Interviewed by Moses Seitler
3 October 2019
My name is Rafel George Anticoni. I was born on 29 October, 1933 in London.
Paternal family history
My father was born in 1900 in Constantinople. He was, I think, the third of four siblings. My grandfather died in 1918, during – but not in – the First World War, leaving a widow and four children.
The eldest brother, Maurice, came to England on his own. He subsequently married Rachel Cohen who was born in Caracas. They had a son, Ralph, who is four or five years older than me. Maurice and Rachel – or Rachele, as she was known in the family – were divorced in the late ’40s or early ’50s. She went back to Caracas with Ralph, who was subsequently killed in a road accident. Maurice died after that, so that’s all about the eldest.
The next sibling was Sarah. She had a head for figures and she moved from Constantinople to Paris with her mother, another Rachele Anticoni. Sarah married Paul Freud in about 1933, which was when my mother was expecting me. Sarah and Paul had no children. Then my father came to England some time in the ’20s, I don’t know exactly when. He met my mother in the late Twenties, early Thirties. They got married in about 1930/31. I was born in ’33 and they got divorced in ’38 or ’39.
The last sibling was Albert. He went to Paris at the same time as Sarah, but they lived separately. He was a very successful businessman and made quite a lot of money.
During the war, the members of the family in France – that’s Sarah, her husband Paul, her mother Rachele and Albert – all moved to Spain. I don’t know the ins and outs of how they got there, but they were Ladino-Spanish speakers so it was much easier for them than for Ashkenazi people. During the war, Albert married a lady called Amparito Matteo Marin, but unfortunately he died towards the end of the war.
So, the point of mentioning the four siblings is that, out of the four siblings, I am the only surviving child in my generation. Then there are my children, of course. Paul is the only Anticoni and he’s got girls, so the name will die out, you may say.
So, that is my father’s side of the family.
The maternal side
My mother was one of three sisters – Lily, Phyllis (my mother) and Georgette – born to Isaac and Therese Abrahamson. Isaac, or George, after whom I was named, was a restaurateur who ran a kosher restaurant in the West End, in Denman Street, called Abrahamson’s.Therese was born Therese Agi, which is a Sephardi name.
There is a query over the name Abrahamson, because Isaac’s father’s surname was Kalski. Kalski came to England from Poland reputedly with a piece of paper with the family recipe for vurscht [borscht] upon which his subsequent success was based. But that is, I fear, unverified.
Now, Kalski changed his name to Goldblum, and at some stage the Goldblums changed their name to Abrahamson. The joking side of the family said that these name changes were to conceal the fact that they were Jewish – from Kalski to Abrahamson to Goldblum! There is some unclearness about the use of the names Goldblum and Abrahamson, because Isaac’s Ketubah note, which I have, was changed after issue – presumably by him. In the margin he’s changed his surname, but my mother, Phyllis, who was always known as Phyllis Abrahamson – I think that her birth certificate actually shows her as Phyllis Goldblum.
Now, coming back to the three girls, the eldest, Lily, married Leon Aleon in the early Thirties. They had two girls, Marcelle and Andre. Marcelle subsequently married Ike Ergas, and Andre married Ronnie Brooks. Marcelle died a year and a half ago. Andre is still alive, but Ronnie Brooks – I think they were divorced and he subsequently died. They had two children: Alison Brooks, who is the state archaeologist for the American state of Washington, not Washington DC. The other child of Andre and Ronnie Brooks was James Brooks, who now lives in Singapore. He worked for the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. I think he’s married to a Chinese girl, but I don’t think they have any children. So that is Lily. She sadly died in 1947, when my mother was pregnant with my sister Vicky.
Phyllis married my father, Joe Anticoni, and had me. After divorcing my father, 10 years later she married Jules Ben Nathan, who was the president of the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue in Holland Park during the whole of the war period. Jules died in 1957, I think.
Now, the third sister, Georgette, was much younger than the other two. She was the brainy one in the family. She got a job as a secretary with Columbia Pictures’ London office before the war. She joined the WAAF, where she was rapidly promoted and ended up as a Flight Officer. During the war, she was transferred from the Air Ministry to the British Joint Staff mission to Washington. After the war she came back and shortly after, she married Jack Behar. Jack tragically also died in 1957, so two sisters were widowed in the same year, which was a terrible thing.
Going back again, my grandmother Therese was one of three sisters all born in France. There was Rachel, who I think was the eldest and then Therese and then Leah. Therese had married Isaac Abrahamson, Rachele married – I’ve forgotten for the moment the French side of the family – and Leah married somebody Katz. They had a daughter, Rosie, who married Leon Samuels and they had one daughter, Penny. Penny subsequently married Vivian Martin. They had two sons,
Back to the Anticonis: they lived in Constantinople and spoke Ladino at home. One definition of Sephardim is related to the speaking of Ladino, and that was their lingua franca. My father and his siblings went to a school founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a French organisation which had a chain of schools all over the Mediterranean. So, at school they spoke French. Turkish was only spoken to shopkeepers and servants. I only heard my father speak Turkish once, to the Turkish owner of a grocer’s shop in Paris.
Ladino was the language that my father and [my wife] Ros’s father spoke all the time. My mother didn’t speak Ladino. But I must have spent hours watching my father playing cards and talking to his friends in Ladino. So, I grew up understanding it and in fact, I still subscribe to a Ladino magazine called El Amaneser, which means ‘dawn’. It’s a supplement to a weekly newspaper called Shalom, which is published in Turkish with one page in each issue in Ladino. I also used to subscribe to a much more cultural Ladino magazine called Aki Yerushalayim, but they now only publish that about once or twice a year.
Ladino was written in a Hebrew script called Solitreo. I used to have a Tanakh [Bible] in Hebrew and Ladino, but I donated it to the British Museum. At one time, I was collecting, from friends and acquaintances, documents, including postcards, written in Solitreo. And I had a correspondent in Israel, a chap called Dolph Cohen, who I think is now a rabbi, who is an expert and who would translate handwritten Solitreo documents for me.
Remember, the generation preceding me spoke Ladino all the time. I mean, 20 years ago, half the synagogue was Ladino speakers. But my father-in-law’s generation have now died out and the subsequent generations, only two or three people speak and there’s not that many people left to speak to.
I’ve been a member of the Spanish & Portuguese synagogue in Holland Park since 1951 or ’52, when I went to university. We lived in Northolt, which meant we had to travel a long way to get there. I mean, forget the religious prohibition that is broken – it is odd. Our children went to cheder there every week. But there were lots of family connections: Jules Ben Nathan, my stepfather, was the president of the synagogue for many years. My uncle by marriage – Lily’s husband, Leon Aleon – was president several times.
We use a supplementary prayer book with prayers in Ladino, particularly on the Yamim Noraim [High Holy Days]. Our piyyutim [lyrical prayers] are completely different to what you would find in an Ashkenazi book.
My uncle Leon Aleon would encourage me to go to synagogue with him – not every Shabbat, but on the festivals. After my parents were divorced, and until I was married, I lived with my father who was not at all observant. So, for example, every festival I would spend with the Aleons, who lived around the corner from me. This didn’t bother my father, because he was very touchy about my contact with the Ben Nathans, but he had been friendly with Leon Aleon since the early Twenties. So, there was a crowd of family and friends. And I would go every erev Rosh Hashanah or erev Sukkot, I would always go round to Leon’s.
Seder nights are really the ones one remembers. Most Seder nights I would associate with my Uncle Leon, and before that, Auntie Lily. But one Seder night, during the war, a lot of the Sephardi community of Holland Park moved to Leicester, including my Uncle Leon and Auntie Lily. I was at a boarding school, and for safety purposes, coming back to London during the Blitz was not a clever thing to do. So, I used to spend my school holidays in Leicester, 90 per cent of the time with the Aleons, because Marcelle and Andre, when we were small, we grew up like brother and sister. But one Seder night I remember, I went to my uncle Maurice and my cousin Ralph, who was my childhood hero. He was four or five years older than me and with boys, you know, when you’re about nine and your big cousin is thirteen…
My Bar Mitzvah
When I was at school, Bar Mitzvahs were relatively low key. My Bar Mitzvah took place at my Jewish boarding school, Wittingham College. During the war it was in Carmarthenshire in Wales, but it was originally in Brighton and went back to Brighton after the war, but it’s since closed. About a dozen relations came down to the school hall synagogue. The tradition was that the Bar Mitzvah family provided a tea for the whole school, which was a very good idea. The idea was to stop competition. I had no idea that Bar Mitzvahs were celebrated in ways that they are now until I was about 16 or 17, when I went to a big Bar Mitzvah in town. It didn’t have that connotation in my day.
The importance of food
My Auntie Rachele was the most phenomenal cook ever – my mother always said Rachele was the tops. And when Rabbi Solomon Gaon was inaugurated as the Chakam of the Spanish & Portuguese synagogue in about 1947, Holland Park put on a dinner and Auntie Rachele did the cooking.
Food is one way of traditions passing down and being observed long after people may have died. There’s a special Rosh Hashana soup that has about seven or eight vegetables in, so that you can combine it. The only thing is, I never remember the cooked sheep’s head. Fish head, but not sheep’s head…