Oral History Interview - Solomon Smolovitch

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Oral History Interview - Solomon Smolovitch

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Audio recording of an oral history interview with Solomon Smolovitch, who came to Hackney as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1936.



SS. My name is Solomon Smolovitch. I was born in Germany at Konstance, near the Swiss border. My parents came from Poland. I always believed that I was a German citizen, but I was wrong. Because when I came to Munich, to take up an apprenticeship, I got a letter from the alien police, asking me if I had a permit to live in Munich and if I had a permit to take up employment. I laughed at them, I said ‘Why are you asking me that? I was born here.’ They say, ‘Yes, but you are a foreigner.’ I said, ‘How can I be a foreigner?’ They say, Your father wasn’t German, therefore you can’t be German.’

I had a lot of trouble getting a Polish passport because the Poles wouldn’t recognise me. They threatened to send me to Poland. The Poles said, ‘We’ll send you back!’ In the end....

Q. When was this?

SS. In 1929. So he spoke to me in Polish. When he finished, I said to him, ‘Could you tell me in German what you said to me in Polish ?‘ He got in a temper, he said, ‘You claim to be a Polish citizen, you refuse to speak Polish?‘ I say, ‘From where do I know Polish? Never been in Poland.’ Anyhow, finally, I got it. I was a second class citizen, not a citizen, a resident.

Then the problems started with the Nazis. I belonged to the Munich Makhavi, yes?

Q. No, what is that?

SS. Sports, we had, how you call it now?

Q. Races?

SS. Yes. And it finished at the Braunhaus (?) which was the headquarters of the Nazis. And as we won the race, we were attacked and beaten up. Some fought back, some not. Then there were incidents with Jews. I went to the Municipal Commercial College. We had about 13 Jews and about 20 German students. So one said to another one, ‘You dirty Jew’and stuff, to molest him. I said, ‘Why don’t you leave the man alone?’ He said, he said, ‘Dirty Jew.’ I said, ‘I’m a Jew - you tell me.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do ?‘ I said, ‘You tell me.’ So he did and we start. I let him attack me. He attacked me. Took a bit. Got into the.. how you call it? Grip around his neck…

And he couldn’t get his breath. The other Germans stood there and they’re flabbergasted. Never saw a Jew fight back. And my friends said, ‘Don’t do it. It makes antisemitism.’

The funny thing is that the man stood there and didn’t back me up - he became a very well known boxer. They say he was Canadian, he wasn’t Canadian. His father was Jewish, his mother was erman, he was born in Munich. His name was Max Bear (?) who won against a German champion, Schmelling, which upset Hitler very much. I met him later in Israel and he was already a known boxer, I said, ‘You carry on like that, you won’t live long.’ He said, ‘Look at you!’ I was skinny after a kidney operation. Anyhow he died years ago and I’m still here, yes.

The man kneeled. He collapsed. Oh my, I was fighting. So the other German boys said to me, ‘Leave him alone.’ I said, ‘I leave him alone? He attacked me.’ He said, if he apologised, we shake hands, all is forgotten. He says it’s OK. The moment I let him go, he tried to put his two fingers into my eyes. As I (unclear) I’ll teach you. I gave him the chop. He fell down, lips blue. I thought, ‘He’s dead.’ But only collapsed. Called an ambulance. They revived him, everything OK.

The next few days, when I went to evening classes, come home 11 o’clock. I passed a side street on a bicycle. They attacked me again, they gave me a good hiding. I hit them back. My friends said, ‘Don’t go anymore.’ I said,’ No, I’ll still go.’ And I did go. But I took with me a bicycle chain in case they attacked me again. They attacked me again, but they got a better hiding than I got.

Then I was called before the school board. ‘Why did you hit him? ‘ I said, ‘Ask him, he knows.’ He wouldn’t say. I told them, ‘He molested a friend of mine - I took his part. I said leave him alone. He insulted me. I don’t mind being called a Jew. I’m proud of being Jewish, even a foreign Jew, a Polish Jew. But I don’t like to be called a dirty Jew.’ I looked to one and another, the directors, they’re all Nazis. They had a swastika behind their lapel on their coats. They didn’t know what to do, so they said, ‘You shouldn’t have taken the law into your own hands. You should have come here and complained. I said, ‘Yes and get beaten up first.’ Anyhow, they say, ‘We warn you, if it happens again, we will report you to the police and you will be done for assault and bodily harm etc. So I said, ‘OK’, got expelled from school. So I knew already I was on the top of the list. And a German girl who worked in a Jewish firm, she told me, ‘Be careful’ Because the manager, who wasn’t Jewish, he’s a Nazi, has it in for you. OK. I finish my apprenticeship, November ‘32. And the wife of my governor wouldn’t pay me what I ask her for. I ask her for 120 marks a month. She offers me only 90. Did all the work which needs a lot of knowledge and regulation, every country has customs.

Q: What did you do?

SS. Advertising mirrors, fancy goods, calendars, posters everything. So as I saw it’s already dangerous for me, could be dangerous for others. Told uncles, aunts to leave Germany, sell everything, go to Israel or South America. They laughed, said ‘Hitler won’t last more than 3 months.’ I went to visit my father who lived in Italy. My parents were divorced. My mother lived in London. She came in 1924 to London with my sister. My father lived in Italy. Luckily, I didn’t have a German passport, because then I could be stopped, which they didn’t do, but they could stop me. With a Polish passport, I didn’t need a visa to go to Italy. Italy or Austria. All of a sudden, I got a letter from my former boss. He will be in Trieste. He wants to meet me in a certain hotel. I met him. He asked me what I’m doing. I told him, I’m travelling, doing a little business, living with my father. He said,’ I came here to ask you to come back.’ It was already 1933. And because Jewish firms couldn’t employ Aryans, there were only about five or six (unclear) who were Jewish. I told him, your wife didn’t want to pay me and I left. But still was an agent for the firm, selling goods in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Italy. And I came back to Germany illegally because I knew they were looking for me. As I was born in Constance I knew the barber and I knew where to go. But finally, it got so dangerous that I had to leave Germany for good in March 1933.

Then my boss comes to Trieste and told me he wants me back. I say, ‘No.’ He say,’ I give you 300 mark a month. You can live in our place, get food, everything free. It’s a good offer.’ I say, ‘No.’ He got very annoyed with me, yes? And I got a letter from the German girl who warned me, I shouldn’t come back. Because I wrote, I may come back, collect my books and everything, on the way to England to visit my mother. She said, ‘Don’t come back. You know what will happen. Remember Bachaus (?)‘ Told me another girl come to the office in full uniform of the Hitler unit to show off. And I knew that the manager was a member of the party. Then all of a sudden, I got an order from the Italian authorities to leave the country. Even though my father was the best friend of the Commandant of the Italian police. Made appeal or something, ‘Give me a month - I’ve nowhere to go.’ So I thought, maybe I’ll go back to Germany, even though it was dangerous. Because I had a Polish passport which said I can go to the whole world but not come to Poland.

Anyhow, went for a Visa, they say, ‘You have to bring us 6 photos and tell us exactly what state you cross from Italy to Germany. The place and the time. I found it very suspicious. They want to make sure when I arrive, to arrest me. Anyhow I become the agent for ‘Who’s Who.’ in the Balkans and the Orient. There was a Turkish form of minister whom I met in my uncle’s place, kosher restaurant in Trieste. As he was a Muslim, he was allowed to eat kosher, yes? I worked a time with him. He made a book on the Vatican, all the popes the priests, the cardinals and so on. And he gave me a letter - I’m the general agent for this book in England, Canada and the United States.

I come to England. Never mentioned that I had a mother here, because she tried to get over and couldn’t. Could come to England before, but on condition that, when I’m 15 years old, I have to leave. Means I can’t compete in the labour market. So I never went to England. Stayed in England to work, couldn’t earn. Was dependent on my mother. Wasn’t a rich woman. We had a little shop. Didn’t like the climate. I didn’t like the bugsan (?), you know what it is? - the bugs. Because in the East End, even in the cleanest houses, there were bugs. Couldn’t sleep. And I thought it’s no good. As I’d registered already in Trieste, in Italy, for Palestine which it was then, I was counted as a certificate under the German quota. Then they wrote to me, they can only extend it for a year, if I don’t go now, I will lose it. So I left England then to Israel, to Palestine and soon got very ill. Got typhus, got sleeping sickness, I got Pappadachi, everything. And I couldn’t move. I had to be supported by my mother from England. With a pound I lived a whole month, because food was very cheap.

Then I found some work. I was a member of the Labour Party, they took me down from the job. A very hard time, I was very ill.. In 1936, then the riots started, with the Arabs. I applied to be a policeman, voluntary. They didn’t accept me because I didn’t know Hebrew. I tried again with a recommendation from the district officer, Mr Alex Epstein, who came from London. And they sent me to the police training school in Jerusalem. As I knew some English, I was very useful to them, to serve as a station orderly and served the telephone which had over 128 extensions.
l was sent out on patrol in the night. During the day, we had training, in the night we had patrol. Had only a tin hat, a handle of a (?) and patrolling the streets like that when there was trouble. Afterwards, they gave me a rifle, without ammunition. If I was attacked, I couldn’t use the rifle, because without ammunition it wouldn’t work. Then I had to guard the depot, the arms depot in the Russian compound. They threw grenades. I was at the wall, I couldn’t do anything.

Anyhow, I had a hard time, I already started to get trouble from the food which wasn’t handled very hygienically. I come to, I was posted to (?) police station, there I was a few months. They offered me to join the CD which I refused because I had to work politically. Took another friend. He joined them, I was in his place. Then I was sent to (?) where there were no roads, no houses, only huts. We had floods there. The chickens and cows and the huts. We had floods there. The chickens and cows and the huts came down and the bridge to Tel Aviv was under water. They had many attacks there. In the end, I had another two Jewish policemen there, regular policemen.

Q. Did you spend the war in Israel?

SS. Yes. Then they resigned, or transferred, and I was left alone.

Q. When did you come to England?

SS. I came back to England in 1947, on compassionate leave. I found my father in Italy who was in a concentration camp, Italian concentration camp. Helped him to establish himself, because he lost everything. I went to Switzerland to cure myself. I had amoebic dysentery, I was very ill. Didn’t have much. I went to Czechoslovakia. Didn’t have much. And then I came to England. My leave was unpaid and I had to rely on my mother. The police wanted me back. I had a letter that said I was allowed as long as I’ve got medical evidence that I’m ill. Anyhow, I stayed in England. And in May ‘48, Britain gave up the Mandate; then the Palestine police didn’t exist anymore, or was taken over by Israel. I felt I wasn’t fit enough to be a policeman. Anyhow, they wouldn’t have re-engaged me.

Q. So when did you settle in England?

SS. In ‘47.

Q. So that’s when you came and settled?

SS. Not settled, I thought I was going back to Israel. But as I lost my job and I wasn’t fit…

Q. How old were you then, 40?

SS. No. In ‘47, that’s what... 34? I got a small pension. Two pounds nineteen and six a month, which I’ve drawn since 1948.

Q. Has it gone up?

SS. Up to about 60 or 75 pounds a month.

Q. I was going to say, that the two pounds nineteen and six, I remember my father earnt, a lot of people earned about £3 a week.

SS. But this was a month.

Q. Yes, but it was a pension.

SS. And I’ve drawn it since ’48.

Q. Where did you settle in England?

SS. In the East End. My mother lived in the East End. She had a little shop in Kents St. Women’s underwear, blouses and so on. And here I got permission to stay. I worked for Popper and Clark, making medicine. I worked in a doll factory.

Q. What did you do, office jobs?

SS. No

Q. Just on the shop floor?

SS. Yes, for two years I worked in an optical company, making frames for glasses.

Q. So you’ve had a variety of jobs then. Did you settle down in London, I don’t know if you’re a family man?

SS. No, no. I had an accident in ‘54. I broke my hip. I got gangrene. They had to remove my bone. I got an artificial hip. They said you never can go back to work. But I was forced to go back. Government doctor wouldn’t give me a certificate that I’m ill. Even though the consultant who made the operation said I shouldn’t. And I had to take up a job as a lift man.

Q. I’m really interested about your mother. Have you got any photographs of your mother?

SS. Yes

Q. And what about your father in Italy?

SS. Yes.

Q. When you were brought up in Konstance, your parents spoke German, you spoke German at home. But they came from Poland - were there any particular stories that you remember from that time?

SS. My father took my grandmother, who was also living in Konstance to [unclear] in Tyrol in Austria because he suffered with the lung. Then the war broke out in 1914. My father was interned as a Russian citizen because there was no Polish citizenship. And my mother didn’t know where he is. After the war, they already estranged. And he wanted to leave and take the children to Italy. Last minute my mother didn’t agree. So he went back to Italy and we stayed in Germany under the responsibility of my grandmother.

Q. Do you remember your grandmother?

SS. Oh yes, I have a big photo.

Q. So she would have been born in 1860?

SS. Yes, or more

Q. So that’s interesting. She spoke German as well, did she? Or did she speak Polish?

SS. Yes, Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish.

Q. So what did she speak at home?

SS. Yiddish.

Q. And were there any particular stories she told you when you were a child?

SS. Yes, she told me, she had a son, an uncle of mine who looked like me. She said he was a painter. An artist, lived in France. Didn’t know what happened to him. My mother told me, her father had a factory of brushes. Got ill form the smell, the glue that they used. He knew Russian and Polish. Anybody had any business with the government, they would come to him. He would go to court as a translator, interpreter, very clever man. But my grandmother said to him, ‘Why do you sit with the farmers and talk politics? You have six daughters to get married’

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