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My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

FREDDY SHAW was always inspired by his father Jack, who was active in the Battle of Cable Street 75 years ago and fought with the International Brigades in Spain

This year (2011) marks the 75th anniversary of two seminal events in which Jews, notably East End Jews, were intimately involved: the Spanish Civil War and the Battle of Cable Street.

My father Jack Shaw (nee Schuckman) was active in both. His story is the story of Jewish East End youth combating fascism and anti-Semitism.

Their communism was a gut reaction to social injustice and anti-Semitism. After Cable Street, where they fought under the Spanish republican slogan  No Pasaran – They Shall Not Pass – many continued the struggle in Spain in the International Brigades, along with working class Jewish boys from Manchester, Glasgow and Leeds. The names of these largely unsung heroes have been collected and collated in Martin Sugarman’s study Against Fascism, which names all known Jewish Brigaders worldwide.

My father will always be my hero – a “held” as they say in Yiddish – and I grew up at his knee absorbing all his adventures.

Born in 1917 of immigrant parents from Russia, he grew up in the grand-sounding Fieldgate Mansions in Myrdle Street, off Commercial Road. He left school at 14, like so many. The major practical occupation open to Jewish youth was tailoring, but their principal aim was to escape from the ghetto’s poverty. Some became market traders and business men, some turned to crime (Jack ‘Spot’ Comer, the notorious gangster, was my father’s neighbour), a few made it into the professions, but the majority worked in the tailoring sweatshops or the furniture trade.

My father believed the world could be changed for the better, and for all peoples, with the engine of change driven by socialism. The Russian Revolution and propaganda from the Soviet Union seemed to indicate that it could happen. My father joined the Young Communist League, whose Stepney branch was overwhelmingly Jewish, and the Stepney Workers Sports Club, which promoted socialist values and saw health and fitness as essential to help working class youth create a better society. The YCL and the Communist and Labour parties also provided further education by encouraging reading for pleasure and knowledge, a habit my father continued for the rest of his life.

The rise of fascism in the 1930s rang alarm bells in the western democracies. Like socialism, fascism was a response to economic depression and rampant inequality. But it was anti-democratic, totalitarian, ultra-nationalistic and brutal in its application. Communism, by contrast, appeared at that time to champion inclusiveness and international peace and harmony as well as economic change, and it was principally the socialist movements that called for mobilisation against the fascist threat.

My father heeded the call. Sir Oswald Mosley’s party – the British Union of Fascists – aped those of Hitler and Mussolini. Mosley, once a Labour minister and seen as a possible prime minister, became a strutting demagogue at the head of his black uniformed members, the so-called blackshirts. Using the Jews as a scapegoat for the world’s woes became a useful tool and was, of course, already a basic belief of many fascists.

Mosley’s attempted march through the predominately Jewish East End on October 4 1936, which resulted in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street, was an attempt to reflect the power and unstoppable force of fascism amid his party’s growing popularity. There had already been numerous skirmishes between communists and socialists, among whom were a disproportionate number of Jews, and Mosley’s men.

My father told of boarding a tram along with other Young Communist League members at Aldgate. They had been told blackshirts were on board en route to an outdoor meeting in east London. He said he and his comrades walked down the aisles, easily recognising the fascists in their black uniforms and “giving them a good hiding”. As the tram stopped outside the London Hospital the bruised and battered fascists staggered into the conveniently located casualty department.

The Battle of Cable Street swirled around several nearby streets with the biggest mass of people at Gardiners Corner at Aldgate East. The main fighting took place between the anti-fascist protesters and the police, who were seen to be protecting the blackshirts who could not proceed on their march. Many of the police had been brought in from other districts and had far less compunction than local policemen in brutally assaulting demonstrators. My father was arrested for throwing a brick that broke a policeman’s nose. He has always denied this as he was one to use his fists (which he certainly did) rather than throw missiles. He initially escaped arrest with the help of a couple of elderly women pulling him away, but was soon rearrested.

Taken to Leman Street police station he witnessed scenes of police brutality away from the public gaze. Calling all who were arrested “Jew bastards” whether they were or not, young policemen with their sleeves rolled up were using fists and truncheons to beat up those arrested.

He recalls a local policeman (“an old time copper”) shoving him under a bench and sitting on top of it saying: “Hold still, sonny, or the bastards will kill you.” He witnessed a young woman who had had her blouse ripped away being called a “Jewish whore” (she was neither). As she was about to be struck she looked up at the policeman defiantly and said: “I’m not afraid of you.” The policeman hesitated and threw her into a cell unharmed.

The swing doors of the police station suddenly burst open and my father’s good friend Charlie Goodman appeared.  His head had been used like a battering ram by the four policemen who were carrying him. My father said about the station: “There was blood everywhere.”

My father was one of 64 who were jailed. He was sentenced to three months hard labour in Bristol prison. While on remand at Wormwood Scrubs he was seen by Sir Basil Henriques, the Jewish philanthropist who was very active in the East End.  Sir Basil, a visiting magistrate, my father believed, reprimanded him for being a hooligan and said it would have been better for Jews to have stayed away. This was the overwhelming attitude of the Jewish establishment.  The visit must have been on a Friday (five days after the battle) as Sir Basil apparently said: “You should be at home watching your mother light the Sabbath candles.”

My father replied: “I’m on the streets so that she can continue to light the Shabbos candles.”  He never had much respect for Sir Basil or the Jewish establishment after that.

My father was always convinced that being sent to Bristol prison was deliberately vindictive as his family could never afford to visit him. Just before his release – two weeks early for good behaviour – he was visited by, he believed, Rabbi Morris Swift (later a dayan – religious judge) who came to see if he was in need of anything. My father, already at odds with the Jewish hierarchy, rejected his offer as he felt that it was a bit late in the day to be concerned about his welfare.

Back home in the East End my father could not contemplate returning to the workshop. He left home and joined the merchant navy as a steward. In the Baltic he saw Nazi soldiers guarding the Kiel Canal and could only shake his fist at them. That rekindled his determination to continue the fight against the fascists. Europe was becoming increasingly threatened by Nazi Germany and the Jews in particular were in ever increasing danger. The Spanish Civil War was taking on an international dimension with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy providing the rebels led by Franco with men and weapons.

The formation of volunteer International Brigades from over 50 countries began in the latter part of 1936. By January 1937 a British Battalion was operational and saw action at the battle of Jarama. My father jumped ship at Alicante where his vessel was docked and made his way to Albacete in La Mancha, the headquarters of the International Brigades.

He arrived there in about the middle of March 1937 and joined the British Battalion. He met up with his old friends from the East End, Charlie Goodman and Joe Garber. At least 25 per cent of the 40,000 volunteers in Spain were Jewish. Of the 2,000 British volunteers some 200 were Jewish, including about 60 from east London.

My father always said that the lingua franca in the Brigades was Yiddish!

After arriving at the tail end of Jarama my father went into battle with the British Battalion part of the XV Brigade at the Battle of Brunete in July 1937. He was a runner for the battalion Commander Jock Cunningham and experienced coming under attack from German Messerschmitt 109 aircraft. He found himself in a foxhole on Mosquito Ridge with Giles Romilly, Churchill’s nephew, who said to him: “Do you think we’ll ever get out of this alive, Shucky (my father’s nickname)?” After having to retreat from the ridge to rest in a shady wood away from the intense heat, Romilly was suffering from shell shock. The retreat was covered by two of my father’s friends from the East End, Sam Masters and Harry Gross, who both died at their posts.

My father was only 19 and, with so many young brigaders being killed, he was being looked for by Will Paynter, the former Welsh miners’ leader who was political commissar for the battalion. His parents – my grandparents – were desperate for their son to come home, especially as their good friends the Steigmans had lost their son, Nat, who was killed in action at Jarama. My father was eventually sent to a medical tribunal who declared him too young for battle and he was repatriated at the end of 1937.

He always chuckled at still owing the British Embassy in Madrid about 30 shillings for the cost of repatriation, a story that amused the British Ambassador in Madrid in 1996 when my father attended a reception at the embassy during the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Civil War. The money – £1.50 in today’s parlance – is still owing.

Back in the East End my father was at a Stepney YCL meeting giving a talk about Spain when he met my mother, Dinah Makolsky, a star struck 17-year old member who worked for the cause with him.

Having to go back into the garment trade to earn a living, civilian life was relatively normal and quiet, enlivened by my parents’ engagement. But this was to be cut short by the outbreak of war in September 1939. My parents married in December 1939 (pictures by Boris, of course!) and my father was called up in February 1940.

For some strange reason known only to the War Office, my father was enlisted (along with two other East End Jewish lads –Udinsky and Rupinsky) into the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The only three Yidden in the regiment, all became corporals. During basic training my father tells of the drill sergeant major asking if any men had military experience. Some stepped forward, having served for example in India. My father also stepped forward. “Where did you serve, sonny?” asked the NCO. “Spanish Civil War Sergeant-Major”. “ I mean real military service sonny, not that!” My father said he never volunteered for anything else again.

After seeing action in Burma with the 14th Indian Army in the final push to Mandalay, my father came home in early 1946. I was 4 years old and distinctly remember greeting this sun-tanned, fit-looking stranger who was wearing a bush-hat as he marched into our flat in Fane House, Bethnal Green. Always the practical man, he was carrying a large brass coloured tin of caster sugar, always in short supply at the home front!

Post war Britain was grim and against his better judgment my father went back to the workshop. He had a family to feed and look after and by 1947 my mother was pregnant with my twin sisters. By that time Oswald Mosley had formed the Union Movement and fascism was on the march again despite all the horrors of the war. Mosley’s men, no longer in uniform, were rabble-rousing and using anti-semitic rhetoric. A group of Jewish ex-servicemen decided that enough was enough and the fascists should be met head-on in the streets. The 43 Group (named after the original number of members) broke up fascist meetings and highlighted the threat of Mosley’s plans.

My father attended a large meeting held by Mosley in a Bethnal Green school on November 20. He went ostensibly to find his teenage youngest brother, who had gone with others to protest, and stop him from coming to harm as he was convinced there would be violence. The meeting spilled out into the streets and Mosley’s aggressive supporters were met by the 43 Group, my father included. There was fierce fighting, with coshes and knuckledusters being used. The police had a hard time breaking it up and my father was arrested. His brother wisely slipped away without having seen him. Fortunately my father had a good defence lawyer (the Jewish leftwing lawyer Jack Gaster) and at Old Street Court his case was dismissed.

After 14 years in the shmutter trade and being an activist in the Tailors and Garment Workers Union, my father became a taxi-driver. He was a committed husband and father with decent moral values. With my mother by his side he provided us all with a warm, secure environment, which was something he lacked in his own childhood and youth.

When he died in 2003 aged 85, my wife’s elderly uncle Ben sent me a letter of condolence. He had known my father from childhood and one sentence that he wrote has remained with me: “I always liked your dad; he walked around with a piece of history inside him.”

Double click photos to enlarge 

A group of International brigaders after retreat from Mosquito Ridge, Battle of Brunete July 1937. Jack is 3rd from the left half reclining and  smiling

A group of international brigaders after the retreat from  Mosquito Ridge, Battle of Brunete, July 1937. Jack is third from the left half reclining and smiling.

The author poses with other East End Jewish children in early 1945. He is the little one in the front row on the far left.

Members of the Stepney Workers Sports club that taught that health & fitness were essential to creating a Socialist society. Jack Shaw is front left.

A Daily Worker rally in 1936. Jack Shaw (left) with his brother George.

Sellin the young communist newspaper 'The Challenge'. Jack Shaw is in the centre with Dinah Makolsky who became his wife

Jack Shaw & his bride Dinah Makolsky at their wedding in December 1939. Wedding pictures by Boris (of course!).

Brigade documents issued to Jack Shaw.

Brigade documents issued to Jack Shaw.

Jack Shaw in 'dress uniform', Barcelona 1937.

Jack Shaw (far left) with the actor Errol Flynn, Joe Holden and Harry Gross, another Jewish East Ender who was killed at the battle of Brunete.

Jack Shaw in Madrid in 1937.

Jack Shaw back in uniform with the Royal Welch Fusiliers 1944/5 when he served in INdia and Burma.

Jack Shaw (left) & his great friend & fellow brigader Joe Garber in Israel 1996 at an international gathering of Jewish ex-brigaders.

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