An old Jewish joke tells of an old Jewish man saying: “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Had he lived longer, my father would be 100 years old today, and still not taking any care of himself.
Born on 8th September 1915 in Vienna, he lived through the worst of times – two World Wars – but also through the best of times, for him, as philosophy and technology were converging to enable his breakthroughs to impact on all our lives. I believe that his work in Linguistics was instrumental in allowing to talk to computers in our languages – not theirs.
Born to a well-to-do family on the move from Poland to Germany, Oscar Westreich was able to sing soprano in the Vienna Opera Choir. It gave him a fondness for the songs of Schubert and as his voice turned to a mellow baritone he would entertain us by singing Roslein von der Heiden alongside the traditional Friday night Jewish chants he was to learn later.
Growing up in Berlin in the 20s as the baby of a family whose wealth was in property, Oscar’s sister Berta was 10 years his senior and his brother Shmuel older still. But before his was 12 his father died on the operating table of peritonitis (burst appendix), not uncommon in pre-antibiotics times. His mother died not long after, at least partly of a broken heart. They were both only in their 40s.
Young Oscar attended both the Berlin Gymnasia (top high school) and Yeshiva (Jewish seminary) and graduated from both in 1933 with the highest grades ever achieved. But as he was celebrating he saw the Reichtag go up in flames (a Nazi provocation falsely blamed on “Jews and Bolsheviks”) and realised the writing was on the wall. With literally nothing but the shirt on his back he left his comfortable middle-class home and family and went to Palestine.
Although his aim was to pursue his studies, being penniless meant that for the first few years he had to work on the land on a kibbutz. Life was nothing like the fun holidays people go on nowadays: the work was backbreaking and spades were bloody shovels. He acquired a nice tan in time for the arrival, in 1936, of his saviour in the shape of my mother.
They had become engaged as 18-year-olds as Berta had married my mother’s cousin and the youngsters met on family holiday in the Polish resort of Zhakopane. My mother, too, was the baby of her family with far older brothers and a sister with families of their own. But having my father waiting for her in Palestine enabled her to leave a loving family and go to join him, which literally saved her life.
As soon as she got a job as a school teacher in Jerusalem my father was able to resume his studies. But in January 1943, when news of the fate of the Jews of Europe was reaching Palestine, my father could not hide behind his books. He joined the British Army and spent the next three years training and rising to the rank of sergeant in the Jewish Brigade. I have written about this fascinating part of his life and the brigade separately and will be happy to send a copy to anyone who may be interested.
Demobbed in early 1946, it was back to the books for a while. But then the Israeli/Arab war broke out and Oscar was in uniform again, now as a lieutenant in the Israel Defence Force, and now known as Lt Yehoshua (his Hebrew name from birth) Bar-Hillel (after his late father Hillel).
With that war over, Yehoshua Bar-Hillel completed his PhD and took his young family (I was four, my sister Maya seven) to MIT in Cambridge, across the ocean, for his post-grad. We were supposed to stay for a year but ended up staying for three.
My memories are patchy (Chicken Pox ruining my debut as a ballet dancer (!), whooping cough, climbing street lamps like a monkey and watching the neighbours’ 3” television while they yelled at each other in the kitchen). But I do remember walks along the Charles River and my father making up stories for us about the adventures of two naughty squirrels, Anushka and Bulbula. After a while I acquired so much faith in his story-telling abilities that for a long time I believe he had actually written The Jungle Book. Even now whenever I hear the name Riki-Tikki-Tavi I think not only of the intrepid cobra-slaying mongoose but of my intrepid father as well.
During those three years I became bilingual in English and Yehoshua met Noam Chomsky and began a lifelong relationship and working partnership. Much as I would like to, I cannot tell you what it is that they did – athough history can. I shunned the academic world in favour of the realities of news and became a reporter which I still am.
The best compliment ever came one day when, after hearing one of my reports on the evening news, he turned to my mother and said: “She doesn’t talk rubbish”.
Having lost around five years of his career to the wars, Yehoshua finally caught up and got the rewards due to him before – and remarkably even more so after – his tragically early death just after his 60th birthday. I was already living in London then and was amazed, reading his incredible obituaries, to find how many people knew of him and his work and how highly they all thought of him. I should not have been.
Forty years on I still have a life-size photo of him above my computer and I often look to him for advice and guidance. It never fails.
I am totally his daughter in many ways, but not this: my father had no malice in him. His total inability to suffer fools (it’s not easy being a genius) and his utter lack of tact could have been confused for malice, but I knew – and know – better. His wit could be cutting, even wounding, but never with malicious intent.
I try to be more like him, and fail, and try again. I will keep trying.
Thank you, Yehoshua, for all you’ve been and done for me. I love you and always will.