Bi­og­ra­phy’s no laugh­ing mat­ter

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roger Lewis

I Know Noth­ing! The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy

By Andrew Sachs The Rob­son Press, 336pp, $39.99 (HB) CO­ME­DI­ANS al­ways like to claim they started mak­ing jokes af­ter child­hoods made harsh by poverty; that at a for­ma­tive age they were tor­mented by ap­palling cru­elty and ne­glect. Griff Rhys Jones had to leave Wales at the age of six days, for in­stance.

Nev­er­the­less, the Chap­lin fam­ily could af­ford a maid in Ken­ning­ton. The Leeds of Alan Ben­nett and the More­cambe of Vic­to­ria Wood al­ways sound cosy, and there was not much wrong with Barry Humphries’s salu­bri­ous Mel­bourne, though I con­cede it has been knocked flat by ”de­vel­op­ers” since.

But with Andrew Sachs the hor­rors were very real, as he writes in this au­to­bi­og­ra­phy: “Aged eight, I stood open-mouthed as a num­ber of men, wield­ing wooden clubs, shat­tered the front of a shoe shop. It was Novem­ber 9, 1938. Kristall­nacht.’’

Sachs, best known as the waiter Manuel in the 1970s tele­vi­sion com­edy Fawlty Tow­ers, was born in Berlin, with a Jewish fa­ther and a Catholic mother. Hans Sachs was a dec­o­rated World War I vet­eran of “solid-gold Prus­sian an­ces­try’’.

This now counted for noth­ing. He was a distin­guished lawyer, but work dried up: “Long­stand­ing clients found it nec­es­sary to take their busi­ness else­where.’’ On top of that, a 20 per cent tax was levied on Jewish property.

Sachs’s mother’s jew­ellery was con­fis­cated. The fam­ily was hu­mil­i­at­ingly thrown out of their favourite restau­rant and ha­rassed gen­er­ally: “Jewish pa­tron­age was no longer wel­come.” In­sult was added to in­jury when a “col­lec­tive fine of one bil­lion marks was levied on Jews to pay for the dam­age” caused by all the Nazi By 1942, they were all dead. “This ter­ri­ble event weighed heav­ily on her con­science for the rest of her life,’’ writes Wasser­stein. Later, she would risk ar­rest by re­fus­ing to hand over to other se­nior Nazis Jewish names or ad­dresses.

She even­tu­ally fell out with her boss at the Jewish Coun­cil, co-chair­man David Co­hen, who was re­viled for his sub­servience to the Ger­mans. In fact, in 1947 Co­hen was ar­rested for col­lab­o­rat­ing with the en­emy, but the case was dropped in “the pub­lic in­ter­est’’. Wasser­stein writes that in 1943, Co­hen crossed “the last moral bar­rier’’ when he selected for de­por­ta­tion to con­cen­tra­tion camps 7000 coun­cil em­ploy­ees, ef­fec­tively de­cid­ing who among his van­dal­ism. The Sach­ses were for­tu­nate to have the where­withal to es­cape; Jews want­ing to leave the Re­ich had to pur­chase ex­pen­sive per­mits and exit visas. Hans “packed his bags and saved his life”, and the rest of the fam­ily fol­lowed soon af­ter­wards, aban­don­ing their apart­ment and heir­loom fur­ni­ture. Bour­geois com­fort was ex­changed for refugee sta­tus in Lon­don’s Hatch End.

Sachs vividly re­calls his first sight of the Lon­don pop­u­lace: char­ac­ters straight out of Hog­a­rth or Cruik­shank en­grav­ings, “dis­play­ing un­sightly blem­ishes and bandy legs, em­bar­rass­ing acne, cold sores, moles, boils, crusty warts and false teeth that clat­tered”. The fam­ily ended up in the damp base­ment of a house in Op­p­i­dans Road, owned by Pol­ish an­thro­pol­o­gist Bro­nislav Mali­nowski, which was later “crushed to pieces by a V2 rocket”.

Sachs Sr was in­terned for the du­ra­tion on the Isle of Man. “We were told that the Bri­tish wanted to make sure there were no Nazi staff would die and who would live. Van Tijn was vi­o­lently op­posed to this.

In 1944, she was in­terned at Ber­gen-Belsen. She sur­vived but af­ter the war, there was so much re­sent­ment of her in Am­s­ter­dam, she could no longer work with the city’s shat­tered Jewish com­mu­nity. She set­tled in the US and helped a size­able num­ber of Jewish refugees who were stranded in Shang­hai to set­tle in Aus­tralia.

By the war’s end, about 75 per cent of The Nether­lands’ 140,000 Jews had been ex­ter­mi­nated, one of the high­est death rates in Europe. In con­trast, it is es­ti­mated that more than half the Jews who went into hid­ing in the coun­try in­fil­tra­tors.’’ When he was re­leased, he got stomach cancer and died. Sachs Jr did his best to blend in and learn a new lan­guage: lu­va­duck, cor blimey, wotcher mate and shitabrick. His first con­fi­dent English sen­tence was: “We got a ca­nary, you know. Lovely lit­tle f..ker.”

As an as­sim­i­lated cock­ney, Sachs was given work as an ex­tra in Eal­ing come­dies. He toured Wales for the Arts Coun­cil. In Manch­ester he was di­rected in a flop by a pompous Noel Coward. He says lit­tle about his ca­reer as an ac­tor in this au­to­bi­og­ra­phy: noth­ing about how he started or what made him choose the pro­fes­sion.

He does men­tion in pass­ing that “there are times when you have to be care­ful about what you re­veal of yourself, in or­der to fit in” — so it could be ar­gued that as a ter­ri­fied Jewish im­mi­grant, on the run from Nazi per­se­cu­tion, a world of dis­guise and mas­quer­ade was also a world of con­ceal­ment. Such was his fa­cil­ity that in an aver­age month he would ap­pear in 17 ra­dio pro­duc­tions at the BBC.

Farces with Brian Rix and Ray Cooney led, in 1975, to the of­fer from John Cleese for Sachs to play Manuel, the waiter from Barcelona whose catch­phrase gives this book its ti­tle. Nearly 40 years on, Fawlty Tow­ers is still be­ing re­peated around the world. But are the jokes about dumb da­gos and wops re­ally very funny? What hap­pens with com­edy, over time, is that it be­comes tragedy.

Sachs didn’t have much fun film­ing Fawlty Tow­ers. He was con­cussed by a fry­ing pan and set on fire in a kitchen scene. The BBC grudg­ingly paid him 700 in com­pen­sa­tion, and the scars did heal af­ter sev­eral years. But Sachs doesn’t like to make a fuss. As Cleese says, in real life Sachs is in­cred­i­bly non­de­script, like a civil ser­vant. This is his strat­egy, of course. The lit­tle boy from Berlin, keep­ing his head down. Rose­mary Neill is a se­nior jour­nal­ist on The Aus­tralian.

The Spec­ta­tor sur­vived. If Am­s­ter­dam’s Jewish Coun­cil had en­cour­aged more Jews to go into hid­ing, would more have sur­vived?

Was van Tijn, who died in the US in 1974, a Nazi dupe or a cham­pion of her people? Wasser­stein’s care­fully ar­gued, com­pas­sion­ate nar­ra­tive sug­gests that at dif­fer­ent points in her life she was both.

He also con­cludes, quite rightly, that the “com­plex­ity of the hor­rors of her time pre­clude any sim­ple cat­e­gori­sa­tion of the re­sponses of those caught up in Nazism’s ten­ta­cles’’.

Andrew Sachs as Manuel in

Fawlty Tow­ers

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