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Passage through Palestine in eyes of my grandfather

In my last article I explained why it’s a good idea to keep a journal. I’ve been doing so for quite some years, at least hoping that my grandchildren will find something of interest in what I have written about.

I say this aware that in the 1940s my grandfather Robert Bischoff kept a meticulously written record of how he and his wife, plus their two children – one of them my mother Gaby – left their lovely home in Bucharest, Romania, in January 1941.

They decided to depart as anti-Semitic Fascist dictator Ion Antonescu had seized power there, and German troops were already present in significant number.

My grandfather wrote his journal in Romanian, and many years ago I took it upon myself to translate it into English. His text filled 38 typed foolscap pages, with very long sentences strung together in paragraphs that were also unusually long.

While Romanian was the first language I spoke after I was born, I never studied it formally and from when I arrived in Britain at the age of three I switched to English.

But I was fluent enough to take on the task, even with no dictionary and no Internet to consult at the time. What a labour of love it was.

For long, my grandfather – like many others at the time – was hesitating over whether the Romanian scene would increasingly make life unbearable for Jewish families like theirs.

At first he was more with the optimists, but eventually the situation deteriorated to such an extent that the decision to emigrate was made.

He worked under great stress over many weeks to obtain the necessary paperwork for the departure, not least the transit visa for Turkey and the entry visa to their final destination Palestine (before it became Israel), and finally they were ready to leave.

They travelled by train from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Constanta; by boat from there to Istanbul; then on trains across Turkey and Syria; and next through Lebanon – by bus from Tripoli to Beirut and from there by car into Palestine, to Haifa and on to Tel Aviv, arriving on 19th January, eight days after leaving Bucharest.

The last entry in the journal is from November 1946, by which time Robert’s daughter Gaby had met and married my father Bruno, who had left Romania a few months after the Bischoff family, to rejoin Shell – for whom he had been working in Romania.

His journey was infinitely more precarious, in a small and flimsy yacht that for over 52 days took him and his fellow crew members to Cyprus and from where he managed to transfer to Palestine. (My father, as captain of the boat, kept its log – also in Romanian – so I have the full details of his adventure too… a story for another day.)

Robert found my father to be “a courageous young man and sure of himself”, and he was happy to see him marry his daughter. Now let me jump to March 1945, when I was born.

“I had the feeling that this would be an exceptional child, from all points of view,” my grandfather enthused.

“This feeling, and our exaggerated sentimentalism, make us see in him all that can be most beautiful in life. I could speak in detail about him, and there would be many pages to fill. If I were to do it I would have to devote a chapter separate from all the others, though sincerely speaking, I don’t even know if I would be able to put in writing what I feel in reality.”

He wrote about so much else in his journal, about the threat of a German invasion following the arrival of its army in Alexandria and the withdrawal of the British from Egypt – making him wonder if they should perhaps have remained in Romania; about the fragmented nature of local politics, with so many political parties – as is the case in Israel today; and about the poor state of education and nutrition.

Reading the journals again – thanks to my grandchildren having developed an interest in the holocaust – makes me wish I would have engaged more with both my parents and grandparents about their earlier lives. So you know how this is going to end: do so while yours are still around.

Key leadership lessons I learnt from my father

Two days ago I reached the age of 75 — the age my father was when he passed away 35 years ago. So it provided an opportunity for me to reflect on our relationship and on how I was influenced by his example.

Bruno Eldon enjoyed a 33-year career in Shell. He joined the company in Romania, from where he and some of his Shell colleagues escaped the Nazis in 1941. He then rejoined the company in Israel (the British Mandate of Palestine at the time) and finally again in England in 1948, where over the years he rose to be the head of Shell’s management training division.

As I was growing up, at school and then at university, I was exposed to all the latest management thinking, as my father had to keep right up to date in running his workshops for Shell executives from around the world. I learnt about the newly emerging leadership styles as organisations like Shell increasingly employed skilled knowledge workers who needed to be motivated quite differently from those who came before them.

Indeed, as I have written before in these columns, it was in those 1950s and 60s that the foundations were laid for today’s best leadership practices. Since then we have been hearing incessantly from subsequent generations of management gurus, but in essence, it’s more fancy new jargon than fundamental developments.

I was fortunate in not only having my father explain all about motivation and teamwork and appraisals and other leadership matters as practised in one of the leading global corporates, but I had the privilege of meeting many of those who participated in my father’s programmes. For he would invite them to our home for Sunday lunches, where this mere teenager would act as a co-host to those senior executives.

But my weekends were spent in other ways too. For I was the family’s gardener, cutting the lawn and the hedges and pulling up the weeds while my father played the horticulturalist. My job description included washing the car, and every evening I would wash the dishes after dinner as my sister dried them. Later, my father and I would often walk our dog, and it is here that he played the role of my coach.

I attended the London School of Economics for some of my undergraduate studies, 40 years after my father came from Romania to study at LSE. During those years, while an intern in Paris with Eurofinance (the first investment company to operate at a European level), my father came to visit me and it was the first time I remember us conversing as adult to adult rather than as parent to child: a true relationship shift.

When he retired from Shell on entering his third age my father continued with his management training and also became a management consultant, running workshops all over Europe and also in Africa. This was largely with Management Centre Europe, which was associated with the American Management Association — both still prominent institutions today.

Not many years later, now living in Kenya, I became very involved with the Kenya Institute of Management, and when I turned 60 I too reinvented myself as a management consultant, spending many of my days in ways uncannily similar to how my father spent his at that time of his life.

Shortly before he died I visited my father in London for what turned out to be our last meeting. We seemed to be aware that this would be our farewell, and as we sat in his study he notionally handed over his books and papers and overhead slides on management, many of which now adorn by bookshelves at home. Bruno was a very talented painter, and our house is also filled with his wonderful works of art.

What a shame he is not around for us to compare notes on how my life has mirrored his since he passed away. There is so much value he could have continued adding to me, and I would like to think he could even have benefited from my experiences too.

To conclude, let me invite you to share important conversations with your father, before it’s too late. Learn from him, and let him also learn from you.