Oral History Interview - Malcolm Shears

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Oral History Interview - Malcolm Shears

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Filmed oral history interview with Malcolm Shears, born 1936 in Whitechapel, London. In this interview Malcolm shares his memories of the Chassidic Jewish community after the Second World War.

This interview was recorded as part of a project exploring the Jewish History of Stamford Hill, 1930s-1950s.


Whats your name? [00:00:03]

Malcolm Shears

When and Where were you born? [00:00:08 ]

I was born in London in 1936

Can you tell us about your life? [00:00:15]

We, my parents when they married in 1935, they didn’t, my father came from Edgware my mother came from East End and they didn’t like it in East End and Edgware because the village in the country was very remote. Well, they felt it was very remote and so they compromised and they decided to live in Stamford Hill.

And they brought me back to Stamford Hill from the Jewish maternity hospital in the East End. And they lived in Alkham Road initially, a house that was later bombed, happily they had moved out of that house by then. And after that we lived in Kyverdale Road and then in Darenth Road, this is really not very interesting…. Is it?

But somehow I’ve got some memories of the 1930s, but they’re really, eh don’ know what to call them… I think you’re really interested in the war years more than anything else, and I do remember… I don’t know how to put this down, sorry I’m wasting your time… When the war was declared everyone thought that London was going to be heavily bombed straight away and they were very worried about it because the Nazis had rained bombs on a town in Spain during the Spanish civil war and it was absolutely awful there and people thought they would rain bombs on London so people moved out of London as fast as they could. And I remember we escaped to Devon, by car I remember because I had travel sickness in the car and Danny Worburg, who was sitting in the car, gave me sheets of his Binoh comic, into which I could vomit when I , when I felt sick. And the poor boy, he had no comic left by the time we got to Devon. [00:06:40]

Anyways, we stayed in Devon for a few weeks, but it was very nice there, but there was really no war as far as people were concerned, it was called the phony war at that time. It was in Poland where the Germans had begun war, but certainly in this country it was as if there was no war, so we came back to London.

But of course the war heated up and got to be very severe. After the fall in France in 1940, what was called the Blitz had begun, and my memory of the Blitz is me sleeping in my grandparents’ house one night, and I think it was a Friday night, and suddenly the door to the room opened and there was a chink of light, oh everywhere had blackouts – you weren’t allowed to show light to the streets so as to fool the bombers, well a chink of light appeared as my father opened the bedroom door. And my father, he came and lay on top of me, I didn’t understand why he lay on top of me, but I realise now it was because a bomb fell in Oldhill Street, we were just around the corner Oldhill Street, perhaps 100 yards away from the place where the bomb fell and it must have been a very frightening experience at the time. And I imagine that in the morning all sorts of local people came to see what the damage was, and that’s what probably prompted my parents to move away from London to Oxford, where there was much less bombing and where we lived for a few years.

I don’t know if there was any bombing in Oxford, but what there was very interesting, there was the development of Penicillin in Oxford. What happened was that it was very difficult to get accommodation there because so many people had fled among them, and I suppose other places in the South East of England and they managed to get accommodation in a boarding house run by Mrs St. Clares. Now also in the boarding house were a number of students from universities, and they knew about this wonderful drug being developed in the university at the time and the history of the human race was going to be different, because the drug was going to be so powerful and very helpful.

Now, my father had a sister Ami. Ami had an infection and she was having a terrible time and her doctor assured everyone that if my father could get some of the Penicillin, as it was called then, it would be very helpful for Ami. So my father went to see, he made an appointment and went to see one of the people involved in the development of Penicillin, but he wouldn’t give him any because what they had was in tiny amounts and it was reserved for fighting men – for the armed forces, and poor Ami was not in the armed forces and she died because she couldn’t get Penicillin. [00:11:49]

Then another memory I have of Oxford is my father managed to get a bicycle for me and it was very difficult to get toys and things because everything was donated to, what was called The War Effort and things like boys bicycles were just not made, because it was winning the war the mattered, not learning how to ride a bike.

My father got me a second hand bike and I remember asking him who is going to win the war because I got the answer we are going to win it. The Germans were winning at the beginning but now we’re winning – it was very reassuring that we were going to win in the end. And things got so much better then that we came back to London because the bombing stopped for a while, but later in the war, the Nazis developed rockets that they sent across to London from the North of France and Belgium. It wasn’t the bombardment of London then, it wasn’t as intense as it was at the beginning of the war but in a way it was nastier because at the beginning of the war there would be an air raid, what would be called an air raid warning, a siren would sound at the beginning of a raid and what was called an all clear at the end of the raid. Well with rockets, with a lot of the rockets there was no siren, there was no preparation, no time in which to prepare – the thing would just fall somewhere and do a lot of damage and perhaps kill people.

Then one day my father came to collect me from school and at lunch time to take me home for lunch, and we were walking down Ravensdale Road when suddenly a rocket fell on Ravensdale Road, but at the other end of Ravensdale Road, and it’s a fairly long road. And we went to see the damage that had been done, and I remember a woman was coming across the road carrying her son in her arms, he was bleeding onto the road and when word went round the school sometime after that he had died, well there wasn’t much we could do so we continued to go home, but my father wouldn’t let me go to school in the afternoon and sent a letter to the teacher that I was much too upset to go to school by what I had seen. It was only, when I got to be about 13 that I realised that it was my father that was upset rather than me, because he had seen the son bleeding and in a terrible state and he wanted to have me next to him and safely in the house during the afternoon and in fact it made such an effect on my parents that we went away from London again and went to the north of England, next to Manchester there is a seaside resort called Southport and we stayed there for a while and then we went to Yorkshire and then back to Southport and came back to London where we lived until the end of the war. And I remember when the war finished, coming home from school one afternoon and a boy was running through the street shouting the war is over, the war is over, and I can’t tell you how exciting it was that the war was over and we were going to be able to walk into shops and buy what we like, like sweets and chocolates, that was a big attraction for a boy of nine to be able to buy sweets, just pay for them and take it out the shop. It didn’t work that way at all, it was quite different with the rations, but we had of course, we had, everything was rationed during the war, they were rationed after the war like bread. But potatoes and fish and chicken were never rationed, but chicken was at the time considered a luxury and a lot of people couldn’t afford it. [00:13:14]

So the bombing was always a big consideration in London. My father had an air raid shelter built inside the house, in the basement of the house with the reinforced ceiling. And I remember one evening we were in the air raid shelter and my father called, there was a door at the side, a side door to the house, eh, next to the air raid shelter, and my father called me to the door and he said look. And I could see a German pilot parachuting out of his aircraft and was floating through the air. Now the strange thing was, in the morning it was in all the newspapers and he landed in Ealing, all the way on the other side… And I never understood how he managed to land in Ealing, but there it is – he landed right on the other side of London. [00:14:59]

Another thing about the bombing was that there was always the fear that the Germans would gas us. They never did in the second world war, well they did use gas in the camps of course and that was horrible, but they didn’t attack us in London with gas and nevertheless there was always a possibility that they’d use poison gas and we had these things called gas masks. Now I didn’t keep the gas mask because it was so… during the war. They were rubber things that smelt horrible and we had to have practice gas sessions in school, putting on our gas masks quickly and learning how to wear them. I could never be happy in a gas mask. It had a plastic front to it, through which we were supposed to see what was taking place, but they always got misted up and I wanted to ask what I should do if I couldn’t see through the visor, as it was called, but I never got up to asking. But anyways I think I would have had to… well there would have been little tricks to keep the visor clear, but I was a little boy and I didn’t know these tricks. [00:16:50]

The end of the war came and the… This is the war in Europe and the government instituted a bank holiday – a day off for everyone, well for most people. So it was called VE day – Victory in Europe day and then there was a VJ day – Victory in Japan, but I can remember VE day because for most people it was the war in Europe that was more immediate to us. And there used to be a Jewish restaurant at the corner of Leweston Place and Clapton common, it was called Jacks, and as a treat my mother took me there, because we lived around the corner from there…. And I remember she bought me a red, blue and white cap to wear for the meal because they were sold outside Jacks and it was ever so expensive – the equivalent nowadays of 15p, but it was more like £15 at the time because it was so expensive. ‘Don’t tell daddy’, she said about the cap. Now I remember we didn’t get much choice in a restaurant in those days, but we had… And the man at the next table, I always remember him saying, ‘I’ve waited 5 years for this meal’. And it was a great celebration because we were able to go out and the bombing was finished but the rationing, it took ages for the rationing to disappear in this country. It stayed for at least another 10 years and people got very fed up with it because the rationing continued for so long. [00:18:03]

And then the country... And then just as people are tired of Poles and Lithuanians from Europe coming to this country to work - I don't mind them coming but there is a lot of feelings about it. There was a lot of feelings about the prisoners of war, the Italian and German prisoners of war that appeared in the country after the war, thousands of them. My father used to taunt them from his car. I always got embarrassed by it, but he used to open the window and shout Heil Hitler to them. And, I thought it was very cheeky – they were in an awkward position being a prisoner in a foreign country. I thought they should be left alone. But, so there you are, some of them even replied Heil Hitler to him. Its nice that you can cut so that I can refer to my list again, but I think… [00:18:50]

One of the most awful things was that the last bomb of the war, the last rocket of the war fell on a block of flats in Valance Road in Whitechapel, that was inhabited almost entirely by Jewish people, and that was Hitler’s last, last, that was Hitler’s last arrow at the Jewish people – he killed a lot of them with the final bomb. [00:21:10]

Then the war ended and my grandfather, may he rest in peace, lived in Edgware. He was the first Jewish person, well my family were the first Jewish people to live in Edgware in 1936. Anyhow he had to go to a Bar Mitzvah in Leabridge Road and he came to live with us Friday night and in the morning I walked with him from Darenth Road to the Shul in Leabridge Road. And on Clapton Common, between the pond and Portland Avenue he stopped and spoke to a Jewish man in Yiddish and at the time I couldn’t speak Yiddish – nobody spoke to children in Yiddish in those times, because they thought it was a dying language at the time and nobody would speak it again, so it was a waste of time speaking to children in Yiddish. So after a few minutes my grandfather left him and came to join me again and we went on to Clapton and my grandfather said, ‘that was such an interesting man’. He told me he was what they called a Chasid and he didn’t think there was any of them left, he thought they’d all been murdered during the war. ‘I am so pleased,’ he said, ‘that a handful of them survived. They have a place in Leweston Place. I just wish I could take my … on Clapton Common now, on Shabbos morning.’ It was a lovely surprise – he didn’t know, and we are not a Chasidish family at all. He was from Litta, so we are a Litvishe family. But, he was very pleased that some of them survived.

Do you remember seeing any Shtreimels then? [00:21:43 ]

No. There weren’t any – there is nothing to say about them. They disappeared in those years, soon after the war, and only in small numbers. Not like it is now. Now everything has turned the other way round, as far as the Jewish community is concerned. You went to the Beis Medrash down here and that was Litvish, now there are so few of us we all fit in one room, but its still an intensely Jewish area.

When you were growing up was there any anti-Semitism? [00:22:32]

I wasn’t aware of it very much, not then and not now. I think people are looking for it, because people really, if anything, certainly now and perhaps during the war, if anything people like Jewish people, that’s my experience – they have a good picture of us – generally, they can occasionally, but that is possible with any group of people…. People are looking for that sort of thing… [00:24:05]

Kosher food was available during the war. There were all sorts of things, but not like there are now - there wasn’t the variety that we have now. So, also…. Sorry you’ll have to cut this…. When we were in… People were not as fussy, for example when we were in North England, in Yorkshire, there was a fish and chips shop across the road from where we were staying. Now I’ve got the impression that a lot of people were not fussy about eating fish and chips, because strictly speaking you shouldn’t, but during the war there was such an intense rationing, that it was accepted to eat fish and chips. In fact I was told that the chief Rabbi had come on the radio at the beginning of the war and told people that in extreme circumstances they didn’t have to be that fussy about eating kosher food, because they would be, they would be… How should I put it, starving perhaps if they didn’t, if they were that fussy. So fish and chips was more acceptable.

And kosher meat? [00:24:14]

Well kosher meat there was, and certainly kosher chickens. Chickens were never rationed.

Do you remember shopping in Kosher stores? [00:24:44]

There weren’t kosher stores like the ones we have now. Across the road there is Watermint Grocers and everything in there, you don’t have to look, you can just be sure that everything is Kosher. You didn’t have that. We had shops where some things were kosher and some things were not and you had to look and check. [00:26:46]

When German Jews started coming here, before the war, my father may he rest in peace, my father… he used to like them and they tended to gather in Golders Green and many in St. Johns Wood also and my father used to call them sooers and I when we went to Golders Green he used to say we’re in Soooland and I never knew why until I realised that everyone was going around, because everything was so strange to them in this country, that they would say uch so when they came to understand something… I’d find it amusing, but my uncle told me many years later, perhaps twenty years ago, that they were very unpopular, but it’s understandable because they were, a lot of them had been through terrible experiences and this was a strange country, and they didn’t fit into this country immediately. But I imagine many of them had strong feelings and a lot of resentment about how they were treated and what was happening to them. Nevertheless my parents, their best friends were from Berlin. Ella the wife, well my mother described her departure from Berlin, she… Ella’s mother came with her to the station and they kissed each other and said goodbye and they never saw each other again. It must have been a horrible situation, just horrible. There are people who were, there are still people around who went through that experience. [00:28:49]

The cupboard that is over there came with one of the transports from Czechoslovakia. My aunt, my aunt she took in one of the Jewish children that managed to be rescued from Czechoslovakia before the war began and the girl came, well I never understand – I never asked her questions, how could she come with a nice piece of furniture, I thought they were lucky to come with their clothes because that must have taken some effort to send to this country. Well I never met the girl, because, I was told that her parents managed to get out of Czechoslovakia and come here and my aunt had to give her back to her parents, which was only fair. I’m sorry all these sort of things come to me gradually – they were not on my list. But recently we moved it and I noticed that on the back there are, there is things painted on the back including the number seven. Now you might know how they cross the seven on the continent, so it just confirms the story. Wow… And I never asked my aunt about the girl, I wasn’t interested in her. But it’s a lovely piece of furniture… Its raw but its got the nice design… Oh it did have paint on it but we had the paint stripped off, because its much nicer without the paint.

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