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Oral History Interview - Michael Silver


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Audio recording of an oral history recording with Michael Silver.


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MS. My name is Michael Silver and I have traced my ancestors back as far as it’s possible. And that dated I think 1870 or something like that. I went to Somerset House because my father was born here and my grandfather was born here in England. And I think perhaps, I did trace some marriage lines, etc., birth certificates but then I came up against no records but they say, they did tell me I could try various places that keep records but I couldn’t find anybody. Because being Jewish, there was no records really, like there was in churches, when churches had records of people that get married, people that got buried and so on, but we didn’t.

Q. Doesn’t the synagogue hold records similar to that?

MS. Do they? Yes, but a synagogue will last only 100 years. After that it’s turned over. That’s why they try to keep them open as long as they can. Anyway, where it started, I think my father’s fathers came from Holland. My grandmother, which I remember, she told me that her parents, way back, came from Spain. From Spain, to Holland. And where they met up, with female, male and they married and then there was trouble in Holland and they came to England. And that’s going back, oh how long?

Q. Did your grandmother’s family go from Spain to Holland because of the persecution?

MS. Yes, because of the trouble in Spain. Now, that’s one side of the family. And they came to England. In fact I’ve got a feeling I’m related to several well-known Jewish people here who have lived here many years. Because I’ve heard those names when I was young. And, but I didn’t know them. My grandfather, I don’t remember. But I remember my grandmother. She lived in Brighton Road, Stoke Newington.

Q. Did she go there when the houses were built?

MS. Yes, she went there. She had a large family. My father had several brothers, several sisters. And she adopted children.

Q. I know Brighton Rd. It’s quite a respectable, solid Victorian terrace.

MS. Yes, yes. She was very, I think she was about 90 when she died. I remember her very well.

Q. There were lots of synagogues in that area. A lot have closed down, but there are still some there.

MS. Yes, yes. There were plenty of synagogues.

Q. I didn’t realise that it was such a solid Jewish area, in there at that time.

MS. Yes, there were quite a lot of Jewish people in and around that area. But I lived in Stepney, Hat-ford Street, opposite the Peoples Palace.

Q. You were just going to describe your grandmother, how you remembered her.
MS. I remember her. She wore a very high, you know, the comb what ladies put in their hair, with a little on top of it? [?Peineta]. Typically Spanish. She played instruments, piano-accordion. Not the big ones, smaller ones. I have at home her castanets she gave me. Because of the Spanish. She was quite an intelligent woman actually.

Q. Was she educated as well?

MS. Eh?

Q. Did she have an education as well?

MS. I think, Oh yes. She spoke very good English, better than I do.

Q. Because there’s that difference between being educated and being educated and being intelligent.

MS. Yes, she was. Yes, I would say she was well educated. Not so my father. You know, it was very hard times, you know.

Q. Mid Wars?

MS. I’m going back about, let’s say…before the war.

Q. Between the wars. How old are you Michael?

MS. 76

Q. Because my father’s 80 and so he was a teenager during. No, he wasn’t he was born at the First World War. So. Your parents and his parents were the same generation.

MS. My father was in the army.

Q. Yes, my grandfather... I don’t know that my grandfather was in the army, but my father’s uncles were.

MS. Yes

Q. But on the other side.

MS. I think my, some of them, my uncles fought in the Boer War.

Q. Yes, well that was at the turn of the century, wasn’t it?

MS. Yes. My father was in the army. He got wounded. This is a very co-incidental thing. He had some shrapnel in his legs or something. A lot of fractures. You know the shape of his legs - I mean they weren’t as clever as they are now - and always suffered with bad legs. And that’s what happened to me as well. And he said, when I went in the army he was alive, he said, ‘You’ll have leg trouble!’ Which was true. It was amazing.
Q. Well I remember my grandmother and she was in her 50s when she died and she wore bigger boots than those. They went halfway up. It was her feet rouble. And my dad wears similar boots now. Usually things are usually hereditary through the women or through the men. But I see my dad’s boots and I remember my grandmother’s boots.

MS. My mother’s side came from Germany. But they also went, I think they had trouble in
Germany round about that time and all. Anti-Semitism. And they also went to Holland. And there they probably linked up, on my mother’s side.

Q. Yes, I think that there’s some connection about Holland because it’s to do with being a busy port and things like that.

MS. Yes

Q. And being cosmopolitan in a way that the French ports and the Belgian ports aren’t.
Because my parents, coming from Czechoslovakia in ‘39 went via Holland.

MS. I think it was a place where you could get from Europe, into Holland, into England. And I think that’s...

Q. I’d be quite interested to hear the real reasons, but to me Holland is cosmopolitan. And renowned for being on the sea and their trading, in a way that France and Belgium aren’t known. Are they?

MS. I can’t remember. I can’t go back. I know my grandfather was - invented ice cream - in
England. I did have, out of a paper, a cutting. My brother had it, I think he lost it. And it said that he, what do you call it, ‘Okey Pokey Penny a Lump’ ice cream. And Assenimes, I don’t know if you remember, you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t. Assenimes used to make ice cream in block form. Now they were cousins of mine but they copied my grandfather. He was the one who started. He, well there is, he was a chef had a hall where they had weddings and everything. He was a good cook. I remember photos in my home with a chef’s hat on and a white apron etc. And they had a pastry shop in Stoney Lane. Now most of the Jewish people of Dutch descent went to the Tenter ground and that’s where they lived. And I don’t know, they tell me the shop’s still there with the same name. But it was 2 brothers who was in business and they were gamblers. And one said to the other, ‘We’ll cut the cards to see who owns the business.’

Q. Oh my goodness

MS. And it happened that my grandfather lost. But I used to go to that shop when I was a kid, a young boy and it was my uncle, right, who had it. Whether his father handed it down, you know, I don’t know. And he used to give us a cake.

Q. It’s quite interesting though because, what you’ve brought home to me is that, even in a close knit community like Hackney, and I say close knit Jewish community, you’ve got Jewish people from all over Europe.

MS. Yes
Q. Not just one place. And for me it’s brought to life. People outside the Jewish community say, ‘Oh, the Jewish community’. And white people tend to say, ‘the Black community’. But Black people come from as many different places as Jewish people do.

MS. Of course they do.

Q. But they tend, but it’s so easy to say, ‘Black ethnic groups’ and think they’re all the same - whereas your history and background is very different from the people who came from Russia originally.

MS. Exactly. On my wife’s side they came from Latvia. Her mother couldn’t speak English. Hardly speak English. Spoke Yiddish and my wife understood Yiddish. And spoke Yiddish.

Q. And Latvia is different from Russia again. Latvians, they’re called the Baltic States, but
I feel they’re very much in line with Slav people, rather than Russia.

MS. But the father. My father-in-law he was Russian. But he could speak reasonable, well good English really.

Q. What you’re also highlighting is, something that I’ve always been conscious of because, you know, my family came from Czechoslovakia, that because it was all part of the Austrian Empire, and there weren’t any boundaries as such, all sorts of people, there were all sorts of marriages. So lots and lots of families were very cosmopolitan.

MS. Yes.

Q. Because my family is - there’s somebody from here, somebody from there. And your family is, and lots of other people’s are. Who came from Europe rather than Russia. And also people here from the Jewish community. And it’s quite fascinating that people have all these different dimensions which a lot of English people don’t understand, that cosmopolitan bit about us.

MS. Mind you, I think most of the Jews that came into this country came in, not direct from Russia, but via Holland. And the first influx of Jewish people that came into this country were from Dutch - they were from Holland. And then I think they thought that England was a place. Now the East End was split up. Now I lived in Harford Street, opposite the People’s Palace. Now there were about five or six Jewish families down there. That’s all. Now if you went further to Whitechapel - that’s where most of the Russian. Because, I hear men talking and they say, ‘I knew him, I knew him’. But they lived just that, not all that far from Whitechapel. And then it was Mile End you see. And there was people, my uncle’s lived in Bow, which was away from the, most of the Jewish people.

Q. So you mixed a lot with non-Jewish people then.

MS. I went to a school where there was about, no more than a dozen Jewish boys it was a mixed school, there was juniors and seniors.

Q. They were called all age schools.

MS. Yes all age groups.

Q. I went to school long before I was 5. Didn’t school finish at 14 then? But if you were going to a different school, you would leave at 12 and go to a different school.

MS. Well, personally, I was at that school until it became a Junior School. Then I went to a
Senior School which is in Trafalgar Square (not West End but Stepney). Trafalgar School it’s called. And I don’t think I was there maybe 6 months. And what actually happened to I was quite advanced. And I was moving up when you had exams, I was moving up in classes, way ahead of everyone…And then they had a Junior County Scholarship. But I was with boys much older than myself and I was learning what they were learning. And we had a teacher at that time who came to help boys who went for Junior County. But I wasn’t in that class. I missed out. And then there was, it was called Supplementary Junior County which you done at the age of 13. And I passed to go to Secondary School. Actually Raines Foundation. And I went home, my mother had died, I was 12. So my father was more or less, had a sister, running the family. Although he worked, he was an upholsterer by trade, had a little shop where he done work, but it was few and far between. So he said, ‘We’ve all got to muck in’. And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to go , you know’. He said, ‘You can’t Afford to’.

Q. Happened to a lot of people.

MS. Because at that time you had to pay for your books and your clothes.

Q. It happened to a lot of people of your generation.

MS. So anyway and of course we lived together. Had a little house Then when I left school, I was at that school 6 months. I won’t go into, I could tell you. At that school we had elections for captains and I was captain of a house, vice-captain of the school, all voted by the other children. And 90%, or 96% of them English, English-born Christian. And then I went to this other school and they did the same. Now I hardly knew, very few of them because they were already at that school and we were drafted over. And I became a captain of a house there, all voted. Mind you, I played a lot of sport. Cricket, football, all sport, swimming for the school.’ And then I left the school. And my father said, What do you want to do’ I said, ‘Oh I’d like to work in an office or something’ So he said, ’No I’ve got you a job. A shoe factory’. I hated it. In Globe Road. I think I started about 9 shillings a week.

Q. There were quite a lot of factories around that area at that time. They’ve all gone haven’t they?

MS. Yes. They’ve all gone. Finished off. And I soon got the sack, I made myself get the sack, I was never out of work. I went from one job to the other. I did have very good offers. But my father wasn’t interested. He just...I can understand him now. Because here was a man who had had his dinner put on the table years ago. And his wife, my mother Bless her, used to have a mangle in the yard, you know she done laundry. And he never done anything like that and here he was left to do that.

Q. How many of you were there?

MS. There was three of us. I was the youngest. And I used to run errands, when I was at school, in my dinner time for people. Earned a few coppers. But it was going, it was really hard going. Although we always had food, clothing, but not so much of it. You know, it was hand me downs. And then, of course, I did my sort of jobs that my father was interested in. I was offered ajob - I used to be very friendly with a grocer. A Christian man. Very nice man, he liked me, you know. I used to go in and help. There was a rep from Lever Brothers. So we got talking, you know. He said, ‘What do you do?’ I said, ‘I don’t like the job I’m doing.’ Said, ‘How would you like to work for a firm like mine? But you’ve got to study.’ I said, ‘I don’t mind studying.’ He said it takes you 7 years. So I went home, told my father. He said, ‘You won’t earn nothing for 7 years, small pay.’ Another job gone. But this gentleman told me that you have exams, probably like they do now, and you get a rise accordingly. Then you could finish up going all over the world or running an office or something for them. But it didn’t work out.

And then I went in the army. I was in the army July ‘39. I was in the first lot, the militia. The Hoare Belisha army and actually before that time I was in different jobs. I was never out of work. Always work, if it wasn’t one job it was another job. And eventually my uncle who, he worked for a firm that owned a lot of properties. I can’t remember the name, they were very well known in London. And he said,’ I could get you a job with this firm.’

Q. This was after the War?

MS. No this was before the war. Just before the war, couple of years before the war. I went from one job to another, in a wholesale grocers, you know. Jobs that I wasn’t interested in. Anyway they decided that this firm would give me a chance. I would go with a tradesman and learn something. So I was learning plastering. And when I went in the army - ‘What do you do 7’ ‘Oh I’m a trainee plasterer’. ‘Oh you’re a builder, right’, So that’s what they put down, builder. When I came out, I was wounded. And I came out and I started working with a building firm. But unfortunately I found it very, very strenuous and I couldn’t do it.

So I decided that I would have to go into some other job to earn a living, right? And the only thing I knew anything about was furniture. Because my father was an upholsterer and I used to help him when I was young and do little things. And I started as a salesman in a firm in, used to have about 5 or 6 shops. Then they made me a manager, right, after a few years. And then the firm became very, very big. They owned chemists, Salisburys Handbags, have become quite a big firm, Then they made me a supervisor over 7 shops. That took years, but it went along. Then I started to have trouble. I used to drive a car, been driving for years…

Q. Health trouble you mean ? Was it health trouble you started to have?

MS. Yes.

Q. What I’m fascinated about, is what you told me about your grandmother. How old were you when she died?

MS. About 8 or 9.

Q. Did she used to tell you stories? What sort of stories did she tell you? She was from
Holland wasn’t she? What sort of stories did she tell you?
MS. She was a lovely lady. Someone you could really say, ‘That’s my grandma’.

Q. What did you call her?

MS. Nanna. I don’t know why. Why is it that name?

Q. I don’t know why.

MS. It’s very English, it’s very English. I mean, my grandchildren used to call my wife ‘Buba’. I mean she was a young woman, really, but that’s what they used to call her.

Q. That’s from the Russian isn’t it?

MS. That’s because my wife’s family was from Russia, parents was, but they came from different.

Q. But tell me a bit more about your grandmother and her stories

MS. Well, don’t forget, I can’t remember a lot because I was very young. And, but she used to have all the grandchildren she never missed any of their birthdays. Everyone at that time got a shilling and that was a lot of money. A shilling And I used to live in Stepney, Mile End and I used to skate, you know skates, all the way to her.
Q. Is that roller skates?

MS. Roller skates yes. And I used to take a friend with me, so we used to have one skate each. You’ve probably seen them.

Q. You really were quite an athlete weren’t you?

MS. Oh I ran for my school. I won 100 yards, 220 yards. I got a watch, an Ingersol watch.

Q: This would be in the 20s?

MS. Yes when I was younger, 12, 11, 13. Then we got a clock. I won on for running the 100 yards and one for 220 yards. And the clock went on the mantelpiece where we lived and I’ve still got that little clock. It don’t go, but it’s there.