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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.

The heritage we have built

(this was a presentation I gave on May 21, 2020 at the joint meeting of the Rotary Club of Nairobi with the Rotary Club of Kampala):

It was 1978, and I had been living in Kenya for a year when an IT customer of mine, Bob Chase, invited me to join his Rotary Club of Nairobi. That joining thoroughly integrated me into Kenya; it introduced me to volunteering; it changed my life.

Phil Grammenopoulos, who brought Datsun – now Nissan – to Kenya, was our President (at that time called Chairman, as by then Jomo Kenyatta was the only one allowed to be called President), and my first assignment was to develop careers guidance programmes, which one way or another I have been running ever since.

Also in my earliest years I led a National Business Management Game through our Rotary club. The funds raised by participating teams were offered to the winner of a post-graduate scholarship to the Mediterranean Institute of Management in Cyprus, and the panel of Phil and myself selected Kalonzo Musyoka, then a Rotaracter, as the beneficiary. He later joined our club, before becoming an MP and rising to be the Vice-President of Kenya.

At that time we were THE Rotary Club of Nairobi: a home for the elite of the city, and we were led to believe that Rotarians from other clubs felt quite intimidated by some of us. We were the first club in Sub-Sahara Africa, having been formed in March 1930. It was John Innes, a member of the Rotary Club of Leeds, who was encouraged by Paul Harris to take Rotary to East Africa, and so on Innes’s next visit to Kenya he met with then then Mayor of Nairobi, Charles Udall.

Udall gathered together a dozen prominent citizens at the New Stanley Hotel (where we were still meeting when I joined) and he emerged as the founding President of the soon to be formed Rotary Club of Nairobi. Every club in the region traces its roots to ours, including your Kampala one.

When I joined our club I was by far the youngest member, at 33. If you go to our website, you’ll see a 1974 picture of fourteen Past Presidents of our Club, eight of whom I knew well (and all of whom have now passed away). In the picture, as generally in the club when I joined, are only older white men, almost exclusively white-haired. But by 1978, there were already a few non-whites, and let me tell you a bit about them:

First Manu Chandaria, who had joined Rotary in 1963 in Mombasa, where his elder brother was already a member since the mid-1950s. Manu later moved to Nairobi and joined our club in 1969 – the only Asian alongside the late John Karmali (a pioneer of racial integration in Kenya), Yusuf Kodwavwala (about whom more later) and Omi Nagpal, who in 1965, like Manu, had joined the Rotary Club of Mombasa. Omi was then transferred to Nairobi as the Acting Director of Public Prosecution, and became a member of the Rotary Club of Nairobi in around 1968. It wasn’t till 1990 though that he took on the presidency.

Manu became our Chairman in 1982/3, and it was about then that he headhunted Kalonzo Musyoka to become the legal manager of his company, Comcraft. Meanwhile Manu had already invited Sir Ernest Vasey to become Comcraft’s chairman. Sir Ernest had been Nairobi Mayor in the 1940s, and was President of our Rotary club in 1949/50.

 Another member when I joined was Joe Wanjui, who had been in the club since 1967, the first African, and one of those who paved the way for Joe’s admittance was Sir Derek Erskine (our club’s President in 1939/40). Sir Derek served as a Member of the Kenyan Legislative Council from the 40s, on and off into the 60s. He was a staunch advocate of racial harmony in Kenya, at one time having been removed from a session of the Legislative Council due to his outspoken views demanding racial equality.

So how come Joe became our first African member? Well, at the time he was the Technical Director of East Africa Industries, part of Unilever, one of the rare Africans prominent in the private sector. Joe became our club’s first African President in 1974, at a time when it needed to be seen to be promoting racial inclusiveness.

Other than being the earliest non-whites to join our club, what do Manu, Omi and Joe have in common? They are all still regular active members of our club! Yusuf Kodwavwala, who also joined us in 1967, became our Chairman in 1981 and District Governor in l989/90. He and his wife Marie recently emigrated to the UK to be with their family, and they have wished us well for this meeting… with Yusuf adding that the Kampala Club – which he described as the “ARCH CLUB” – was where he was first introduced to ROTARY.

Let me mention a few others from the time I joined, all of whom became my friends:

  • Vic Browse, the first Jewish member, who opened the Jacaranda School for the Mentally Challenged in his year as President in 1948/9.
  • Mervyn Cowie, our President in 1950/1, who led the formation of the Nairobi Game Park.
  • Jack Block, 1961/2 President, was owner of Block Hotels, including the New Stanley.
  • Norman Jarman, President in 1968/9, was a policeman in Palestine when I was born there in 1945, and founded African Tours & Hotels, a pioneer in Kenya’s tourism industry.
  • Jerry Owuor, our 1984/5 President, I will always remember for officiating at the annual Salvation Army Children’s Home Christmas Party, dressed as Father Christmas.
  • John Savage, who led us in 1985/6 and presided over the club’s first cataract operations, performed – as they are now, 35 years later – by Dr Mukesh Joshi.

I succeeded John as Chairman in 1986, and what I am proudest of is relaunching our Rotaract Club of Nairobi Central, which until today is perhaps the liveliest in the District. I was Chairman in those the good old days, when we weren’t besieged by e-mails or texts, only having to deal with faxes. By the way, a few years later at an RI President’s Conference hosted in Nairobi, I tickled our then Vice President Michael Wamalwa into allowing us to call ourselves “President” again.

  • Hannington Awori followed me. He was introduced by Joe Wanjui, whom he succeeded as Technical Director of EAI. And Hannington’s from the prominent Awori family, a member of which is his Ugandan brother Aggrey.
  • Jonathan Campaigne, our 1995/6 President, led our Young Entrepreneurs Awards. I introduced Jonathan to our club and he was also my Best Man just before taking office.
  • Dudley Stannah’s 1991/2 year was dominated by the war over whether to allow women as members. Rotarians’ wives, known as “Rotary Annes”, many of whom were members of the spouses’ Inner Wheel Club, were as unenthusiastic as many of the male members, but eventually resistance faded and we inducted our first lady member, Evelyn Mungai soon after. (By the way her parents enjoyed strong links to Uganda, with her mother having attended Gayaza High School and her father King’s College Budo – from where Aggrey Awori also graduated.) Evelyn, whom I married in 1995, became our first lady chair in 2001, with her Rotary pin fixed by our 1993/4 President, Arun Devani, and during her year she launched the Rotary Cura Home for AIDS Orphans.
  • In all we have enjoyed leadership from six lady presidents, including our current one, Jessica Kazina. For many years now we have been known as the “Rainbow Club”, given our wonderful racial mix, and there was a time when we deliberately rotated our presidency between African, Asian and White members. Always, we have enjoyed great fellowship and high member participation in service.

Let me now mention some of our flagship projects:

  • In the late 1940s, the Jacaranda School for the Mentally Challenged, which later, with Japanese funding for which Manu was very instrumental, was complemented by the Sheltered Workshop for the Mentally Challenged.
  • This was what greatly influenced the launch of what became the annual Sunshine Rally, where several thousand mentally and physically challenged boys and girls first came together in 1980 for extraordinary enjoyable gatherings (with me in charge of organising the entertainment at that initial one). Due to the Coronavirus crisis, this was the first year since 1980 that it did not take place, although food and other essential items were distributed to the institutions that host the children.
  • As I mentioned, in 1985 Dr Mukesh Joshi worked with our club to conduct the first cataract eye operations, and I remember being at the 1986 event held in Kabarak High School, where I took photographs for the media of him at work with his scalpel. Amazingly, Mukesh, who became an Honorary member of our club, has now restored the sight of 17,000 Kenyans, supported by a team of devoted members of our club – donors including Manu Chandaria, Suli Shah and Arun Devani, and on the ground volunteers.
  • Thanks to great leadership from Darsi Lotai and the late Eric Krystall, our club has been at the centre of Rotary’s struggle to eliminate polio in this part of the world. When overseas support was waning, our Rotarians led the initiative for us to become self-reliant, including through the establishment of a Surveillance Lab that has provided testing for the entire Horn of Africa.
  • These and other Rotarians have also been central to combatting AIDS, with the late Eric Krystall’s “Puppets against AIDS” and our partnership with Rotaract for testing youth.
  • Speaking of Rotaract, and Interact, not to mention the Rotary Community Corps, our club has always been deeply committed to nurturing the next generations, very much including past Rotaractor Gideon Akwaba – who in just over a year will become our club’s president.

There have been so many other projects I could mention, thanks to so many other devoted members: distributing wheelchairs, bed sets, jikos and other basic items; accessing water; hosting health camps; mobilising literacy campaigns… – you can just imagine, in nearly a century of service, how much has been accomplished. As we speak with pride about our heritage I am pleased that enhanced attention is turning to the need to build more sustainability into our initiatives, developing community leaders to take ownership for the ongoingness of our projects.

Our club has benefitted greatly from partnerships with clubs from all over the world, and of course from the Rotary Foundation. But many too would not have seen the light of day had it not been for our Trust Fund, currently chaired by Dinesh Kapila, that was established in 1974 and whose funds have grown to Shs 60million, despite disbursing Shs2-3m each year.

When I joined Rotary there were 18 countries in D9200 – including Zambia and the Indian Ocean Islands. I remember attending District Conferences in Lusaka (where the District Governor was their Zambia’s Chief Justice, granted a sabbatical  by President Kaunda – who, handkerchief in hand, graced the event); and others in Mauritius, Madagascar and Reunion. Wherever our conference were held, the Rotarians from Reunion would always bring a big supply of cheese and wine for their Reunion evening. (Including for the one in Nairobi during Yusuf Kodwavala’s year in 1990, by the poolside at the new Stanley. I was the chairman of Yusuf’s Conference Committee, and had to deal with the hotel having forgotten to set the place up for our Indian Ocean island friends.)

Prominent at all our District Conferences was Sam Owori, who so brilliantly led the resuscitation of Rotary in Uganda following the difficult days of Idi Amin. Under his leadership Rotary Clubs sprouted far beyond Kampala, and unlike in Kenya attracted many form the public sector. We in Kenya mourned when Rotary in Uganda expanded to such an extent that you formed your own District, taking Tanzania with you.

My small contribution to the development of Rotary in Uganda was that when I was the District Rotaract Officer in the late eighties I introduced the concept of community-based Rotaract Clubs, as hitherto they had only been institutionally based.

At that time I also brought together Rotaracters from around our then vast District to hold their own conference alongside our Rotary one, and I am pleased to say that this became the new normal – until just now, when Rotaracters have integrated completely into our Rotary Conference – or were due to, till the Coronavirus hit.

It’s good to, so to speak, “be” with you at the Grand Imperial Hotel today, which I remember staying at in the immediate post-Amin days, with bullet holes in my bedroom window and only orange squash or Johnny Walker Red Label to drink.

In so many ways, we’ve come a long way since then. I am immensely impressed that building on our long heritage so many younger Rotarians have joined our club, full of energy and enthusiasm – as has been evidenced by their extraordinary efforts in the last few weeks in distributing food and other essential items to the most vulnerable in Nairobi.

In conclusion, while the Rotary Club of Nairobi is still THE oldest club around, we are no longer THE Rotary Club of Nairobi. But we’re a great multi-generational, multi-ethnic, mixed-gender bunch of characters, enjoying each other’s fellowship and engaged in all kinds of great work for our community.