Life with the Cambergs

On a cold, crisp afternoon in October 1998 about twenty members of the Edinburgh Jewish community met in the Jewish section of Newington Cemetery to reconsecrate two gravestones – one for my paternal grandmother, Rachel Spark, and one for my great-great aunt, Sarah Joel. As we shall see Sarah had a very important contribution to make in my life.

In the autumn of 1945 I arrived in this country from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and came to stay with my maternal grandparents, Bernard and Sarah Camberg. It was to be a strange and exciting but rather tumultuous time. My sojourn with the Cambergs was to last for the remainder of their lives, until my grandmother passed away in her eighty-fifth year.

Life with the Cambergs was never dull. Grandmother loved company and the visits of her friends from the Jewish community were always happy events and often prolonged. Her non-Jewish neighbours often visited her too, including Lady Illingworth and her two sisters, Mona Crabb and Betty Crabe. (Curiously, though their surnames were spelt differently, they were pronounced alike.) Grace Illingworth and Mona Crabb lived in the tenement immediately opposite ours, and Betty, who had a house in Crail, was often with them. The three ladies and my grandmother were great chums. What they chatted about I do not know, but there were always hoots of laughter when they visited. I surmised that, like grandmother, they had been very attractive young ladies in their time and would have had many dashing suitors. Perhaps they were reminiscing about these young men or about the various characters in the neighbourhood.

Another caller was Mrs Morris, mother of the Scotsman columnist Albert Morris. Like my grandmother, she was Jewish and they enjoyed talking about the highs and lows of the Jewish community, who was doing well and who was not, whose children were getting married and whose divorced – it was all grist to the mill. But grandmother loved the company of young people in their late teens or early twenties just as much as that of those of her own generation. When I went to shul on Shabbat, she loved me to bring back visitors to share our Sabbath meal.

The Cambergs were warm, friendly, outgoing people who attracted like-minded people of different faiths and persuasions. My own tolerance and love of different peoples is largely due to my having taken on board their philosophy of life. Above all, however, I absorbed their staunch belief in Judaism. Faced with a rather unruly and troubled grandson in his eighth year, my grandparents nevertheless showered me with kindness and affection. I had no prior knowledge of Judaism and very little of my own family background. However, my grandparents soon set about putting matters right. Grandfather took me to visit the Reverend Bernard Zucker, teacher to our community from whom I was to learn Hebrew and prepare for my Barmitzvah. My grandparents had seen their own son through to his Barmitzvah and they repeated the process with me. In due course I said Maftir and Haftarah and subsequently enjoyed the celebrations at the Balmoral Restaurant in Princes’ Street. Some very happy Erev Shabbat and Seder nights were spent at the Zuckers’ flat in Clerk Street and I still have and sometimes wear the yarmulke that Mrs Zucker embroidered for my thirteenth birthday.

My grandparents remained members of the congregation all their lives. One Annual Report and Financial Statement, for the Salisbury Road Synagogue in 1932-33, shows that Mr B Camberg was allocated seat number E427 and that he owed £3:7s. He paid £1.19.9d leaving arrears of £1.7.3d. Mrs Camberg was allocated seat number D373 and owed £2.10.3d which was paid in full. (Should our industrious Treasurer, Mr Bill Simpson, find that my grandparents’ arrears were never cleared, I would be happy to wipe their slate clean!) My grandparents’ son Philip had his Barmitzvah in the Graham Street Synagogue on Saturday 1 August 1925.

Having lived with my grandparents from my early childhood until their deaths, I came to know them extremely well. They had a long and successful marriage and always showed great affection for each other, although they were in many ways contrasting beings.

My maternal grandmother, Sarah, was English, the child of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother. To her dying day she retained her clear English accent. She had a natural chic and her interests were artistic and creative. My grandfather, Bernard, on the other hand, was a hard-working practical Scot with a love of football and horse-racing. An engineer to trade, he worked for over forty years with the North British Rubber Company in Edinburgh.

So how did these two individuals, Bernard, a first-generation Scottish Jew, and Sarah, the offspring of assimilation, meet? From an early age, I was fascinated by stories, especially those of my own kith and kin, and I listened attentively to this one.

The story really starts with Sarah’s grandmother, my great-grandmother, Adelaide Hyams, by all accounts a most remarkable lady. Adelaide came from a Jewish family that settled to the East End of London in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Prior to her marriage, my grandmother told me, Adelaide had been in the service of Louisa, Lady de Rothschild. Although her elder sisters, Sarah and Kitty, both married Orthodox Jews, Adelaide married a non-Jew, Thomas Uezzel. The marriage took place in St Bartholomew’s Church, Bethnal Green, on 3 January 1886. Adelaide seems to have been the kind of person who did nothing by halves and she threw herself with gusto into her new lifestyle in the town of Watford, some twenty miles north-west of London. She continued to maintain close and affectionate ties with both her sisters. Kitty had married Philip Abrahams in 1869 and Sarah had married Henry Joel in 1876, both marriages taking place in Orthodox synagogues. Kitty remained in the East End, but Sarah moved up to Edinburgh. Adelaide, by then widowed, spent the last few years of her life with my grandparents in Edinburgh, and when she died in 1933 she was buried in the Jewish section of Piershill Cemetery.

Adelaide described herself as a ‘Gentile Jewess’, by which she meant that she was a Jew by birth who lived with her Christian husband in a non-Jewish environment. But she retained a loyalty to her Jewish roots and, when her daughter Sarah (known in the family as Cissie) reached her late teens, she sent her to live with her recently widowed sister Sarah here in Edinburgh, so that she might take her place in a Jewish community. Adelaide’s two sons followed in the Christian tradition of their father.

I must say that I am extremely grateful to my grandmother’s aunt Sarah Joel for agreeing to Cissie staying with her in Edinburgh. Had she not done so, Cissie would not have met and fallen in love with the short, stocky but handsome young man who was to become her husband, and there would have been no Robin Spark today!

It was her mother’s idea, my grandmother explained to me, that she, Cissie, should come to Edinburgh to learn about the Jewish way of life and, if possible, meet an upstanding and loving partner in the community here and so return to the fold. Certainly Cissie’s knowledge of Judaism when she arrived in Edinburgh must have been rather sketchy. After all, she had grown up in a non-Jewish environment and the Uezzel family were Anglicans. No doubt her aunt Sarah Joel had much to teach her. But the beliefs and customs of Judaism would not have been entirely foreign to her. She had a close friend in her cousin Ada, one of the seven daughters of her aunt Kitty Abrahams. Postcards still remain which were sent by Ada from her home at 111 Victoria Park Road in the early 1900s to my then teenage grandmother at her parents’ home in Watford. They constitute an animated and happy correspondence, and I judge Ada to have been no less a joyful and positive person than my grandmother was.

From the time of her arrival in Edinburgh, my grandmother practised Judaism and, in due course, she married my grandfather. The wedding took place in London. She and Aunt Sarah Joel stayed with Aunt Kitty Abrahams in Victoria Park Road before the wedding at the East London Synagogue on 1 February 1911. Aunt Sarah signed as witness. My grandmother signed her name as Sarah Uezzel Hyams, taking her grandfather’s name because her own father was not Jewish. I have the ketubah (their marriage certificate) in my possession.

It is probable that the Hyams family came from Lithuania. The Cambergs certainly originated there, my grandfather belonging to the first generation to be born in this country. Grandfather had ten brothers and sisters. But even before setting in Lithuania, the Cambergs were used, as a rabbinical family, to being on the move. The name Camberg is really that of a town in Germany whence they came to Lithuania.

The Spark family also emigrated to this country from Lithuania. My paternal grandfather, Samuel Spark, whose name I bear, had at one time been conscripted into the Russian army. To avoid further service in the Russian-Japanese conflict, he came to this country with his wife, Rachel, and little son, my father, Sydney Oswald Spark. Two more children were born to Samuel and Rachel after they settled in Edinburgh. Alas, at the age of thirty-eight, Rachel died in childbirth when my father was only nine years old, leaving him to care for his younger brother and sister while Samuel travelled around the farms and villages of the Borders selling his goods.

Despite hardship and deprivation, my father was a brilliant scholar. Assisted by scholarships, he took his MA degree at Edinburgh University. For a boy from a relatively poor background, this was a major achievement. My father would have liked to pursue a career in medicine but the cost of taking such a long degree was out of the question. So he became a teacher instead. Before the Second World War he emigrated to Southern Rhodesia. My mother went out to join him there, they were married and I was born there. Among my dearest possessions is the samovar my grandfather Samuel Spark brought with him from his home in Lithuania.

My paternal grandmother, Rachel Spark, my Camberg great-grandparents, and Sarah and Henry Joel are all buried in the Jewish section of Newington Cemetery. Giant hogweed had taken over and much of the cemetery was impenetrable. In 1994 Edinburgh City Council acquired it and a transformation took place which enabled me to locate the gravestone of Henry Joel, which was still upright; that of his wife, Sarah, which was in a sorry state, having fallen from its plinth and so blackened that the inscription was barely discernible. Of Rachel Spark’s stone I could find no sign.

To the rescue came Mr George Bell of the City of Edinburgh Council’s Burial Services Department. His search through the records located the lair and we found upon it a large gravestone lying face down and half submerged in the ground. I had Rachel’s stone re-erected and professionally cleaned. When I went to look at it after this work had been done, there stood revealed a magnificent white marble gravestone sparkling in the sunshine.

Inspired by this success, I then had Sarah Joel’s stone renovated. Lo and behold, another beautiful white marble memorial emerged. And so we come back to the reconsecration ceremony with which this article began. I should like to record my warmest thanks and appreciation to Mr Alec Rubenstein for officiating at the service and to all my friends who so kindly gave up their time to be present at the ceremony. My forebears had, I felt, been most fittingly honoured.

The memorial stone to Henry Joel, Sarah’s husband, reveals that he was the son of the Reverend Moses Joel, whose long ministry to our community lasted from 1831 to1863. An engraving of the Rev Moses Joel, by J.G. Howie, can be seen in the Central Library on George IV Bridge. The engraving is reproduced in Abel Phillips’ A History of the Origins of the First Jewish Community in Scotland – Edinburgh 1816 (1979). I still possess the cover of a machzor bearing the signature of Rev Moses Joel, the second minister of the community. I also at one time had a rabbinical commentary belonging to and signed by him. I gave it on loan to our then rabbi, Rabbi Isaac Cohen. The book was mislaid and never returned. I therefore offer this maxim: ‘Never lend precious books to anyone, not even the Chief Rabbi of the Republic of Ireland!’, as Rabbi Cohen subsequently became. The Rev Moses Joel is also mentioned by the late Rabbi Dr Salis Daiches in his 1929 article ‘The Jew in Scotland’, in connection with the small synagogue in Richmond Court, which was used by the congregation for some fifty years from 1817 onwards.

I wonder how many more stories, interesting, amusing, sad, dramatic, lie behind the stones in the old cemetery? It would be wonderful if more of them could be restored and a part of our history properly recorded and preserved.

As for myself, I am sometimes a little sad to think that my particular twig on the family tree will sprout no more. But I am pleased to think that the tree is still branching vigorously all over the world.

After working as a civil servant, Samuel Robin Spark studied at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in1987. He is a painter and photographer, as well as a teacher of art.

A version of this article first appeared in the Edinburgh Star, the journal of the Edinburgh Jewish Community ( No. 32, February 1999/Adar 5759).