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Neighbours: A Jewish Life in the East End





Von Leon Silver
Fotos von Andreas Blum

Wir veröffentlichen den Artikel an dieser Stelle im englischen Original. In der jüngsten Ausgabe der OASE findet sich eine deutsche Übersetzung der wichtigsten Passagen.

I was born in 1948 at the latter end of the post-war baby boom. My father Joe (Aaron Joseph) was a tailor and my mother Sophie a dressmaker. My parents were married in 1936 in Nelson Street Sfardish Synagogue, as it was then called.

My mother’s parents had belonged to the smaller Belzer Synagogue in Commercial Road where my grandfather was vice-chairman. It later closed and amalgamated with Nelson Street as has some twenty other local shuls (synagogues). My brother Irwin was born in late 1938. 

My paternal grandfather, a milkman, died in the 1930s. He was devoutly religious and although poor he had been the “baal korah” (cantillator of the Torah reading), refusing pay for performing a good deed, at the absurdly named Christian Street Talmud Torah Synagogue. Born and married in Poland, my grandparents already with a young son came here in the 1890s. There were cousins here but also in Poland. Two of my dad’s aunts had emigrated to Germany where he also had cousins.  A sister and schoolboy brother were brought over on servants‘ visas before the war as was another cousin from my other Silver grandparent. No-one else there survived.

My mother was born in Austrian Galicia. Her father came here in 1914, planning to go on to America and then save up to send for his family. As an enemy alien, he had to report to the police regularly but was otherwise unmolested. His wife and three children meanwhile were living on the front line in awful conditions. The town was taken in turn by various armies and in one pogrom their home was burnt down. They then stayed in a synagogue partitioned by curtains for homeless families. There is a photo of one of my grandfather’s brothers in Austrian army uniform. Two of his four sisters were widowed during WWI but I don’t know the circumstances.

My grandmother, the only one I remember as she lived next door, finally came over with my mother and my mum’s older sister and younger brother in 1920. The border had changed, and they came with a Polish family passport. Travelling by ship from Danzig (Gdansk) to Tilbury, my mother said they were all sea sick.

In 1940 my maternal grandparents and my mum’s brother, uncle Jack, were interned as enemy aliens, grandma first being sent to Holloway prison. Later she was transferred to the women’s camp on the Isle of Man, where her husband and son had already been sent. Uncle Jack was released in 1941 and joined the British army. His parents were released soon after.  Grandad Woolf died in 1944 aged 61. I am named after him.  Grandmas Silver aged c.80 and Woolf aged 67, both died when I was four.

A cousin of my mother who was a dentist was the last to see my great grandfather. The old man refused to leave, saying he would slow them down and all would be killed.  The cousin escaped behind the Soviet lines with his wife and mother-in-law, a Yiddish poet called Rachel Korn.  No-one else survived.

Until I was 16 we lived in four rooms including the kitchen. There was no bathroom and the two outside toilets were shared with the downstairs neighbours and the people from the back workshop.

I went to the local primary school and had lunch at home. From about the age of seven, I was taught Hebrew two or three times a week during the lunchbreak by our Nelson Street rabbi’s son-in-law, a rabbinical student. After he obtained a rabbinical post in Australia, I went to cheder (Hebrew & Judaism classes) in Philpot Street Sunday mornings and two evenings a week until my bar mitzvah. I wasn’t that happy there as I had been spoiled by my kindly tutor.

East London Central Synagogue 2024

The East End Jewish community today is barely a vestige of its former glory. Long gone are the synagogues on almost every street corner or so it seemed. My dream is to restore the East London Central Synagogue in Nelson Street, one hundred years old this year, into an East End Jewish Heritage Centre, thus preserving our history in the Borough. It has a beautiful interior and is the only purpose-built synagogue remaining in Tower Hamlets.

Today the Bangladeshi community has replaced the Jewish one as the largest ethnic minority in the Borough. Many first-generation Bengalis found work in the Jewish clothing factories and workshops. It was particularly among those who didn’t mix with Jews that antisemitism was and still is common.

For years I escorted my rabbi pert of his Sabbath walk home. Occasional abuse would always increase whenever there was trouble in the Middle East. Antisemitic incidents around the world, including here, have risen enormously in recent weeks.

Relations generally have improved greatly in recent times.  For over twenty years, THIFF (Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum) has worked consistently for community cohesion & harmony. We have learned how much we have in common and this filters down like ripples in a pond.

Atrocities committed in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, China or Ukraine do not draw massive protests here or elsewhere. Readers can decide for themselves why Israel alone is subjected to such double standards, hypocrisy and hatred.

Among so many Palestinian flags still flying illegally from lampposts and at least one large mural of the flag painted on a brick wall in Spitalfields next to a play area, I feel uneasy. I can’t help wondering how many would be flying Hamas flags if they could. No doubt those who chant „From the river to the sea“, i.e. the genocide of Israel, would be among them.

East London Central Synagogue 2024

We all pray for peace and for an end to the suffering of so many innocent people. Increasing tension in Tower Hamlets does nothing to promote this. Despite the preponderance of the flags, antisemitic incidents in Tower Hamlets have increased less than elsewhere. This is a sign of the progress made in recent years.

Aside from two former friends who it turns out share the Hamas ideology that Israel is „seventy-five years of occupation“, my Muslim and Christian friends have all been sensitive and supportive at this difficult time, as I hope I have been to them.

May we all learn to treat each other with respect, decency and friendliness. Whatever our faith, background or ethnicity, we are all part of the same family.


Leon Silver ist Vorsteher der East London Central Synagogue, Mitglied der Steurungsgruppe im Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum (THIFF) und jüdischer Repräsentant im Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE).

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