Rafael Scharf

Conciliatory remembrancer of pre-Holocaust Jewish Poland
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Rafael Felix Scharf, printer, writer and art dealer: born Kraków, Poland 18 June 1914; married 1944 Betty Hinchcliff (one son, two daughters); died London 16 September 2003.

Rafael Scharf was the unofficial but universally recognised chief remembrancer of the pre-Holocaust Polish Jewish world and the Grand Duke of its post-war diaspora remnants.

Reconciliation rather than confrontation was his theme: he sought to build bridges between warring factions and interests, between competing narratives of the past, in Poland, Israel, England and, indeed, Germany, but always insisted that reconciliation can only begin when there is respect for "the intrinsic dignity of facts", in Gilbert Lely's phrase.

He recounted his pre-war family story in a fine essay, "What Shall We Tell Miriam?" Miriam is one of his three children, but she is emblematic of new generations for whom ancestral Poland is not even a memory, let alone a good one. This funny, ironic, perceptive, learned and characteristically self-mocking text is particularly revealing about his father, a leather merchant in Kraków.

Scharf's father abandoned the caftan of his rabbinical forebears but remained attached to traditional Judaism while adapting to the modern world, although he did not have the strength to survive a labour camp during the Second World War. The Scharfs had been scions of the Oswieçim (Auschwitz) Jewish community, while the family of Rafael Scharf's mother - who survived the war in hiding outside the ghetto in Warsaw - came from the Galician borderlands.

Rafael Felix ("Felek") Scharf was born in Kraków in 1914 and attended a "Tarbut" school, a private Jewish gymnasium where the teaching was in Hebrew, the atmosphere fervently Zionist. He had no difficulty in entering the law faculty at the Jagellonian University of Kraków (the only numerus clausus being in medicine) and graduated in 1936. He then embarked on five years of law articles but within a year abandoned the profession because of anti-Semitism during some court proceedings.

During this time he worked on the Revisionist (i.e. right-wing) Zionist newspaper Tribuna Narodova and wrote articles on literary and political topics.

Scharf never made any bones about his Revisionist past but eventually graduated to a more liberal version of Zionism. In the early 1950s he visited the Tel Aviv office of his old comrade Menachem Begin, then at the start of his 29 years as leader of the Knesset opposition. Begin had only one word for him - "tourist" - and spat.

This unpleasant episode hurt Scharf but he always felt that Begin, for whom diaspora connoted nothing but defeat and disaster, had a point. Scharf's destiny and vocation as a bridge builder and remembrancer meant that he could not live in the Poland of the past, or in the Israel of the future, a future he agonised about in his darkest imaginings.

One of nature's backroom boys, he could have become a very high-ranking civil servant in Israel or Poland - indeed Josef Cyrankiewicz, the first Polish prime minister after the war, invited him to return, but, clutching his UK passport, Scharf politely declined. England, where he married into old Hampstead Garden Suburb, was his haven. He had no time for Ariel Sharon but could never bring himself to go public on the politics of Israel, leaving the letters and articles in The Guardian and elsewhere to his circle of younger Jewish friends.

Scharf arrived in England in 1938. After work for the Ministry of Information he was eventually inducted into the British army where, following infantry service, he spent his time interrogating German prisoners of war. After the war he helped set up various war-crimes interrogation teams and brought over his mother from Poland.

From 1947 till 1971 he worked hard at his day job, making a good living as one of the first silk-screen printers in Britain. He survived some awkward moments when selling the firm (and radical stomach surgery which he bore stoically for the rest of his life) but quickly morphed into a successful dealer in watercolours: Parnossa (Yiddish for "a living") in Parnassus, you might say. In later years he promoted painters from Eastern Europe.

Among the many recipients of his largesse and expertise was the Jewish Quarterly, the leading journal of the Anglo-Jewish intelligentsia. For 30 years it was edited by its founder, Jacob Sonntag, but its survival, then and after Sonntag's death, was in no small part due to Scharf's invisible hard work, generous vision and lucid awareness that times and manners change. On more than one occasion, he paid the printing bill out of his own pocket. I have no doubt that without his support and involvement the magazine, now thriving, would have died.

One would love to have been a fly on the wall during private meetings between the witty, melancholy, insatiably curious and occasionally cynical Krakovian businessman in his dark suit or tweed jacket and the lovable, old-fashioned, strait-laced, single-minded, kibbutz-style socialist editor of the magazine.

In addition to Polish - a wonderfully eloquent Polish according to his friend and admirer Eva Hoffman - Rafael Scharf already spoke German, Hebrew and Yiddish fluently before adopting English. Many of his really significant texts have been collected in a bilingual volume, Poland, What Have I to Do with Thee . . . (1997), published in London by Vallentine Mitchell and in Kraków by the Fundacja Judaica, an organisation run by Joachim Roussek, one of many attendant lords at the court of Grand Duke Felek. In addition to the essay for Miriam, the book includes seminal texts on Janus Korczack, Chaim Rumkowski, Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto.

Two years later, Roussek published The Jews in Poland, a Festschrift for Scharf, whose distinguished contributors included Robert Wistrich, Andrzej Wajda, Slawomir Mrozek, Jerzy Ficowski and Eva Hoffman.

Notable among his uncollected essays are the afterword to an amazing book of photographs, taken by a German soldier, Willy Georg, which he compiled: In the Warsaw Ghetto: summer 1941 (1993). There is also the 2001 article "The Two Saddest Nations on Earth" in the magazine East European Jewish Affairs, in which he argues that the end of Jewish Poland has been an irrecoverable loss not only for Poland but also for the Jews.

Crucial to his stance as a reconciler was his love for and understanding of Poland and its culture. This enabled him to speak truths to Poles that were unacceptable when spoken by Jews for whom Poland is nothing but a graveyard and to Jews when spoken by Poles in denial about the Polish Jewish tragedy.

Perspective, the magazine of the Holocaust Centre in Nottingham, published his article on the Wilkomirski controversy in 1999. The Christian organisers of this centre are among the many young people this wise old man inspired. Advice was his métier, conversation his currency, emotion his fuel.

Scharf was much in demand as a Polish and/or Jewish adviser for films, television programmes and books. Many were the projects and individuals in England, Germany and Poland he encouraged and supported with his time, money, attention and sympathy: PhD students, writers, artists, photographers, musicians. For example, he made possible the publication by my Menard Press of a selection of poems by Jerzy Ficowski, a Polish Catholic poet obsessed with the destiny of Jews and gypsies.

He was chief adviser to the hugely important library of Holocaust testimonies published by Vallentine Mitchell. The promotion of this series of books by survivors was at the heart of his endeavours, for soon there would be no eye-witnesses left.

During his later years he was instrumental in setting up the Institute of Polish Jewish Studies, founded in Oxford in 1984, and its scholarly magazine, Polin. His last published text was the 2003 Goldman Lecture delivered at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Extenuating Circumstances?: a personal memoir of Polish-Jewish relations.

Among many themes in this plangently valedictory essay is language: how Polish remained part of the furniture of his inner space. And indeed he often quoted Polish poetry by heart to me in the small study, austere and prudent, where younger friends were received. First gossip would be exchanged and then his many projects and concerns would be moved forwards an inch or two, or sideways or, sadly, backwards, like chess pieces in the game he loved playing until his partners died.

Thus, a poor translation he was subsidising needed revising: who should do the revision? What help could be given to a young Polish woman with a passionate desire to be accepted as a Jewess? Should he send another question to The Guardian's "Notes and Queries" column? Should he agree to act as adviser to such and such an organisation or was it time to concentrate on his writing? And so on - until the visitor had to leave. "Report for duty as soon as possible," he always said at the door.

He invested heavily in friendship and reaped the dividend, as he said on his deathbed, where for a few weeks, in the care of his devoted wife (whose intellectual achievements as an LSE sociologist he was so proud of but whose politics were a bit too left-wing for his taste) and children and Macmillan nurses, he received an endless series of friends, sipped vodka, and listened to Chopin.

For several years, despite being "an unregenerate agnostic, thank God", this proud secular Jew derived great pleasure from studying Talmud every Monday evening with the most learned of Anglo-Jewish rabbis, Louis Jacobs.

First and foremost a man of action, Scharf leaves as his monuments institutions of memory and reconciliation, not least the Jewish summer school at Kraków's ancient university, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and which he taught at until last year. He received the Polish government's award of the Commander's Order of Merit for his work in furthering understanding between Poles and Jews.

This cutting from the great Polish-Jewish plant was rooted well in England and flowered strongly. He loved his adopted country, and had an ear for the music of its institutions and traditions. But he was not truly at home. The former tennis champion of his club in Hampstead Garden Suburb occupied a triangular field of forces, a mythic land whose parameters were England, Poland and Israel, but which might be called Ashkenazia - after the European Jewish country invented by Clive Sinclair in a short story where the Second World War and the Holocaust never happened.

Anthony Rudolf

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