From Munich to Israel

The well-traveled Lawsons have been back and forth but finally settled here for good.

Jackie Lawson was among the 10 percent Jewish quota allowed to attend the City of London School for Girls. Born in 1939, her formative years coincided with World War II. But she didn’t truly feel anti-Semitism until after high school, a few weeks into her actuarial training with a prominent insurance company.
“I told them I wouldn’t be in for Rosh Hashana and was told that was ‘not acceptable,’ even though I did not expect to be paid. I asked what happened to other Jewish people employed there, and the answer was, ‘We don’t make a habit of employing Jews.’ I still recall those words vividly,” says Lawson, who gave notice the next day.
It is ironic that this most memorable incident took place in England, considering that Lawson and her husband, Stanley, went on to live for a total of 28 peaceful years in Munich. It was in Germany that they developed their strong Israel affiliation.
Lawson eventually became a buyer in the women’s hosiery department at Marks & Spencer. She married Stanley, whom she’d known since their youth-club days, in 1961 at the Walm Lane Synagogue in Cricklewood. “Then we bought a little ‘doll’s’ house,” she says.
After seven years, their first daughter, Debbie, was born, followed two years later by Leah, and finally Jessica, 20 months later. When the youngest was about six months old, Lawson started a two-year training process to become a marriage guidance counselor. She fondly recalls one of her clients, a couple who couldn’t conceive despite having no medical problems. After counseling, the woman became pregnant and then referrals started rolling in.
But this career was short-lived because Stanley, a financial adviser, announced that a major client in Munich wanted him to relocate there. “I was resistant, but the employer was insistent,” says Lawson. “So we went for a weekend and I agreed to try it for three to five years. We ended up living there from 1975 to 1987.”
Lawson’s life soon came to revolve around leadership roles in the international school her children attended. A few Israeli families were also living in Munich, including employees of the Citrus Marketing Board, El Al Israel Airlines, the Israeli consulate and the Zim shipping line.
“The Jewish community was very strange because they were the leftovers from the DP [displaced persons] camps,” she explains. During two exploratory visits to the main synagogue, where nobody greeted them, the Lawsons found their Jewish “home” at the chapel of the US army base.
They rented a house Lawson described as “Bavarian baroque,” which had been built by a Nazi Party official. After the war it was requisitioned by the US Army and put on the market in 1949. One day, the wife of the original owner showed up wishing to see the house. Not realizing that Lawson knew German, she commented to her companion as she looked up at the ceiling, “I see the swastika isn’t here anymore.”
“The hair on my arms stood up,” Lawson recalls.
Because her parents “were not amused” by the family’s move to Munich, Lawson promised to meet them in Israel whenever they came on tours in support of their favorite charity, Boys Town Jerusalem. The Lawsons made their first visit to Israel in December 1975.
“We were quite taken with Israel and started coming fairly often,” she says. “We had a good life in Munich, but I got to a stage where I realized London was no more my home than Germany, and Germany sure as hell wasn’t my home. In 1984, we came to Israel for the first time without our children, and our friends here urged us to find a holiday home.”
The day before their departure, they saw an apartment in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood – the same one they live in today – and phoned a lawyer on their way to the airport.
Three weeks later, they became the proud owners of the lovely three-bedroom flat, near the Hebrew University. They thought of it as a summer home at first, but just three years later made the move permanent. “Our kids hated us for it,” Lawson confides. “There were many tearful days.”
Debbie, then 19, shortly thereafter departed for London, and now lives in Germany. The two younger girls unhappily attended an ulpan – when they weren’t playing hooky – and then the Denmark School. “They couldn’t wait to leave, but 24 years later they are still here, one in Modi’in and one in Reut,” Lawson says. She now enjoys a close relationship with her seven grandchildren.
Looking for an outlet for Leah’s singing talent, the Lawsons came across JEST (Jerusalem English Speaking Theater). “Stan and I became scenery-schleppers, costume-sewers – anything they needed,” she says. Every time she visited Germany, she brought something back for JEST productions, items from stage makeup to popgun rifles for Annie Get Your Gun.
“Stan was in a show, and I got talked into doing Steel Magnolias,” Lawson recalls. She had to take on a tutor originally from Louisiana to learn a proper Southern US accent for the part of the mayor’s wife. “It was a lot of fun, but I could never remember my lines,” she confesses. In the meantime, she wasn’t having much better luck at ulpan. “I went three times a week from 1988 to 1991, and I had to be the ulpan’s biggest failure,” she says. “I was disappointed with myself, but I had mostly English-speaking friends so I got on fine.”
When the Berlin Wall came down, Stanley Lawson’s company started pressuring him to return to Munich. So in 1991, the couple went back and stayed for 16 years. Lawson became active in the Munich branch of the International Women’s Club, and in 1997 she organized a trip to Israel for about 30 members. She led another in 1999 that included a side trip to Petra.
“Then at some point we just decided it was time to come back to Israel,” she says. “We felt strongly we wanted to be here.” The women in her club persuaded her to arrange a third Israel tour once she moved back. “People wanted to start bringing their husbands, and we did a wonderful trip with guys as well in 2010, and again in March 2011,” she says. “For me the biggest kick was to send back 28 international visitors, who would say, ‘You know what? Israel is a fantastic place.”
Lawson’s home is decorated with her own oil paintings and a few pieces of the pottery she is learning to make. She plays bridge on Sundays, works out three times a week and goes with Stanley to a JEST play-reading group twice a month.
On Mondays, Lawson volunteers at the nearby Hadassah University Medical Center Mount Scopus campus. She sews therapeutic gloves, slings and fabric gadgets for patients in the occupational therapy department. Friday mornings usually find the couple at Mahaneh Yehuda market, and Shabbat dinner is often shared with their daughters’ families.
The Lawsons are well-traveled, having visited Vietnam, the US, the British Isles, France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, Jordan and Poland. “One place I still think about going is Australia,” Lawson mused.
But Israel, she says, is where she feels at home.