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So Long, Max Levitas

November 4, 2018
by the gentle author

I report the passing of an East End hero and veteran of the Battle of Cable St, Max Levitas who died peacefully on Friday at the fine age of one hundred and three

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, “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 was happy to remind me – 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 a precursor to the confrontation with Fascists that took place in the East End two years later in October 1936, which became known as the Battle of Cable St, and in which Max is proud to have played a part. It was a story he told as an inspirational example of social solidarity in the face of prejudice and hatred. One day, as we sat in a quiet corner of the Whitechapel Library, watching the rain fall upon the street market outside, he imparted the experience to me at first hand, as one of last left of those who were there.

Politics had 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 burned 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 coloured his speech even after more than 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 could appreciate the passionate concern of Max – when he was nineteen years old 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 reality.

“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 he 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 in 1936 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 remained eloquent about 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 was the manifestation of a tenacious spirit. When Max arrived to meet me 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 he lived up five flights of stairs and it became obvious that he walked 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 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 had known, Max was 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 wanted to live as long as possible to remind us of all the things he had 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 one hundred and three 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

Max Levitas (1915- 2018) by Phil Maxwell

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18 Responses leave one →
  1. November 4, 2018

    Max was a wonderful person, the world need more people like him. Valerie

  2. November 4, 2018

    Requiem in pace, Max Levitas. Thank you for having existed and having been who you were. And thank you, G.A., for reminding us that today, just like before, we need more people like Max Levitas.

  3. Barbara Anglezarke permalink
    November 4, 2018

    What a life of commitment, purpose and service. We owe Max so much, and his actions are a spur to us now, when it all seems to be happening again.

  4. Karen Rennie permalink
    November 4, 2018

    what a hero!

  5. Heather Potter permalink
    November 4, 2018

    Max Lavitas RIP
    What a courageous man, you will be missed. xx

  6. Richard Smith permalink
    November 4, 2018

    Rest in Peace Max Lavitas. Your life is an inspiration. “They shall not pass.”

  7. pauline taylor permalink
    November 4, 2018

    This is reminder of what we are facing today, we still need more like Max, I shall point my fellow Reasons2Remain team members towards this as I know that they will all appreciate what Max stood for as it is what we, as a group, are fighting for now. Thank you GA and RIP Max.

  8. Marian Ellison permalink
    November 4, 2018

    Now that is a life well lived.

  9. Amanda permalink
    November 4, 2018

    Beautifully written.
    A true insight and lesson in bravery for all, never minding anyone’s learnt political leanings.

    A worthwhile life born out of the true courage for his convictions – his own personal reality and his family’s horrendous suffering. His sole aim in life to prevent others from suffering.

    Thank you Gentle Author, thank you Max (RIP), for helping me to understand many aspects of history. Some l knew about and had read about extensively but had never properly understood or may have misunderstood, especially what was skirted over at school.

    l drove along Cable Street many times in the course of my work, little knowing of the brave solidarity of the souls who had fought back there 50 years before.

    l particularly smiled at how The Times fortuitously helped with timely publicity and how Max and his pal Joe wandered about the ‘crime’ scene covered in paint after a quiet cup of tea at Lyons.

    You see what an influence life in Britain can have ? a quiet cup of tea no matter what. Wonderful.

  10. Gary Arber permalink
    November 4, 2018

    Rest in Peace Max, A life well lived and a job well done.
    Gary Arber

  11. EJ Wilkinson permalink
    November 4, 2018

    Another inspiring story — thank you GA. I especially like the quote “I’m always happy because I can say that my life was worth living.” It most certainly was.

  12. Margaret Mcdermott permalink
    November 4, 2018

    A truly iconic figure. “They shall not pass”.

  13. Barbara Goodbody permalink
    November 5, 2018

    I remember Max in the 1970’s he fought so hard all his life for what he believed in, all his mates from the Stepney Communist Party have now gone, his fight for socialism with comrade Solly Kaye. Another communist past last year was Kevin Halpin who once lived in Cable Street. There will never be socialists like them fighting for the rights of working class people. So much history was made by these comrades he will be greatly missed they all will. They changed the way the working classes worked in their politics and their unions. RIP Max.

  14. Patricia permalink
    November 5, 2018

    Mr Levitas was a neighbour of mine and I always hoped I would pass him in the street so that I could listen to another story from his marvellous life. He was true gentleman,always smartly turned out and always off to do something interesting.A real one of a kind,to live a life like he did and to stick to his convictions and beliefs is something to be proud of.I had the greatest respect for him,he always told me to call him ‘Max’ but I just couldn’t and stuck to ‘Mr Levitas ‘ God bless him.

  15. Charli Langford permalink
    November 5, 2018

    The fascists are still here. This time they scapegoat muslims. Anti-fascist demo, Altab Ali Park, November 17, Saturday, 11.30am

  16. November 5, 2018

    Mr Max Levitas (1915- 2018) — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  17. Lionel permalink
    November 7, 2018

    It is heartening to see pics of Max in Israel — those were the days when the left supported Israel —

    A true socialist supports European Jewry’s unequivocal right to the homeland

  18. Hilary permalink
    November 17, 2018

    Nice obituary on BBC radio4 Last Word programme Nov16 and you can hear Max’s wonderful Irish accent.
    What a great man.

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