David Tachauer

Interviewed by Anne Krisman Goldstein
5 August 2019

My name is David Tachauer. We think the name comes from Bayreuth in Bohemia, the little village of Tachov there, so we were probably Tachovan. But then in the passage of time as we’ve migrated across Europe and finished up in England, we finished up as Tachauer. There was a brief spell in France, where it’s pronounced Tash-where, so I then became known as Tasher. That’s what I know about my name.

Early family history
My great-great-grandfather, Leon David Tachauer, left Bohemia sometime in the early 1800s. He settled for a while in Holland, where he married his wife, Batsheva Montezinos Levy, and subsequently they moved to England. Unfortunately for him, and not all that rare for that period, he succumbed to TB quite soon after he came to England. They had one son before he died, David. Batsheva remarried, to a man called Pizarro, and they had a couple of children. But she died in 1922 as a result of an accident on the Mile End Road. It was reported in the newspaper. Batsheva was the daughter of Da Costa, a very prominent Sephardi family. Amongst other things, he owned and ran KPM Taxis for a long time.

David, my great-grandfather, was a very interesting character. He was orphaned very young, because his father died in 1870 or 1875, when he was only six or seven, and he grew up, probably, with the second father. He was remarkably small. Me, I’m 6 foot 1; he was 5 foot 1. He was an entertainer, and he married a non-Jewish entertainer; they both were in vaudeville. I don’t really know much about her, I think her name was Annie. They lived in south London, in Cleaver Square, Kennington, the same street as Charlie Chaplin.

My grandfather Leon, who was then born in Lambeth, he wasn’t so lucky, because David signed a contract to go on a world tour and he was never seen again. My brother Peter has traced David around the world. We know that he entertained in Africa, India, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand, washed up in California, and eventually became an American citizen, in Seattle, in 1903. This was the same year that my grandfather Leon was being inducted to Dr Barnardo’s, because his mother couldn’t cope with the four children David had left. So, David was out there touring the world and marrying four or five times – polygamously, as far as we know – while his poor son was sent to Barnardo’s.

A family divided
Barnardo’s, rightly or wrongly, decided that there was a better life available for these poor orphan children in the New World, so they got shipped off to Canada and were separated. There were two girls, two boys. The boys were sent to Canada, but on separate journeys. Subsequently we found out, after they had both died, that they were no more than two or three miles away from each other on separate farms.

David, Leon’s brother, was quite happy, and his family are still in Canada. But Leon, my grandfather, wasn’t happy. As soon as he was 16, he worked a passage across the Atlantic and landed in Southampton. He came off the ship, and immediately joined the army, because he had no education, no trade. He joined the Hampshire regiment, and then he kind of followed his father around the world, but as a colonial soldier. Obviously, he had no religious upbringing whatsoever. I mean, you know, it meant nothing to him. When he was demobbed in 1914, he was almost immediately recalled to the army in August.

Leon started calling himself Jack, and during the First World War he changed his name to Caston because he didn’t want the Germanic connotation of Tachauer. He spent the entirety of the war in France, where he met and married a Catholic Frenchwoman, Julia Emilia Morrell.

I always assumed that Leon was actually Jewish. It was only subsequently that I found out that in fact, Halachically, he was not Jewish at all – unless he had happened to have been brought up in the religious way by his father in either a Reform or Liberal congregation, in which case he would have been accepted for his Judaism. We assume that his mother was a Protestant. My father was born in France, and, through the Morrell side, he was brought up ostensibly Catholic.

Meeting my wife
One night I went to the Palais in Ilford with a friend. We all found spouses at a club in those days – unless we were active in a synagogue or a church and you might meet that way. So, we were at the Palais and I saw this lovely lady, so I danced with her for a while. She said she was from Israel, and I said, “How funny! My grandfather was Jewish.” She had come to England to learn English, and she worked as an au pair. We went out for a few months, and then we decided to get married.

Then the thorny subject comes up – that Mimi comes from an orthodox Yemenite Mizrahi family, and they’re not going to accept her marrying a 6’1” Goy. And I said, “Well, I’m very much brought up in a secular way, and I’m quite comfortable taking Judaism and seeing where we go from there.” So, we went to Marlborough Road Liberal synagogue and asked them what was involved, and they said, “Oh, it doesn’t really involve much. We’re Liberal here, do a little bit of learning, and then you have to have a ritual cut, and then – hey presto! – you’re Jewish.” And I remember thinking, it doesn’t sound very Jewish to me. I’m not even going to be circumcised.

Then I went to see another rabbi and did the conversion with him, and that meant we could have a Jewish wedding.

These days we lead an almost secular Jewish life, but we keep kosher. I’m not just doing it for convenience: if I’m gonna do it, I’m doing it properly. So, the children were Bar Mitzvah, and so on. My daughter, she married out – though she brings the children up Jewish, or to know they’re Jewish. They go to Jewish schools.

If we talk intellectually, it’s difficult to make a differentiation between the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi. But if we talk esoterically, we are 100 per cent Sephardi. My wife is Yemeni, which makes her Mizrahi Sephardi, and I speak Sephardic Hebrew. My son Leon, who now resides in the USA, is a prominent member of a Sephardi minyan in Englewick, New Jersey; his wife teaches at, and his children go to, a Sephardi Yeshiva school in Teaneck, New Jersey. You can’t get much more Sephardi than that.

Yemenite connections
A few months after we got married, we went to Israel and I met my in-laws for the first time. I had Jewish friends, I’d been to their houses, so I went to Israel thinking I knew what to expect. I thought I was going to get lockshen and all the rest of it, when in actual fact I was getting Yemenite food, which is quite hot. I was fine with that. So, from a dietary point it was different. But the funniest thing was when we went to their local Yemenite synagogue. I thought, “Well, I should be able to follow this. I’m not long finished [with] all this business.” But there was not one prayer I could keep up with. The accent was different, even the nuances, the musicality was different. But I loved it, and to this day I’m fascinated, I love going there. Everybody not only can pray, they know exactly what they’re praying and, like, little toddlers actually go up to the Sepher Torah, and they read the parsha. I was enchanted by it. 

The Yeminite Henna was amazing. In those the days, Yemenites still beat out their rhythm on a biscuit tin. They had no musical instruments at all, they were forbidden: when they were in the Yemen, they were forbidden as Jews to have anything like that, so they had to make do, and that was what they did. They banged out a rhythm on these biscuit tins, and lots of ululating.

What I love about the Yemenite culture is the very close family connections. It’s almost like in an Italian Catholic family or something: cousins, uncles, brothers, sisters, first, second and third cousins. Outside of the family there are acquaintances, but most of the acquaintances are married to a cousin. That’s what I found… it has its advantages and its disadvantages. No secrets.

There have been Yemenites in Israel for a long time: a couple of my friends are Yerushalmi, and they were there from the 1890s. I think the guy that established one of the first suburbs of Jerusalem, Rishon, he was a Yemenite, and he did very well for himself. He also established the Palestine airline and railway.

Mimi’s family history
Mimi was born in the Yemen, to a Yemeni family. Her mother, Simcha, was orphaned very young. Simcha’s mum died when she was no more than a toddler, then she lost her dad. When her father died, she was taken in by his sister, because otherwise she would have been taken by the Moslems and forcibly converted. She was subsequently introduced to one of her uncle’s brothers. I think they introduced her to a couple of these brothers until she accepted one. She was married at about 14, but she didn’t start having children until she was about 16.

Mimi was the fifth of eight; she was born in ’49. Basically, after ’48, when Israel was established, their lives in Yemen became absolutely intolerable. Then they were picked up by Shin Bet [the Israeli secret service] and taken down to the south, towards Aden. Between where they lived, in Oden – which was up in the hills – and where they got to, they had to pass quite a few tribal Arab areas. They had to give up everything they had – including a Torah scroll – to be allowed through. Down near Aden, there was a secret rendezvous, and they were flown away on an Iceland Air Dakota DC3 as part of the ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ to Israel.

So, Mimi came to Israel as a babe in arms. The family lived in a camp for a while before they moved up north to Nahariyah. They didn’t have sanitary facilities or anything like that in the camp, they had to wash themselves, wash their clothes in the stream. They lived in pretty much poverty.

Mimi’s father, he was an artisan, a seamster who made cushions and blankets and that. He arrived empty-handed, they arrived with what they were wearing. But they felt very, very lucky to be where they are, and they worked hard to hang on to what they’ve got. So, they are very strongly Zionist.

Deadly opportunity
The pioneers that set up Nahariyah – they were German yekkim: quite entrepreneurial, and they had no worries about employing Yemenis and Moroccans, at not very high wages, to do what they needed to have done. It’s understandable: this state had come from nowhere. Nahariyah was built on malaria-infested swamp, no question about it. But you’ve got to make a living, and sadly, they made a bad choice, which was to build an asbestos factory.

At the time it sounded like a great, golden opportunity: they employed a lot of people, brought a lot of money, a lot of trade to the area, but also hidden death. Her father was one of the first people to succumb to asbestos-related mesothelioma. He was 43 when he died, so my wife lost her dad when she was 17. And then her brother died of mesothelioma, when he’d spent only three months between leaving school and going in the army doing a little labouring job at the asbestos factory.

Another brother-in-law, Dani, is being treated for mesothelioma and he didn’t even work at the asbestos factory. But he worked at Ischar, an engineering company that makes rotor blades for jet engines. But the factory didn’t have a canteen, so the workers were sent to the canteen at the asbestos factory to have their dinner. He’s only been diagnosed recently.

I lost my mother-in-law 20 years ago from lung cancer. So, this one, this one, this one, all died of mesothelioma.