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Max Goldstrom, lecturer/senior lecturer and former member of Senate (died on June 4, 2009, aged 80)

(Appreciation by Liam Kennedy School of History & Anthropology speaking at the funeral ceremony at Roselawn Crematorium, Belfast, on Tuesday 9th June 2009. Obituary also published in The Times).

Friends of Max and Lorna

[It’s actually hard to say the one name without the other, and that is telling us something.]

And friends of the larger family of Ben, Rachel, Lisa and Madeline.

I want to say a little bit about Max’s life and the colleague and friend I knew over many years [gosh, it’s more than a quarter century]. In a sense, Max had two lives, in two very different cultural settings. Indeed for those of us who knew him during his illnesses in recent years, he seemed, like the Kilkenny cat, to have nine lives. Max’s long fight with ill health is a tribute to his fighting spirit – a lifelong characteristic – and perhaps even more so a tribute to Lorna’s near-heroic devotion to nursing him in his last years.

Historians like to begin at the beginning, so let’s go back to the spring of 1929. Joachim Maximilian Goldstrom was the eldest child of a German couple, born in Marienburg in Ostprossen [East Prussia], a German enclave surrounded by Polish territory. His father served in the German army during the First World War and had been awarded the Iron Cross for bravery.

The family had a drapery shop in the town, and Max can recall his father’s anger when the Nazis stood at the entrance, intimidating would-be shoppers. Incredulous and angry, he shouted at them, “When you were in your nappies I was on the western front.” Like so many Germans of the Jewish faith he was learning that his identity was no longer that of a member of the German nation. He and his family were outcasts, war hero or not.

Schooling as well as business changed radically under the Nazis. Max recalls being bullied, being called “a dirty Jew”, children being marched round the school yard singing patriotic songs (like a scene from the film Cabaret), following the flag, learning the Nazi salute, imitating the SA, the German stormtroopers.

As the clouds darkened over central and eastern Europe in the late 1930s, the Goldstrom family had to make a heart-rending choice, to try to get one of their children to safety.  In 1938, aged 10, Max was placed on the children’s refugee train, the kindertransport, with England as the destination. Max had only a few days to prepare for a future he didn’t understand. The night before leaving, he was allowed to sleep in his mother’s bed. She packed his suitcase with sweets for the trip.  

 The family who remained behind, mother, father, five brothers and sisters, were consumed in the Holocaust, though Max was not to know this for many years.  

England was another world . Initially the children were looked after in an agricultural college – and old workhouse building – near Ipswich. Max was in the company of lots of other of children there, sleeping in dormitories and given lessons in English and farm work. I can’t somehow see Max as a future farm worker.

Later during the war Max was moved to a Jewish hostel in Leeds. But he was beginning to show signs of that independence of mind that we later knew. In the hostel it was drummed into him, and the others, that he was Jewish. He was expected to wear a yamulke (skull cap).  Max hated this. On fasting days, Yom Kippur, he and some other boys would sneak off and buy food, subverting the hostel regime. He read Biggles stories avidly and dodged going to the synagogue as much as possible. Part of this youthful rebellion took the form of seeking out non-Jewish friends, even members of what we once coyly referred to as the ‘opposite sex’.

Let me telescope Max’s early years in England: he left school soon after his 14th year, took up a trade, becoming a typewriter mechanic, attended night classes, and eventually got a scholarship to study History at Birmingham. He was astonished that Britain wd give a university scholarship to a recent immigrant. This was in part the source of Max’s Anglophilia, an appreciation of English society and its values, and the opportunities if offered, even to an outsider. Max went on to qualify as a teacher, and later took a PhD in Economic History.

He met Lorna, his future wife, at what he described as a left-wing  friend’s wedding.  Lorna had been to Nottingham University and was a young teacher in Birmingham at the beginning of the 1960s.  They met again at the New Left Club in Birmingham and were involved, as I understand it, in one or two early CND marches. Those were the days of duffle coats and long scarves, and love on a small salary. The more orthodox members of the Jewish community in Birmingham did not approve of Max marrying out, no doubt hastening his movement down the road of humanism.

Max’s appointment as a lecturer in Queen’s in the mid ‘60s must have involved a certain amount of culture shock for both Lorna and himelf. The first reference to a public controversy I can find hints at this. This, btw, was before he became a campaigner for the liberalisation of abortion legislation in Northern Ireland – a less than popular cause, as you can imagine. Max was also an early supporter of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, before it descended into ethnic nationalist conflict. This particular story, however, revolves round a bikini rather than a banner.

Max’s 17 year old sister-in-law – Lorna’s younger sister Susan – was visiting them in Belfast. She’d gone to the Ormeau Baths to have a swim but created something of a sensation by appearing in a two-piece swim suit. She was ejected by the Manager, a Mr Robert Young acc to the local newspapers, who observed that “bikinis created embarrassment and were totally inadequate cover for swimming”.

Max wasn’t one to let matters lie. Writing to the Newsletter, he recounted the “rather embarrassing experience” of his sister in law, and then added, tongue in cheek:

“I sometimes tell my students, half jokingly, that Ulster is fascinating to a historian in its resemblance to life in mid-19th century England. Now, thanks to the Baths Dept, I have an excellent illustration.

Seriously, though, I wonder if Belfast Corporation can be persuaded to take a brave plunge into the twentieth century!”

But it wasn’t only his Irish neighbours who were outraged by the liberalising atmosphere of the 1960s.

In the field of academic history Max developed a new course on Victorian social history, which, amongst other things, touched on Victorian sexuality. Two of his more senior, English-born male colleagues, worried that this might offend the external examiner and sought to have a question on Victorian sexuality suppressed. There followed what Max jokingly described as a kind of “kangaroo court” within the Dept of Economic & Social History. Max was not to be moved and rested his case on the principle of academic freedom. He prevailed. Within a few years of course the history of sexuality formed part of the mainstream of British and American social history.

Max was an early contributor to the upsurge in British social history that was apparent in the 1970s and the 1980s. His first book, The Social Content of Education, 1808-1870: A Study of the Working Class School Reader in England and Ireland, was published in 1972. This spanned the two islands and was an important contribution to educational history and social history more generally. In the same year he published a sources book relating to the history of elementary education.

Max was also contributing articles and essays, my favourite being his Thomas Davis lecture “The Industrialization of the North-East”, later published in a seminal collection of essays, The Formation of the Irish Economy. It is a fine, pioneering piece of work that I think stands the test of time.

In the early 1980s he was the enterprising spirit behind a collection of essays in honour of the first professor of economic and social history at QUB, KH Connell, and, a decade later, of the collective volume, Mapping the Great Irish Famine.

By the middle of the 1980s, however, it was apparent that Max’s creative energies were increasingly finding their way into trade union activity, within the AUT. Many, many colleagues have reason to be grateful for his advice, support and untiring activity on behalf of his colleagues, within a system that was increasingly managerially driven.

I have good reason to be personally grateful. In the early 1990s I was involved in one of my “save the world” campaigns. It had to do with two adolescents on the run from an IRA “punishment” squad, who sought refuge in Newry Cathedral. (The cathedral turned out to be a rather “cold house” but that’s another story.) Anyhow, we desperately needed cash, so I came up with this wheeze: why not write to everyone in Queen’s, using the internal mail system, appealing for funds? Unfortunately, we over-reached ourselves, sending out almost a thousand letters, and including emeritus professors, some of whom were dead at this stage. The Univ authorities noticed this unusual traffic and impounded the letters. I was summoned to a meeting with Denis Wilson, one of the top administrators and a fine man. Max came along to support me. Max immediately went on the offensive, accusing the University of tampering with the mail of a member of staff – a serious offence under some obscure legislation – and demanded not only that the letters be delivered at once but that the Univ sh apologise for its actions. Max had his way on both counts, and I must admit by the end of the meeting I was feeling rather sorry for the discomfited Univ representatives.

There is probably a connection here, in terms of energy, to Max’s academic entrepreneurial activities. He was the pioneering voice behind the historical data base projects within the Dept of E&SH, and he was one of the first in these islands to recognise the revolutionary potential of the new technoligy - Optical Character Recognition - in digitising masses of data. Max had an innovative and original eye: in relation to digitisation, for instance, he was years ahead of most academic colleagues and even commercial interests in the field. His reward, as I recall, was to be edged off the historical database cttte, once we had adopted his ideas. But then Max was generous with his time and his thoughts.

We know of Max as teacher, writer, academic entrepreneur and negotiator. We know of him also as father, husband and family man. His great friend, Alun Davies reminds me of the Golstrom home as the House of Hospitality. But there is one further aspect to the man that I cannot omit. It is his natural gentleness and courtesy to friends and acquaintances. This is something that was particularly striking in his later years. 

Irene from Barcelona, whom Max had helped in a fair employment case, put it like this at the weekend:

“Max was so gentle. He will always be alive in our hearts.”

Another friend, Lucia, emailing from Italy:  

“This is so sad for everybody who loves Max, and many people love him. He was so gentle, kind and generous.”

I think that says it.

Thank you for being here.




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