Bessie’s indiscretion (a short story)

(Here is a short story I wrote fourteen years ago in memory of my great-aunt Bessie. I have re-published it to give some background to the London Jewish walks I will be recommencing, starting on March 6th)

It was significant that Bessie’s birthday this year fell on Passover, as her story was as much a triumph over adversity as her forbears’ celebrated release from bondage. As was customary, the extended family were gathered, a pyramid of generations, with Bessie at the apex and a multitude of tiny ones, crammed at opposite ends of a table that grew healthily each year. It was also customary to invite a stranger to the seder table and this year Bessie had intrigued us with an elderly gentleman, apparently a friend from the day centre, who was sitting politely and quietly to her left, next to Sadie, my mother. I was there as family scribe. To me she had entrusted her many secrets and to me she had given the responsibility to tell them, well all bar one, anyway.

Bessie never failed to remind us of how she had a lot in common with the Queen Mum. She too spanned a complete century, having also been born near the first stirrings of the 20th. Mind you, the manner of their entry into this world could not have been more of a contrast. For Bessie ‘Busha’ Cohen was delivered, screaming, from her weary, bedraggled mother on the deck of a weather-beaten boat, en-route from Hamburg to London. Her parents were but two of three hundred Jews, packed like sardines into two decks of a modified cattle boat, escaping from the pogroms that had reached their tiny shtetl of Nashin, on the outskirts of Kiev. And if that tiny life, born into such uncertainty and poverty, hadn’t been nurtured into loving viability, this story would never have been written. You see, Bessie is my grandmother and this is her story.

The year was 1900. The old steamer was moored alongside the northern support of the newly built Tower Bridge and, with the pace associated with officialdom, was slowly emptying itself of the human flotsam, the ‘greeners’. Bessie’s parents, Solomon and Marishka, shuffled along, buffeted by the seasonal wind and biting rain. All they had with them were two huge bundles of clothes, a dak, some trinkets and an address of an uncle in Plumbers Row, Whitechapel.

“Name?” came a gruff bored voice, spoken by a weedy bespectacled official at the immigration desk. Solomon shrugged his shoulders and looked at his wife. The official thrust forwards a dog-eared slip of paper, on which there was scrawled a single word, written in Russian and German.
“Solomon…. Marishka”. He pointed to himself and his wife, then added, “Markovensky”. The official paused for a second, then said “Cohen”, scrawling the name on a fresh certificate, which he stamped before thrusting into the hand of the Russian Jew. Solomon was puzzled before realising that this Gentile had elevated him to the priestly caste, for no better reason than not being able to pronounce the Russian name. Solomon proudly proclaimed this grand new station to his wife,
“Solomon, Marishka … Cohen”. He slapped his chest and smiled, for the first time in a very long time.

They then followed the solemn procession northwards along Leman Street to the Poor Jews’ temporary shelter, opened a few years back as an act of marvellous benevolence by an immigrant baker. There they were fed, took prayers and spent their first night in their new land, sleeping on rock hard mattresses in a damp bug-infested room. It was their most welcome, comfortable and thorough night’s sleep for 2 months and there was even a slight spring in their step as they made their way, the following morning, to Plumber’s Row and a new life.

It wasn’t an easy life, but it was relatively secure compared to the uncertainties they had left behind. His uncle Jacob found him work as a sweater, making seamen’s coats in a tiny workshop in Fashion street, earning six shillings a week, with as much coffee as he could drink. Marishka worked too when she wasn’t producing a whole procession of offspring, twelve children at the rate of one a year, until her womb closed permanently after a nasty infection. Bessie had six brothers and six sisters and they had to rent out an extra room in their tenement building, before long, to house the untidy, noisy, desperately poor, but happy brood.

They lived in a square mile melting pot shared not only by Jew, Irish and true-born cockney, but where even the Jews came in two major varieties; the better-off ‘choots’, descended from earlier Dutch, German and southern European immigrants and the bedraggled east European and Russian ‘polaks’. The ‘choots’ saw themselves as English first, forsaking kosher for beer and jellied eels and rarely paying a visit to a synagogue. The ‘polaks’ were the complete opposite. It was as if whole communities, including language and customs, had been lifted, hook, line and schtinker from the Russian steppes and the Polish outlands. Yiddish was the language of choice and English customs was something they just grew into out of necessity.

Bessie grew up in such a world. Her early years were poverty-stricken, where an orange sufficed as a birthday present and neighbourhood celebrations were signified by huge vats of borscht, hot beetroot soup, consumed freely with no thought of digestive outcomes. Her neighbours were all Jewish, in fact most of them were from the same area of the Ukraine, five families taken from three neighbouring shtetls, now sharing a Rabbi, the over-worked Reb Levy, in a small steibl created from knocking through the back rooms of three adjoining houses. This relic of the ‘old country’ was supported by donations from their richer brethren, descended from the anglicised Dutch and Jews who’d immigrated a century earlier. They salved their consciences further through the soup kitchen in Brune street, which nourished the body and the Jews Free School in Bell lane, which promised a rounded, though ‘yiddisch-rein’ education.

When Bessie was seven years old she was returning with her parents from a shopping trip down Petticoat Lane. They were buying buttons and remnants and all three children – herself, five-year-old Lily and four-year-old Nat – were usefully employed carrying what their tiny arms could manage, then a little bit more. They had just entered Whitechapel Road facing the bell foundry and were plotting a safe route around the Aldgate tram and the unpredictable horses and carts. A stocky, bushy-haired man was talking to a couple of women and was obviously having difficulty being understood. Solomon suddenly stopped and wandered over. The man was speaking Russian, Solomon’s native tongue and was clearly looking for directions. Solomon entered the conversation to everyone’s relief and the women quickly hurried off.

‘Tower House? I’m looking for Tower House, I am staying there tonight’.

Tower House was a short walk away and it would have been easy for Solomon to simply point him in the right direction. But this man obviously interested him and soon they were deep in conversation, as the small group crossed the busy road. Soon they were at the huge Methodist doss house, half way down Fieldgate Street, where they stopped. The man grasped Solomon and kissed him on both cheeks, then bid them all farewell. As they backtracked to Plumber’s Row, Bessie asked her father about the man.

‘His name was Joseph Stalin, Busha. He is here for an important conference with political people from all over the world. They were very concerned about the Jews and why we had to leave the motherland. In fact many at the conference were Jews. Think of that, Jews at a conference, talking to Gentiles rather than fleeing from them!’ Marishka asked another question that escaped Bessie’s recollection. She did remember Solomon’s reply, though.
‘He said that, in order for there to be political change, certain acts may need to take place. It seems that he implied violent acts. Anyway, he was so grateful to me he gave me what I thought was a warning. He said that perhaps we should avoid Hessel street for a while’.
‘What did he mean. Surely not …’, exclaimed Marishka.
‘No, no. Those were my thoughts too. He told me to avoid Hessel street because it stinks so much of fish!’
They both laughed. Hessel Street was famous for its fish, every other shop seemed to be a fishmonger’s. Marishka suddenly stopped laughing and, with a serious, puzzled expression, asked,
‘What did he mean, grateful? What was he so grateful for?’
‘I paid him a shilling for his night’s stay’
‘A shilling! We are so rich that we can throw a day’s wages away?’
‘A mitzvah, Marish, a mitzvah. Thanks to us, Messiah will come that little bit earlier’
‘And for that we starve for one night?’
‘You’ll manage to feed us. You always do’.

Life was exciting for a young girl in those cosmopolitan times, despite the constant gnawing hunger and the complete lack of luxuries that we now take for granted. But little can compare with the excitement that came to Whitechapel on a freezing January day in 1911 when Bessie was roused from her daydreams by frantic knocking on her front door. She’d just returned from the bakery in Cannon Street Road, where’d she’d left the family cholent in one of their ovens for 4 pence. It was her best friend, Esther Goldstein at the door and she was highly agitated. Her cheeks were flushed and she was having great trouble controlling her limbs, as she waved her arms around and bounced around awkwardly.

‘Busha, Busha, there’s somethin’ big goin’ on down Sidney Street. There’s coppers all over th’ place and they’ve got guns too!’
‘Never! Let’s go and see it then’.

Bessie grabbed her coat and the two of them sped into Fieldgate Street, then Oxford Street, where they had to slow down through the sheer numbers of folk with shared intentions. Peddlers, tramps, the ladies of ‘Angel Alley’, cutters and sweaters all were making this mad chase to the source of real excitement. Something they could tell their grandchildren, or their next client. Being small and agile, the two girls were able to make good progress and soon arrived at Sidney Street, just in time to witness a fully blown gunfight. A line of policemen blocked the entrance to the street, but it was clear that something major was happening to the left. Shots were being fired from the rooftops and there was a lot of shouting and screaming going on. Bessie and Esther were wildly excited, the music hall couldn’t compare with this in it’s wildest dreams. It later turned out that they had witnessed the famous Siege, leading to the death of a group of anarchists in a police action supervised by a y oung Winston Churchill. It was never boring, living in the East End!

Bessie was fond of recounting one particular story, an episode taken from her early teen years. She was in the small yard that backed into the steibl, playing a game involving small stones and a chalked circle. She was alone, she preferred her own company at that age. In the distance she could hear the hawkers and peddlers advertising their wares on Fieldgate Street. The air was still and it was unseasonably warm, so the acrid smell of fried fish dominated her senses.

She had noticed two scruffy young boys arriving at the side entrance to the steibl. She recognised them as classmates of hers, Harry and Tom Tyler, sons of the local blacksmith and as Irish as they come. This was suspicious, as very few Gentiles were seen this side of Commercial Road, particularly entering a synagogue! She was sure that they didn’t notice her so she followed them as they crept warily into the building. They must have had thievery in mind and she was sure one of them was holding something menacing in his hand. Her courage failed her though, and she decided that it would be better to go and fetch help. She was just leaving the entrance when she suddenly heard a strange rhythmic thumping sound the other side of the low wall that separated her house from the steibl. She stopped and, with uncustomary bravery, climbed on an old herring barrel and peered over the wall. What she saw utterly shocked her … then greatly amused her. The Rabbi was only playing football with the twins, acting as goalie as they directed a weather-beaten leather ball at him from all angles. His long coat was tucked into his breeches and his beard swayed in the breeze as he threw himself clumsily around with gay abandon. When he saw Bessie he stopped, picked himself up, dusted himself down and walked over to her. She was transfixed with sudden fear as he drew level with her. Was he going to chastise her for eavesdropping into this secret ‘un-Jewish’ world? Was he going to confess his shame? None of it, he just playfully pinched her cheeks and spoke, ‘Busha, my child. Tell your good mother that yes I will drop by later for some of her excellent cholent’. At that he turned back to his game and continued as before, blissfully unaware of Bessie’s continued astonishment.

Since that day she saw the Rabbi in a new light and, for most of the next three years worshipped him from afar until she married him in a noisy ceremony in August 1915. After all she had been betrothed to him for ten years, with just the family dak as her meagre dowry. Unfortunately he was called up to fight in the Great War a year later and died in an anonymous Belgian field, leaving behind a son and heir, Herschel, born in a damp corner of an overcrowded workshop in circumstances Bessie was never to divulge.

The following year was a blur to the grieving teenager. Used to the daily realities of death (two of her brothers died before their first birthday), it was the unfairness of her snatched joy that wrenched at her soul. She recited kaddish daily for him, but whether there was a God that accepted her prayers, she was uncertain. She went through the motions in life, spending far too much of her time doting over Herschel, to the exclusion of her younger siblings, who were her responsibility, due to the necessarily long hours spent in the tailor’s workshop by both of her parents.

The end of her teenage years co-incided with the waves of optimism that swept through the country at the start of the ’20s, though leaving the East End largely untouched. Bessie married again, this time to Philip, a craggy-faced but presentable machinist, who whisked her out of her family home to a rented room in Fashion street and a life alternating between domestic duties and stitching collars on overcoats. Unfortunately his meagre income barely covered their outgoings, particularly his gambling habit and, like many fit young Jewish men, he supplemented it with a second career as a boxer. He plied his trade in the Mile End emporium, where he developed a handy reputation among the spielers, as fodder for the cannier (and better fed) fighters. The boxing income of a quid a night just about cancelled out the gambling deficits, which basically meant that Bessie spent many a lonely night alone, dreaming of lost love while struggling to manage an increasing family, which now comprised of Sadie, Sidney and Leon as well as Herschel.

Where the ’20s were seen as carefree, the ’30s brought a more sinister dimension, especially to the London East End. Anti-Semitism and the rise of Mosley and the black shirts made sure that Whitechapel Jews would remember their station in life and that 2000 years of persecution and uncertainty were not going to simply disappear because they were in a new land. After all they had been here before, crossing the channel with William the conqueror before being deported en masse two centuries later.

Bessie, though still young, was beginning to be sucked into middle age before her time. There was just too many cares and weights on her shoulders and, not being one to rise above her circumstances, she instead found herself sinking into a general gloom of hopelessness. Four needy kids, an absentee husband and a procession of younger indifferent siblings kept her in this fog of despair.

There were a few brighter moments though. She loved her weekly excursions to Brick Lane, that hustling, bustling sea of unwashed humanity, where Eastern Europe re-invented itself on the streets of Whitechapel. She always made the trip just before Shabbat, when prices were the lowest. Her favoured route was through Great Garden street, past the clean and freshly painted posh synagogue, then left into Old Montague street, a narrow thoroughfare, where the synagogues were very much rough and ready and was one of the places where some, who didn’t know better, declared that Hitler did everyone a favour by bombing the slum dwellings out of existence. Those who knew better mourned, because they could see this as the end of an era, the passing of the old ways, when people lived not just for each other, but also in a shared and open joyfulness that masked the grim realities of very real poverty.

Walking down Old Montague Street was particularly pleasurable because one could never be lonely there and she was a desperately lonely woman. Just to have physical contact was a cherished pleasure and one couldn’t fail to be jostled and barged on the narrow pavements, with kids playing and quarrelling under your feet, milk merchants selling their still-warm produce in pewter mugs from rickety carts, hawkers and street traders bellowing their slogans, with their barrows and a constant babble of dialects assaulting your ears. The shops that lined the far end of the street all catered for the insatiable Jewish appetite for food of all complexions. Sweet shops, like ‘Simon Cohen’s’, emptying young pockets of their farthings in return for a short-lived sugar high, the barrels of pickled cucumbers, kosher butchers with sawdust spilling out into the pavement and the fish, always the fish, herrings mainly – pickled, chopped and schmaltz-ed to your requirements, Madam.

Then there were Esther and Annie, the bagel sellers at Bloom’s corner. Sitting opposite each other with their sacks of goodies, one ignored them at your peril. Spend a ha’apenny or fall foul of a biting Yiddish curse, that was the deal. The best thing, Bessie figured, was to walk, eyes to the front, down the centre of the road, ignoring them both. Turning into Brick Lane, the road broadened, but access to it didn’t, as shop after shop extended into the street, spilling their wares untidily onto the pavement. This continued into the far distance, right up to the brewery. All Bessie ever had were a few pennies, but her basket was never less than full after a couple of hours of cheerful haggling. She was buying apples from an old gentleman, who was the cheapest in the lane on account of his undisguised skin problem, when someone caught her eye. It was the shopkeeper to the left, a cheerful jug-eared man, flogging second hand kitchen implements with a colourful Irish patter. He was effort lessly offloading a rusty whisk to an elderly lady who was too busy laughing at his fruity jokes to realise the bad deal she was getting. Bessie watched him quietly, until he realised her presence and pulled a face. Bessie quickly moved her head away and shuffled off, clutching her basket to her bosom.

“Bessie Cohen, I do declare!”

She blushed and averted her eyes, as he confronted her and tipped his cap at her. She carried on walking, but failed to notice the stray dog sniffing at the rotten fruit and fell awkwardly into a pile of cardboard boxes, by the side of a grocers shop. The man rushed forwards and pulled her upright before she did herself some damage. He brushed her down and blocked her exit, forcing her to acknowledge his grin, coaxing a small smile from her.

“Bessie Cohen. You remember me don’t you? I’d never forget those big brown ‘uns”.
“Yes, it’s me” she finally admitted. “And you’re one of the Tyler twins, can’t remember which”
“Harry”, he replied, “the handsome one”.
“So you say. Anyway, thanks for, you know. Now I must be off, there’s a house full of children waiting for me”
“Yes, mine. And I must be off now. Goodbye Mr Tyler”
“Goodbye Harry”. And she rushed off, more carefully this time, ignoring his wave and blown kiss.

But the world was impinging on the East End and it was the Jewish population that felt it the most. Bessie was not a political person and was of a mind that convinced itself that, if you just ignored the uglier aspects of human conflict, they would just go away. Of course it was as well that her parents were more pragmatic as this sort of thinking would have just seen them at the sharp point of a Cossack sword. But Bessie couldn’t ignore the bloodied state of her husband, Philip, as he returned one afternoon early in October 1936. He was half cut and triumphant, particularly as the blood wasn’t his! Unfortunately it wasn’t a blackshirt’s either, but a policeman’s, which was why he was bailed to appear in court the following day. The battle of Cable Street had been fought and Philip would be immortalised forever in photos of the fracas, in the front line, his fists raised in earthy defiance.

The war, and particularly the Blitz, ironically brought a positive change in Bessie’s fortunes. To a casual eye, it had seemed that everything that could send her into a downward spiral was now occurring. Her husband was called up to fight the Nazis, her four children were evacuated to rural Cambridgeshire and the house in Fashion Street where she lodged was flattened by an incendiary bomb. Yet her daily life improved. She moved to a flat in Brick Lane, above a furriers and next door to Bernstein’s the baker, sharing it with her two youngest sisters. She had privacy and time for herself, no longer a slave to a drunken layabout of a husband or skivvy to a hungry and restless brood of children.

Life moved to a new pattern and Bessie found that loneliness was a thing of the past. The war was good for her. She worked in a busy, motivated workshop, stitching buttons onto officer’s uniforms as part of the war effort. Spontaneity was provided by air raid warnings that seem to be so frequent in that Blitz year that time spent in the shelter was considered the norm, not the exception. Their shelter was as unexpected as it was welcome. The factory girls made use of the wine cellars beneath the Machazeke Hadass, the Orthodox synagogue a little further down the road, at the junction with Fournier Street.

It was there that Bessie committed her indiscretion. It was a story that she had jealously guarded for over 50 years, shared only with yours truly, as the family chronicler. She had assured me that this was to be a secret not to be divulged to anyone, not in her lifetime, anyway. It was early September and the bombing was particularly ferocious. It seemed that the whole day was spent in the cellar, while the streets of East London were being re-sculptured by the Germans. The girls were keeping their spirits up by singing popular ditties, ranging from the patriotic to the bawdy, sprinkled with a few Yiddish folk songs. For some reason a moment came when a lull in the bombing and ringing of sirens outside co-incided with a lull in the singing and chatting inside. It was at that moment when a slight shuffling noise could be heard deep in a dark corner, behind the huge wine caskets.

“A ghost!”, gasped Gertie Bresslaw.
“Solly Lieberwitz”, came another voice, spoken with macabre portent.
“You mean the one-eared tailor of Toynbee Street?”
“Could be. My buba said he’s been seen before in these parts”. That cheerful soul was Esther Bloom, a renowned doom-merchant, the self-proclaimed keeper of local legends and teller of the same.
“Here, in Mache?”
“‘specially so”
“‘ts a long way from Toynbee”
“Mebbe he caught a tram”, retorted Gertie, trying to lighten proceedings.

There was a sudden movement and a shifting in the shadows. A silhouette appeared in the gaslight.

“One eared tailor?”, sneered Annie Flass. “More like jug-eared Irishman. I’d recognise those lug ‘oles at an ‘undred yards!”
Laughter spread after revelation as a cheerful, swaying voice boomed out of the darkness.
“Mornin’ ladies. And a fine day it is too”. Harry Tyler shuffled over to them, a jug in his hand and a jaunty smile on his lips. “Care for a bevvy?”
“Where did you …?” gasped Annie.
“Come, let me show you”, slurred the Irishman. He led the ladies deeper into the cellar, where the light dwindled to a flickering dullness.
“Come on ladies, you can trust Harry” he mocked, as he heard them muttering and giggling. “But can I trust you, alone in a dark cellar with a fine looking fella as meself?”
“Don’t kid yourself, sunshine, we can resist it”.

In the corner, lit by a single shaft of sunlight through a crack in the wall, was a wine barrel. Its top had been prized open and was balanced on the edge. The sweet, slightly heady, smell of wine tickled their noses.

“So, who’s first?” he announced, filling a new cup and holding it provocatively towards the ladies.

Annie stepped forwards and took a swig. She was followed by Gertie, then Esther. A few others backed away, no doubt wary of the consequences, or just too full of good old Jewish guilt to let go, even during these trying times, when any scrap of frivolity should be cherished. Bessie was torn between both groups, but bravado won over good sense and she was soon knocking them back with the best of them.

Unfortunately Bessie’s drinking history had been confined to the odd sip at Passover or Shabbat, or to breathing in second-hand beer fumes from her husband. Her first cup was a delight, the second a revelation, but the rest were a haze, followed by confusion. Reality gave way to dreams. Lots of laughter and singing, movement and frivolity. Smirking faces swirled around, familiar faces, many faces, then fewer faces and then just one face. Harry Tyler. Then the atmosphere changed, from innocent gaiety to something a lot more serious, a lot more personal. And still just one face, looming over her while the ceiling rotated and the walls collapsed inwards and she sunk into a darkness.

She woke up alone, frightened and with an instinctive sense of shame. Her throbbing head and dishevelled state gave clues as to the nature of that shame. What was she to do? What was she to tell her sisters? A saving grace of those war years was that any pattern to life was non-existent, so no explanation for her absence the previous night would be expected. But that was not her problem, her issue was with herself. She had allowed herself to lose dignity and self-respect. And to an Irishman, nu!

His market stall was just a few yards away and, with surprising boldness, Bessie strode right up and confronted him, her arms folded and silent. He reddened, but quickly gathered his wits.

“Some evening, eh, Bessie Cohen!”
She remained silent, composing a clever retort that never came.
“You …” That’s all she managed to say, before shuffling away in embarrassment. An Irishman, nu!

Two months later she confronted him again. This time she had a speech prepared.

“So, Mr Tyler.” There was something in her manner that cautioned him.
“Yes? Can I be helping you with some kitchen utensils. I’ve a new consignment of spoons, not a rust spot among ’em?”
“No. I’m here about us”. She patted her stomach and immediately a defence mechanism kicked in as Harry reached the obvious conclusion.
“Me? No, no, that’s impossible. How can that be?”
“Unlikely, I know, but not impossible, Mr Tyler”
“Now don’t be messing my mind up with such nonsense”, he immediately retorted, swinging a spoon, almost threateningly.
“Please be leaving me alone now. Go and speak to a …. Rabbi. He’ll sort you out, to be sure”.

He turned his back on her, dismissing her and immediately turned his attention to a young boy, who was in the process of swiping a handful of spoons. The boy bolted off and Harry, figuring that he could kill two birds with one stone, gave chase, leaving Bessie standing there like a lemon.

But she stood her ground and Harry soon returned, minus the spoons.

“Listen, Bessie”, he said. “Give me time to think. It’s been a shock, so it has. Let me think this through”. He smiled at her and briefly tapped her hand and, in a strange way, a moment of tenderness that would stay with her for a long time, passed between them.

A plan was hatched between the pregnant Jewess and her accidental Irishman. Many factors had to be considered, both short term – what to tell her sisters – and long term – what to tell her husband on his return from France and her children on their return from the countryside. One day a letter arrived at her flat, which she ostentatiously read aloud to her sisters. It was a call up for some sort of secret job that was crucial for the war effort and was to last for nine months. These letters weren’t unheard of, but none questioned why one should be sent to an unskilled middle-aged Jewess. It was just as well that no one else read the letter, because Harry’s spelling was atrocious, something Bessie remembered from their shared schooldays.

In actual fact she spent the next nine months in a nunnery in Bethnal Green, where she went to full term and gave birth to a bouncing boy in the Spring of 1941. Her time there was most pleasant. She was treated well, better than any other time in her life so far and she impressed the nuns by praying faithfully to God over kiddush candles, pleading for forgiveness and constantly thanking her maker for her good fortune. The good health of her son was an added blessing and proof that the good Lord was finally smiling at this errant daughter of Israel.

Of course there was no question of her keeping the baby and the nuns placed him with a suitable family overseas in Ireland. She had given them but one instruction, that the boy should be named after her first husband, Rabbi Levy, who still had a special place in her memory.

She was then able to return from her ‘vital work for the war effort’ and was paraded around Whitechapel by her proud sisters as a highly important person, a local celebrity, no less. But of course at no time was she able to talk about her secret work. Her mournful manner and frequent bouts of tears were taken as proof of the great stress she had been under doing such important work. She returned to work in the factory, mightily relieved that the end of the Blitz meant no more visits to Machazeke Hadass and certainly no more shopping trips to a certain end of Brick Lane.

Her children returned home the following year and they were rehoused in larger rooms just round the corner in Princelet Street. Life soon returned to normal as she was thrust back into her role as mother. It was harder for her to adjust to the return of her husband, Philip, who clearly did not have a pleasant war. Shrapnel in his leg and constant nightmares brought him a new role. No longer a reliable breadwinner, he lived the rest of his life quietly and meekly. His drinking had quietened down and compensated for his earlier frequent absences by seemingly never moving from his favourite armchair by the hearth and spending his days babbling incoherently and listening to the radio. Perhaps it was guilt or maybe it was love, but Bessie devoted the subsequent years nursing her husband without complaint. She was no longer lonely, even though her children were marrying and moving eastwards, to Bow and East Ham. She felt fulfilled and contented and there was no outward evidence of the const ant gap in her heart that she knew would remain with her to her dying day.

The East End was changing. The 100,000 dishevelled East European refugees who had arrived fifty to seventy years before had been transformed into English Jews, with status and a future. Some had even risen highly in society, driven by a pioneer spirit and fear of failure. That square mile of the East End, that ‘city of refuge’, stretching from the Aldgate pump in the east to the ‘Troxy’ in the west, had served its purpose and busied itself with the next wave of needy pilgrims, from the Indian subcontinent. Brick Lane was renamed Banglatown and the Machazeke Hadass became a mosque. Jews moved west, north and east. South wasn’t an option, perhaps because the Thames provided a psychological barrier, an unwelcome reminder of their origins.

Bessie and Philip too moved out of the East End in the early ’50s, to a small council house in Dagenham, where she found a part-time cleaning job in Ford’s. Her final memory of the East End that she was fond of sharing to all and sundry was when she went on a grand tour of her childhood haunts, just before leaving for Dagenham. She was walking down Whitechapel road, just past the broadening pavement of the ‘waste’ and the Underground station. Outside a pub a man stopped her. He was handsome and well dressed and clearly needed a light for the cigarette that drooped from his lips.

“Sorry luv, don’t smoke”, said Bessie.
“That’s OK. ‘ave a nice one, today”, was his reply, with a smile she would never forget. To this day she would insist that the young man with the smile and the cruel dark eyes that she briefly met outside the ‘Blind Beggar’ was none other than Reggie Kray, the notorious villain.

The Dagenham years gave way to the Ilford years in the ’60s. Her children prospered and grandchildren arrived, followed by great-grandchildren in the ’90s. The century was now over and Bessie, a 100 years old today, with the telegram to prove it on display, was surrounded by her extended family. Though aching with arthritis and various other minor ailments, she was still perfectly lucid, which was just as well, because she had an important announcement to make.

She cleared her throat, then took a sip of kosher wine and cleared her throat again. She waited for conversations to die down to an acceptable level, then, nodding at the elderly gentleman next to her, spoke.

“I would like you all to meet Hymie Flanagan”

A sudden silence, broken by a few chuckles. The mysterious stranger stood up and smiled at the assembly. It was then that I noticed his ears, the strange angle at which they protruded and wondered why it had taken so long for it to click with me.

“Oy vey”, he sighed, in an improbable Irish lilt, “Do I have a story to tell, to be sure!” There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he grinned at the open-mouthed gathering. Bessie just tilted her head in my direction and winked.

It is now a year on and dear old Bessie has since passed away. Yet her story will stay with me forever. For me a trip ‘up west’ is never complete without a detour through Tower Hill. This gives me a brief but thorough view of Tower Bridge, my ‘statue of liberty’, marking the exact spot, at Irongate Steps, where, a hundred and one years ago, the new born Bessie was carried off that boat, to found a new dynasty in a new land.

Copyright Steve Maltz 2002