The Blind of Geneva

My oldest best friend since 1967 is Helga Abraham who now resides in Jerusalem and has become a proud Israeli. Helga influenced my life and was the first Sephardic Jew I ever met. She was born in Egypt and French educated living in Cairo until Nasser forced the Jews out of Egypt in 1956.

The Abraham family moved to Muswell Hill, London. Joe, her father, was a lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics (LSE). He was a Baghdadi Jew, originally andfrom Iraq, but grew up in Shanghai. Somehow he settled in Cairo.  Her mother grew up in Alexandria I believe of Russian descent and was a pianist.  She in turn had a sister who moved to Geneva after 1956 who had married a Swiss banker. They had no children and so Helga was like her 'daughter' always receiving wonderful hand knitted or crocheted sweaters and jackets throughout the 70s.  I would be so jealous of all these wonderful time consuming handmade knitwear creations which to buy would have cost a fortune.

Helga's brother Victor, who was a mathematician, eventually married a Hungarian woman called Aniko and I was invited to their wedding in North London. There I saw, for the only time, Helga's aunt and uncle, the honoured special guests from Geneva. It was a memorable international gathering from Budapest and Geneva. I still have a photo of myself that day with streaks of grey mesh in my parted in the middle hair so popular in the 70s and wearing a vintage silver fox fur stole over a black dress with a turquoise Navaho necklace.

The years rolled by. Helga's mother died unexpectedly on the operating table leaving an emotional Helga closer than ever to her aunt. When her aunt was eventually widowed she would often ask Helga to visit her from Jerusalem.  She needed help because her eyesight was failing fast and she knew one day she would be blind.

Helga was the dutiful niece and would accompany her aunt to the bank in Geneva where she kept a deposit box with documents and cash from her husband's banking days. The bank seemed to be the executors of her will. Throughout her life she had said Helga and Victor would inherit whatever she had. She lived frugally in a rented flat so it seemed. One day everything changed. She accused Helga of 'stealing' a document that she couldn't 'see' in her bank deposit box. Instead of getting the accompanying bank clerk to look thoroughly through her papers, it was easier to blame poor innocent Helga. 

Thus she threatened to cut Helga and Victor out of her will. Neither believed the rantings of a now blind deranged woman. More years went by and then she was at death's door. Helga had drifted from her aunt so Victor was elected to persuade his aunt to change the will she had declared she had changed taking pleasure in taunting her family. Victor and Joe flew to Geneva to be at her bedside but the stubborn woman would not change her mind, leaving all her assets to the charity 'The blind of Geneva.'

After her death the missing document was found of course where it always had been - in the box! Helga couldn't fight the bank for negligence from Israel nor Victor from London. Under Swiss law a proportion had to go to the next of kin and so Helga received something but not much plus some Egyptian or Turkish rugs and her uncle's library.

That was where I came in. I was living in Paris and working as a Juvenilia book dealer between London and Paris. I had a couple of colleagues in Geneva and a cousin Philip. One day Helga phoned me in Paris to help her sell the books. She was staying in her aunt's flat and so off I went to Geneva for an intense eventful week.

I gasped when I saw the old flat.  The decor was totally 1950s. Time had stood still. It was small, very orange, ochre and brown, the autumn colours popular for that decade and gemutlichkeit. I stayed a week with the worst cold ever introducing Helga to a dealer who bought the whole collection.  Helga met my cousin and they are still friends today even though I am no longer in touch.

I did not enjoy Geneva one scrap. I was taken to dinner by a Jewish Hungarian but Swiss citizen; a lottery ticket and share certificate collector I had met at the Ephemera Society fair in London. He told me how he disliked living in Geneva and explained he had no choice as he was interned in a transit camp at the end of the war in Budapest. He was standing in front of a door when he heard an announcement over the loud speaker that they were giving a limited number of exit visas to Switzerland. The door number was given and it was the one he was standing outside. So Switzerland it had to be.  We ate sweetmeats (bulls balls). I couldn't stop sneezing at the table and my nose was dripping into the onion soup when out of the blue he asked me if I wanted to go to bed with him! Why are men such idiots? He must have been completely desperate for sex.

I stared at the phone in the flat desperately wanting to call my mother's best friend Nancy Poirel who spent half her time in Geneva as an invigilator and ask about my mother's French Turkish lover but did not dare. I was duped by a Swiss book dealer paying for a mechanical book at the weekly flea market that he said he had in his antiquarian bookshop. He promised  he would post to me in London as I was leaving the next day. I trusted him but it never arrived.

For Helga it was the final Swiss chapter in her life. The Geneva book was done and dusted as they say in the trade but Zurich Zuspa collectors trade fair was yet to come with trouble from the Swiss customs Police some years later.

Written in Hotel Plaza Cavana, Nerja, Spain on 22/2/17.