My mother Sally was born on January 16th 1920 in the East End of London. Third child and second daughter. Her younger sister was born six years later.
The story of how my mother grew up in grinding poverty before the Welfare State existed and how the family of six came through the Depression and the Second World War is one that has fascinated me all my life and, one day, I may just complete that book that I started 20 years ago.
My mother’s experience was both different and, at the same time, similar to so many families living in the East End in the 20’s and 30’s of the last century. Different because each story is unique, similar because they all shared the difficult economic and social issues of the time.
My grandparents arrived in England from Poland (part of Russia at the time) in the first decade of the 20th century.
They all settled in the East End of London.
Both my grandfathers were tailors. My mother’s mother, Booba, was an expert seamstress specialising in buttonholes. She worked at home once she was married. One of her clients was the former world boxing champion Jack Johnson who had to come to England from America because of troubles in his native land.
From 1913 until 1940 the family lived either side of Commercial Road. My grandfather was a sickly man who, when conscripted in 1918 to be sent to France during the Great War, was found to be completely unfit for service. Given the desperation for manpower in 1918 he must really have been a very poor specimen. I still have his discharge certificate. He was given the King’s shilling and sent home. This must have been a great relief to my grandmother sitting at home with two young children.
For the next 20 years he drifted in and out of work and hospital. This put a huge strain on the family. My mother and her older brother were key in topping up the family income whenever they could. This taught my mother lifetime thrift which was accompanied by huge compassion and generosity.
A bright child and teenager, nevertheless my mother’s education ended at age 14, and, like so any others, she was apprenticed as a dressmaker. She excelled at this. When I was growing up my mother made me and my brother entire suits, and she made my cousin’s wedding suit. My earliest memories involve tins of buttons of every size and description, needles, pins, tailor’s chalk, wool and cotton reels and words like ‘bobbin’. My Mum would work on an old Singers sewing machine in the kitchen of our flat in North West London.
She was old enough to remember clearly the Battle of Cable Street when Jews and others blocked a march by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts through the streets of the East End. Her mother took a chair leg and was prepared to use it. She ended up in Leman Street ‘nick’ for a while but was released without charge, or so the story goes.
When the war came the family had to abandon their flat in Fordham Street because of unexploded munitions, probably high-explosive bombs. This was after experiencing the blitz at close hand for several months during which they spent many a night in bomb shelters, although they did not use the Underground.
On returning home one evening in 1940 after an air raid they were prevented from entering their home due to the danger of the UXB’s. My grandmother persuaded a policeman to let her in to take some essentials. One of these essentials was the set of shabbat candlesticks.
They set off for Aylesbury on the advice of a neighbour only to find, on arrival, that a flu epidemic meant that they would have to go elsewhere. Spending the night in a nearby market town they were selected the following morning by the vicar of a small village where Jews had never set foot since the Norman Conquest. Their sojourn at the vicarage became a legendary tale in the family, and it ended with my 21 year old mother taking the vicar to a tribunal for maltreating his evacuees.
Years later I visited the vicarage, now a private home, with my mother and brother and found that my mother’s family had remained a legend in the village, unbeknown to us, for 50 years.
My mother’s life was a hard one and full of tragedies. Her older sister never really grew up and although independent and even marrying in later life, she remained effectively my mother’s ward until her death.
My mother lost her first child which was a stillborn boy. This greatly affected her mentally and she had a nervous breakdown as a result. Her younger sister died tragically at aged 35 and her father passed away just after I was born. My father z”l passed away 27 years ago after 35 years of marriage.
Living to almost 93 meant she outlived her family and friends. She moved to Manchester from London to be near me and my family after illness 12 years ago and this is where she passed away.
Mum had a very vibrant personality, full of fun, jokes and humour. She was a great story-teller. She loved films and read a lot. Because of her I can still point out the obscurest supporting actors in 1930’s musicals. Much of her general knowledge came from films which formed her secondary education.
She often surprised people, including me, with her knowledge and intelligence. As a young woman she paired with her brother to form a formidable dancing partnership and they won many competitions before and during the war. She had huge potential which, in another era, may have led her to achieve much more in life.
Her lasting achievement is her devotion to family and her selflessness over many decades. She dedicated her life to those around her. In this, she was very much the Jewish mother. She had her faults, of course, and the scars of those early years would sometimes come to the surface.
She passed on to me and my brother a great pride in being Jewish. I have, since a young age, felt duty-bound to stay in that tradition. She was responsible for the emotional and cultural super-glue for which I am now so grateful.
I used to call my mother almost every night for 10 years. Even now, several weeks after her passing, at a certain time in the evening, I still feel that mental tug telling me ‘don’t forget to call Mum’. Ever so often, and I know this is very common and natural, I hear myself saying to myself ‘you must tell Mum’ or ‘I wonder what Mum will think of this’. Even when I was growing a beard during the 30 days of mourning, the ‘shloshim’, I often thought ‘what will Mum say when she sees me looking like this’.
There is a strong tradition in Judaism that your loved ones live on in your memories of them.
And there are many memories in a long life.