In the mid 1970s, about half way through his reluctant tenure as managing director of small import-export businesses in the City of London, my father developed a fascination with the Jewish East End. “Cut me, schmier me and throw me” he once announced to nobody in particular as he came through the kitchen door in suburban Essex – the hungry cry of Jewish kids calling to their mamas from the street. “Cut me a slice of bread, spread it and throw it down to me”.
Holocaust Remembrance Day 2018 is a Saturday. Shabbat. I’ve walked up to the entrances of three West End Synagogues in Knightsbridge and Westminster. I’m not sure what I was expecting … some flowers, maybe, by the unmarked doors? At the West London Synagogue on Seymour Place a young woman hurries up and rings the bell. I follow her in. “Cooking classes” she says, disappearing past the security guard. He passes me a card. Not today. Peering through ground floor windows of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue on Great Cumberland Place I see children playing clapping games. Heartened, I ring the bell. “It’s Shabbat”, says the guard. Make an appointment please.
Across the road a modest bunch of chrysanthemums (or are they gerbera) lies at the feet of the Raoul Wallenberg Monument – a small nod to Wallenberg’s attempt to cut a hole into the fence of inhumanity. Perhaps this is all that’s possible.
The following day, armed with a book purchased at London’s Jewish Museum, I make my way to the East End. I’m not sure what I was expecting … hordes of children shouting “cut me, schmier me and throw me…”? But the streets between the Mile End and Commercial Roads are windswept and quiet. As, of course, I knew that they would be. The Jewish community that once thrived here – tens of thousands of Ashkenazi that fled persecution in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and settled close to their point of arrival and that of earlier immigrants in and around Whitechapel and Spitalfields – has long since relocated: to Hackney, Golders Green or Ilford. Those that came from Germany and Austria in the interwar years bypassed the East End, finding new homes and businesses in northwest London and Essex.
There haven’t been many, if any, signs of vibrant Jewish culture here for some fifty years. Just the odd plaque or a tour guide’s finger pointing to the house at 91 Ashfield Street in which Sir Jack Cohen spent his childhood years before going on to create Tesco with his tea merchant T. E. Stockwell (hence the acronym TESCO). Idling in front of the door at number 91, a green Tesco’s crisp packet peeks from the top of a garbage bag. Unless I include the chocolate buttons purchased earlier at Marks and Spencer (founded by a Polish-Jewish immigrant), it’s the only physically graspable vestige of Jewish life that I’ll encounter today.
What does remain, as it must, is the word. Or places at which the word was taught. Because this was – is – a constant. Evolving over millennia since the 6th – 5th centuries BCE, Jews have carried, revered and redacted the Torah through depredation, expulsion and vilification. Temples burned, empires rose and fell, wave upon wave of exiles harked to the whim of prejudice. Moving, adapting, they took with them inviolate scriptures: an ever-expanding, portable fatherland.
Schools and synagogues. Jazz musician Ronnie Scott and actor Stephen Berkoff passed through the doors of Raine’s Boys’ School on Cannon Street Road, its lettered façade now fading above an Asian market. The trim premises of East London Central Synagogue on Nelson Street remain in use only because 18 local synagogues merged here in 1982. Like its diminutive cousin, the Congregation of Jacob on Commercial Road, it was built in the 1920s, the heyday of “cut me, schmier me and throw me”, when the Jewish East End population numbered 125,000.
Gone, long gone. Hurrying back through the dusk, I cross the Altab Ali Park dedicated to the memory of a Bengali tailor murdered close-by in 1978. Bengali lascars, or seamen, serving on European ships began arriving here in the early 20th century. Many fought for the British in WWI and subsequently settled. As their wives and children joined them a generation or two later, the area acquired a new mantle of habits and customs, lining its streets with Kebab shops, Asian wholesalers of food and fashion, and schools (Kobi Nazrul) named in honour of Bengali luminaries. Scrubbed warehouses and intrepid, as yet isolated organic stores herald yet another sea change.
As I scuttle thankfully back into the Underground at Aldgate East, past the Burger King that now does business where the Kosher restaurant Bloom’s once entertained Princess Margaret, I wonder about the truth of Cut me and schmier me, revealed as a cocktail of received history and family anecdote, salted with a pinch of second-hand nostalgia.
Have I been cheated? Or have I been enriched, become one of an invisible community of observers across time and across religions. A listener of the unwritten laws of memory.
Holocaust Day – and the day thereafter – 2018.