Passage from Mira Hamermesh's memoirs THE RIVER BARKS AT NIGHT  

I loved the idea of being an English-speaking person. The attempt to learn the language had begun in pre-war Poland. At school, the choice of foreign language was French or German, but my Father nursed a hope that in the future at least one of his children would assist him with his commercial dealings with England. He hired a neighbour's son, a student of English, to give us lessons. The young man was timid and would blush at the slightest provocation. Predictably, my brother dropped out, my sister was lukewarm about it and I was the one who tried to memorise sentences, which included 'the cat sat on the mat'.

Hitler's invasion had put a stop to the English lessons. The war had brought linguistic chaos into my life. Within a short period of time (1940-45), in quick succession, I was exposed to four language changes: Russian, Lithuanian, Hebrew and English. The crossings of linguistic boundaries paralleled my border crossings….


The route to English was filled with obstacles, but the effort was worthwhile. As well as giving access to St. James' version of the Bible, Shakespeare and other linguistic treasures, to become an English-speaking person was regarded everywhere in the world as a privilege, offering many advantages in life. The British Empire may have been shrinking territorially, but linguistically it was victorious. English was becoming a universal language and the British Council, the 'language missionaries', had paved the way for this unparalleled conquest.


My linguistic transition to English was not without trepidation. After all, one was taking on a literary legacy of tremendous status. Would I ever dare write in this language the stories that were crawling like insects inside my skull? When I first timidly put pen to paper, I would hide the results in a drawer to which nobody had access. The term, writing 'for the drawer', used to describe the case of Russian dissidents hiding from the secret police, was an apt description of my own case. I was hiding, not from the KGB, but from a harsh internal taskmaster hissing into my ear, "How dare you use the language of Shakespeare?" I was afraid that English, my borrowed language, would find my alien spirit uncongenial. I had before me an image of a bouncer who kept guard at the gates leading to the English heritage fortress. Surely, anyone could see at a glance that I was a gatecrasher! ...


After a few years of secretive writing, my psyche began to feel linguistically more relaxed. But if a word I that I was after would slip from my grasp, or be replaced with a word from another language blotting out the original English, I would be reduced to a state of panic. It was a reminder that an eviction from my new linguistic residence could be served on me at any time. The anxiety about losing a grip on the only language I now possessed for self-expression was real, however unreasonable. The self-consciousness about being engaged in a charade would imperceptibly creep upon me: I was and was not entirely at home in the English language...

In spite of my fears about English being snatched from me, my spirit was flourishing in the English culture.…..

  English had turned out to be a magnanimous verbal stepmother, keen to make up for the loss of my mother tongue. The metaphorical gatekeeper was after so many years now a paralytic old man and the gates were wide open. True, I was an outsider, still insecure, still liable to mess up tenses or syntax, or put commas in the wrong place, but on the whole I no longer felt like a gatecrasher. When I hear English-born people massacre their own language through indifference or ignorance, I feel like shouting at them: "For heavens sake, think about us, we who had to struggle so hard to master it!" It hurts to hear it maltreated.'