Max Levitas, Communist
Max Levitas became an East End hero when he was arrested in 1934, at the age of nineteen years old, for writing anti-Fascist slogans on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. “There were two of us, we did it at midnight and we wrote ‘All out on September 9th to fight Fascism,’ ‘Down with Fascism’ and ‘Fight Fascism,’ on Nelson’s Column in whitewash,” he told me, his eyes shining with pleasure, still fired up with ebullience at ninety-seven years of age, “And afterwards we went to Lyons Corner House to have something to eat and wash our hands, but when we had finished our tea we decided to go back to see how good it looked, and we got arrested – the police saw the paint on our shoes.”
On September 9th, Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, was due to speak at a rally in Hyde Park but – as Max is happy to remind you today – he was drowned out by the people of London who converged to express their contempt. It was both fortuitous and timely that the Times reprinted Max’s slogans on September 7th, two days before the rally, in the account of his appearance at Bow St Magistrates Court, thereby spreading the message.
Yet this event was merely the precursor to the confrontation with the Fascists that took place in the East End, two years later in October 1936, that became known as the Battle of Cable St, and in which Max is proud to have played a part – a story he tells today as an inspirational example of social solidarity in the face of prejudice and hatred. And, as we sat in a quiet corner of the Whitechapel Library last week, watching the rain fall upon the street market outside, it was a story that I was eager to hear in Max’s first hand account, especially now that he is one of last left of those who were there.
Politics have always been personal for Max Levitas, based upon family experience of some of the ugliest events of the twentieth century. His father Harry fled from Lithuania and his mother Leah from Latvia in 1913, both escaping the anti-semitic pogroms of Tsarist Russia. They met in Dublin and married but, on the other side of Europe, Harry’s sister Sara was burnt to death along with fellow-villagers in the synagogue of Akmeyan, and Leah’s sister Rachel was killed with her family by the Nazis in Riga.
“My father was a tailor and a trade unionist,” Max explained in the lively Dublin brogue that still colours his speech today, even after eighty years in the East End. “He formed an Irish/Jewish trade union and then employers blacklisted him, making sure he could never get a job,” Max continued with a philosophical grin, “The only option was to leave Dublin and we lived in Glasgow from 1927 until 1930, but my father had two sisters in London, so we came here to Durward St in Whitechapel in 1931 and stayed ever since.”
With this background, you can appreciate the passionate concern of Max – when he was nineteen and secretary of the Mile End Young Communist League – at a time when the British Government was supporting the Fascist General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. “Even after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1931, the British Government was developing arms with Germany,” Max informed me, widening his eyes in condemnation and bringing events into vivid reality that I had viewed only as history until he filled them with personal emotion.
“I was working as a tailor’s presser in a small workshop in Commercial St at the time. Mosley wanted to march through Whitechapel because it was where a large number of Jewish people lived and worked, and I knew the only way to stop him was to have unity of the people. I approached a number of unions, Jewish organisations and the Communist League to band together against the Fascists but although they agreed what I was doing was right, they wouldn’t support me.
But I give credit to the huge number of members of the Jewish and Irish communities and others who turned out that day, October the fourth, 1936. There were thousands that came together in Aldgate, and when we heard that Mosley’s intention was to march along Cable St from Tower Hill into Whitechapel, large numbers of people went to Cable St and barricades were set up. The police attempted to clear Cable St with horses, so that the march could go ahead, but the people of Cable St fought back and the police had to give in.
At three o’clock, we heard that police had decided that the march would not take place, because if it did a number of people would be killed. The Fascists were defeated by the ordinary people of Stepney, people who emptied buckets of water and chamber pots out of their houses, and marbles into the street. This was how they stopped Mosley marching through the East End of London. If he had been able to do so, more people would have joined him and he would have become stronger.”
Max Levitas spoke of being at the centre of a definitive moment in the history of the East End, seventy-five years ago, when three hundred thousand people came together to form a human chain – in the face of three thousand fascists with an escort of ten thousand police – to assert the nature of the territory as a place where Fascism and racism are unacceptable. It was a watershed in resistance to Fascism in Europe and the slogan that echoed around Stepney and Whitechapel that day was, “No paseran” – from the Spanish Civil War, “They shall not pass.”
After the war, Max became a highly respected Communist councillor in Stepney for fifteen years and, a natural orator, he remains eloquent about the nature of his politics.“It was never an issue to forge a Communist state like in the Soviet Union,” he informed me, just in case I got the wrong idea,“We wanted to ensure that the ordinary working people of England could lead decent lives – not to be unemployed, that people weren’t thrown out of their homes when they couldn’t pay their rent, that people weren’t homeless, as so many are today, living with their parents and crowded together in rooms.”
Max’s lifelong political drive is the manifestation of a tenacious spirit. When Max arrived in Whitechapel Library, I did not recognise him at first because he could pass for a man thirty years younger. And later, when I returned his photos to his flat nearby, I discovered Max lived up five flights of stairs and it became obvious that he walks everywhere in the neighbourhood, living independently even at his astounding age. “I used to smoke,” Max admitted to me shyly, when I complimented him on his energy.” I stopped at eighty-four, when my wife died – until then I used to smoke about twenty cigarettes a day, plus a pipe and cigars.” Max confessed, permitting himself a reckless grin of nostalgia.
“My mother and father both died at sixty-five,” Max revealed, turning contemplative,“I put that down to the way they suffered and poverty. My father worked around the clock to keep the family going. He died two years after my mother. At that time there was no National Health Service, and I phoned the doctor when she was sick, asking him to come, and he said, ‘You owe me some money. Unless you pay me, I won’t come.’ I said, ‘You come and see my mother.’ He said, ‘You will have to pay me extra for coming plus what you owe.’ But she died before he came and I had to get an ambulance.”
It was a story that revealed something more of the personal motivation for Max’s determination to fight for better conditions for the people of the East End – yet remarkably, in spite of the struggle of those around him and that he himself has known, Max is a happy man. “I’m always happy, because I can say that my life was worth living, ” he declared to me without qualification.
Max Levitas wants to live as long as possible to remind us of all the things he has seen. “I believe if racists marched through the East End today, people would stop them in the same way,” he assured me with the unique confidence granted only to those who have known ninety-seven years of life.
Max in 1945
Max campaigning in Stepney in the nineteen sixties.
Max with his wife on a trip to Israel in the nineteen seventies.
The Cable St mural
Portrait of Max Levitas copyright © Phil Maxwell
You can hear Max Levitas talking about the Battle of Cable St by clicking here
Watch original footage here
And learn more about Phil Maxwell & Hazuan Hashim’s film From Cable Street to Brick Lane featuring Max Levitas.