London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London


Pre War East End memories from Aldgate Pump to all stops East, by Dr Cyril Sherer, now in his 80's and living in Israel

IDr Cyril Sherer lived in the East End from the time of my birth in 1921 till the outbreak of war in 1939. Presciently, because our home was later destroyed in the blitz in 1941, my parents had moved from New Rd in 1939 to live with friends in Queensdown Rd, Hackney, which coincidentally was where I was born, closing the circle so to speak

I never lived there again, and apart from a few visits to my maternal grandparents in Redchurch Street, Shoreditch in 1940 I have virtually never been back. I left England in 1946 to serve  in the New Zealand Army Medical Corps in Japan. I lived in New Zealand where I was in Medical practice from 1948 till my Aliyah in 1961 and have been back  to the East End as it now is, once or twice on my infrequent visits to London. In my mind, however I go there often

Nevertheless my years there shaped me for better or for worse for the rest of my life. For the former I am grateful. As for the latter, I am still working on it more than 80 years later!

The Jewish East End was a transplant from Eastern Europe, probably identical with Warsaw, New York's Lower East side, or the Marais in Paris. As a transplant it naturally induced antibodies.  Anti-Semitism was powerful. There were streets like Plumbers Row which as children we were told to avoid. I don't suppose I ever went there though I knew where it was. Gentiles lived there.  We lived in a ghetto without walls. The world began (and ended) at the Aldgate Pump. The community of around 200,000 had it's own institutions and it's own way of life, it's own dialect

The two worlds were different, and we were different from the outside. The great thing about the East End was it's social structure. In modern terms it would be known as a meritocracy. You succeeded by your own efforts or you didn't succeed at all. There were no class distinctions. There might have been minor differences between the (few) Sephardim and the majority Ashkenazim, but this was no cause for communal friction. Perhaps some good-natured kidding, but no more than that.  We were a collective group and we knew it.  This was nothing like the class distinction of British society outside, vertical in structure, each class separated from the one below by a non-porous membrane

Few East-Enders broke out of the framework. You needed a special force, like a rocket breaking through the stratosphere to get into orbit. The ways out were few. Musicians- mostly jazz-musicians, boxers, criminals, the occasional politician like Phil Piratin. Writers, poets, painters, the specially talented. A mathematician like Selig Brodetsky; a physiologist like Samson Wright who was so brilliant that his hospital couldn't in all decency overlook him for the Professorship which he achieved when he was about 25, a year after he produced his major text-book. Jacob Bronowsky. Vidal Sassoon. And hundreds of doctors, lawyers, accountants and the like.  The majority though didn't dream of careers. Career? Who knew what the word meant? Most people were lucky to have a job

I almost forgot to mention my cousin Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen. As a boy he was  sent to Borstal as a petty criminal. He finished up as an aide-de-camp to Dr Sun Yat Sen, and finally a General in the Chinese Nationalist Army. Volumes have been written about him

So much has been written about the lively characters who lived there, most of it true. I remember the "mad artist" with rolled-up umbrella, sun-tanned face, open-necked shirt in rain or in (rare) sunshine.  The old man who played the same cracked 78 rpm Yiddish record on an ancient gramophone perched on an equally ancient pram. He played and re-played "Gei tzum ausland" a thousand times a day. Reputedly he wasn't even Jewish, despite his beard. His head was sunk in his chest, as though he and his clothes were cast from one mold. One might easily have thought there was no true human being inside the clothing. He never moved. No-one knew where he came from or where he went when he trudged to, pushing his old pram.  There was Pugachow the wine-merchant and his three retarded children. He had a limp so bad that he dragged one of his legs almost on the ground as he walked. In 1934 they took a few old men as extras on the film "Jew Suss" starring Conrad Veidt (incidentally not Jewish). When the director saw Pugachow on the set he told him to walk more naturally, "don't exaggerate".  I remember Phil the Fiddler (Phil Bernstein) leading the orchestra at the Grand Palais: he used his bow to swipe at kids swinging on the brass railing of the orchestra pit. And Hymie Landau's cafeteria opposite the theatre. I once heard a Yiddish actor come in to order a "cup coffee mit a piss chiz cake—a centre piss!". (You got more cheese that way). Sussman (with his lisp, Thuthman) the impresario. Started life as a printer

My friend Alfie Goldfarb, my business partner. Alfie would go round  to the schmatte manufacturers to buy up remnants of material. We rented a barrow for sixpence a day which we pushed over Tower Bridge to the markets where we'd sell them to old women who made kid's pants out of them.  I was the sales guy.  Till my Dad saw me pushing the barrow one morning. "My son is not going to push no barrer" he said. And that was the end of my business career. Dad had bourgois pretensions.  He was also the reason I became a doctor. I really wanted to work in the theatre, but my Dad had cast himself in the role of "the father of the doctor" and I was only a stage prop to his ambitions. Nowadays I am glad he did. In his own picturesque way he said  "actors don't eat three times a day" and he was probably right. I guess I didn't want it enough to run away from home

How could one sum up life in the East End?  Dirty and warm. Colourful in a figurative sense and gray in the literal. But always kinetic. When I think of life there it is always in motion, never a series of stills. A moving mental screen, not a picture album of separate pages.  People moving, arguing, shouting, expressing their souls in Yiddish, their body posture demanding compromise-- a sort of cork-screw twist starting at the shoulder. People were alive.  Perhaps vital would be a better word. We were far removed from nature. Trees and birds were not our companions, more likely bed-bugs, if you will forgive me

The following are some impressions. Others have written more in detail. I would like to focus in  on one set of memories only, schooldays.  I am told that I was an impossible child.  They couldn't control me at home. I was a fidget. They called it "St Vitus' Dance. In those days giving a disease a name was sufficient. It concealed ignorance, especially if in Latin. When I was three and half my mother convinced the elementary teachers in Myrdle Street school to take me on. Normal starting age was five. One of my first memories is sitting in a sand-box playing with  what seemed to be a large doll's house, while we kids sang "Oh dear what can the matter be". Altercations with one of my teachers later on, one Godfrey Cherns which culminated in his throwing a book at me, cutting my chin, brought my otherwise gentle mother to do battle with Mr Cherns. He had wounded HER CYRIL

Settle Street - the Sassover shul (now a grocer's shop)So at the age of eight I was transferred to Settle Street. I was horribly precocious and after a couple of years when a school report came through saying "Cyril is sitting on his laurels" my mom marched off to see the headmaster Mr Lewis whom I remember as an old man with a fringe of white hair looking as though he wore a table-cloth on his head. She asked him if she should send me to a private school (where would the money have come from?). Mr Lewis looked at her and said "Mrs Sherer, there is no need. I am putting Cyril UP FOR A SCHOLARSHIP. This boy can grow up to be Lord Chief Justice of England if he wants ". Well, I didn't want. Moreover I have what is now known as Attention Deficit Disorder which has plagued me all my life, especially in Medical School. It is treatable now, but not then.  The school, incidentally was opposite my cheder, on the corner of Fordham and Settle Street. I studied (sic) amongst twenty or thirty other noisy little boys and one girl, Edna Weinglass, whose Dad kept the pub on the corner of Fieldgate Street and Plumbers Row.  Chumash and siddur were beaten into us by one Joe Cohen (known to one and all as "Bandy" Cohen). He was built like a Kurd. His technique of teaching involved liberal use of a cane with which he kept time on our backs while we chanted Hebrew numbers with increasing higher decibels.  I visited the building a few years back. It was by then the "Greater Asia Textile Company" the mezuzah was still on the door. Now it has reverted to become the 'Sassover shul

I was duly entered for the entrance exam for Davenant Foundation School. Aged ten, I came out top, because it was based only on general knowledge and I read the papers avidly. Thus started my academic career.  The school had been founded in 1680 by the Reverend Ralph Davenant, as part of his foundation for the forty or so children of his Parish. Whitechapel was then a village separate from the City of London.  By the time the massive immigration of Jews from Europe into the East End had occurred two hundred years later, the school had become almost exclusively Jewish. There were two token non-Jews in my time and one hundred and ninety-nine Jewish boys.  The school building was a fine old Edwardian orange-stone structure of pleasing, symmetrical design. It is now a Pakistani youth centre. It had a fine hall where we sang sanitized hymns every morning. Good rousing tunes.  The teachers were called "Masters" which says it all. The Head was "The Headmaster". There was virtually no connection between us. It was open warfare from day one. The school was a copy of a British Public school. It was divided into  four houses, as though we were resident which thank God we weren't. There was some caning, not too much. I think the beak, one "Gobby" Evans would have liked more but probably didn't want to take on too many yiddisher mamas.  The only time in my whole 8 years there we ever had any social contact with a teacher was when the only Jewish staff member "Shimmy" Rosen, the physics teacher, took a bunch of us to the local Lyons Corner House for cream buns. Otherwise gornisht. There was no such thing as a school counsellor. Psychologist? Don't make me laugh

Yet I came out of there with a life-long love of English literature,  Milton and Shakespeare; a working knowledge of French (extended by far too many sessions at Studio One in Tottenham Court Rd where I did what I call my post-graduate studies watching French movies), and a smattering of Chemistry. Oh, we also learned Latin.  I acquired a hatred of discipline and organizational structures which later on in life must have influenced me into practicing medicine outside all known frameworks

I said at the start that I am still working through some problems in my upbringing. I hope they are a minority in my personality structure. I think that most of the techniques for dealing with people, (nowadays known as "social skills) which I learned in the East End of London have been amongst the most valuable lessons of life I could have possibly have had.  I was taught much in school, but not how to think. This must surely have come from my life in the East End

Even though it's all gone I have a mental refuge which it's one hell of a lot of fun to return to in my mind. I come out of it with a very good feeling, as though I am at home amongst friends......Except there's no-one there...

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air…
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on,
And our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

website copyright of Philip Walker