(This is a longer version of a column published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 22.)
My friend John Schnellenberg died last week. For more than 13 years, we’d met almost every Friday for lunch.
We were both refugees from Wellington. John and his wife Sonia had moved to Masterton after retiring. My wife and I made the same move several months later.
We hadn’t known the Schnellenbergs in Wellington, although I had worked for the same newspaper company as Sonia, but we connected in Masterton because of a long-standing friendship between John and my sister and brother-in-law.
They had got to know each other through politics. John was by instinct a conservative, which drew him to the National Party. But he was a liberal conservative, as is my brother-in-law, and together they were active in a 1970s National Party faction – co-founded by John – that did its best to resist the illiberal impulses of the party’s then leader, Robert Muldoon.
I say John had retired by the time we met, but that’s not entirely true. For much of his life he had worked for Shell Oil, but he had also owned a bookshop and an early Apple computer dealership. In retirement, he set up a one-man business consultancy. “I’m in commerce,” he would say when people asked him what he did. It always struck me as a very John thing to say.
I can’t recall how our Friday lunch habit came about. It just sort of happened.
At first we spread our patronage around. The True Blue Café, Food For Thought, Dish, The 10 O’Clock Cookie Company, Taste and The Village Grinder all enjoyed our custom. Each café catered to a subtly different demographic group, so we were exposed to a cross-section of Masterton society.
As a former business owner, I think John felt we owed it to the town to support as many places as possible. But as time went by, we ended up alternating between Café Entice (prosperous farmers, real estate agents, professional types) and Café Strada (a mixed clientele, but with a few tattoos and the occasional workman’s high-vis vest).
In recent years we were joined by another Wellington refugee, the playwright Joe Musaphia. Two Jews and a Gentile.
I was very much the baby in this trio, John and Joe both being in their early 80s. They had known each other in Wellington through the Jewish community. John was descended from the Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Eastern and Central Europe as part of the Jewish diaspora, while Joe was from the Sephardic Jewish line that ended up in Spain and Portugal. Different backgrounds, but united by a rich and proud culture stretching back several millennia.
John was the more religiously observant of the two and would always tut-tut disapprovingly when I sat down with a slice of Cafe Strada’s excellent bacon and egg pie. Lightning would strike me, he would warn. He never tired of his little joke, and I always laughed. It was one of those lines that somehow got funnier the more predictable it became.
John was a gentleman and a charmer. He was a small man whose eyes twinkled behind his glasses – one of the very few people I know of whom that could be truthfully be said – and whose face almost permanently wore a genial, knowing smile. I learned at his funeral that Jews are enjoined to greet others with a pleasant countenance. John obviously took that to heart.
He loved to laugh – his whole body would convulse when I said something he found funny – and he loved to talk. He enjoyed engaging with people to the extent that it could become slightly exasperating.
He couldn’t place his lunch order (invariably something sweet and not terribly nutritious) without making small talk with the woman behind the counter, regardless of how many people were waiting behind him, and our lunches were frequently interrupted by John’s need to converse with whoever happened to be passing our table. Although a relatively recent arrival in town (by Masterton standards, at least), he seemed to know everyone.
He had a Jew’s interest in business and closely monitored the town’s economic prosperity, alternating between despondency and optimism depending on how many businesses were opening or closing down. The amount of traffic on the main street was a recurring issue of vital interest. Behind this, I suspect John was always thinking about what was happening to Masterton property values.
He was never entirely convinced he had made the right move by shifting to a country town, and not just because he was missing out on the boom in Wellington house prices. There was a part of John that remained firmly rooted in European urban culture, even though he had known it only briefly in childhood. He could at times be disdainful of what he perceived as provincial values and attitudes.
He also remained unmistakeably Jewish. His oldest and closest friends were Jewish and he was deeply engaged with the Jewish community. But while his Jewishness was central to his sense of identity, he considered himself first and foremost a New Zealander.
Nonetheless, he sometimes gave the impression of remaining slightly mystified by New Zealand ways. In this respect he was notably different from our lunch partner Joe, who still spoke with a faint trace of an East London accent but had effortlessly absorbed the New Zealand way of doing things – indeed, made his living writing plays about it.
Having once owned the Mister Pickwick bookshop in Lower Hutt, John made a point of getting to know the proprietors of the Masterton book outlets and would regularly report on how they were doing. He was an avid reader himself, with a vast collection of books, mostly non-fiction.
History and politics fascinated him. He was a great admirer of Winston Churchill and must have read – often several times – everything ever written by or about the British wartime leader.
He acknowledged Churchill’s flaws, but I think what ultimately counted to John was that Churchill, almost alone at first, had stood up to Hitler. John had spent his early years in Germany but escaped to New Zealand with his parents before the Holocaust with the assistance of a British diplomat who knew his father. John’s grandparents were not so fortunate, dying in a concentration camp.
Living as part of a tiny Jewish community in overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon Wellington can’t have been easy. New Zealand in those days was suspicious of outsiders – more so than ever during the war years, when someone with the name Schnellenberg was likely to be viewed as an enemy alien. The irony that he was Jewish, and therefore had far more to fear from the Nazis than anyone, would have been largely lost on insular New Zealanders.
That was the reason Hans Wolf Schnellenberg – his given name – became simply John, at the suggestion of a sympathetic schoolteacher. Even his death notice referred to him as John W Schnellenberg.
Paradoxically, John was an admirer of German efficiency and technological excellence. For a long time he drove an ageing Mercedes-Benz – replaced not long ago by a newer, sportier model – and would regale me every Friday with accounts of how it was performing. (Or not. It was what you might call a love-hate relationship.)
I’ve been trying to recall what else we talked about. Politics, certainly. Books, films, television and the media too. What I do know is that our conversation rarely flagged.
We didn’t always agree, and sometimes there was a degree of heat in the conversation. For all his geniality, John had firm views that didn’t always coincide with mine. He used to needle me about the failings of the news media, but gave up a few years ago when he realised I’d decided the news media were no longer worth defending. It was no fun for him anymore.
He was an admirer of George W Bush, and I wasn’t (neither was Joe). He predicted that Donald Trump would become president, and irritated Joe and me by reminding us of it.
I think his political views were shaped, at least to some extent, by his perception of where politicians were likely to stand on the issue of Israel and the Middle East, which is hardly surprising.
And now John’s gone. What am I going to do on Fridays? I dunno. Perhaps Joe and I will go on meeting. He’s an entertaining raconteur who has led a full and very interesting life. But our lunches won’t be the same.