Growing up Jewish: Recollections of World War II in East London

    March 2010            
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The East End of London

By Jack Cohen

One of my earliest memories is of my father waking me in the middle of the night and giving me a piece of shrapnel. Half asleep I stretched out my hand to grasp the gray, metallic object. It was heavy and hard, and the light glinted off its irregular surfaces. I still remember the feel of it sharp and warm in my hand.

Many years later he told me how he had acquired this fragment of a German bomb. He had been on patrol as a Civil Defense Guard in the East End of London during the War. "One night during an air-raid I was standing on a street corner, Commercial Road, near the railway lines into Liverpool Street. It was completely deserted. And I 'eard this plane comin' over low, an 'e's droppin' a stick of bombs, an 'e's comin closer, an I could feel the ground shake, and the shock waves and 'eat started to 'it me, an I could tell from the delay between the explosions that the next one was goin to 'it me, an I thought to myself 'blimey, this is it,' an I grabbed 'old of a lamp-post and waited. And all of a sudden it stopped!" The string of bombs had run out before reaching him.

Fortunately, everyone was in the shelters because there had been an air-raid warning. But my father investigated to make certain no-one had disobeyed the siren, that was his job. As he examined the wreckage of a bombed, smoldering house, shouting and then listening for survivors, he saw a piece of shrapnel glistening in the moonlight. "When I picked it up it was still 'ot." Although he was on patrol all night he rushed home and woke me to give me the shrapnel. Perhaps he wanted to communicate the miracle of his deliverance.

For many years I treasured that odd-shaped hunk of metal sent from Germany to kill. I imagined a being wrapped in darkened shrouds hunched over his weapons. Motivated by strange beliefs he dropped his bombs over the blackened city, now alight with spreading explosions scattered like dice on a vast checkered board. Swathed in darkness he finished his deadly business and flew on. He came to kill my father, but my father lived.

----- o -----

During the Second World War the East End of London was devastated by German bombs. Whole neighborhoods were reduced to ruins. Brick Lane is a narrow scar that winds through the East End, connecting the districts of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, their bucolic origins long since submerged under layers of decaying slums and bomb-sites. The Bethnal Green end of the Lane was the center of the woodworking and furniture-making area. It was honeycombed with hundreds of shops of all sizes, making cupboards, tables, chairs, and during the War even Mosquito aircraft.

My father's workshop was a single room directly on the Lane itself. Wood of all types and sizes was stacked around every inch of it. I was fascinated by the different types of wood and loved to repeat their strange names, "sycamore, mahogany." I never envisaged them as trees. A huge bench covered with tools dominated the dark room.

When he was not there I would quietly enter this sanctuary and gaze around in awe at the strange objects. I loved to see the planes hung in ascending sizes, their flat shiny surfaces reflected my distorted face. The curly shavings and sawdust crunched under my feet. I carefully grasped the bradawl and, mimicking my father, dug a hole in a piece of lumber.

The shop contained no wood working machinery, since my father could not afford it, and preferred to do as much work as possible by hand. He only used the machines in adjoining shops when he had to, and then he paid for them. He considered himself to be a cabinet-maker, and was insulted if anyone referred to him as a carpenter. Sometimes I would have to help my father. The smell of the hot glue repelled me, yet for years that pungent, acrid odor brought a flood of memories.

As he poured the molten glue my father yelled, "nah rub it in." I hastened to obey his commands, brandishing the sharp-bristled brush. "Spread it, spread it all over." I spread the gelling, brown goo, while he carefully retrieved a piece of veneer from the tub of water. Then he quickly and expertly laid the precious fine sheet of wood onto the sticky surface. Using a flat-edged tool he began to express the glue from between the two pieces of wood. It was crucial to prevent air bubbles and to remove lumps of undissolved glue. His forearm muscles bulged and the veins in his hands stood out like blue rivulets as he applied all his strength. In the small, hot room his hair hung down in dank strands, acting as conduits for the sweat that poured from him. It dripped steadily onto the veneer, becoming one with the glue. When he was satisfied he took the huge iron off the gas ring and pressed the veneer until it was bonded with the wood beneath. Then he trimmed the edges, and raised the veneered wood high in both hands like a torah to see its beautiful grain etched in the dim light.

----- o -----

On major Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I accompanied my father to shul. To get there we walked down Brick Lane, across Bethnal Green Road, and through the market to Cheshire Street. I hated these trips, dressed in my best clothes, carrying my talit in its velvet case, and passing through the vegetable stalls. The throngs of shoppers, dressed in their shabby, workaday clothes, crowded around. It made me feel conspicuous, it emphasized my distinctness. A few of the stall holders knew my father and shouted familiarly, "'ullo Mick, 'ow are yer," and he waved or stopped briefly to chat. But, others glowered and shouted loud antisemitic remarks as we passed by.

Sometimes my father did not shave before going to shul because of the particular holiday or in remembrance of his parents. His beard grew very quickly and formed a dark swath across his already swarthy features. His gray homberg hat and large, ill-fitting charcoal-gray suit made him appear an entirely different person to me. Even though I was constrained by my father's authority, I made it plain that I disliked going to shul. I was forced to undergo the gauntlet of the alien stares of the disheveled crowd.

"The United Workman's and Wlodawa Synagogue" read the faded sign. We entered the old, dim building, which reeked muskily of age and books. Then we went through the prescribed rituals, putting on the talit, saying the prayers. These had little meaning for me, and I knew my father was not really religious. I had early developed a strong skepticism, which if truth were to be told derived more from the mixture of embarrassment and boredom that attended my visits to this sanctuary than from any rational basis.

It was all so mysterious to me. I did go to Talmud Torah twice a week after regular school. But I learned little more there than a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew and scripture. There was a constant struggle with the impulsive teachers, who really seemed to have no idea how to teach. Everyone misbehaved and I was always having my hand slapped or my cheek pinched. This, I decided, must be a peculiar European custom of punishment, since it was not practiced in the regular schools. No amount of complaining by pupils or parents could stop this constant misbehavior and punishment cycle. The pupils resented having to learn what they felt was irrelevant, and which by their very presence implied their difference.

Not only were the Hebrew prayers and much of the service a mystery to me, but the very name of the place puzzled me. Who were the "United Workmen" and what was "Wlodawa?" It was not Hebrew, so perhaps it was Yiddish, which was often spoken between the prayers. Although my father spoke Yiddish, my mother, who had grown up in an assimilated Dutch-Sephardi background, did not. My father had made it plain that he did not want his son to speak Yiddish or to grow up with an accent, the kind they were always ridiculing on the radio. Consequently I learnt no Yiddish. The only words of English in the service were the prayer for the Royal Family. For the most part the service remained incomprehensible to me.

To my father's annoyance I was continually requesting permission to go outside, to the toilet or for a break because I was bored. Outside was where I preferred to be, for that was where another part of the mystery was enacted. The boys and girls gathered on the steps. All dressed up, they stood around and looked each other over. Although I was deeply ambivalent about the whole scene, the chasing about, the discreet flirting, I found it a lot less boring than the service.

Occasionally my mother came and sat in the women's gallery upstairs. When I was small I was allowed to join her there. I liked this because the women made a fuss of me, and I could look down upon the undulating white sea of men davening, and see the gold-encrusted torah scrolls in the Ark, and hear the deep melodic chants as they rose to me on high. But, it was the core of the mystery that really attracted me to the women's gallery. On Kol Nidre night, as the Chazan chanted the once-again remembered prayer, after the shofar wailed its penetrating, primitive notes, the old women burst into tears. An emotional wave swept over the assembled Jews, some of whom broke down, wailing and beating their breasts. I could not understand this outburst. I looked on uncomprehendingly as women were wracked by sobs. What was it that caused them to react so extremely, what had happened to them, what infinitely deep suffering was there in life, and would I also have to experience it? Yet, the ultimate mystery was not this scene that was enacted before my eyes each year, nor the origins of the emotional outburst, but, rather it was the fact that I was a part of it.

----- o -----

My mother sat in the semi-darkness, a single light illuminating the area where her hands wove in and out as she sewed the hem of a man's jacket. I watched her, eyes squinting, head bent, as she gauged the size of the stitches. The smaller the stitches and the more regular they were, the more she would be paid. It was piece-work, but it was quality work.

These suits cost 50 to 100 guineas. It was beyond my comprehension that someone could pay that much for a suit. My mother was an expert seamstress. Her final job was to sew the front edges of the jacket and around the collar. It was necessary that the stitches be so small that they could hardly be seen. Yet, the effect of the stitches on the edge must be there to prove that it had been hand sewn. After she had finished she called me over, and draped the jacket on my shoulders, to admire her work. It was like an overcoat on me, and we laughed together. I decided that when I grew up, one day I would be rich enough to afford such a suit, but I would never buy one. For if I did someone like my mother would have to sit at home in a dingy, ill-lit room and sew for hours and hours on end.

----- o -----

The bricks were rough. I loved to feel their pitted surfaces and to run my fingers along the gritty row of mortar between them. I stepped from one flagstone to the next in the uneven pavement, being careful to avoid the cracks.

Each day the walk to school lead me down Brick Lane to Virginia Road. On the corner was a large bomb-site where a whole block of houses had been demolished by a German bomb during the War. I carefully avoided bomb-sites, especially this one. Across the road on the other corner was the block of flats where my family and I had lived up on the third floor when I had been a kid. It was strange not to live there anymore. Of course, I was glad that we had moved away from that dump. Yet, it cried out to me with a warm familiarity. Betty Bloom, my first love, still lived next door. Involuntarily I pictured the stained green wall next to my bed, pitted and pockmarked with the remains of squashed bugs. My new tricycle had stood next to my bed, its handlebars glistening in the sunlight. Every morning I awoke to a new pattern of light streaming from the curtains illuminating the bare walls. Down Gosset Street, which ran next to the building, my mother had grown up in an even worse slum.

Down Virginia Road I passed on my right the prefabs where one of my best friends, George, had lived. They were beginning to tear them down finally, so that now the depressing bomb-sites spread on both sides of Virginia Road. Beyond the ruins of the prefabs loomed the dark red brick facade of the Shoreditch Mission Hospital. It evoked a particular kind of dread in me, a mixture of fear and hatred. One cause of my dislike of the hospital was the out-patient's clinic held there early every morning for the woodworkers. I had been there occasionally with minor cuts accompanied by my father. I had seen the results of some terrible accidents. Fingers cut off by band saws, hands gashed with circular saws, arms hanging, men lying on stretchers soaked in blood. That clinic put the fear of death into me. It was hated in the whole neighborhood. It was bad enough to be injured, but an accident serious enough to take a man there could put him off work for a long time, and then his family could face the prospect of slow starvation.

The ball flew over the big, rusty iron gate across from George's home. None of the others wanted to go over and get it. It was scary inside the gate. Since it could not be opened, no-one ever went inside there. With high walls on two sides the gate enclosed a triangular space filled with rubble just as the bombs had left it. Feigning bravery, I volunteered. I climbed the gate my shoes fitting between the uprights. I traversed the diagonals, stepping up one at a time until I reached the top six feet above the ground. Very carefully I stepped over the ominous foot long spikes that guarded the ruin from all intruders. On the other side I descended similarly, and quickly stepped from slab to slab until I found the ball nestling in a crevice. I threw it to the boys outside and rapidly retraced my steps. I wanted to get away from that place, where I imagined rats crouching in the darkness I glimpsed from the corners of my eyes. Perhaps dead bodies remained encased under my feet, as my father had described them in his stories of the blitz.

Automatically I began climbing up the gate. My arms spread wide I grasped the spikes and lifted myself to scale the top. Suddenly my feet slipped and I fell. I felt the spike tear into me. My arms lost their strength and I hung there suspended. A film covered my eyes. Dimly I perceived the boys and some others milling around below. I tried to look down but the spike projected into my chin. I tried to move but could not, because my shirt was pierced by the spike. It held me there, my legs dangling below and my arms uselessly outstretched.

They were shouting at me, but I couldn't understand them. Slowly I moved my head to the side to avoid the spike and looked down. There was blood on my shirt. The spike, which now rested against the side of my head, had entered my shirt on my right side. I was not sure if I could move, perhaps the spike had pierced my body. Looking down I wished my feet into a foothold, and cautiously eased myself up. It didn't hurt so I continued, but I was still attached to the spike. As in a dream I saw myself moving my hands and legs, until I had surmounted the spike and released myself from its piercing hold. Now I stood unsteadily atop the gate looking down on the hazy crowd. Then I turned and slowly transcended the diagonals.

I ran home clutching the dark stain on my side. When my mother saw me she blanched. She ran back with me to the Hospital, past the gate where I had been suspended. They rushed me into the emergency room and gave me a painful injection with a long needle. I was hanging in space. They put six stitches in me. "He was lucky," one of the nurses told my mother, "last year we had a boy who fell on one of the spikes and it pierced his chin and he died of lockjaw."

For weeks I sported my bandaged side at school as a badge of courage. But in the privacy of my room I awaited the fateful signs. I imagined that my jaw was hurting and that I could not open it fully. I could not sleep. "Oh, piercing spike, save me now and evermore from thy wrath. "Every word I uttered was not just a communication, it was an affirmation.

----- o -----

The face stared up at me from the photograph, intense, solemn, slightly unfocused. The stare was direct, transfixing, yet somehow distracted. It was as if he knew. "I exist while this picture is being taken, then I will cease to exist. One day you will look at this picture and you will wonder how it felt." His intense stare haunted me. He had been one of my Dutch cousins on my mother's side. Now he was a photograph, the only evidence that a whole family had once existed. They had lived in the Hague and Amsterdam, and before the War had occasionally visited England. During the war they had all disappeared, murdered by the Germans, fifty-one men, women and children.

How had it felt? How had it been for my cousin. Somehow the intensity in his dark gaze communicated to me, "Live for me too," it said, "live for all of us. Do not know ease uncaringly, Live life to the full for all of us. We will be there looking over your shoulder. But, do not be disturbed, we are part of you, and you of us." Involuntarily I shuddered, "Julian, is this how Julian would have looked...?"

Only one member of the Dutch family had survived. She had been packed inside a cattle car on its way into Germany when a detachment of British paratroopers dropped near the railway lines. They floated from the sky like a dream, great white billowing mushrooms with fiery orange stalks. They stopped the train, killed the German guards, and released the prisoners. It was a miracle. But, so many trains had gone before. The rest of the family had been transported into oblivion, murdered at Auschwitz. She returned to Amsterdam, but in a matter of days their house had been ransacked and shattered. What the Germans had not confiscated the Dutch rushed in to take. Every moveable object was removed. Even the stairways and the paneling were torn down to burn for firewood. She was brought to England and lived among us, a silent witness.

----- o -----

As a teenager, I became obsessed with the Holocaust. I read anything that I could get my hands on about it. I needed to know all the details, what would it have actually been like to be there, to be part of it. Raul Hilberg’s “The Destruction of the European Jews” became my bible. I read it secretly, as if I was part of a conspiracy, and no-one else should know about my involvement in it. How could one communicate the seriousness, even the sanctity, of this subject, to mere school friends, and certainly not to parents? At first I dreamt of escape, of cheating the German Nazi system, but gradually I came to accept the fate of the victim.

----- o -----

The land of Israel is covered with historic sites. The map shows dozens of tels scattered wherever a hill would support defensible human habitation. In this fertile crossroads, armies marched and counter-marched, destroying cities and re-settling them. Some tels show evidence of twenty or more levels of civilization stacked one on top of the other, stretching back four thousand years through the Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Crusader, Turkish and British conquests.

I was most fascinated by the remains of the biblical period. Three of the biggest tels occupy strategic sites controlling the coastal strip, along which all commerce proceeded. Where the route turns inland through the Jezreel Valley, known as the via maris, stands Megiddo. This was Solomon's northern capital, and it was destroyed in a manner so extreme that it has been enshrined in our minds as the ultimate eschatological armageddon. The ruins of Gezer guard the foothills of the route inland to Jerusalem; and in the south, huge and forbidding, stands the largest tel, Lachish.

To the casual eye Lachish appears from the distance a strange, black, flattened mountain. Few tourists come this way and no signs indicate how to reach it. Closer up, it looks like nothing more than a great, if ancient, slag-heap. Walls and terraces wander in all directions across its steep slopes. Clambering to the top took me a half-hour of hard work.

On the top it was quite flat, but here and there were humps and holes disappearing into the depths. Walking across the top I was confronted by a massive stone wall. I passed through it at an opening that once must have been the gateway to a great and magnificent city. It had been the last, and hence topmost, city on the site. Then the location was abandoned thousands of years ago. While there was some evidence of excavation, it was clear that modern man had only just scratched the surface, literally, of this huge mound.

On the top there was the strange feeling I always associated with such sites. A strong, but gusty, wind tugged intermittently at my clothing, making quiet whispering sounds. The air was hot and dry, and dust rose in small whorls and then settled quickly. The weight of history hung heavy, stifling, almost tangible. The ground was littered with fragments of stone and pottery, the accumulated detrita of millennia. I stooped and picked up one particular shard that attracted my attention. It was warm and sharp in my hand. It felt strangely familiar.

This story is an excerpt from the author's book "Amanuensis" that has been been published in "All of our lives" and published by Targum Press (2009) edited by Sarah Shapiro. His book may be boughtat Amazon (search "Amanuensis Jack Cohen") and/or to his site


from the March 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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