Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A great woman

It was with great sadness that I learnt yesterday of the death at the weekend of Hannah Baneth. Hannah was a great Deptford character, but also much more than that.

Hannah was born in Weimar-era Hamburg, where her father was a doctor. On both sides, her family line was one of scholars and rabbis, originally from Prague. In the early years of the Nazi regime, they emigrated to Palestine, where they already had some kin. Hannah spent time on a kibbutz, looking after the cows, probably her happiest time. In 1948, she edited a samizdat newspaper in besieged Jerusalem.

Her father was the elder brother of David Hartwig Baneth (1893-1973), one of the founders of Hebrew University. Her world was the world of German-Jewish intellectuals associated with the Hebrew University, people like Gershom Scholem and Rabbi Leo Baeck. She was Martin Buber’s secretary for a while. Apparently, he asked her to translate one of his books, but she felt it didn’t make enough sense.

She came to London, where the weather suited her better, some time after the war, to study music at the Royal College of Music. She worked as a typist – always as a temp. She lived in rented accommodation, and became involved in the private tenants movement, alongside the late, great Michael Young.

One of the finest chapters of her life was her participation in the solidarity movement for Biafra in the 1960s. During the Biafra war, 1967-1970, some million Nigerians, mainly Ibo, died – mostly of starvation brought about by Nigeria’s blockade of Biafra. The great powers, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, abandoned Biafra to its fate, failing to intervene. (For more, see here.) A handful of noble spirits stood up for action, including Auberon Waugh, Bruce Kent, Hugh Fraser and Peter Cadogan. Hannah was heavily involved with this campaign, and linked her status as a Jewish refugee to her commitment to attending to the suffering of the Biafrans.

She was housed by the GLC in Pepys neighbourhood in Deptford in the 1970s or 1980s. In Deptford, she was active in the council tenants movement, both in local tenants associations and campaigns, and later nationally in Defend Council Housing. She was a thorn in the side of the powers that be in Lewisham, doggedly attending meeting after meeting, always asking the hard question.

In her later years, she was very conscious of and troubled by the rise of anti-semitism in Britain. It was her wish that she be buried in the land of Israel.




Added links: Cllr Andrew Brown: Hannah Baneth, Transpontine: Hannah Baneth

2 comments:

Neil-NewX said...

Bob, have linked to this from Transpontine.

Andrew said...

Bob, I knew Hannah a little bit - she was a Streetleader (someone who lets the Council know when there are environmental issues that they hope it can deal with) - and like you was saddened to hear she'd died.

My experience was of someone who did ask the sharp question and hated feeling like she might be being fobbed off. It's clear that her contribution to civic society in Lewisham and beyond was considerable.