Today has been hot and humid in Leeds. More so with the kitchen appliances working at full whack to provide breakfast (eggs on toast, with garlic mushrooms on the side!), morning snacks (those pastries donated by a local supermarket the day after they are ‘baked fresh daily’ are SO good warmed up a little), and lunch (jacket potatoes, caramelised onion and goats cheese toasties, garlic mushrooms, homemade garlic bread).
By the end of the shift, the amazingly dedicated team – one a Polish teenager who came here five years ago and now competently runs the kitchen, another a newly arrived asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast whose English is better than he thinks it is (but we all enjoy practising our French with him too), and a local lady who had already worked her shift earlier in the week, but had come in for lunch and saw how busy we were so stayed to help – were exhausted. We chatted a little as we cleaned up the last few things, but were all keen to finish and have a rest as quickly as possible.
Along with the steady stream of customers, we also took in three deliveries of food that arrived from various local locations and our shelves were heaving with the fresh fruit and veg, breads and pastries.
But it didn’t start off that way. Early on, the shelves were pretty much bare, there were just a couple of people in the cafe, and I had sent one of our regulars to the corner shop to pick up some garlic to jazz up the mushrooms and baguettes.
By the time he returned, with said items, we had just weighed about 1kg of peeled and bagged garlic and a few extra bulbs from the box that had just arrived.
Oh well, at least we can freeze the peeled garlic and confidently put garlic bread on the menu most days.
As the day went on, more surprising (or serendipitous?) moments kept happening, making me reflect on the role of the cafe in making things happen that need to happen, even if we don’t know it, or realise it at the time;
Anxious for some ingredients to work with for the lunch menu, two fruit and veg deliveries arrive within a couple of hours.
Anxious that now we’ve made all this food, who’s going to eat it?, three groups of people arrive at 1pm for lunch and we end up scrabbling together more salad leaves from the garden, making more garlic bread and putting another pot of coffee on.
Anxious that the lunch offering wasn’t the best, we received complimentary feedback from all customers.
One group, using the Ark as an away day space for colleagues from Manchester, Leeds and London, had asked one of us to speak about the centre, CATCH, TLC and all the different strands of work in Harehills.
Our young Polish kitchen leader offered to do it, and spoke passionately about his journey from knowing no English, and having no positive role models, to getting involved with CATCH, to volunteering by running the youth cafe on an evening, and in the main cafe in his summer holidays. The group were enthralled and completely attentive to what he was saying. I could see that not only were they deeply moved by his story, they were also deeply impressed by his confidence in both speaking to them, and his role in the cafe. I was very moved by witnessing this, and told him afterwards that he was truly inspirational.
Reflecting this afternoon, in the peace and quiet of a twenty minute drive to pick up my children, I realised the most important and amazing reconciliation of all:
For those of you who have followed the blog from the beginning (still on the website if you scroll down far enough!), you will know that as a Jew in the twenty-first century, my Jewish identity is very much entwined in survival and responsibility after the Holocaust. I have always felt passionately about Holocaust education, memory, and honouring the victims through my work. At one juncture of my life, I even trained to be a guide in Poland for Jewish trips; we were there for ten days, a small group of Jewish educators, being trained to take youth and adult groups on tours of death camps, ghettos, woodlands, factories that all bear witness to the atrocities of those dark dark days. I remember one coach journey where someone cracked a joke and we all laughed, then it fell silent very quickly as it just felt wrong to laugh in a country sodden with our ancestors’ ashes.
Today, whilst cleaning up the kitchen, we were talking about summer plans and our young team member said how he was driving back to Poland with his family to visit his extended family. I asked where they lived, and he told me that he’s from a town near Warsaw. It triggered a memory. Of driving along roads in Poland. Had I visited that town on my educators’ trip? Was there a memorial there to the victims? Was there a library where the synagogue once stood? Was there a morbid, unspeakable connection between us that we had now uncovered?
I took a breath, listened to him telling me about the town where his grandparents and uncle and aunt and cousins live, and reminded myself of what I had witnessed just a few moments before. And in that moment, I was able to let go a little, of the hold that the Holocaust still has over me, that I didn’t even realise I still had.
So thank you, not only for your commitment, dedication and passion for TLC, for your inspirational story, already at such a young age, but thank you also personally, for allowing me to reconcile within myself issues I have about a post-Holocaust Jewish identity, that I didn’t even realise I had.