranging in size from a dessert grape to a ripe plum, and the colour of old blood. On my mother’s death, they were passed down to me in a rich blue, velvet pouch with a black cord drawstring. They had come down to my mother from her mother, in turn; dark-eyed Miriam who had died, before my mother had reached her fourteenth birthday, in Treblinka. My mother’s beads, whilst holding no inclusions in their warm depths, contain an abundance of life beneath their satin sheen and static shine. Sixty-five years on, I can only imagine how my mother’s mother wore the necklace of beads. How many were there on their fragile thread before it broke and an uncountable some were scattered on the beads’ journey into my hands? How did the sunshine, filtering through the blinds in her apartment, burnish them? How did my mother hold them on her journey to England, spilling like bright points of fire from her hands as she arrived on that morning, alone aged eight and speaking not one word of English? A new home and a new language away from the ones she already knew.

Harwich is a place perhaps more accustomed to departure than arrival; a place for blustery goodbyes on cold quaysides and fish-and-chip dinners before tearful embarkation; of ferries for the coast of Holland and northern Germany. Harwich was my mother’s port of entry into her new life, after an overnight journey by boat from Holland swept by the waves of sleep, darkness and loss. No lullabies that night from her mother. The amber beads were a warmth in her pocket. A set of silver knives, forks and spoons cradled in her knapsack like a kind of currency; her mother had been left them in turn by a family with the initial H before their deportation to the camps. I eat with that cutlery to this day, tasting the sharp shock of metal every time I bite too hard into these memories that are not my own.

On 26th July 1939, the day on which my mother arrived in England, the Glenn Miller Orchestra recorded Baby Me with Kay Starr, written by Archie Gottler, Harry Harris and Lou Handman. It goes:

Baby me, come on and pet me, honey, baby me
You know you get me when you give me that affectionate talk
Like “darling, dearie, precious, pretty”, I could go for “itty bitty”…
Baby me, because I love it when you baby me
The beauty of it is that I love you and you love me too
So Baby, won’t you baby me!

An Emergency Imposition of Duties was passed on the import of woollen cloth into the Republic of Ireland, stating: A duty of customs at the rate of an amount equal to forty-five per cent of the value of the article shall be charged, levied, and paid on every of the following articles imported on or after the 26th day of July, 1939, that is to say, woven tissues (other than floor coverings) made wholly or partly of wool or worsted which (a) are imported in the piece, and (b) either (i) are not less than fifty inches in width, or (ii) are less than fifty inches in width and have no selvedge or have not more than one selvedge, and (c) are less than seven ounces, but not less than five and one-half ounces, in weight per square yard, and (d) are of a value of not less than one shilling and sixpence per square yard, and (e) are not otherwise chargeable with duty.

My mother’s import was burdened with another kind of duty, a duty of remembrance for her family; the leverage of separation imposed by the history taking place around her. Selvedge: the edge of cloth so woven that it cannot be unravelled, or a border of different material or finish along an edge of cloth intended to be torn off or hidden.

Across the world in Austria, a Franz Schütter, the son of a porter, born in Linz on 30th May 1920, was issued with a Wehrpass, second type, on the 26th July 1939 by the Wehrbezirkskommando Linz, part of Wehrkreis XVII, service number Linz z. d. D. 20/1/54/9. It might have been him who shot my grandmother with a single bullet to the head or switched on the engine that pumped the diesel into the gas chamber. Or it might have been him who saved the lives of one hundred and twenty-seven Jews, mostly women and children, near Kraków in August 1940 in an unrecorded act of heroism and humanity and walked on unnoticed into history.

To mineralogists amber is succinite, deriving from the Latin succinum. I give you a happenstance, scattershot account of one day in that long hot summer before war. A biopsy drawn from the flesh of history: succinct abridgement of my mother’s arrival from Germany. I know no more than the facts.


It is often said that roots anchor you, but they can also set you adrift. My mother lost her religion to the English boarding school that welcomed her as a refugee into the bosom of its Christian teaching. She lost her accent and received a new set of vowels and vocabulary, attitudes and beliefs. The Christmas tree supplanted the Hannukah candles, and her mother had already lost the daughter that she knew by the time my mother heard of her own loss in a letter from the Red Cross in 1944. And yet her dark eyes deep as wells and her refusal to deny herself the right to speak out, loudly and without shame; her refusal to bow to the tight-lipped path through life of her adopted country always gave the game away, made people aware that she was from elsewhere and that she hid another history behind her. Most people just didn’t know where that elsewhere was.

My mother married out and I was christened, just like my three brothers before me. Growing up, we didn’t know what questions to ask. My mother’s history was as remote as the dark side of the moon. What child can understand his roots, the seeds from which he springs, when his parent’s need is to conceal, to store away beyond retrieval? I grew up playing in streams, kicking puffballs, unearthing molehills, as curious as any other boy around my way. Only later did I realise that the bright moon did have a darker side; only later did I learn that a whole parallel what-might-have-been mirrored what was; that Jewishness ran in my family alongside my father’s gentle Englishness, an otherness to counterbalance the languor of home.

Does identity have its own complex set of imperfect fractions? My mother was in fact a half-Jew, although she paid fully for it. Her father was a German who had a short affair with her mother, Miriam. He had originally been the lover of Ida, Miriam’s sister, but she died while still in her twenties and he took up with Miriam instead. My maternal grandfather left for America in 1931, shortly before my mother was born, and was never heard of again.

Apart from Ida and Miriam, there were my other great-aunt, Hedwig, and my great-uncles Albert and Isy. Their parents, Lajzer Pinkus Bernstein and Perla Fajga Wermund, married in 1897 and moved from Łόdz in what is now Poland and what was then White Russia to Wuppertal-Elberfeld near Düsseldorf, on what has always been German soil, in 1910. My mother was born with her mother’s family name, as the father she never met took his with him when he boarded the boat to the New World.

Bernstein is the German word for amber and means ‘the stone that burns’. These blood-red beads burn a hole in the pocket of my mind and my story spills out from their surface. I took on my mother’s name when she died of stomach cancer at the beginning of the nineties, a life of containment – she sometimes said in her last months – manifesting itself in a disease that led her to bring up the truth with increasingly desperate and frequent regularity. I took my mother’s family name to keep her memory alive, and to remember all those candles extinguished.


The most common amber in western Europe comes from the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, namely Poland, Russia, Germany, Denmark and Lithuania. It comes from a deposit known as the Blue Earth, which lies below the water table and extends out into the Baltic Sea. Storms can rip out amber from this bed, which dates from the Upper Eocene to the Lower Oligocene, and wash it up onto the shores. Lumps of this amber are also occasionally washed up in Britain on the East Anglian, Kent and Yorkshire coasts after a storm.

My mother’s amber beads retraced this route from the Baltic to England’s east coast, by way of train and sea and amidst the storm of the times, held in her small, frightened hands. Amber, when rubbed against woollen cloth, is given a charge of static electricity. The Greeks called this substance elektron for this remarkable property. I like to think that my mother’s beads carry a small charge of their own, the electricity of history arcing across the generations from that to this, from extinction to renewal, loss to memory. So we have it for another time between soup and potatoes, as great-uncle Isy used to say.