MICHAEL DAUBE:

Shortly after Max, my son, was born in 1986 David came out to inspect his youngest grandson. He forgot about minor details like visas, rightly assuming, I suspect, that we would sort these out for him. One evening during the week we went out to dinner. Ruth and I were both fairly high-profile, and when a young man came up to the table saying, "excuse me" we both looked up modestly expecting an appreciative comment. He looked back - not at us, but at David - and said, "arenít you Professor Daube?".......In Perth, Western Australia.

He would have enjoyed that. For all his distinction, he enjoyed being a character - and he enjoyed knowing that he was talked about.

In the late 1950s at Oxford he was a widely appreciated after-dinner speaker. But after one speech to the Oxford University Conservative Association he professed not to know why people were shaking his hand in the street the following morning.

The story he told was about two candidates the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, was interviewing for a position in the Finance Ministry. To both candidates Ben Gurion said, "I have only one question. What is two and two?"

The first candidate was a good, orthodox German Jew. He said, "Itís simple. Two and two makes four."

The second candidate was an equally orthodox middle-European Jew. He said, "Thatís easy. When Iím buying itís three; when Iím selling itís five".

Who do you think got the job? Well youíre wrong. It was Ben Gurionís nephew.

A nice enough story - but the guest of honour at the dinner was the Duke of Devonshire, a somewhat unexpected appointment as a Minister in the Conservative Government - and the nephew of Prime Minister Macmillan....

When he was well into his 70s, he was still drawing remarkable numbers to classes he taught at Berkeley - and loved it. He didnít bother to go to Faculty meetings, but noted from some minutes that those academics attracting less interest had proposed a limit on numbers, based on the rationale that this would lessen the burden on Professor Daube. He quietly let it be known that he didnít at all mind the burden of being popular - and the proposal fell. That was the story as he told it, albeit with the occasional embellishment.....

He was never one to stay, "stop me if youíve heard it". His stories bore repeating, however discursive. It was so often in the discursions that both the entertainment and the wisdom poured out of him. He knew that he was wise, and the teacher in him loved passing on that wisdom.

I wish I had known him better.

I remember him in Aberdeen, as the paterfamilias in "his" armchair.

I remember him during my childhood in Oxford. He was a loving father, but as he moved towards the peak of his academic career he was also moving to the end of his first marriage - and his children were caught in the crossfire.

I remember from this period his unique smell as I snuggled into bed with him; the inhaler he used for his asthma (which somehow seemed to disappear in later life); his always warm hands; his bushy eyebrows; his cluttered desks; the way his orthodoxy waxed and waned; the way in which for many years he shouted into - or to be more precise at - the telephone; his favourite songs and phrases: when he was being benevolently decisive he would quote a story about the king of the apes who would demand obedience with the words, "Huc. Ich habe gesprochen".

I remember the sheer pleasure of playing chess with him. A strong player, who had played in his youth against the likes of Nimzowich, he was not the kind of father who gives his son the occasional win for encouragement. I did not even draw a game against him until I was twelve - but what an achievement that and the subsequent wins were to be! We continued playing chess almost whenever we met until he was in his late eighties. I will always remember the refrain, "I have played this like a fish".

I remember many stories about his childhood and his university years; his love of music - and his regret that he had not followed his talents in that area; his apparent lack of practical skills - and his account of the way he stopped driving at the age of eighteen when at his first attempt he drove into a ditch; his amazing linguistic abilities and fluency in so many languages, ancient and modern, matched only by his inability or unwillingness to shake off that trademark German accent. But there were few stories about the worst of the wartime years - particularly the months when an asinine Home Secretary decided to intern all Germans - Jewish refugees and Nazis alike - on the Isle of Man. He spoke only rarely about the brutality of this period, and the anti-Semitism of his gaolers.

I remember his sombre satisfaction at his place in Hitlerís Black List; his less sombre pleasure at becoming a Regius Professor at Oxford, a Fellow of All Souls, a Fellow of the British Academy - and then the many Honorary Doctorates and other honours that followed. He literally walked with kings - and revelled in it. When Ruth, my wife, was discussing religious issues with him, he pointed out that even the Pope had doubts - he knew, as he had asked him!

I remember too a childhood that often seemed dominated by Hebrew lessons before breakfast - always in German, not English - and that came to an abrupt end the day after my Bar Mitzvah, when he left for a year long "world tour" that effectively marked the end of my parentsí marriage. When he returned, it was to live in All Souls and to several years of furious and intense legal battles over custody, property, and anything else that two highly intelligent and embittered people can litigate over. My brother Ben and I would visit him weekly for afternoon tea at All Souls; our older brother Jonathan had effectively taken the surrogate father role to which his near-antiquity entitled him; and then there was a period of two or three years with no contact at all between David and any of his sons.

I still also remember writing to him from Reading University, where I was a student, to re-establish contact: probably one of the best things I ever did. From that time a new relationship developed between him and his three sons - and ultimately his six grandchildren.

The David we all then came to know and love was much closer to the teacher who meant so much to his pupils than to the dominating paterfamilias. He was never, ever demanding; always deeply concerned for our well-being and that of our families; wonderfully appreciative of our wives and children; always distressed for us when things went awry; always encouraging; always as honest as he could be.

His move to California, and the new start there with Helen, gave him a freedom he could never have found in Oxford. He still wore suits and ties, and he still fell easily into formal routines; but he relished the Californian lifestyle, climate and tolerance for the eccentric.

I remember and am in awe of the love - not just affection, but love - he was able to inspire in so many different people: family; pupils; colleagues; and many others, some of whom we would not even know about. Right to the end, he was regularly receiving expensive packages of chocolates from someone in Germany that none of us had heard of......

Right to the end too he retained a remarkable rapport with young people - exemplified in the relationship he and his grandson Matthew developed during the 1980s and 90s.

We almost take for granted both the extraordinary intellect that he used so well and the breadth of his interests. It is still hard for me to fathom how someone can have achieved so much distinction in the two discrete areas of Roman Law and theology. But he was fascinated by so much else: from crosswords to travelling; from politics to linguistic analysis. It came as something of a shock to find that in the early 1940s, less than a decade after arriving in England without any knowledge of English, he had published an erudite paper on Shakespeareís use of language. While he never had much time for television, he did enjoy broadcasting on the BBCís Third Programme during the 1950s. One of these broadcasts was about the origins of the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty" - which he had traced back to the "testudo" used by the Romans as a siege instrument: this was heard by the composer Beverley Cross, and became the basis for an opera. He also featured in other literary endeavours: it comes as something of a surprise when reading a detective novel to find reference to oneís father as one of the leading Oxford characters....And there are scholars around the world who regard themselves as his pupils, much as regarded himself as Lenelís pupil.

During his last twenty or so years I saw him a few times each year in Europe or the US; then, especially after my move to Australia and as his travelling ceased, only once or twice a year. From such a distance, I can only reiterate the appreciation I know he felt for those who loved and cared for him (and at times put up patiently with him) in San Francisco and Berkeley, whether family, stepchildren or colleagues and friends. He was an extraordinary man - but he had some wonderful carers.

He also had an impish sense of humour. On one of my visits to Berkeley in the early 70s he gave one of his typically generous dinner parties - always at restaurants where his vast tips guaranteed wonderful service. He told me that he had identified a particularly attractive young woman for me to sit beside. She was indeed attractive - but also, when she got up, about two feet taller than me. He enjoyed that.

No one should be idealised. He was no plaster saint; was a pretty awful first husband and an imperfect father; in his earlier years enjoyed, as his occasional comments made clear, a livelier private life than most Oxford Professors; could be difficult and exceptionally obstinate; and did not always go out of his way to make life easy for those who loved and cared for him.

But whatever he did must always be seen against the backdrop of the holocaust, in which so many of his family and friends perished. How many of us would come through that experience without lasting scars?

I am happy that he met my son Max when they were still able to appreciate each other. I am happy that I was able to hold him and stroke his hair a few months ago. I am happy that even in his diminished state he was able to tell me that he loved my brothers. When I last saw him, he was lying in bed and said, "you know, if I could do anything for you I would". I recall seeing him as I left: that wonderful head with the mane of hair he enjoyed, looking straight ahead. I wish that I had done more for him and had known him better. I am immeasurably proud that he was my father. I miss him already, more than I could have imagined.

 

 

Michael Daube

28 February 1999