The Return Of Doris Kurta
Taking advantage of a rare day of February sunshine yesterday, Doris Kurta took the opportunity to make a return visit to Bacon St where she grew up. “I’ve been back twice since 1938,” she admitted to me in excitement,“but this is the first time I’ve got out of the car. I’m just amazed, it’s a little bit frightening when I think how long ago it was.”
“Kurta isn’t my real name, we don’t even know what it was,” she confessed to me with alacrity, “My father came from a village called Kutna in Poland and he couldn’t speak English when he arrived and we think, when they asked his name, he thought they were asking where he came from so he said, ‘Kutna’ and they wrote down ‘Kurta.’”
Returning to the bustle of the Sunday market in Brick Lane, more than seventy years after she left it behind, offered an unexpected moment of contemplation for Doris. “We were very happy when we moved out,” she assured me unequivocably.
This emotionally-charged location reminded Doris of the fate her parents escaped by coming here. “My father lost all his family in Poland, except a nephew,” she explained, “My mother came from a large family on the border of Hungary and Romania. My grandmother told them, ‘As long as I am alive, the Germans will not take you.’ But, two days after my grandmother died, they came and took them and only one survived.”
Thus Bacon St is a significant address for Doris, even if almost none of the buildings of seventy years ago still stand. Bacon St was Doris’ childhood home and where her family’s fortunes turned around. Both her parents took flight from their homelands in fear yet, when the Kurta family left Bacon St – on 15th January 1938 – they were embarking on a new journey in expectation of a better life, and it was a hope that Doris saw fulfilled.
“I was born in Pelham St in Spitalfields but we moved to Bacon St when I was four months old and that’s where we lived until I was fourteen. Harry, my father, was a ladies’ milliner and Lily, my mother, also worked in millinery – sewing -and that’s how they met. She made everything we wore, even our overcoats. I had this wonderful pink coat that was a hand-me-down from my elder sister and it was still in good condition when I got it, but it wasn’t by the time I had finished with it. I remember there was a factory opposite that caught fire and my father wrapped me in that pink coat and took me to the window to watch. I had one sister, Annetta (known as Nita), an elder brother Sydney (known as Syd or Zelig) and a younger brother, Monty. 42 Bacon St was a huge house, but we lived in a flat with two small rooms for the six of us and a scullery with no running hot water.
At the rear, it sloped down in the yard and there were two cabinet-makers’ workshops, so there was always plenty of sawdust around and the boys used to make see-saws out of the planks left outside at the weekend. But it was a bit rough and my elder brother, Syd, fell off. My younger brother, Monty, couldn’t control the plank and it had a nail in the end which hit him and made a hole right in his head. I’m laughing now but it wasn’t a laughing matter at the time.
The area was mainly Catholic and Jewish in those days, and the Catholic priest was very friendly and he used to come round and try to explain his religion to us. He used to say to my mother, ‘I’m not going to try to convert you because you’ll end up converting me!’ The Catholics and the Jews kept apart but if anyone needed help, they’d go the distance, whoever it was.
Regularly, my mother would fill in forms to get us another flat from the Council but nothing ever came of it until one day a new social worker came round while my brother and I were doing our homework at the kitchen table. He said, ‘Is this where you do your study?’ and my mother said, ‘Look around, do you see anywhere else?’ He gave her a new form to fill out and within a week we moved.
We moved into the very first batch of council flats in Stoke Newington – Millington House in Church St. The rest of the block was empty and we were the first occupants. It was absolute heaven, we had three bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen but, best of all, a bathroom with a separate toilet. When we got there, the family lined up so that I could go into the bathroom first because they knew how important it was to me.
During the war, I worked in Bishopsgate at Cedar & Co, accountants near Liverpool St Station. One day, I was working late on my own on a Friday night and I got locked in. The boss had locked the outer door and I couldn’t get in touch with him because he lived in Surrey, and my own key was at Robert Dyas getting a spare one cut. So I called the Bishopsgate Police Station and told them my predicament. I’ve always carried a book with me so I settled down to read Benighted by J.B. Priestley while I was waiting. But the police and the fire brigade were in competition to get there first and they arrived in no time. I looked out the window to see a crowd had formed outside. They fixed a plank across from the next building and carried me safely over. When the officer asked me what happened, I said, ‘It was malice aforethought.’ I was trying to be funny but he didn’t get the joke because it was during the bombing and he had other things to worry about. One Monday, I came in to work and there was glass all over the place from the blast.
There were so many pubs in Bishopsgate, I would describe them as ‘character-forming.’ I’ve hardly ever been in a pub in all my life. I don’t drink. I’ve seen too much of what drink can do to people. We had two flats on each floor in Bacon St and, opposite us, lived a charming man yet when he was drunk he’d be terrible to his wife. He wouldn’t do it if she was in our flat, so she’d run across the landing when she heard him coming and he wouldn’t cross the threshold but stand and shout at her from outside, until my mother quietened him down. They had family wedding party once in the backyard and he got into fight with the bridegroom and they had to call my mother down to stop them, and she did. She was only five feet tall but she was wonderful. I don’t think I appreciated her enough at the time.
I became an auditor and we had clients who worked in the Spitalfields Market. When I first started, I didn’t know what an auditor was yet I took to it and I worked hard. People didn’t expect to see a woman doing that job but it was the war and they had no choice. It was difficult when the war stopped because the boys came back and expected to return to their jobs, so I just left and went to live in France for a spell. I went there at the invitation of the De Gaulle party and stayed in a house where boys who been in the resistance and survived the death camps were being taken care of. Then I lived in Paris in the Rue de Sevres for a year. I worked in a bank and my French wasn’t very good, so one of the customers asked me to speak in English on the phone. When I put the receiver down, everyone was giggling because apparently I spoke English with a French accent.
I acted with the Bethnal Green Players, we performed in Bethnal Green Tube Station during the war. There was a theatre and a cafe down there. Of course, we only performed comedy. Later I played the lead in G.K.Chesterton’s last play which was completed for us by Dorothy L. Sayers and we performed Shakespeare every summer at the George in Southwark. Arnold Wesker was a member and he always says I encouraged him to carry on with the theatre and it’s because of me he became a playwright!
On December 6th 1995, I moved from Stoke Newington to Edgware, where I live now, and my sister Nita came to live with me after her husband died.”
“I won the cup for gymnastics at the Bethnal Green Girls Club two years running. I didn’t get to keep the cup, but I still have my badge somewhere.”
Harry & Lily Kurta
“This is my mother Lily with her friend”
“Harry my father used to make extra money as a barman at the weekends”
“I am the one holding the blackboard at the centre of this photo of my class at Wood Close School”
“When I was evacuated at the beginning of the war, we were supposed to be sent to Cambridgeshire but me and my brother Monty were sent to Much Hadham in Hertfordshire instead.”
“This is my father with my younger brother Monty at Millington House in Stoke Newington”
“This is me playing the lead in the premiere of G.K.Chesterton’s last unfinished play, completed by Dorothy L. Sayers”
“This is me as Ophelia, performing at the George in Southwark”
“This is me playing the role of Mother in Arnold Weskers’ ‘Chicken Soup With Barley.’”
Doris outside 42 Bacon St yesterday, on the site of the building where she grew up
Portraits of Doris Kurta copyright © Jeremy Freedman
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