Last year, at the Jewish Socialists’ Group annual seder/Passover meal, people were reading stories and poems of liberation. Someone read a poem by Isaac Rosenberg, one of the greatest of poets of WWI (in which he was killed). MCing the event was the Five Leaves writer David Rosenberg who remarked that he was unrelated to the poet… but one of the others present was Chanie Rosenberg, a first cousin of Isaac’s. Chanie, who was born in 1922 obviously never met her cousin, but talked about his short life and work with the background of family knowledge. It felt like a magical moment, with the long dead Isaac Rosenberg almost, almost within touching distance.
Unfortunately Chanie does not include mention of her connection to Isaac Rosenberg in this short memoir. Indeed, the memoir barely touches the surface of her interesting life. I wish she had written more. Some of the text is bitty, but she shows flashes of inspiration, for example when she describes her courtship with Ygail Gluckstein/Tony Cliff in Palestine saying “Cliff was attracted by my South African passport. [He had been desperate to find ways of leaving Palestine.] Bolstered by this and possibly some other useful characteristics, we started living together.”
The memoir is particularly strong on her early years in South Africa, where Jews were considered white but subject to racism by the English and Afrikaaner majority among whites. She describes knowing one Black family which had members who could pass as white, who no longer talked to one another to avoid risking the “white” members being exposed. Chanie rejected South African racism and, later, Jewish nationalism in the form of Zionism. With Cliff she was one of the founder members of the group they set up after leaving Palestine, which became the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP was once the biggest group on the UK left, now in serious decline following various internal bust-ups over sexual harassment by a leading member. Chanie remains loyal to her Party. Her own political involvement included successful activity in the National Union of Teachers, for which she was blacklisted for some time. Unfortunately the memoir skates over most of the issues the SWP has been involved with over the years. It would have been nice to have known what she really thought.
The memoir includes a quite unrelated, but excellent, illustrated essay on the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, indicating the Chanie Rosenberg could have been a significant writer had she given more time to it.