I realise now in this age of officially sanctioned hate against foreigners and disabled people, against people on welfare benefits or receiving decent state employment pensions, that my granny, Dora, wasn’t much of a UK citizen by current reckoning. Of course she did at least make citizen, which she might not do today. She and her family had fled one of the great Polish pogroms of Jews at the turn of the twentieth century to come here where their cousins had already found a home and could provide the necessary guarantees for them to stay.
Later, not long in fact before she herself died, I tape-recorded my mother and she spoke of her parents’ separate struggles to get here from the horrors of Eastern Europe - this was of course long before Adolf Hitler and the ‘final solution’ had ever been heard of. ‘Oh yes, your granny told me, “they raped the girls and killed the boys on the way”’, my mother matter of factly repeated – ‘but they managed to bring their duvets with them.’
As I say, my granny wasn’t much of a citizen by present requirements. She never learned English. She couldn’t read or write. She certainly couldn’t have passed any current ‘citizenship test’. And much later I realised, when I had my own experience of mental distress and agoraphobia, that perhaps she had that too, since she never seemed to go out, both from what my mother told me and, when we knew her in her old age. She only spoke Yiddish. She died when I was still just a very small boy. My granddad Barnet lasted a bit longer so I have some more memories of him and some lovely letters to us as children.
We had moved to Battersea when I was four after my father had died. Looking back we seemed regularly and often to make the expedition to the East End, to Whitechapel to go to my grandparents’ house. We actually stayed there for a while when we first came to London. I remember the cocks crowing that people kept in their back yards and the sound of the rag and bone man early in the morning waking me up. I can still smell the gefilte fish and chicken lockshen soup that were cooking. I remember running my little clockwork bus round and round one of the circular seated wooden chairs in the kitchen. They say that everything looks big when you are a child and you remember it much bigger than it really was. The irony is that it seemed very small and dark at the time, their little terraced house in Warden Street, not far from the Rowton House for homeless men.
Granny didn’t go out, she didn’t speak English. But I only have a memory of her as warm and kind, a little old lady sitting in a shadowed corner. My mother must have fostered this picture. She was always telling us how much the neighbours loved my granny, how kind she was, how she would do anything for anybody. You must remember that streets like this were little Jewish enclaves in the East End; lots of Yiddish signs – in Hebrew script of course – above shops, the Jewish market; many Jewish tenants living next to what my mother always called their ‘Christian’ (English) neighbours. And on Saturdays, those Christian neighbours would clean their doorsteps for them, put the lights on and do the other things they weren’t meant to do on the Sabbath. And as my mother said, there was never any hostility between these two local communities. ‘They got on, they lived together. They said Good Morning and Good Afternoon to each other’.
And remember we are talking about the inter-war years, the time when my mother was going to the local Jewish school, growing up and then working from age 14 as a milliner in a local sweatshop. When Mosley’s fascist gang tried to invade the East End. We know that they did not pass. The Jews, the Communists, the locals, the lefties and the trade unionists all saw them off. Meanwhile though, as my mother also told us, the local police were demanding bribes from the Jewish stall holders who hadn’t got licenses. And she told how she saw them arrest and drag off one old Jewish man by the beard to the cells when Mosley’s Blackshirts came to town.
Meanwhile my granny Dora was living her life, conducted within her four Jewish walls, with a Yiddish sound track. But still I remember her with this aura of generosity and kindness, not stuck in her own troubles, but generating warmth; a still, small smiling figure. Of course I may only really be talking about when she was old - when I was around, but those seemed to be the limits of her life from what I could see then.
Then she became ill. She was always blind in my memory of her. I think that was the result of her first stroke. I don’t know how much I and my sister Maureen, we children, were ever told about what was going on. I don’t think that was the way they did it in those days. We’d find out things rather than be put in the picture. But by this time, I think my granny was limited to her bed.
Then one day the ambulance men came for her. I remember it even now with the kind of confusion that it must have had for me then. I don’t know why, but I was in her bedroom when they came to take her to hospital, the old rebadged workhouse infirmary.
It must have been one of those days when we’d gone to my granny and granddad’s for the day. I must have been about five or six. I don’t have many memories from when I was a small child, but this is one that has always been with me. Even now as I write, yet again it brings tears to my eyes. She was lying on the bed. The ambulance men had come into the room. When they started to lift her from the bed, the sheets fell back. I saw her ulcerated leg. It looked as though there was a huge black hole in it. I must have cried out in fear and surprise. She spoke then – of course, in Yiddish. I could never remember what she said in Yiddish, so I often asked my mother to tell me.
She told me much later that granny said, ‘Why does the little one cry?’ I’ve looked up on Google to translate this. In Yiddish it says, it is ‘Vos tut di bisl eyner veynen?’ I don’t know if those were her exact words. It’s one of the regrets I have long had, that I couldn’t remember what she actually said.
As my mother used to say to us as children, ‘Always she was thinking of other people’. And that has stayed with me ever since. Here of course she was doing just that. And it is that truly I think which now brings the tears to my eyes: her simple, routine selflessness and kindness. Even to call it such, to see it for the altruism it undeniably was – almost seems to reduce it to less than the beauty of ‘Always she was thinking of other people’.
How far away this is from how we are meant nowadays to think of refugees like her and my Granddad - they only met when they came here to England. If we listen to our leaders – who are so anxious to know the worst of us, so they will get our votes – then she was at best nothing more than a refugee and more likely just another economic migrant wanting to profit from our labour and the wealth we had created.
But I must be truthful, although her words have always pierced my heart – here come the tears again – it isn’t really them that make me remember this story with such intensity. It is what happened next, after her nightdress had lifted off her legs and I had seen her awful ulcer.
Because what I remember so clearly, why I think this has stayed so powerfully in my mind over all these years, was the ambulance men, very carefully putting her nightdress back in place, covering her again. That is what I have always most remembered. I remember how respectful, kind and solicitous they were to her. And then they carried her down to the ambulance – so carefully down those narrow curving stairs. I will always remember the kindness and respect with which they treated her as part of the wonderful new welfare state – and my mother feeling the same.
This for me even now, when I am myself old, remains the greatest beauty of this story – although it takes a lot to trump my granny’s goodness. The essential decency and humanity of those two men, unaffected by the siren voices of hate and racism which again, so long after Granny first had to flee from racial hatred, are stoking up our resentments against welfare and against each other - instead of where they should be directed – against them.