Mark King’s tour of East End London begins with a very personal story. In 1938 and 1939 ten thousand Jewish children were evacuated to the UK from Nazi occupied Europe. Travelling by train and ferry, their long journey to safety ended at Liverpool Street Station. Among their number were two 16 year olds: Werner from Berlin and Diana from Vienna.
“They were my father and mother,” says Mark. “My dad was taken in at a boarding school in Dorset run by his sponsor Evelyn King. During the war it wasn’t a good idea to have a German name, so he adopted his headmaster’s surname. My mother lived with a family in West Norwood. Neither of them ever saw their parents again.”
The children’s evacuation became known as the Kindertransport. Commemorated by a statue at Liverpool Street Station, the monument tells a familiar story of upheaval for London’s Jewish community. Constrained in medieval England and expelled by Edward I in 1290, they were officially exiled until the 1650s. During the 1700s a new community settled on the eastern edge of the City. Then during pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 1880s large numbers to fled to London.
“In three decades some 125,000 refugees crammed into the Whitechapel area,” Mark explains. “By 1900 there were more than 100 synagogues in just two square miles of the East End. This sudden influx aroused anxiety and even hostility. Outside Spitalfields Market today there is a sculpture of a goat standing on shipping crates. This evokes the area’s heritage of trade and mobility, as well as the concept of the immigrant as a ‘scapegoat’.
The entrance to 18th century Christchurch Spitalfields houses a series of plaques with Hebrew inscriptions dedicated to the proselytizing Christians who financed missions to try to convert the Jews. “Certain Anglicans believed the newcomers needed missionary help. Some donated blankets and food; others required Jewish children to sit through Christian lectures before they were fed. So canny parents sent their offspring along with cotton wool in their ears and instructions to ignore the sermon, but get their dinner.
“London’s resident Jewish community – concerned that large numbers of ’aliens’ could provoke anti-Semitism – did what they could to feed and educate the newcomers. The Brune Street kitchen still stands – decorated with a fabulous tureen symbolizing the thousands of bowls of (probably chicken) soup that sustained the needy.
“Bell Lane was home to the Jews’ Free School. By the early 1900s it was reputed to be the largest school in Europe, providing education, clothing, food and healthcare for 4,000 East End kids who were taught how to be proper little Englishmen and women. Its alumni include Barney Barnato, a prizefighter and music hall turn who started a South African diamond company which eventually evolved into De Beers.
“The immigrants brought Yiddish entertainment to East London. A pavement plaque on Princelet Street marks the site of one of four Jewish theatres. Set up by Jacob Adler, he boasted that ‘London was the school of Yiddish theatre’. The playhouse entertained the community with popular melodramatic shows until a stampede provoked by a stage effect killed 17 people and the venue was closed. Adler moved his acting family to New York, where his daughter Stella became a legendary teacher – her students included Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.
“The area’s most famous showbiz son has to be Lionel Bart, who grew up just off Brick Lane. Born Lionel Begleiter in 1930, the youngest of seven children, Bart wrote Living Doll, for pop star Cliff Richard, before finding international fame with a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. By elegant coincidence, Dickens based his character Fagin on an infamous Jewish dealer of stolen goods, Ikey Solomon, whose ‘shop’ was in Spitalfields’ Bell Lane.
“Many Jewish immigrants worked in ‘schmutter’. In the early 1900s Brick Lane thronged with manufacturers and merchants selling all kinds of garments, fabrics, silks, furs, leathers and cottons.
As they grew more prosperous they moved away to the airy suburbs of Golders Green and beyond”. The Lane’s last Jewish shopkeeper is Leo Epstein. This sociable septuagenarian opened Epra Fabrics 1956. He can still be found among the thousands of colourful rolls of material, scissors and measuring tape in hand.
Epstein works happily alongside the newer Bengali immigrants. His motto is: ‘On Brick Lane we do business, not politics’. Epstein’s son has joined the business, but Leo is worried that the latest generation will lose the tradition. “In my day professions like law and medicine were out of reach for Jews. But not for my grandchildren, that is what they are doing”.
“Epra Fabrics is one of the last vibrant links to the Jewish East End tradition,” Mark explains. “But if Jews are no longer here in person, their legacy is both indelible and edible – from the Brick Lane bagel shops to fish and chips. Sephardic immigrants from Portugal and Spain brought battered fish to London. Then in the1860s a young Jewish lad, Joseph Malin, combined it with potatoes and opened the country’s first fish-and-chip shop.
And for a reminder of how immigrants quickly become part of London’s rich culture, just visit the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street. The first building here was a Huguenot Protestant chapel, built in 1743 for French refugees. In 1809 it was bought by the ‘London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews’. In the late 19th century, the building became Spitalfields Great Synagogue. In 1976, it reopened as a mosque for today’s Muslim community.
It is the only structure outside Jerusalem to have served all three faiths. On the side of the building a Latin motto reads: ‘We are all shadows’. In London’s East End the shadows cast by its Jewish community are still very visible.