The Whitechapel section of London, like the Lower East Side of New York, remains in some sense “home” for thousands of Jews whose parents were part of its bustling life and who themselves grew up on its streets. The section is no longer so active, and indeed was seriously damaged by the air raids of the war, but 25,000 Jews still live there. Barnet Litvinoff reports here on the life in Whitechapel as of 1950.
If you were to take a walk down East London’s Whitechapel Road today, starting by Woolworth’s at the corner of Commercial Road and gazing at your reflection in the big furniture shops and the little haberdashers and the dingy restaurants and sour-smelling pubs, you might well ask yourself, “Is this the Whitechapel of story and legend?” As you scan the faces of tired, shabbily dressed housewives and bustling street salesmen, step warily on one side to avoid the dust-bowl outside the Salvation Army’s Hostel for Working Men, look at the big clock on London Hospital, reach Mile End Gate and at last come to a dead halt—what a sense of frustration!
The truth is that Whitechapel Road is drab and uninteresting today, and—whisper it!—probably always was. Yet if you live now in fashionable North West London, on the ridge of Hampstead Heath by Swiss Cottage, or perhaps in a comfortable modern Golders Green villa where you employ a part-time gardener for your hedgerows and your hollyhocks, you will never admit it, so drenched are you with the glamor of Whitechapel. For Whitechapel is the home of your youth, and how you love it!
Almost every Jew you know, if he is English-born, and they mostly are in Golders Green, grew up in Whitechapel, attended the Jews’ Free School as Israel Zangwill did and the old Marquis of Reading and Samuel Gompers; worked in tailors’ sweatshops on the fourth floor of a Great Garden Street tenement; bought a pen’orth of chips in Tubby Isaacs’; laughed with Marie Lloyd at the Paragon; cried with Moscovitch at the Yiddish play; took a Turkish bath in Brick Lane at Schefzik’s.
An English Jew traveling the world will be asked by a diamond magnate in Johannesburg: Is the bagel woman with the upturned orange-box for a stall still at her pitch in the Lane? Or by a Melbourne alderman: Do they still hold the exhibitions at the Art Gallery, or was it bombed? Or by a government official in Tel Aviv, perhaps the head of the information services: Is old Roberts still caretaker at Jubilee Street School? In Manhattan and Montreal from troupers working the English repertory stage and from Hollywood script-writers you will be plied with similar questions. Whitechapel is a place where everyone was proud to be born—but nobody wants to live.
Although born in Whitechapel, the present writer was taken at an early age to Bethnal Green, its Gentile neighbor (which meant, of course, that many shopkeepers and tradesmen were Jews). He is consequently part of the Whitechapel tradition, but actually not of its native generation. But many of the established Anglo-Jewish writers and journalists, and many middle-aged university dons, are of that generation, and they guard their memories nostalgically and fanatically. The great Whitechapel they tell of no longer exists in bricks and mortar, but in their memories and literary testaments it towers more monumentally than ever.
When the president of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University was a boy, and Zangwill already a literary lion-cub, Whitechapel and its environs, with their ironically named streets like Christian Street (where practically every resident was Jewish) and Flower and Dean Street (where never a shrub grows), were already almost solidly ghettos. By the time of the First World War nine-tenths of the Jewish population of London, perhaps two hundred thousand people, lived there. There grew up something that was well known in Europe and in New York—a specifically Jewish folk culture. Yiddish newspapers, the Yiddish play, left-wing politics, tea-drinking sessions at the local restaurants, the evening promenade along the Whitechapel highway (called the “shidduch parade” right through till the 30’s), and every kind of social, literary, and musical group. Nothing like it ever existed before in London, or probably ever will. For fifty years this era lasted, with its noisy argumentativeness and a gushing zest for life. Then the Jews moved away, and the district began to subside to quietude and homogeneity with the rest of London. Until finally Hitler’s bombs cascaded down and not only the people, but their relics and the edifices they created, were gone.
Yiddish journalists there still are, and Anglo-Jewish writers who exhibit their longing for those days as other romantics for medieval Catholicism. Seldom do they take a walk down Petticoat Lane on a Sunday morning or visit an East End synagogue without transcribing onto paper the memories stirred of poets and painters and philanthropists who had brushed shoulders with them at Goide’s Restaurant on their passage to the hall of fame. Destiny has taken these far afield. Bernard Shaw requisitioned one of them for a biographer and companion at Ayot St. Lawrence. Premier Ben Gurion another, to organize his vrar. General Smuts, a third; and an English countess, daughter of a field marshal, married a fourth. Two hundred thousand individuals can go a long way, when they are Jews, and the world is, after all, a small place, and fame easily won.
That boy, running to and fro, speaking volubly in an English that is still half-Yiddish, buying and selling and closing one eye cleverly as he fixes a deal with the top-machinist for a new pair of scissors? Sh! we are not so proud of the man he became. Only a few months ago he lived spaciously in Park Lane. His friends were cabinet ministers and his clients millionaires. We acknowledge him no more, he has betrayed us, spotlighting our Jewish knack for going places. They call him Sidney Stanley, though his names were many, as British newspapermen refused to let us forget; and how thankful those journalists were to Mr. Stanley for dropping onto their desks their best peacetime story since the abdication! Let us forget this master-mind of intrigue and look instead to this house, with its gaping holes for windows and the crumbly wall facing the bombsite. When it is rebuilt we shall ask the London County Council to put a plaque there. In it was born Isaac Rosenberg whom Edith Sitwell called the Poet of the War. He was killed in action in 1917.
Yet for my generation, and for that one rapidly reaching maturity whose cradle was elsewhere than in the East End, Whitechapel is not just a symbol or the subject of “good old days” articles in the London Jewish Chronicle. There are still twenty-five thousand Jews living there, mostly old folk and derelicts whom the upsurge of the times passed by, and tradespeople who have somehow stuck with their sweetshops. This is no less than the Jewish population of Leeds, often referred to as the most Jewish town in Britain. And the district till the last election had a Jewish Communist MP, whose constituency stood adjacent to the Prime Minister’s. As recently as 1936 London Jewry with its allies fought a battle in this East End, when Sir Oswald Mosley tried to stage a victory march through Whitechapel Road, a march ending in ignominious retreat for the Blackshirts. Many a Jew, long expert in the dialectics of passive resistance, left his Golders Green ivory tower to fight that battle, which was Mosley’s Waterloo.
But more than this, Whitechapel is no mere hollow symbol, for still surviving there is all the bureaucracy of Jewish communal life. Along Commercial Road you may feel alien and transplanted amidst the colorful array of dark-skinned mariners who have almost imperceptibly crept citywards from East India Dock Road, but you will still find there the headquarters of the Jewish burial societies. Across the road is the Jews’ Temporary Shelter, where perhaps your parents slept the night they landed in Britain, and whose doors are still ever open to the narrowing stream of refugees on their first step out of the continent of Europe.
On Sunday morning, you will still come in your hundreds to join the solid mass of human beings, part Jew, part Gentile, that is swept of its own momentum along Petticoat Lane in search of a bargain, or to sell one. You will still come to register your marriage, even though the Great Synagogue is destroyed and business and prayer are conducted in a temporary building. Or you will come, probably, to arrange Hebrew classes for your child—or to investigate the curiosity of a stage production in Yiddish. You will come if you are a Communist because you will find a “militant” working class, and if you are Zionist because there are still plenty of children to work on; and you will come if you are a capitalist, for many a giant factory here grew from the tiny backroom workshops. If you are a “spiv” or a gambler, a “wide boy” in fact, you may often find yourself turning towards Whitechapel, to hear the talk of dog-racing men or to play poker through the night, strengthened periodically with pickled-herring sandwiches, and you will come because if you are clever and quick you can buy a watch without paying purchase-tax.
But mostly you will come as I did, to sample something of the past before the last of its living witnesses are gone and to discover if you can what was once the essence of Whitechapel, what was that vitality about which poets still sing in their less frequently published works and authors still write in their less successful and less artistic novels. You will leave disappointed, telling yourself as I did that you visited Whitechapel “on the wrong day,” while knowing in your heart that there is no right day for Whitechapel any more.
My friend Joseph Leftwich, who is happily a living and articulate link with Zangwill and one of the few English writers of stature ready to acknowledge his debt to those hard but fertile times when the hay carts still rumbled along Whitechapel Road, tells me of the universal surprise at last year’s exhibition called “East End Story” when returning wanderers discovered how small a part really the Jewish element played in the life of the district.
I was reminded of this as I stood at the corner of Mile End Road, and looked across at the area’s greatest claim to fame: the pile of rubble that was the site of the Sidney Street siege. At No. 100, Peter the Painter and his Nihilist confederates resisted arrest by turning pistols on the surprised bobbies. There is an oft-reproduced photograph of top-hatted Winston Churchill, the 1911 Home Secretary with a nose for a story, peering warily from a doorway as police and military shot the criminals out. To this day, I understand, there lives nearby a Jewish tradesman who looked on with the young aristocrat. If you read the memoirs of retired Yard men you will be told that “the difficulties of tracking down the forgers and fences who thrived in Whitechapel were increased by the uncooperativeness of the many aliens inhabiting the district.” Most of the aliens are now British subjects and dwell far away, but crime still haunts the alleys. Gambling and prostitution, I observe, are part of the East End’s program of postwar rehabilitation. There is always someone to blame, and this time the scapegoat is the new colored element, which for some years has been taking over the slums my relatives and friends vacated.
Let me retrace my steps, for it is 10:30 at night and they are “turning them out”—an honored London routine to empty pubs, and fill streets with the wails of the banshee. But before I go I mutter my thanks that the People’s Palace, where masses of London school children receive their introduction to classical music, lives on within a stone’s throw and continues its Sunday evening policy of showing foreign films. I must linger a while at the narrow shop front behind whose cracked doors are the editorial offices of the Yiddish Zeit, and where, despite every frustration created by a diminishing circle of Yiddish readers and the shortage of newsprint, Morris Myer’s family still puts out a daily paper. Here I experience my one nostalgic spasm. I am swept back to the days of childhood when the Zeit cost three halfpence, and my mother, after perusing it carefully and keeping it clean, would send me back with it to the news agent and a penny would be refunded. But this is hardly a reminiscence to compare with Leftwich’s, who writes of the Sabbath ritual of purchasing for one farthing a can of boiling water from the goyim, so that tea could be brewed without sacrilegious fire lighting.
Night, though dark enough, is not kind enough to lend romance to my return journey along the wide highway. There are long, fearsome shadows where once a great boxing hall stood, and the young bloods like Kid Lewis and Kid Berg, direct heirs to the Mendoza tradition, received their baptism in the ring. There is also a long blank wall, but I am not too young to add the other three sides and fill the amphitheater with rows and rows of school children, and see myself among them, being introduced for the first time to a world called Zionism, and watching free of charge a film depicting happy, singing infants who, I am told, are Jews like me. The histories of Zionism will tell you that Herzl made his first public appearance at the turn of the century in this very Whitechapel, and though the great men with majestic Spanish names frowned, the people hailed him as their messiah.
Whitechapel’s one hope for survival, it seems, lies in magazine articles. For what point would there be in restoring this old ghetto, as some romantics wish? Even in its heyday it was a burden on the generosity and pride of the wealthy Jews, comfortable in their pleasaunces of Stepney Green, and hastening along this very road with Rothschild and Montefiore to the Sabbath services at the Great Synagogue and Bevis Marks. They complained then, as they do now, that the youth was revolutionary and atheist. They worried then, as they do now, because there was talk of the alien menace; and they worried then because Jews have a habit of concentrating, not of dispersing, of hanging their origins and their prejudices on the lintels of their homes. In the columns of the London Jewish Chronicle, founded, it will proudly tell you, in 1841, you will read almost daily of efforts to restore the glamor of the days gone. Last year that glamor almost revived; for Dr. Solomon Gaon was inducted at Bevis Marks, the half-neglected synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese, as Hacham, head of the Sephardic community—the first Hacham in many years. How cleverly, how sincerely that story was written up by a descendant, yes, one may already call her a descendant, of the previous Hacham, Dr. Moses Gaster, in the columns of a famous Conservative weekly!
As for the twenty-five thousand, they are neither to be admired nor pitied. Some of them stay in the East End because they have become very rich there, some because they are very poor. A young and boisterous uncle-in-law of mine, now nearing sixty, remains because his Dutch ancestry has made him more Gentile than Jew, and the only talk he knows is the language of the faubourg, hewn rough and scattered with army adjectives, and his only hobby is to linger in the pubs, waiting, like those friends of his who carry with them the smell of Dr. Johnson’s London, till turning-out time at half past ten. He is a peculiar Jew, without ambition. Whitechapel and Aldgate, which together make up the borough of Stepney, form the one surviving happy hunting ground of such Jews. There alone, out of the entire British Commonwealth, will you find Jewish street cleaners and lavatory attendants, Jewish newspaper-sellers. Jewish beggars have their homes there too, but they ply the trade in the congeries of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, which they can reach by a twenty-minute journey on the “Jews’ express,” the “647” trolley-bus.
Hither, also, to these greener meadows come Jewish youth in search of amusement and education. Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall, the scene of old-Etonian Attlee’s conversion to socialism and today held together by the enthusiasm of a descendant of Lord Tennyson, they repudiate, leaving it free for the serious bank clerks and bakers’ roundsmen who come from miles away to study dramatic art and Esperanto. The young Jews and Jewesses prefer the Zionism indigenous to the North and North West, the politics of Swiss Cottage, the high society of the Dorchester Hotel. A few of them are banded in the ex-servicemen’s and Communist organizations, and become a flying squad with all London and the Home Counties as their province, to heckle Mosley on Clapham Common or the Reading market place, perhaps to scuffle with his followers. For the Communists this is good policy; it gives them a role in English affairs they could not otherwise obtain. As for the ex-servicemen, they can point a sneering finger at the “gentlemanly approach” to Jewish anti-defamation pursued by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which fights the Mosley threat through the medium of resolutions forwarded to government departments, while they themselves are sent to martyrdom for a month for “causing a breach of the King’s peace.”
No, they are not to be pitied, the twenty-five thousand. In the East End there are clubs in plenty; and Circle House, with its old Bundist tradition, heir to the first socialist group ever to be formed in Britain, the Jewish Socialist Party of Whitechapel, which anticipated by six years Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, thrives in its own busy way. Over the platform in its meeting hall there used to be a large Shield of David, and beneath that sign I well remember hawklike, eloquent, and deeply sincere John Strachey telling us Jews in October 1939 that the war against Hitler, which Russia then regarded impassively from the ringside, was not a workers’ war, but a capitalist one like all the others. Strachey has recanted now, and is Britain’s War Minister, which shows that it is not only the East End that has changed. Certainly one of the most interesting of the East End’s changes is its rejection last February of the Communist who for five years represented it volubly in Parliament. Phil Piratin, graduate of Whitechapel and the garment union atmosphere which have together bred many a radical in their time, was a member of what I believe was called the Communist party’s “Jewish Committee.” He and Jack Gaster, another descendant of Moses Gaster, were charged with the task of winning English Jewry to “revolutionary socialism.” But Communism is rapidly becoming a thing of the past in Britain.
Whitechapel’s major headaches in 1950, like Bermondsey’s and Bethnal Green’s, are housing and juvenile delinquency. The housing problem is shared by all, but Mr. Basil Henriques, for fifty years warden of the Bernhard Baron Settlement in the East End, will tell you that few of the culprits coming to his Juvenile Court are Jewish.
The golden age of Jewish Whitechapel was characterized by law and order. School and shul were regularly attended; anarchism was mostly confined to the realm of teashop chatter; drunkenness to the Gentiles. Perhaps this was because a newly migrated community is always looking to better times. Whitechapel’s Jewry differed from the other elements there because it was optimistic, saved for tomorrow, and worked for its children. Zangwill’s formula forty years ago may best provide the clue as to why Whitechapel in this mid-century year offers little satisfaction to the visitor who, having grown to manhood in another London district, is a visitor from Mars: “The ghetto,” he says, “looks back to Sinai and forward to the millennium.”