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The Return Of Benjamin Shapiro

September 20, 2021
by the gentle author

Ben Shapiro

In the East End, you are constantly reminded of the people who have left and of the countless thousands who never settled but for whom the place only offered a contingent existence at best, as a staging post on their journey to a better life elsewhere. Ben Shapiro has lived much of his life outside this country, since he left as a youth with his family to go to America where they found the healthier existence they sought, and escaped the racism and poor housing of the East End. Yet now, in later life, after working for many years as a social worker and living in several different continents, he has chosen to return to the country of his formative experience. “I’ve discovered I like England,” he admitted to me simply, almost surprised by his own words.

“I was born in the London Hospital, Whitechapel, in 1934. My mother, Rebecca, was born in Manchester but her parents came from Romania and my father, Isaac (known as Jack), was born in Odessa. He left to go to Austria and met my mother in Belgium. He was a German soldier in World War I and, in 1930, he come to London and worked as a cook and kosher caterer. I discovered that immediately after the war, he went to Ellis Island but he was sent home. In the War, he had been a radio operator whose lungs had been damaged by gas. He spoke four or five languages and became a chef, cooking in expensive hotels and it was from him I learnt never to sign a contract, that a man’s word is his bond. He had an unconscionable temper and by today’s standards we would be called abused children. I once asked my mother if she would leave him and she said, ‘Where would I go with three children?’ I have a younger brother, Charles, who lives in New York now and a younger sister, Frieda, who died three years ago in Los Angeles.

My parents lived in a flat in Brick Lane opposite the Mayfair Cinema, until they got bombed out in World War II. We got bombed out three times. My first school was the Jewish Free School, I went to it until I was four and the war broke out when I was five. My father was in Brick Lane when Mosley tried to march through in 1936 and the Battle of Cable St happened. He remembered throwing bricks at the police. When the war broke, we became luggage tag children and one of my earliest memories was travelling on a train with hundreds of other children to Wales. We lived with a coal miner’s family and, at four or five, he would come home covered in coal dust. His wife would prepare a tin bath of hot water and he would sit in it and she would wash him clean, and then we could all have supper.

Me and my brother were sent back to London when the Blitz was in full swing, but my sister stayed in Aylesbury for the entire duration of the war and the family wanted to adopt her. When I returned with her fifty years later, she met the daughter of the family, her ‘step-sister’ – for the first time since then – and they recognised each other immediately, and fell into each other’s arms.

In London, the four of us lived in a two bedroom flat and my brother and I slept together in one bed. My parents talked Yiddish but they never taught me. In the raids, we took shelter in Whitechapel Underground but my father would never go. He said, ‘I’ve been through one war – if I’m going to die, I’ll die in my bed.’ My father gave me sixpence once to go and see ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ at the cinema, but we got to the steps just as the siren sounded and I waited thirty years to see that film.

Then I was sent off again, evacuated to a Jewish family in Liverpool. On the train there, I met a boy and we decided to ask to be billeted together. We were eight or nine years old and we slept together and, every night, he wet the bed. So we had to hang out our mattress and pyjamas every day to dry them, they didn’t get washed just dried. Once Liverpool became a target for bombing, I got sent home again. After the war, he contacted me and said, he’d had an operation to correct his bladder.

I have distant memories of being sent away again to  the countryside, to Ely.  When we got to the village green at Haddenham, a man came up to me and asked, ‘Are you Jewish’ and I said, ‘No’ so he said, ‘You can come and live with me then.’ All the children in the school knew I was Jewish and asked ‘Where’s your horns?‘ but I was well cared for and didn’t want to leave in the end. My father never visited or wrote letters, I think it was because he had been in World War I and he was familiar with death, and he could have been killed in the Blitz at any time. If he died, I would have stayed. We were always well fed and I have a theory that my father sent them Black Market food.

Towards end of the war, we were housed by London County Council in Cookham Buildings on the Boundary Estate. I remember looking out of the window and seeing German planes coming overhead. There was flat that was turned into a shelter but we all realised that it would not protect us and, if a bomb dropped, we should all be killed. Above us, there was an obese woman with two children and she never got to the shelter before the all clear sounded.

Our flat was damp due to bomb damage and I caught Rheumatic Fever, and was admitted to the Mildmay Mission Hospital and was at death’s door for two months, and then sent to Greyshall Manor, a convalescent home. After that, we qualified for rehousing and we were the first tenants to move into the newly-built Wheler House in Quaker St in 1949. It was comfortable and centrally heated and we had a bathroom. From there, at fourteen years old, I went to Deal St School. It was where I first experienced racial intimidation and bullying, so I told the teacher and he said, ‘You’re a Jew, aren’t you?’ Eventually, I became Head Prefect, which gave me carte blanche to discipline the other pupils.

During the years at Wheler House, I became friendly with the bottling girls from the Truman Bewery who walked past at six in the morning and six at night. I knew some of the Draymen too and they let me feed the horses. Soon after we moved in, my father wouldn’t give me any pocket money, he said, ‘You’ve got to earn it.’ I went down Brick Lane and enquired at a couple of stalls for a job and I had a strong voice, so a trader said, ‘I need a barker,’ and, for about a year, I became a barker each weekend in Petticoat Lane, crying ‘Get your lovely toys here!’ I was opposite the plate man who threw crockery in the air and next to the chicken plucker.

I worked in the City of London as a junior clerk in Gracechurch St, near the Monument, but I feel – if I had stayed – I would still be junior clerk.

The lady next door, she had a friend from America and she sponsored my brother to go there. So then we all wanted to go and, on June 6th 1953, we went down to Southampton and took a boat to New York and then travelled to Los Angeles. It was for health reasons. My mother had been unwell and my father said it would be a better life, which it turned out to be. I was seventeen years old.”

c.1900, Odessa – My father Isaac is sitting in the centre, he was born around 1896 and left in 1906, during the last great pogrom, to go to Vienna

c. 1920,  London – My mother Rebecca is on the right with her sister on the left. Her parents were known as Yetta & Maurice

Ben on the left, aged seventeen years old, photographed with his family on the boat going to a new life in America in 1953

Ben and his family were the first people to move into this flat in Wheler House, Quaker St, when the building was newly completed in 1949

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Pauline Taylor permalink
    September 20, 2021

    I remember being taken to Petticoat Lane in the early 1950s and watching in amazement as the man threw his crockery into the air. Thank you Ben and GA for bringing back happy memories.

  2. paul loften permalink
    September 20, 2021

    Thank you both for the story and photos. It rings so true for so many of the Jewish immigrants that came here at the turn of the century. My own childhood was spent in poor very poor post war accommodation in Stoke Newington . My father spent almost six years in the army and when he returned my sister never knew who he was. There wasn’t any decent housing about in London
    America was a big temptation for my mother who had a friend that was a ARP warden with her in Hackney . Her friend went to America after the war and we would get regular letters addressed from North Harper Avenue in Hollywood . Fay would send photos of her big detached house and modern kitchen. We never had a bathroom! It took until 1958 on a council house waiting list that we were offered a council flat in Clapton . It wasn’t America but we had a bath and our own room .

  3. William Martin permalink
    September 20, 2021

    I would love to know more about his sojourn here in the States. V

  4. Bernie permalink
    September 20, 2021

    Acceptimg that a little exaggeration may serve literary purposes, I would gently question one of Paul Loften’s remarks in his item above. Postwar, Paul lived for some time in the same street where I lived most of my childhood at number 8 (as we know from earlier exchanges). It is (perhaps) possible that there was no bathroom in his home, but my understanding has always been that one was built into every house in that street, built in the late 1880’s.

  5. Paul loften permalink
    September 20, 2021

    Dear Bernard
    You did indeed live in the same road but you do not know me apart from from reminiscences we exchanged . One thing I do not do is exaggerate or make up stories . My sister does in fact remember you and the nice house where you lived at no 8 and your stepmother who walked a small dog up the street and occasionally spoke to her. Perhaps you were not aware that our house at no 2 was split into an upstairs and downstairs . With another family occupying the upstairs .Maybe they had that bath but we certainly didn’t . My mother used a tin bath in the kitchen that had to be filled with numerous kettles of hot water . There was definitely no bathroom for us in that house there was just a small box sized toilet at the back .It just goes to show how some people are blissfully unaware of how others had to live,. If you don’t believe me perhaps you would like my sister to confirm here what I said is true

  6. paul loften permalink
    September 21, 2021

    I should add that the house where we lived at no 2 was a rented accommodation . I think after the war the local council requisitioned property so that families whose homes were damaged or destroyed had somewhere to live. We had to live with another family upstairs sharing the same door . This property was in an appalling state . Damp bedrooms and falling apart . I was born in the Hackney Hospital and my mum and dad moved in there just after I was born . Because of the terrible state of the house I developed pneumonia in the first weeks of my
    life and the hospital told my father when he visited that I was not expected to survive . I mean Bernie ,when you really are not aware of the full picture you really should take a bit of care what you write

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