The following story was recorded in 1991. At that time, Vivian had been a Bahá’í for 50 years. She served on a Local Spiritual Assembly for 47 years, and passed away in October 1997.
50 years a Bahá’í
I didn’t hear of the Faith for many many years, during which period I was invited either to become a Christian or a Jew. Sometimes I would get together with a Hindu friend and so on, but religion somehow was outside the pale for me. I didn’t feel a need for it. At Haberdasher Aske’s School, Acton in London, I had been made to feel an outsider as a child when I arrived, when I was stopped from going in to the general assembly. I had wanted to follow all the other children when somebody took me by the hand and said that I couldn’t go in with the other children. They said I must stay behind and go into a separate room. I asked why? I was told that it was because I was a little Jewish girl.
My parents hadn’t followed any religion at all. My father was a scientist and my mother had suffered as a child from being the only Jewish child in a school run by Catholic nuns. She had had some sad experiences there and had decided never to join any faith. So I was not brought up in any religion at all and I went without, quite happily, for many years. The only thing that bothered me was that each person I met would say that their faith was the right one and the only one, and I thought that if Jesus Christ said “I am the way, the truth and the life and no man cometh to the Father except through me” that really cut out all the other religious leaders. At the same time I knew that Buddha was very much revered and I really wondered who had got the right idea. So I didn’t join anything, and it was only at a later date, by a strange stroke of fate, that I came to hear of the Bahá’í Faith.
I had a cousin in Germany who was, of course, of Jewish origin but she was also a Bahá’í. I never met her, but one day when my mother was visiting Germany, she said to my cousin, Johanna, “I don’t know how you can bear living here with all the rude notices up: “Dogs and Jews not allowed in” (the dogs being placed before the Jews)! This was in 1938 and already the Hitler trouble had started. My cousin said “No I couldn’t if I were not a Bahá’í.” So my mother said: “I thought you were Jewish”. “Yes,” she said “I come from a Jewish background but I am a Bahá’í now”. My mother didn’t take much notice as it didn’t strike a chord with her. And it wasn’t until probably early the following year that she became aware of it again because by this time my cousin was trying to flee from Nazi rule in Germany.
By the time she contacted my mother, it was pretty late and very near the outbreak of war. My mother was working with the Jewish Refugees Committee and trying to get permits over here for people fleeing Nazi Germany.
Cousin Johanna wrote saying that there were likely to be Bahá’ís in London and so mother found the address of the London Bahá’í Centre, which at that time was in Bloomsbury Street. She went there to see what she could find out. Nobody was in. Everyone had gone out for a cup of coffee somewhere and they had left the door unlocked. Anyway she went upstairs and she found a list of names on a notice board and she took down the name of Elsie Cranmer who was living in Bournemouth. She wrote to Elsie and asked her if she could help? Elsie contacted the secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly and asked what could be done. They had never been faced with a problem like this before. At that time there were only four Local Spiritual Assemblies in the whole of the British Isles, and they were quite bewildered as to what could they do. So (1939) they actually wrote to Haifa and asked the Guardian what action to take. Unfortunately it was already difficult for ships to sail freely and although mail did reach Haifa, it took a long time, and again a long time before the reply got back to London to the National Assembly. War hadn’t yet broken out but everything was extremely tense. Eventually mother got a phone call from David Hofman – then NSA Secretary – who asked whether he could come and see mother to discuss this matter. A date was arranged for about a week from then – during which time war broke out.
David came to see us (at 95 The Avenue, Ealing) and mother asked if I would be at home that night because the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís was coming to dinner. I wasn’t interested but I said I would spend the evening at home because I didn’t have anything much else to do. People were feeling rather worried in case there was bombing. David turned up in the evening. I had thought he would be a stuffy old man but I found out he was actually acting at the Kew Theatre and also was helping with television broadcasting (TV was in its infancy then) so this was quite interesting.
I was sitting next to David at dinner and I said to him, “Look, can you tell me what this Bahá’í thing is that you belong to? And he said “Yes, I’ll tell you after dinner, but I will tell you now that I first heard of it myself in Canada. I was in a room where there were people of different nationalities and races; there was an Eskimo there and there was this and there was that and you have never seen such a happy loving crowd of people!” So after dinner I returned to the subject and I said “Now will you tell me, please, because it has always puzzled me – all these different religions – each one of them claiming that they have the right way – that they know about God – that if one followed their way, one would get to heaven – but surely only one of them could have been the right one – so where does the truth lie?” And David said to me “Well, don’t you see? They are all of them right. There is only one God – they all come from the one God and they are like a string of pearls, all strung together, and each one refers to the one before him and says there will be another one coming after”.
This was absolutely breathtaking for me, for here was the answer to the questions which had been plaguing me for so long – from disharmony came harmony – and suddenly David had made everything fall into place and I could understand. So I asked him a lot more questions. During that first week of the outbreak of war, people were saying: “As soon as the bombing and the shooting starts, man will destroy himself and this planet will go up in smoke – there won’t be anything left”. But David was talking about a period that would follow the war. He was looking to the distant future when he said there would be order in the world. Man would not destroy himself because God did not intend it that way. We would have a world government and a world language and people would see each other as brothers and sisters – all members of the human race – and this was a wonderful thing to me. My father shook his head and said that he didn’t believe it!
[This was a very nationalistic period and Hitler in his way was trying to unite the world as one German race of people under one master race]. But here was David Hofman talking about the same thing though on a spiritual level – instead of having just one note, you would have all the different notes of one chord – through all these nations accepting the same code of laws and knowing they are part of one whole. It was really a fascinating vision in a week when everybody had been so pessimistic. David brought me a book to read and he came and talked to us about it and it was very interesting.
The morning following our dinner, I said to somebody else who had been present at the time: “I don’t know whether it has got anything to do with what that man who came last night talked about, but I feel as if my mind was the soil ploughed up so that the air could get at it, and I have a feeling as if I have got all the knowledge in the world”. Bahá’u’lláh does say that when you have got the knowledge of God, you have got all knowledge, and that was how I felt without having read that anywhere. Well, I began going to the London Bahá’í Centre quite a lot and telling other people about the Faith in my home and asking them to come in and have a fireside with me. In 1939 there were about 16 or 17 Bahá’ís in London and a lot of them were young and enthusiastic people. It took me quite a long time to join the Faith as I wanted to be sure that I could try and live up to the principles. I was really frightened to begin with, as the standards appeared to be so high.
Then one day the blitz started in 1940 and I suddenly had the feeling that one couldn’t go up to town any more – one could go up by train and one might be bombed anywhere on the way because the blitz had begun – and this meant that I wouldn’t be able to get to the Bahá’í Centre. I wouldn’t be able to see any other Bahá’ís and I wouldn’t be able to hold on to this marvellous thing that I really couldn’t let go of. It was a part of me and I was a part of it – I had to hold on to it. And that was when I sent in my letter of declaration. It was the beginning of September 1940. My Bahá’í registration number is 109.
Vivian (Isenthal) Roe
We continued going to meetings and the first year before the blitz actually started, during what was called the “phoney war”, I was going to firesides run by Margaret Welby. She was a very well loved figure in the early years (up in Haverstock Hill). I had to travel by bus from my office (the buses were pretty well dark) and go through darkened streets. It was quite a job to know where I was and when to get off at the right stop. I would usually ask the conductor to remind me, and sometimes he might be upstairs and didn’t always remember. Nothing could keep me back from those fireside meetings because I was on fire with them. I went through the blackout and everything to get there. I remember Mother George from the Hounslow community – she was a very well known figure who was practically blind and didn’t hear very much. Her daughters brought her and we would say: “Mother George, would you like to say a few words?” and she would stand up in a public meeting and would say, “I don’t know how people survive if they don’t believe in Bahá’u’lláh, I really don’t.”
There were a lot of Persian Bahá’ís around in those days. Some of them went to other towns during the first plan that the Guardian gave to the British community. We asked him for a plan when it came to the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of The Báb in 1944. We held a meeting of the London Spiritual Assembly at that time, at No.1 Victoria Street (near Westminster Abbey). The entrance was completely sandbagged and we were down in the cellar. Our Centre was in the basement and we could hear the crump crump of bombs and aircraft etc. When we finished our business we would race for the station, as if we didn’t get home by a certain time, there wouldn’t be any buses any more the other end. The blackout was in operation at the time. It was very difficult really and on one occasion I remember running home from the bus stop and already there was shrapnel falling around me. I was running like mad to get home and get to the safety of our air raid shelter.
I used to have quite a number of people coming to my firesides in my own studio at the bottom of the garden. (Tea was rationed and I would get out a month’s programme at a time and at the bottom of it I would write: ‘Please bring along a little milk and some sugar if you take it. I can provide the tea.’) I had to take people down the garden, quite a lengthy one, with a little electric torch with a piece of tissue paper over the light, and would keep it pointing downwards on the path so that nothing could be seen from anywhere else. My studio windows were all blacked out and we had a special blind at the top where the light usually came in.
Philip Hainsworth was in the armed forces during the war. He was an engineer concerned with water supplies. Donald Miller was stationed up in the Orkneys. He said it had ruined his health as he was sleeping in damp beds and it had affected his kidneys. David Hofman married Marion. I was present at their wedding just outside Northampton. They had the Press there for the Bahá’í wedding and there were a good number of people present. Marion had only just arrived from America – they had been engaged for a long time but it hadn’t been possible to come over here during the war.
Lady Blomfield: I only met her once, when she had a fireside in her home in Hampstead. To my amazement, there was this white haired lady with beautiful pink cheeks, wearing a great big picture hat in her own home, with a blue scarf which looked lovely on her – she really was a picture – but I hadn’t seen anybody wearing a hat inside her own home like that before! There were quite a number of people there and she was acting as chair person; she called on Hasan Balyuzi, who was sitting in the audience, to come up and say a few words too. And I kept thinking, poor Hasan, he must be terrified, he must be so embarrassed. I didn’t realise how exciting it was to be a Bahá’í speaker, to be given the privilege. That is all I remember of that occasion. Lady Blomfield’s daughter was a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of London and was a very fine person too. I was a member of the L.S.A. of London shortly after I became a Bahá’í.
Another interesting person on this L.S.A. was Isabel Slade. She was a very old Bahá’í and very dignified. They used to like having her as chairman at public meetings because she looked so elegant. She also always wore hats. Working with them, I realised how wonderful these people were. There was Kathleen Hyett, who was an artist, and Donald Miller and Philip Hainsworth and David Hofman too at the time, and Dorothy Cansdale as she then was (later to become Dorothy Ferraby).
Amelia Collins visited this country on one occasion, and she came and spoke at a fireside I had in Ealing. I have a wonderful autograph album which is really worth its weight in gold and of great archival value, because it has the signatures of so many Bahá’ís who became well known in their own sphere, as well as being Bahá’ís.
Some communities were practically all English – perhaps founded by one Persian who went to a new town during the Six Year Plan – whereas in London we had a large number of Persians – also in my community of Ealing. In 1950 I divided my time between Ealing and the community of Brighton and Hove where I was a pioneer. I lived part of the week in London because I had to help with the family firm. Evelyn Baxter was also in Brighton and so was Ted Cardell, to begin with. We formed our Local Spiritual Assembly just in time for Ridván 1950.
In 1953 we held the centenary celebration of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation in 1853. We had a big exhibition in London, just off Park Lane, next to the Dorchester Hotel. I remember that well as I had designed the whole exhibition. Around 1952-53 I used to travel to and from London and I used to work on some of the plans in the train. One day I left the whole set of plans on the train and I had to start again from scratch! I never got them back. However, I got a bit of publicity, through that, for the Faith. Whenever I could get something to latch on to, I would write about it for the local paper.
The Passing of Shoghi Effendi
I never saw Shoghi Effendi. Hand of the Cause John Ferraby phoned me up one morning in 1957 and said “Vivian, I have got some rather dreadful news, very sad news. The Guardian has just died here in London.
We were all stricken with the enormity of the situation, and this awful feeling of who would lead us now? Who had the Guardian nominated?
People from all over the country wanted to come to the funeral. Evelyn Baxter in Jersey came to stay in our house and we went together to the Bahá’í Centre where the cars were waiting. We followed the hearse from Rutland Gate and drove up to Arnos Grove in a long line of cars. It was a drizzly day and some people had umbrellas. First of all there was the Bahá’í service in the chapel in the cemetery. I was among those who were outside, as I couldn’t get in, and we heard the service over loud speakers. When everyone came out, they all made a beeline for the place where he was to be interred, and those of us who were waiting outside followed on the tail end of this procession which included the Hands of the Cause and other important people from Haifa.
There were hundreds of people – and when we got to the grave I was just able to see, looking between some people. Evelyn and I had a fairly good stance – and more prayers were read there. It was a great culture shock for me because the English and the European people were all very quiet and solemn while others from Asia were behaving in the traditional way I had heard of in the Bible, beating their breasts and crying out loud and so on. We were all trying not to cry and feeling very miserable, especially when Ruhiyyih Khanum placed some flowers on the coffin which had arrived from Haifa that morning by plane. She put these on the coffin when it had been lowered into the grave, and then it was covered in, and gradually we all went away.
Then there was this feeling of “what do we do next?” Have they found a will? Who was going to lead the Faith now? It was such a worry, but we were relieved to hear that the Hands of the Cause – the stewards of the Cause – were in charge.
Celebrations in The Royal Albert Hall – 1963
The members of the Universal House of Justice were presented to us on stage at the Royal Albert Hall after their election.
I was a German and French interpreter at the World Congress for anyone who was in trouble. I was placed at the entrance gates as nobody was allowed in without their credentials.
The celebrations were a shock, I am sure, for a lot of people in London, for the Bahá’ís walked in the middle of the road outside the Royal Albert Hall, oblivious to all the traffic – especially people who came from South America and so on, who had never seen a bus in their lives. It was charming and almost childish in a way, and lovely – and the general public just didn’t understand it. There was a Souvenir edition of the London Evening News (the cover and special insert).
I found this so exciting and inspiring that afterwards I felt we must do something locally, and not always go up the Bahá’í Centre in town, where people wouldn’t necessarily want to come to in the evening, once they got home from work. Therefore it was up to us to bring the Faith to them, locally. We set up the West London Bahá’í Teaching Group, consisting of believers from Colindale, Putney, Chiswick, Harrow, etc., and held fortnightly public meetings in the Carnarvon Hotel, Ealing. The first Local Spiritual Assembly of the London borough of Ealing was formed in 1966.
Vivian Roe (Isenthal)
5 July 1991
 I should add that I never met my spiritual mother, Johanna Hirsch, because she was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp where she was killed just before liberation. But before she died we received a letter in which she mentioned: “I am very happy to know that Vivian has met my beloved Bas.” She didn’t dare put the whole name because that would have meant death, but she was killed anyhow. At least it might have made her happy to know that she had handed on the torch.
Standing: Hector Frostick, Valerie Jones. ??, Irene Jones, Farhang Rameshni, Goli-Golkar, Ruhi Rameshni, Ali Golestaneh, Mr Dabiri.
Seated: John McIlree, Rose Jones, Roya Golestaneh, Vivian Isenthal, Mehry Golestaneh, Cissie LeGray, Hoda Golestaneh