When I ask myself ‘do I belong to a country or is a country mine?’ I stumble, sadly, on a simple reply… No.
I would give many years of my life to be called a Londoner, or a Mancunian, or even a Glaswegian. Then, I could have some roots, an ordinary past and traditions. But sadly, I did not choose where to be born and the country of my birth is not mine any more.
I was born in Poland, in Lvov, which is now part of the Ukraine. Does that make me Polish or Ukrainian? I do not speak Polish (wilfully or not) I have forgotten it and each time I meet an old Pole, a lump arises in my throat. Was it one of them, I think?
During the war, in a remote Polish village, a family, in return for money, hid my brother and myself. He was 7 and I was 9. When the money ran out, or even before perhaps; they called in an SS man. Although I was too afraid to look him in the face, I remember his shiny boots very well. He and that family killed my brother and for some inexplicable reason, they let me go? Is this the country I want to call my own?
For many years, I tried to bury my past. I was French. I speak French, I know French history and its culture and my youth was spent there. I adapted to my new country and became part of it. As a young person, I was not a happy person, often irritable and tense, narrow minded and anti-social. At the time I had not realised it, but this had everything to do with my experiences during the war years.
“Why did you decide to come to England?” asks Eddy.
Well, I was 23, I wanted to travel and improve my English. 3 months would be enough, I assumed. I then met Norman and gave myself another 3 months which turned into 6 months, then 9 months then another 3 months and so on.
I have now lived in England for over 50 years. I have English sons, grandsons, an English husband and British passport. I feel completely at ease here. I understand the language, read and write correctly and even appreciate the English humour.
But, is England my country?
Do I feel a pride or a stir when people abroad ask me: “Where do you come from?” and I reply “England”.
Has this word England a smell of hyacinths? Is it an aria of Don Giovanni? Does it move me like a dark Caravaggio or make me dream like a star lit sky? Do I laugh, cry, scream when I hear it: or do I drop to my knees forever thankful for being accepted here?
I have lived here, I have loved here, given birth here and eventually found my equilibrium… and some peace. I am no longer afraid to say that I am Jewish, to speak of my past, to join protest marches or to give my opinion.
Here I am and here I stay.
The country of my adoption, of woodlands and hills and green meadows. The country of wonderful books and of semi-detached houses, of delayed trains and pubs on every street corner. Of people who call me ‘Love’.
How touched I was when I first heard it.
Yes, I am staying here.
But is this my country?
Please say yes.