Book details doctor's Jewish parents' love story amid Nazi persecution

Hackney author Matha Leigh's parents on their wedding day on July 6, 1945, outside Hackney Town Hall.

Hackney author Matha Leigh's parents on their wedding day on July 6, 1945, outside Hackney Town Hall. - Credit: Courtesy of Martha Leigh

A Stoke Newington doctor has released a book detailing the harrowing tale that brought her Jewish parents together and the letters they sent to each other as her mother fled Nazi persecution in Europe. 

After retiring from her job as a GP in Wapping, Tower Hamlets, Martha Leigh began a long journey of self-discovery by delving into her family’s unusual and extraordinary past.

She found letters of correspondence sent between her parents during World War Two and learned of the remarkable lengths it took for the pair to be together.

Martha says she started researching her parents, who spoke very little to her about the war or their Jewish identities, a “very long time ago”. 

She details the revelations in a book, Invisible Ink: A Family Memoir.

Martha's father Ralph Leigh, who was a modern languages scholar and Cambridge professor of French.

Martha's father Ralph Leigh, who was a modern languages scholar and Cambridge professor of French. - Credit: Courtesy of Martha Leigh


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The retired doctor told the Gazette: “I frame the book with myself because it is my own discovery.

“Because of course in that generation they didn’t talk about the war, they didn’t talk about the fact that I was Jewish – so I the first chapter is about my childhood with this quite unusual marriage.”

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“My mother became a concert pianist and she practiced the piano for eight hours a day and my father became the world expert on [the 18th century philosopher] Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He published 49 volumes of the Rousseau correspondence.

“So they both had their vocations and it was a quiet house really and not much was mentioned about the past. I had hints of it and needed to discover it.”

Martha’s father came from a Jewish family and was born in Hackney in Amhurst Road. He died in 1987 but left behind “an awful lot of papers”.

The core of which were her parents’ correspondence during the war.

Martha Leigh's book Invisible Ink.

Martha Leigh will speak about her family memoir, Invisible Ink, at Hackney's Newington Green Meeting House on July 21. - Credit: Courtesy of Martha Leigh

She told the Gazette: “They met in Paris before the war, they were both students.

“My mother was studying to become a concert pianist in the Paris conservatoire and my father was at Sorbonne University doing a PhD and they were in the same hostel.

“So, my mother gave a concert there and my father was entranced with her playing and the following morning at breakfast he asked her to teach him the piano.

“They began a friendship which was very intense – but they were separated by the war.”

Martha says her parents continued to write to each other for the whole six years of the war. Their fateful meeting in Paris saw two worlds collide.

The Stoke Newington resident’s father Ralph Leigh was a poor, complicated man from the east end of London and her Jewish mother Edith, from a bourgeois family from Chernivtsi, now located in Ukraine.

The pair married in 1945 after Edith had escaped the Nazis.

Martha recalls her parents protecting her from their dark pasts and the holocaust which forced her mother to leave Paris after heavy bombing and escape to the Vichy part of France, then later to Switzerland where she was interned for the rest of the war.

“So it was quite a dramatic – there were a huge amount of ups and downs in their correspondence – it was very dramatic and my father wanted to rescue her but he couldn’t."

Martha Leigh's father and uncle. 

A childhood photograph of Martha's father and uncle. - Credit: Courtesy of Martha Leigh

Martha realises now she is grateful for her mother's silence about the war and the holocaust, adding: "It was all because she wanted to protect me, she didn’t want me to suffer in the way she did.

"And in a way I'm quite grateful I haven’t had this burden of the holocaust and guilt of survival that she had. She wanted me to have a happy carefree childhood and really I did."

The author also tells the story of her “brave” uncle Reinhold who was working as a doctor when he joined the French Resistance and helped rescue several of her family members, including her mother, from Nazi occupation. 

Her uncle, a source of immense inspiration, helped to pioneer the use of modern anaesthetics in France and took part in the Normandy landings.

Martha says her family’s history and her mother's untimely death when she was 18 have impacted her life greatly, inspiring her to become a GP. 

The writer's previous work includes a book about Wapping, having been a GP there for 20 years.

Author and retired Wapping GP Martha Leigh. 

Author and retired Wapping GP Martha Leigh. - Credit: Courtesy of Martha Leigh

It records the memories of people, including her patients, living and working in the area between the the First and Second World Wars.

Martha Leigh will be giving a talk at the Newington Green Meeting House in Hackney on July 21

Find out more at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/invisible-ink-tickets-159132821553

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