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Lorna Brunstein Of Black Lion Yard

September 2, 2019
by the gentle author

Lorna with her mother Esther in Whitechapel, 1950

In this photograph, Lorna Brunstein is held by her mother outside Fishberg’s jewellers on the corner of Black Lion Yard and Whitechapel Rd. It is a captivating image of maternal pride and affection that carries an astonishing story. The tale this tender photograph carries is one of how this might never have happened and yet, by the grace of fortune, it did.

I met Lorna recently upon her return visit to Whitechapel where she grew up the early fifties. Although she left Black Lion Yard at the age of six, it is a place that still carries great meaning for her even though it was demolished forty years ago. Lorna is an artist who has created an exhibition which opens this week, exploring the equivocal legacy of her parent’s experiences before they came to London and met in the East End.

We sat together in a crowded cafe in Whitechapel but, as Lorna told me her story, the sounds of the other diners faded out and I understood why she carries such affection for a place that no longer exists beyond the realm of memory.

“My relationship with the East End goes back to when I was born. I have scant memories, it was the early years of my childhood, but this was the area where I spent the first six years of my life. I was born in Mile End maternity hospital in December 1950.

Esther, my mother came to London in 1947. She was liberated from Belsen in April 1945 and she stayed in their makeshift hospital to recuperate for a few months. She had been through Auschwitz and lost all her family, apart from one brother who survived (though she did not know it at the time).

In the summer of 1945 she was taken to Sweden, to a place she said was beautiful – in the forest – where she and many others were looked after. It was while she was in Sweden that she and her brother Perec discovered via the Bund ( Polish Jewish workers Socialist party) that they had both survived. Esther was the youngest of three and Perec was the middle child. Their surname was Zylberberg,  which means silver mountain. He was one of the boys who was taken to Windermere from Theresienstadt at the end of the War. They each wrote letters and confirmed that the other had survived. Esther had last seen Perec in March 1944.

After a few months in Windermere, he went to London and his sole mission was to get Esther over. That was all she wanted to do too, but it took two years from 1945 to 1947 for a visa to be granted. So not much has changed really. She was seventeen years old, had lost her mother at Auschwitz and her teenage years yet she was not allowed to come into the country unless she had a job, an address, and the name of a British citizen to be her guarantor and sponsor.

Maurice Regen (Uncle Moishe as I knew him) was an eccentric yet kind man. He came to London in the twenties from Lodz, which was my mother’s hometown. He and his wife were elderly, they had no children and lived in Romford. He said, ‘She can live in our house, so she will have an address, and she can be our housekeeper, that will be her job, and she won’t be dependent on the state.’ That was how my mother came over. My Uncle Perec met her and I think Uncle Moishe was probably there at Tilbury too.

She lived in Romford but she met Stan, my father, at the Grand Palais Yiddish Theatre in Whitechapel where she was acting — her Yiddish was brilliant – and he was the scenic designer. He was an artist from Warsaw. He fled at the beginning of the War and was put in a labour camp in Siberia after spending fourteen months of solitary confinement in a prison in the Soviet Union. His story was pretty horrific too. He was an only child, and he lost everyone, his entire family. He was thirteen years older than my mother.

Stan also came to London in 1947. At the end of the War, he ended up in Italy. The Hitler/Stalin pact was broken while he was in Siberia and he was freed when the political amnesty was declared, so he joined up with the Polish Free Army under General Anders — as many of them did — and fought at the Battle of Monte Casino. Afterwards, he was in Rome for two years, studying scenic design at the Rome Academy of Fine Arts.

So my mother and father met in 1947 or 1948. I do not know exactly when. They got married in 1949 and I was born in 1950. They lived in a little flat in Black Lion Yard in Whitechapel until they moved to Ilford.

Rachel Fishberg – known as Ray – was really significant in my life and my parents’ life, my mother in particular. Ray was an old lady who became a surrogate grandma to my sister – who is four years younger – and me. We remember her with such affection. The Fishbergs were jewellers and were reasonably wealthy among Jewish people in the East End at that time. Ray ran her husband’s and his father’s jewellery shop, on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Black Lion Yard. I remember going back and visiting it when I was six, after we moved out.

My parents had no money, so grandma Ray Fishberg said they could live in the flat above the shop. At the time, they had nothing. My father could not live on his art and he took a diploma in design, tailoring and cutting at Sir John Cass School of Art in Aldgate. He designed and made children’s clothes on a sewing machine in the room we lived in and sold them in the market, and that was how we got by. Grandma Ray let them live there – probably for nothing – and, in fact, she paid for their wedding. When they got married in 1949 in Willesden Green, she paid for the wedding dress.

In 1957, when I was six, we moved to Ilford because my parents did not want to stay in the East End. She gave them the deposit for their first house. She was a lovely lady and she enabled them to have a start a life. This is why I feel so connected to this place, even though my memories of actually living here are scant.

I have this one memory of being in a pram, or maybe a pushchair, and feeling the sensation of the wheels on the cobbles in Black Lion Yard, going to the dairy — my mother said it was Evans the Dairy at the end of the Yard — to get milk.

Apparently, I went Montefiore School in Hanbury Street and I remember my mother talking about Toynbee Hall, where there were meetings, and taking me in the pram to Lyons Corner House in Aldgate where there was this chap, Shtencl, the poet of the East End.

He was quite an eccentric person who wandered around the streets and my mother told me he called into Lyons Corner House when she was sitting there with me as a baby. She said he stroked my head and said, ‘Sheyne, sheyne,’ which in Yiddish is ‘beautiful.’ My mother was in awe of him because his Yiddish was so brilliant and Yiddish was the language so dear to her heart. I was anointed by him even though I have no memory of him.

My mother and father talked a lot about Black Lion Yard. They said, on Sunday mornings at the entrance to Black Lion Yard where the pavement was quite deep, employers and potential employees in the tailoring ‘shmatte’ trade would gather and connect. That was what my father was doing then. He would stand there on a Sunday morning to get work.

Those were the founding years of my life. I have a deep affection for this place because for my parents – even though they wanted to leave for a better life – it was where they found sanctuary. My father used to say, ‘Thank goodness I’m here, I’ve finally found a place where I am able to walk down the street without having to look over my shoulder.”

Black Lion Yard 1966 by David Granick

Steps down to Black Lion Yard by Ron McCormick

Lorna aged eight

Esther & Stan Brunstein in the seventies

Esther Brunstein

Stan Brunstein

Lorna Brunstein’s exhibition AFTER AUSCHWITZ is at Hundred Years Gallery, 13 Pearson St, Hoxton, E2 8JD from Thursday 5th – Sunday 8th September. All are welcome at the private view on Thursday from 6pm

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    September 2, 2019

    It’s amazing how resilient people can be. We must never forget what happened. And they brought up the next generation. What a gift.

  2. Jillian Foley permalink
    September 2, 2019

    What an amazingly beautiful article. A brilliant family and lovely photographs. Will make an effort to visit the exhibition.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 2, 2019

    Wow! What a story… So glad her parents found sanctuary and a life in London.

  4. September 2, 2019

    Fascinating article!

    The first photo: “Black Lion Yard 1966 by David Granick” is later than that, probably 1974.

  5. Ron Bunting permalink
    September 2, 2019

    Today when I hear the sickening holocaust deniers call people they don’t like fascists and worse I get so angry inside. I knew a lot of people who were either survivors or the children of survivors. Indeed my late father had employed more than few, so I got to know some interesting people which has given me a great view of the world. Esther was probably at Belsen when my late Father in Law was amongst the first soldiers (11th Armoured Division ) to discover the horrors hidden from the world there.
    Another was Sol Filler, a man who worked for my Dad in the 70’s who had endured more than his fair share of terror in Auschwitz.

  6. Richard permalink
    September 2, 2019

    Wonderful story. Beautiful photographs.

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    September 2, 2019

    This is one of the most moving accounts of the war years and the years immediately after that terrible conflict that I have ever read. Thank you. It is also so sad that we, as a country, are now seeking to drive away refugees and immigrants who have always added so much to our way of life and our prosperity. We all need accounts like these to make us realize that we must do all that we can to ensure that those evil times and evil people never return to inflict such torture upon their fellow human beings such as that Lorna’s parents endured. I am so thankful that they found sanctuary and safety in our country then and I for one shall strive to do all that I can to protect and maintain the peace in Europe that we have enjoyed for the last 70 years. It is so important to treat our fellow human beings, whatever their culture and beliefs with kindness and respect.
    My very best wishes to Lorna and you GA. How is the arm? I hope it is improving.

  8. Michael FISHBERG permalink
    September 2, 2019

    This thread was passed on to me a dear friend. My late father was HARRY FISHBERG. In the colour picture of Black Lion Yard (BLY) on the far right you can just see a cropped version of the sign that read: HARRY FISHBERG JEWELLERS HAVE MOVED TO 94 WHITECHAPEL HIGH STREET OPPOSITE GARDINER’S CORNER. Telephone BIShopsgate 3386. ALEC Fishberg’s shop was on the corner (next to Boots The Chemist) of Whitechapel Road and BLY. My late father’s shop was *IN* Black Lion Yard adjacent to Strongwater’s Restaurant. There was a bitter rivalry between Alec and my father. but THAT, as they say, is an altogether OTHER story!

  9. aubrey permalink
    September 2, 2019

    Familiar; names that ring a bell in my fading memory. The schmutter trade, Fishberg: I seem to remember, but I can’t seem to conflate one with another. Beautiful narrative and lovely picture of the eight year old.

  10. September 2, 2019

    Such an inspiring story today. Despite all the sadness and loss…no bitterness, just a closeknit family seeking a safer, better life for everyone.

  11. Eva permalink
    September 2, 2019

    Thank you for posting this inspiring story. We must never forget what fascism wrought. The photos of that beautiful eight-year-old girl and her parents in the seventies are reminders of the value of human life. Thank goodness for Grandmother Ray, too.

  12. Laura Williamson permalink
    September 2, 2019

    Looking at Esther’s beautiful face, it is hard to imagine the tragedy, suffering and fear she had experienced in her young life. Thank you Lorna for sharing the moving story of your parents and the people who helped them. May they never be forgotten.

  13. Pamela Traves permalink
    September 3, 2019

    Wonderful Family and their Life!! Thank You So Much. ?????

  14. September 3, 2019

    fyi I wasborn (1929) where my parents lived on Cheshire Street, and ran a barber shop. WE lived on top of the Michael’s grocery shop opposite our shop, Alf’s Barbar /Hairdressing. My other did the women’s hair, cuts, perms etc. I went to Wood Close school, he Spitalfied’s High school on scholarships one given b y the local brewery. My maternal grandparents named Goldzummer, livedonCambridge Heath Road and had a grocery shopwith kosher foods. they came from Poland and Russia, but parents and I wee born in England. Summers my mother sent me to Hythe. I spent two years in an o rphanage in Chingford. With war, I was evacuated first to Newmarket, then to Ely (Spitalfield High School was evcuated there) and finally to Great Chesterford, to a Jewish Orphanage, the only English-born girl there, all the rest, refugee children. I returned home and to Spitalfield and then LSE after the war.

  15. David Evans permalink
    September 5, 2019

    My Grandparents were Joseph (Jos) and Ella Evans that kept the Dairy, they didn’t lose a single cow throughout the blitz, they went on to open the Cafe Aberystwyth in Charing Cross Road before retiring back to Aberystwyth. My father Alun then opened a small cafe in Broadwick Street Soho called the Tuck in, we moved back to Aberystwyth in December 1965 and opened “The Caprice Restaurant” I moved back to London in 1980 but returned to Aber in 1985 and still live here to this day.

  16. Sara Wolfson permalink
    September 5, 2019

    Moving account of your parents, Lorna. I remember your mother from the Holocaust Survivors’ Group who met at Sinclair House. She was a remarkable woman. I recall your mother was involved in setting up the Holocaust Memorial Day. Wishing you every success with your exhibition.

  17. MARTHA ANNE MONTLAKE permalink
    November 30, 2019

    Lorna

    I was looking up information about your Dad when I found this article – do so wish I had known about your exhibition. I was so moved to read about your parents and see the pictures of them as I remember them . Do hope you are well. Am seeing Andrew tomorrow and will tell him about this article. I have 2 of your Dad’s pictures hanging on my walls but sadly the one you did for my Dad has gone.

    Martha-Anne

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