Tuesday, June 28, 2011

RIP Herbert Eisner (23 June 1921 - 28 June 2011)

Tom's father passed away peacefully this morning, having made it to his 90th birthday a few days ago. He was a very remarkable man and I feel lucky to have been his daughter-in-law.

Herbert was a physicist whose field of expertise was explosions in confined spaces; he became head of the Safety in Mines Research Establishment in Derbyshire and was often to be seen on TV as a commentator on issues such as the King's Cross fire and trouble in the Channel Tunnel. He was born in Berlin and escaped the Nazis when he was sent to boarding school in Buxton at the age of 15 - little suspecting he'd spend most of his life in the same town - though not before attending the 1936 Olympic Games, where he and his family saw Jesse Owen win his race. Apparently the Nazis ceased persecution of the Jews for the Olympics' duration so that the world wouldn't see what was going on.

Herbert's aunt, Lotte Eisner, was a film historian who wrote a biography of Fritz Lang and in the 1920s was great friends with Leni Riefenstahl. One day around 1926 Leni called Lotte and invited her to tea, saying "There's someone very special I want you to meet - his name is Adolf Hitler." Lotte refused to go. Later she wrote in her autobiography that she regretted this decision. She wished she'd gone to tea, and taken along a revolver.

Despite his successful career as a scientist, Herbert was also an extremely fine writer. His mother was a close friend of Bertolt Brecht and as a child Herbert was dandled on the great author's knee. He wrote better in English than most native English speakers and was runner-up to Muriel Spark in a short story competition run by the Observer in the 1950s. The story was about Der Rosenkavalier. He later wrote several plays that were presented on Radio 4, a couple of children's books and a TV play in which Susan Hampshire starred - tragically the BBC did not keep the film...

Herbert's grandfather's used to play cards with Richard Strauss. So in Herbert's honour, here is the composer conducting his own Ein Heldenleben, with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1944. By the time this was recorded Herbert was 22: he'd been interned as an "enemy alien" in the Isle of Man, then joined the British army and been posted to India. Due to his German origins he changed his name to Evans while in the military, and his comrades used to call him Taffy. This despite the fact that he had a strong German accent right up to his birthday the other day, when we saw him for the last time.

In his own quiet way, he certainly had a hero's life.