Who Jew you think you are? Families asked to help Whitechapel history project

Who Jew you think you are? Families asked to help Whitechapel history project

People with recollections of and links to London’s Whitechapel community are urged to participate in a special historical project

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

  • Crowds watch King George V ride through Whitechapel Road in 1935
    Crowds watch King George V ride through Whitechapel Road in 1935
  • New Road Synagogue when it was used as a dress factory 
    New Road Synagogue when it was used as a dress factory 

Researchers have urged Jewish families with East End links to input their history into an interactive map of what was once the most Jewish area of London.

The call to chronicle the history and memories of Jewish families from Whitechapel comes ahead of a three-day event in London, starting tomorrow, in which the stories of those Jews who lived there will be told.

Researchers for the Histories of Whitechapel project have already flown out to Israel to interview elderly Jews who were brought up in the East End district, once the centre of Jewish life in Britain, and a spin-off project detailing the history of London’s oldest Ashkenazi synagogue, Sandys Row, is ready to commence.

They said this week that British Jews with historical family links to Whitechapel could now input into a major new national survey of the area, with a huge exercise underway to collate memories of the area.

An interactive map of the area has been created, into which experiences and information can be inputted. Online users can hover over individual houses and buildings, discovering their history right down to who lived or worked in them.

“This project is really gathering momentum, and the input of Jewish families is bringing the area’s history to life,” said UCL research associate  Dr Aileen Reid. “We’d love to hear from anyone whose families have past connections to Whitechapel, so together we can capture the memories and use technology to preserve them.”

The event will show Jewish residents such as Boris, a photographer, and Lewis Nyman, a fireman, whose son Denis contributed to the map. Elsewhere, there is information about New Road Synagogue, with photos from the last wedding there in 1973, before it was used as a dress factory.

New Road Synagogue when it was used as a dress factory

Other images include one from above Whitechapel Road, of Jewish residents cheering the King and Queen as they ride through Whitechapel for the Silver Jubilee in 1935.

The project is running at the Survey of London, under the auspices of the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, with researchers there building a living picture of life at a micro level.

“Anyone with a connection to Whitechapel can add their own memories, photos and so on, and we have also been conducting oral history interviews,” said Reid, who last year interviewed four people from Whitechapel who now live in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Karmiel.

Among them was Gwenn White, born in 1930, who spoke from Haifa. Born in a home, she lived above Weinberg’s furniture shop. When she was nine, war broke out. She recalled a hard life renting the German-owned 51 Wellclose Square, near Herod’s Place, “near a coffee and tea factory, a flower factory and a perfume factory, so we had a terrific amount of smells”. She explained her memories of the outside loo, chickens in the yard, underground shelters – and the area’s brothel.

She lived “within spitting distance” of Jack White, born in ‘Mother Levy’s Home’ in 1925, who grew up in Jubilee Street, a link road between Commercial Road and Mile End Road, the two main roads of the East End. His flat had no running water and he says his father “wasn’t very good at producing money but was at producing children”.

Stanley Meinchick’s wedding in 1973 at New Road Synagogue

In London, Reid and her colleagues spoke to some who still live in the UK, including Stanley Meinchik, born in 1948, whose grandparents came over from Russia (“they stopped in Lithuania to give birth”). His grandfather was a cobbler, and his father used to tell Stanley stories about the notorious Kray brothers who came round for protection money, and hiding under the bed during the Zeppelin raids. He lived on Fulbourne Street, near today’s East London Mosque.

Another East Ender is Rosemarie Wayland, born in 1950, whose father owned a “cloth shop” on Whitechapel Road. She recalled Old Montague Street, attending Robert Montefiore Primary School, where she was a “toilet roll monitor, because it wasn’t in abundance!” She also remembers “sleeping on a cot bed in the playground at lunchtime”. Her family attended Greatorex Street shul.

In Jerusalem, Reid spoke to David Shaffer, born in 1947, whose family used to visit relatives for baths, filled by hot water from kettles. His father died when he was five, “which meant we were destined not to move out of the East End, as most were… we were poor, everyone was poor”.

He went to Montefiore School, where his aunt taught, saying: “The Jewish Board of Guardians made sure we had hot meals.” His family were members of Brick Lane synagogue.

Reid describes the ‘History Fest’ event,  featuring the map, talks, films, discussions and an exhibition, as “very informal, with lots of personal reminiscence as well as history talks… everyone is welcome and there is only a nominal charge”.

Interactive map

Presenters include Rachel Lichtenstein, an author and curator working as an archivist and historian at Sandys Row, who will talk about Avram Stencl, the Yiddish poet who finally found peace in Whitechapel after being tortured by the Gestapo.

Others include Alan Dein presenting on Cockney Jewish jazz, art historian Dan Cruickshank, historian David Rosenberg, who will talk about East End radicals and anarchists, plus poetry readings from Bernard Kops, and Chris Searle reading from First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg.

 Map browsing guide: 

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