With the death last month of Winston Churchill, grandson of the great wartime leader, both Israel and the Jewish people lost a good friend and an outspoken supporter.
I was privileged to meet him in a business capacity, and remember very clearly the afternoon he welcomed me into his London home. “I am just taking leave of the children for Christmas,” he said, beckoning me into the sitting room. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting a few moments.”
The memory is so very clear because there on the wall, from floor to high ceiling, was this stunning life-sized oil painting of his grandfather.
I immediately thought of my own grandfather, who, on a cold night in 1945, asked his son to show him where the great man lived. They were the only figures standing in Downing Street when a limousine pulled up unexpectedly and the great man emerged. Seeing my bearded grandfather standing in reverence under the street lamp, he turned, tugged off his famous Homburg hat and – with a slight bow – almost barked: “Good evening sahr!”
It is a story which often regaled our family members on Seder nights.
While my meetings with “Young Winston” were strictly business, he began e-mailing me on Jewish topics from time to time. This was one of the early ones: “Dear Zalmi, London-bound from Kiev. Just a quick note to send you, in case you may be interested, my remarks re Babi Yar. While in Kiev I caught a very hairy kiss from the chief rabbi of Israel, an absolutely delightful man! Yours, Winston”
He e-mailed me other speeches, all typed in the same huge 20-point font which was so evocative of his thundering grandfather.
Here are some extracts:
“FOR MORE than 40 years I have reported and observed the Middle East scene. As a young war correspondent 26 years of age, I found myself in Israel in mid-May of 1967. I happened to be with David Ben-Gurion, former prime minister of Israel, interviewing him at dawn one morning in his suite at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when – as I recall about 6:50 a.m. – Kol Israel
interrupted their programs to announce that president [Gamal Abdel] Nasser of Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping – cutting, at a stroke, Israel’s oil lifeline.
Ben-Gurion, with a gesture of the hand, ordered his assistant to switch off the radio and, shaking his great mane of white hair gravely, declared with sorrow: ‘This means war. I am very frightened. Not for Israel, for she will survive – we cannot afford otherwise – but for the younger generation. It is always the best of their generation who never return.’
Thereupon the great man led me out onto the balcony overlooking the Holy City of Jerusalem, where the first rays of the morning sun were striking the city’s golden domes, cupolas and spires. Taking me by the arm, he proceeded to give me a succinct lesson in Jewish history: ‘Mr. Churchill before you, you have the City of David – 3,000 years Jewish. But do you see the road that leads down the valley? Follow it and it will lead you to Hebron, the city of Abraham – 4,000 years Jewish!’
It was a magical moment, and one that I shall always treasure.
In 1973, my intelligence was no better than that of the Israeli government and the Yom Kippur War found me westbound aboard the QE2
, committed to a two-week lecture tour of the US. By the time I got back to Israel, general [Ariel] Sharon was on the west side of the Suez Canal with the Egyptian Third Army in his power. I sent him an urgent message asking him to call. An hour later I was still waiting when I had to leave to have dinner in a Palestinian fish restaurant in Jaffa with General Motti Hod, commander of the air force in ’67. I briefed the switchboard operators at the Tel Aviv Hilton to forward any call to the restaurant.
Halfway through dinner “mein host,” the Palestinian, called me to the phone. I went behind the bar and took the phone off the hook. A booming voice came on, causing me to hold the phone at arm’s length: ‘Winston, this is Arik!’ adding with overtones of Scipio Africanus ‘Arik from Africa! Winston, we have peace! A piece of Egypt, a piece of Lebanon, a piece of Syria and a piece of Jordan!’
There you have it: the Sharon vision of peace! There is no denying that he was God’s gift to journalists!
In 1993, I had the privilege of being invited to address a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at London University. Following my speech, a beautiful lady of a certain age approached me:
‘Mr. Churchill, at the time of the uprising, I was a girl of just 12. We had all been herded into the ghetto – supposedly for our safety. But then people all around us started to disappear, we knew not where – we were all very frightened. We had one of the few radios in the ghetto and, whenever your grandfather was due to broadcast on the BBC, my family and our friends would gather round. I could not understand English, but I knew that if I and my family had any hope of coming through this war alive, it depended upon that one, strong, unseen voice.
‘We were all taken to Treblinka and then to Bergen-Belsen. I was the
only member of my family to survive. I was liberated by British forces
in 1945 – in fact by the gentleman you see at my side, who is today my
It was a profoundly proud, yet humbling, moment! I had some idea how
much my grandfather meant to the Brits, and even to the Americans, but
until that moment, I had no understanding of just how much he meant to
those living in occupied Europe, most especially the Jews.”
VERY SADLY, grandson Winston died after a two-year battle with cancer.
I am so sorry that I never got to tell him the story of our respective
grandfathers’ encounter that winter night in 1945. But our own chance
acquaintance always left me with a warm feeling of closure and
Without his grandfather, mine might never have survived. And without
mine, I would not be paying this tribute to an honored friend of our
people.The writer is chairman of Likud-Herut in the UK. He blogs at www.zalmi.net.