Monday, 12 December 2016

Christmas Charity

I WENT shopping today. The windows are full of fake snowflakes and fairy lights and the stores are playing festive music on a loop. Everything seems twinkly and shiny and new. With less than two weeks to go, everyone is getting geared up for the annual binge fest that is Christmas in the Western world.
     For the first time ever, though, I don’t have a long list of people to buy gifts for or have to wrack my brains about what to get for whom. In fact I don’t have a list at all this year, other than the one that adds up what I’d normally spend so that I can decide which charities to divide it between. 
     As strange as it feels to wander the shopping malls without a single card or present to buy, nothing is stranger than the responses I’ve had from friends and family when I explained what my husband and I were planning.
     “Great idea!” was the usual first response, inevitably followed by a pause and then, “Really? You’re not buying anyone anything?” A few added, sheepishly, “Not even me?”
     “No, not even you. And we’re not sending any cards either. This year we’re giving more than half the money we’d spend on you to the charities that are struggling to cope with the flood of Syrian refugees. We’re going to focus on the children who’ll be freezing this winter in miserable, wet camps far from their homes and all they’ve ever known. One frivolous gift for you could buy a family a tent or a groundsheet or some warm clothes. We’re sending the rest of the money to those caring for all the dogs and cats people had no choice but to leave behind.”
     Nodding, my friends and relatives would say, “Oh yes, of course. Good for you…,” but their smiles quite often don’t reach their eyes. One (male) friend added, only half-jokingly, “Clever you, more like! I guess that really lets you off the hook.”
        Undaunted, I’m going to stick to my plan. Yes, of course it ‘lets me off the hook’ from what can sometimes feel like the burden of the enforced spoiling of those we love at Christmas, but that was never the reason I decided to do it. And, despite what some may think, it does feel uncomfortably Scrooge-like not to give even the children a little something, or to send cards to those friends far away that we see too little of and who will undoubtedly worry that something has happened to us, or that they’ve been dropped.
        Then I think about my teenage nephew who first gave me the idea and my resolve returns. In September, when I asked him what he wanted for his 16th birthday, he took three weeks to think about it before texting me back, “I don’t need anything.” Impressed, I nevertheless asked his mother if she had any ideas. “Not really,” she replied. “He has everything he wants.” Exasperated, I pressed her and we finally settled on a £50 bottle of aftershave as she says that although he already has some, he would ‘probably appreciate’ some more.
     Pleased that I’d finally found something for him, I fretted that in just a few weeks’ time I’d have to repeat the whole process again for Christmas, knowing that his answer would almost certainly be the same. Uninspired, I’d probably give him a £50 voucher to buy something he wanted. Thinking back to my time as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, I knew how far that £50 would go in a bleak refugee camp. And having watched videos on Facebook about a paramedic who has stayed on in the ruins of Aleppo to feed the starving animals with whatever scraps he can find, I came up with the idea of sending our Christmas shopping money where it would be far better appreciated instead. 
     This isn’t the first time we’ve done something like this. In 1990, after I returned from Romania after reporting on the Christmas Day execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, I told my husband what I’d witnessed. Having gone with aid workers to some of the state orphanages and opened them up for the first time, we were faced with some truly shocking scenes. That summer, we forewent a summer holiday so that my husband could drive two consecutive truckloads of food, clothes and medical aid to some of the remotest orphanages in that broken country. Ever since then, we’ve supported one of the charities that I worked alongside out there.
     This year, we’re directing our attention to those in even more need. With a usual minimum Christmas spend of £25 for friends and neighbours and much more for family, plus the stamps for the hundred or so cards we usually send, I reckon that the final tally will surprise me and – I hope – go some way to providing a little festive cheer for the recipients. 

      With 13.5 people in Syria needing humanitarian assistance, and 4.8 million refugees, half of whom are children, we know that our gift will hardly change the world. But – for a few days this December - it will definitely change ours as we exchange fruit instead of gifts and give only hugs and kisses to those we love.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Mother's Day

Hana and her mother Priska after the war

IT’S MOTHERING SUNDAY in the UK this weekend - a day that has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Even when I was young, we didn’t mark it in any special way because my Mum, who’d suffered considerable tragedy in her life and lived through the London Blitz, had little time for what she regarded as an entirely commercial enterprise.
      Having never become a mother myself, the day that my girlfriends spent being showered with flowers and chocolates by their offspring largely passed me by although I couldn’t of course avoid the full page ads in the newspapers, the battery of cards in the shops, or the irritation of being unable to book our favourite restaurant for Sunday lunch.
    Just like my dear old Mum, I never quite got the concept of setting aside one day a year to publicly celebrate the woman who’d given me life. I liked to think that I celebrated her every day, spontaneously buying her gifts all year round, not just when retailers dictated.
     Then one day I came across a story that changed my perception of motherhood forever. Three young Jewish women – Priska, Rachel, and Anka - all of whom had married for love and were hopeful of a long and happy life with their beloved husbands, found themselves newly pregnant and standing naked and shaved before Dr Josef Mengele at Auschwitz II Birkenau towards the end of 1944.
       Sind sie schwanger, fesche Frau?” he asked each of them. “Are you pregnant, pretty lady?” In that moment, none of them knew whether to admit their condition might save them or condemn them and their children to an unknown fate. Feeling instinctively that they were in the presence of danger, though, each answered “Nein.”
     From that fateful day onwards, their maternal courage would be tested to the limit. Sent to a German slave labour camp to be worked and almost starved to death for the duration of their pregnancies, they manage to conceal their unborn babies from everyone but especially the SS guards that treated them so cruelly. By the time they had come to full term, each mother weighed less than five stone (approximately seventy pounds) and the tiny infants they gave birth to in unspeakable circumstances weighed less than three pounds.
    The fact that all three mothers and their babies survived is testament to their defiance and hope. It is also down to luck – they were lucky that their babies were born towards the end of the war when the Germans were preparing to flee. They were fortunate to benefit from the kindness of strangers who risked their own lives to give them sustenance on their interminable journey to the penultimate fully functioning Nazi concentration camp. Mostly, they were lucky that the gas ran out the day before they arrived to be exterminated.
       All three mothers would say later that their survival was purely down to luck, but in researching their incredible stories I have come to believe that their stubborn determination to get back to their men after the war and show them the babies two didn’t even know existed, was also a pivotal factor. Tragically, all three husbands were murdered by the Nazis and never got to meet their miracle children. Their young wives all had to somehow find the strength to start anew with little or nothing to exist on, and very few family members left to rely on.
     In spite of the worst imaginable start, each of their infants went on to enjoy full, rich and happy lives. They had children of their own and have become devoted parents and grandparents in Britain and the US. Like me, they shall be raising a glass in salute this Mother’s Day to Priska, Rachel, and Anka, the three brave women who epitomize what this annual celebration was originally created for: a day in humble praise of mothers everywhere.

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance and Survival is now out in paperback in the UK, priced £8.99. It is currently available in hardback in the US and for pre-order there in paperback in time for Mother’s Day. Available from all good book stores and retailers.