This is a story, tragic but uplifting, about love between two Cambridge Communists - interrupted by a wartime death more than seventy years ago. A passionate relationship unveiled only in recent years after the death of the woman concerned and then of her husband.
Ram Nahum was a Cambridge physicist and Communist killed in 1942 by one of the very few German bombs to fall on the city. I blogged about him before when I came across a pamphlet issued in his memory. That prompted a wonderful burst of emails and comments from members of Ram's family, one of whom shared with me a hugely emotive treasure trove of letters of condolence to Ram's parents now held by the archive at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
More recently, I've heard from the novelist Salley Vickers, whose mother Freddie Vickers (or Winifred Lambert) was seriously injured by the bomb that killed Ram.
The story is told by the Guardian's Martin Kettle - whose father was a Cambridge Communist and contemporary of Ram and Freddie - in his obituary of Freddie, who died in March 2006:
On July 27 1942, a German aircraft dropped one of the few enemy bombs to fall on Cambridge during the second world war. It fell on a house in Ram Yard ... and Freddie was badly injured. She was trapped by burning timbers, her injuries necessitating the amputation of both her legs below the knees ...
The bomb that transformed Freddie's life became an iconic event for her peers. Her courage in the face of pain and trauma was celebrated in the communist literature of the time; an account of her reaction to suffering is extensively quoted in Eric Hobsbawm's autobiography. Thinking she was about to die, Freddie called out to her would-be rescuers: "My feet, it's burning my feet. It's no good, I'm done for. Long live the party. Goodbye, boys."
That obituary didn't mention Ram Nahum by name. Neither did an article Salley Vickers wrote six years later - again for the Guardian - which was much more revelatory.
Salley revealed that her mother had married another student Communist, Jon Vickers universally known as 'Mouse' - a corruption of his school nickname, Muse - in February 1940. He died in June 2008, and Martin Kettle wrote his obituary too - yes, in the Guardian again. At the time that stray bomb fell in Cambridge, Mouse was a prisoner of war. It was only shortly before his escape from a PoW camp towards the end of the war that he discovered that his wife had lost both legs.
'She later maintained', says Salley of her mother, 'that this reservation was out of concern for his morale, but it seems more likely that it was because the revelation would have exposed the fact that in his absence she had fallen in love - with the friend who died, another Communist activist and a charismatic leader in the student movement. ... She told me about the man who died, whom she had loved passionately, far too early for me to cope with the information. The disturbing result was the strong - if wholly irrational - conviction that my "real" father was not my honourable dad but the lost student hero who had died.'
That 'lost student hero' was, of course, Ram Nahum.
And in her comment on my earlier blog, Salley has declared: 'Ram was the love of my mother's life.' Ram's photo was by her mother's bed until the day she
died. It disappeared afterwards and Salley is keen to have copies of any surviving photos of Ram.
As for Ram Nahum himself, he earned warm praise from his Cambridge contemporary Eric Hobsbawm who described Ram as 'a squat, dark natural scientist with a big nose, radiating physical strength, energy and authority. He was the son of a prosperous Sephardic textile merchant from Manchester and, by general consent, was the ablest of all communist student leaders of my generation.'
Ram died at the age of 24, and in the year before his death he wrote a brief article for University Forward, journal of the University Labour Federation (much more Communist than Labour) which gives a flavour of student politics at that time:
I've also heard recently from Klim McPherson whose mother and step-father were part of the same Communist student circle at Cambridge. His father, Tony Willcock, was shot down over France in 1943. His step-father, John Simonds, was killed at Arnhem the following year - and the moving letter he wrote to three-year-old Klim as he headed for Arnhem was published after his death in the News Chronicle and, with Klim's blessing, is posted here:
'I feel that this letter contains a message which should not be restricted to one little boy', wrote Barbara Simonds. She was right.
I came across this pamphlet from 1942 recently - and the story attached to it is so striking, I'm going to share it.
Ram Nahum, the man on the cover, was a communist and clearly a brilliant physicist who was killed in July 1942 when a stray bomb was dropped on Cambridge by a German plane returning east. He was 24. This pamphlet was published a few months later by the (clearly Communist-minded) University Labour Federation.
I imagined at first that Ram Nahum was an Indian student. Ram is a very Indian name - and Nahum or Nahoum is a surname of a prominent Calcutta Jewish family. That's not right. Though it's not entirely wrong.
Effraim Nahum was born into a Jewish family in Manchester. He went to Clifton College and on to Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was a very active part of a flourishing Communist movement at Cambridge in the late 1930s, the Popular Front period which was the zenith of the party's appeal to both the young and intellectuals. Eric Hobsbawm mentioned him as part of a formidable coterie of Pembroke leftists. In his autobiography, Interesting Times, Hobsbawm describes Nahum as:
a squat, dark natural scientist with a big nose, radiating physical strength, energy and authority. He was the son of a prosperous Sephardic textile merchant from Manchester and, by general consent, was the ablest of all communist student leaders of my generation. As a graduate physicist, he stayed in Cambridge during the war , and was killed ... by the only German bomb to fall on the city.
The 'ablest' of that remarkable cohort of student communists - quite a compliment from someone as able and discerning as Eric Hobsbawm.
Hobsbawm also related how he and Nahum were asked by the party HQ to attend meetings of a party "Jewish group". Both went alaong a few times but concluded that it had little relevance to their own political activity.
Nahum's parents set up a physics fellowship at Cambridge in their son's memory. A few years ago, an album which his parent's collated of cuttings and obituary letters was presented to Pembroke, and one of the college archivists, Jayne Ringrose, wrote a wonderfully researched account of Nahum's life and death which you can find in the Clifton College magazine, towards the end of the issue you can access through this link.
And the India connection? Well, the pamphlet I came across explains how strongly Ram Nahum felt about the India issue and how closely he worked with Indian students at Cambridge to challenge imperialism and work for India's independence.
The photograph below, by the way, apparently was taken at a 1938 demo against the British government's refusal to countenance intervention in the Spanish Civil War.
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