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About Amélie Jakobovits (Munk), Lady Jakobovits
An Evening with Lady Jakobovits – Report by Barbara Saunders
On Sunday evening 14 December 2009, over one hundred Sutton members listened attentively as Lady Amelie Jakobovits movingly recalled her childhood experiences in Nazi occupied France. She remembered with gratitude the non Jews who risked their lives to help her family and many others like hers. She was grateful for every day of life that she survived. Her talk was infused with an optimism born of her enduring faith. Her message is that Jews survived the Holocaust : “To be a light to the nations.”
As a mere ten year old, she managed to push her family and then herself onto the last train from Paris a day before the city was bombed. Intending to escape across the Pyrenees into Spain, they fled to a small village in unoccupied southern France, but their plans changed and they moved village. Despite this, her father, the well known Rabbi Munk, miraculously managed to find them. He gave lessons to alleviate their poverty, being highly educated in French literature and music as well as religious studies. Even so, they slept on straw and she remembers having to fetch fresh straw twice weekly from a farmhouse. They had virtually no possessions, one plate each and two pots for cooking.
When her mother fell ill, they were excluded by poverty and race laws from seeking medical help. A Belgian refugee’s arrival for tuition was fortuitous: he was a doctor and a timely examination led to a startling diagnosis; in these harsh conditions her mother was pregnant. She later delivered twins, a boy and a girl.
She remembered the time when her father did not return from Shul for over a day and on reappearing, was unrecognisable to his four year old daughter and even to fellow Jews.
On Erev Rosh Hashana, 1942, the family set off in the middle of the night to escape across the border to Switzerland. Lady Jakobovits recalled how Natan Sharansky (the famous refusnik who was exiled to Siberia for wanting to emigrate to Israel) always carried the Book of Psalms with him. Her family too used that same book to recite psalms while trying to escape. She said that this shows that no human force can break the chain of the Prophets. Their guides took her mother’s wedding ring and their matches, leaving them unable to locate the hole in the wire fence that had been prepared for their escape. Knowing they risked imminent capture and death, they were unexpectedly saved by the frantic cries of her normally placid baby brother, who was only seven months old. He had awoken the compassion of a soldier who led them across the river to safety.
Amelie Munk married Rabbi Jakobovits, who became Chief Rabbi of the declining Jewish population of Ireland when only 27 years old. They later moved to New York until he was called to become the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth (1966-1991). She said that when asked what it was like to be married to the Chief Rabbi she replied that she was married to a man. She supported him in his community work while taking care of their six children. She is now a great grandmother who has developed her own Ten Commandments for a successful marriage and parent-child relationship. The Queen once asked her where and how she had met her husband, to which she did not care to explain that it was a “Shidduch”, even though the Queen’s marriage was also one.
Having started her talk with “How strange life can be” she returned to this theme, by considering “those who go up and those who come down,” such as former Prime Minister, Lady Margaret Thatcher, who once walked with the most powerful Heads of State. She still visits her. By contrast, one feels that Lady J., as she is affectionately known, is not alone. With a large family, she embodies much of what Judaism aspires to encapsulate. She sees in her family the “chain of all the generations,” which for most of us would be sufficient cause for satisfaction. She continues to support a range of charities and has launched an appeal for Moshe Holtzberg and the other Jewish orphans of the Mumbai terrorist attack. As Rica aptly quoted in her vote of thanks: “Many daughters have done worthily, but thou excellest them all.”
Following the talk, the audience were impressed with Lady Jakobovits’ replies to the questions, which were witty and wise. A sample are included below:
How will the memory of the Holocaust be kept alive?
“Our Holocaust and pogroms like York will never be forgotten. What disturbs me is that there are Holocausts all the time. Contrary to the view put forward by education systems that the Jews survived because of the Holocaust, we are here because we have an assignment: ‘To be a light unto the Nations’.
What keeps me going? My total faith that Hashem knows what He is doing, that each has to do something that no one else can do. There is a chain of all the generations.”
Who of the powerful, influential women you have met has influenced you the most?
“Meeting them is fun, but the woman who influenced me the most was my Mother. My grandchildren quote her all the time. We understand our mothers when we have our own families.
If I have patience for everyone who comes my way, I’ll benefit. Everyone who comes into my life is a VIP”.
What advice to today’s young highly educated women would you give?
“The ‘Ten Commandments’ need interpretation. The priorities haven’t changed. Firstly there must be respect. My care and attention was firstly for my husband, then for my children and then for society. The emotional well-being of children depends on a good relationship between the parents”.
Since your husband’s death there seem to be different strands - Reform, Orthodoxy and Liberalism.
“I think provided our Reform brothers and sisters can appreciate our commitment to Torah and its teachings, it should be alright provided we have patience. I could always relate to less religious people. They eventually learn to respect what we believe in. They can be intolerant too. You cannot love anything unless you sit down and learn about it. We are slowly making progress”.