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Gerry Black's Jewish CV

Gerry Black

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 45, 2013 Gerry Black's Jewish CV My father was born in 1901 (he died in 1938) and my mother in 1903 (she died in 1993), and both were born in England of Russian parentage. When they married in 1926 they moved to Montreal in Canada. One of my mother's sisters was already there. I was born in Canada in 1928 but after a short, illegal, stay in New York, my parents returned to London in 1930 because my mother was homesick, and I have lived in London ever since. We went to live in Strahan Road in Bow, having a flat in the upper part of the house, at a rental of 28 shillings a week. There was an outside loo in the yard and we had no bathroom but went to Roman Road Baths once a week. My late sister was born in 1930 and my late brother in 1937. Apart from our landlord who lived on the ground floor, we were the only Jewish people in the street. We never experienced any antisemitism, though I can remember one occasion when my father, who was athletic and fit, came home breathless after he escaped from a group of fascists who had been chasing him with intent to do him harm. Most of my mother's family - she was one of nine - lived in Aldgate, Whitechapel and Mile End, and every Sunday she and her siblings and their children visited their mother who in 1936 was living in a flat in Mile End Road, above an amusement arcade run by her sons, which was directly oppo site, and had a good view down, Stepney Green. During the afternoon of 4 October I was alone with my booba and was sitting by the window in the front room looking across into Stepney Green. I think I was probably aware that it was the day of Mosley's attempted march through the East End. Stepney Green began to fill with a crowd who were obviously there to thwart him and his supporters, but seemed to be awaiting an order to move off, either in the direction of Mile End Road or to Commercial Road, according with the route eventually taken by Mosley. To my surprise I saw my uncle, my mother's brother-in-law, known as "Fat Harry" to distinguish him from her slimmer brother Harry, at the far end of the crowd nearest Commercial Road. I was surprised because he was the most non-confrontational person you could ever meet. He was a tailor, and you could not have an argument with him; he would simply shy away and not respond. To see him in the crowd shows just how great was the pull for a mixed body of opposition to Mosley. Suddenly, an order must have been given, and the crowd about-turned and marched purposefully towards Commercial Road. And there, now leading from the front, was Fat Harry, brandishing and whirling a stick. 145</page><page sequence="2">Gerry Black I attended a local nursery at the age of three and then a primary school nearby, and in 1936 spent a year at Malmsbury Road School. I have no rec ollection of Hebrew lessons during my spell in Bow, but I was a guest at a Bar Mitzvah party of a school friend at La Boheme, then one of the most popular and luxurious East End venues for such celebrations. In 1937 my family moved to Gants Hill in Ilford and lived in Headley Drive (the purchase price of the house was £425) but a year later my father died of pleurisy, which today is cured by medicine and a day in bed. I went to cheder at Beehive Lane shuland attended Gearies Primary School. I passed my 11+ and was due to start at Ilford County High School (ichs) on 3 September 1939 but two days earlier was evacuated with Gearies and my sister: for a year we were billeted on a farm in a village called Barking Tye, near Needham Market in Suffolk. While there, I went by bicycle to Needham Market and then by bus to Stowmarket, to attend the grammar school there. The next year we were sent to Aberdare in South Wales where Ilford County High School was evacuated. My sister and I were separated, and I lived with a miner and his wife in a small house close to his pit at Aberaman. Unfortunately, he contracted a lung disease and I was moved away to another billet in the town. Although, in November 1939, a conference organized by the Board of Deputies of British Jews established a Central Committee for Problems of Evacuation, which set out to arrange for Jewish evacuees to have access to Jewish worship and elements of a Jewish education wherever they were sent, I did not have any contact with them. Unbeknown to me at first, Aberdare had a small Jewish community, many of them local shopkeepers, and a syna gogue on the first floor of a house, which held services on Saturday mornings and the Holy Days only. Living in Aberdare was an Agudist family called Kahn, from Frankfurt - a mother, father, son and daughter - who had arrived just before the war, leaving behind one son who did not survive the Holocaust. The other son, Bernard, was interned in the Isle of Man for some months after his arrival in England, and on his release joined his family in Aberdare. He went around the district calling on local schools and asking whether they had any Jewish evacuees. He found me, took me under his wing and taught me my Bar Mitzvah, which I had in the Aberdare shul at the age of fourteen. I think it was the first Bar Mitzvah held there for several years, and possibly the last for several more. The Kahn family revived the community and the synagogue, and the remarkable influence that they had on the community can be found in a book by Bernard's late wife Cynthia, based on her wartime diaries, entitled Wild Water Lilies (2005, Beack Publishing). My sister and I returned to Ilford from evacuation in 1942, and I went to ICHS. There were probably about 30 or so Jewish students. It was an excellent 146</page><page sequence="3">Gerry Black's Jewish CV school, with an excellent headmaster, but I had one reason for disappoint ment. We did not go into the assembly hall for prayers but waited outside until they were finished and then, instead of being seated just inside at the rear of the hall, we had to file in along one of the aisles right up to the platform (led by me, as I was the eldest), remain standing and be publicly displayed as dif ferent, which I thought was very insensitive on the part of the headmaster. A wartime experience, though not a strictly Jewish incident, but perhaps exemplifying the attitude of pupils in those days compared with those of today, was during the early afternoon of a day in June 1944, when I was alone in the house. I was a victim of a Vi, a doodlebug, which I did not hear approaching because I had the wireless on. It fell in front of the house adjoin ing our back garden. When I looked up to the ceiling I could see the sky. I was taken to King George Hospital, just a few minutes away by ambulance; my left arm (I am left-handed) and part of my body and face were full of splinters of glass from the garden window and from my spectacles which had smashed on my face. The hospital was full, and the doctors naturally dealt with the most serious cases first. It was not until about 4 a.m. the next morning that I returned home, with my arm in a sling and drops in my eyes. I joined my mother and sister, and about four or five neighbours whose houses were more seriously damaged, in sleeping under our Morrison shelter. Despite this, I managed to cycle to school the next morning (it never occurred to me not to go), without glasses and the after-effects of the drops still affecting me, to take the last of my school certificate subjects, Greek, which I was certain to fail as I had been studying it for a matter of a couple of months only to satisfy a teacher who was keen to teach it. The staff took one look at me, decided I was not in a fit state to sit the exam and told me that I would be awarded what my Greek teacher forecast I would have gained -1 was awarded an undeserved pass, and have the certificate to prove it. I joined the Ilford Jewish Youth Club, an Association for Jewish Youth (ajy) club which had just started in Beehive Lane shul, led by Dr I. S. Gold, who later served as AJY chairman for many years. I was an active member, being captain of cricket and football and taking part in other sport and all the discussions, rambles and other facilities. I represented the club in several sporting events, and in 1946 was the winner of the C. B. Fry cup, the major AJY award for sport. It was recorded in the Jewish Chronicle, but I was not available for the presentation as I had been conscripted into the army. In 2011, after regular enquiries searching for its whereabouts, I eventually made contact with the present owner of the cup, who was himself a winner some year later than myself, and had purchased it when the AJY closed down. He confirmed that my name was inscribed on it, I met him and had a photograph taken triumphantly holding it aloft. 147</page><page sequence="4">Gerry Black I served in the army in the Royal Army Service Corps from 1946 to 1948. After basic training in England, I was posted to Hamburg and then to Bad Oeynhausen, the headquarters of the British Army of the Rhine, in the Judge Advocate General's department. I became friendly with Greville Janner (now Lord Janner), who was in the Intelligence Corps. We were both sergeants. We took lessons in German, at the cost of two cigarettes each a lesson: he finished speaking German fluently, then added Yiddish and several other lan guages, and I have just a smattering of German, schoolboy French and a few words of Yiddish. Greville had access to a jeep and every weekend, for four months or so, we drove to Belsen, then being used as a displaced persons camp, full of survivors of the Holocaust - men, women and children - all of whom, particularly the children (some of whom were just seven or eight years old), had remarkable stories of survival to tell. We played with the children, and visited and spoke to many of the adult survivors in their makeshift synagogues, and went to Zionist meetings and the multifarious other activities they had started there. It left an indelible mark on my mind, and my religious beliefs, and it was twenty years or more before I could bring myself to read books about the Holocaust. While in Germany, I attended an inspiring and informative Moral Leadership Course run by Rabbi Israel Brodie, who was about to become Chief Rabbi. I was given leave to seek a place at university and had interviews at Downing College, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics (lse). Both offered me a place, the LSE to start in September 1948, but Downing not until September 1949.1 could not afford to wait a year so chose the LSE. While there, I was Chairman of the Jewish Society for two years, in 1950 and 1951, and was awarded an LIB in 1951. One of the Jewish students there at the time, many of whom subsequently obtained national and international fame, was Ron Moody who starred in the College end-of-year concert and with whom at the time I became quite friendly as I used to write reviews of the concerts. Some years later, when Moody was at the New Theatre in Oliver, I handed in my visiting card at the stage door after seeing the show, and my wife and I were admitted to his impressive and spacious dressing room. He was partic ularly proud that the person who had occupied it immediately before him was Laurence Olivier. The room was completely crowded, with his dresser serving refreshments and drinks. Apart from myself and my wife and just a handful of other guests, all the others were friends of his mother, from the Ladies' Guild of Palmers Green Synagogue. In 1952,1 had married my wife, Anita, and we lived in Ilford for two years before moving to Maida Vale where we lived for 42 years, before moving to Swiss Cottage in 1996, where we still are. We have two children, a daughter 148</page><page sequence="5">Gerry Black's Jewish CV born in 1956 and a son born in 1958. Both went to a Jewish nursery in Maida Vale (Aunty Lottie's), and then to the Solomon Wolfson School in Bayswater, now the Michael Sobell Sinai School, which at the time had a sizable minority of non-Jewish pupils. At the age of eleven my daughter (who won the Solomon Wolfson Memorial Prize in 1967 for her "outstanding contribution to the School com munity"), went to Maida Vale High School and my son, who is now a rabbi living in Israel with our eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, went to Marylebone Grammar School where he became Head Boy. That was the end of their Jewish schooling in this country. My son belongs to ayeshivah in Jerusalem and teaches his own yeshivah students. My hobby was the history of London, and I have more than two hundred books on the subject. One day a speaker due to give a talk at Bayswater Synagogue called off at the last moment, and I was asked if I could take his place and give a talk on Jewish London. I had not specifically considered that but I cobbled some notes together. It was a successful meeting and I was asked to give a further talk on the same subject. One thing led to another and I became a regular speaker, mainly at synagogues, to Jewish Association of Cultural Societies groups and similar audiences, but also to non-Jewish audiences. In 1983 I was asked to lead a group of volunteers for an East End confer ence run by Professor Aubrey Newman of Leicester University. Because of the constitution of our group, we selected a medical subject, and I delivered the paper on behalf of the group, after which Aubrey said that if I wanted to take the research further, he would gladly have me as a student at Leicester University for a master's degree, or even for a PhD I thought in for a penny, in for a pound, and enrolled, at my own expense, for a PhD at Leicester. I was in full-time practice as a solicitor, so carried out my research and writing in my spare time. I did not attend a single lecture, and went to Leicester on only four or five occasions, visiting Aubrey either at his home or at the university, but he was a frequent visitor to London and came to our flat for a meal and to give me advice on my research. In 1987,1 was awarded a PhD for my thesis, "Health and Medical Care of the Jewish Poor in the East End of London, 1880-1939". In the meantime I had become a member of the Jewish Historical Society of England, and Aubrey submitted my thesis to the Society, for which I was joint winner of the Society's main award. I was gripped with the fascination of research, particularly when handling original documents, many of which had not been seen or touched for a hundred years or more. I have written, and in some cases also published, eight books on Anglo-Jewish topics: Lender to the Lords, Giver to the Poor: A Biography ofSamuel Lewis, the Jewish Moneylender/Philanthropist ( 1992) 149</page><page sequence="6">Gerry Black Living Up West: Jewish Life in London's West End (1994) JES: The History of the Jews' Free School, London, since 1732 (1998) Lord Rothschild and the Barber: The Struggle to establish the London Jewish Hospital (2000)Jewish London: An Illustrated History (2003) The Joys ofFriendship: A History of the Association of Jewish Friendship Clubs 1Ç30-2008 (2008) Frank's Way: Frank Cass and Fifty Years of Publishing (2008) Service with a Smile: A History of the League of Jewish Women (2010) I also published and/or was heavily involved in the editing of: The Jewish Memorial Council: A History 79/9-/999 by Alexander Rosenzweig (1998) The Lost Synagogues of London by Peter Renton (2000) Nightingale: The Story since 1840 by Marcus Roberts (2001) The Gompertz Family (2002) I have been chairman of the Balfour Society for Children and Youth Aliyah since 1964, which over the years raised some £250,000. Although I am still its nominal chairman, it is no longer active, but money still arrives at head office from standing bank orders set up during its active period and from lega cies of former members. I became a member of the Council of the Jewish Historical Society of England in 1994, its President from 1998 to 2000 and its Honorary Secretary from 2000 to 2005; a trustee of the London Museum of Jewish Life and sub sequently of the Jewish Museum from 1983 to 2009; have taken part in several radio programmes on Jewish themes, and on television as an "expert" in one of the programmes of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Esther Rantzen. I have made numerous contributions to magazines and newspapers on Jewish subjects. 150</page></plain_text>