I adored my grandmother, Rachel, and was broken-hearted when she died. Whenever I read this excerpt from my memoir Woman in a White Coat my throat thickens and tears come to my eyes.
In 1937, when I was six, my grandmother had a stroke while she was scrubbing the stairs. She was dead on arrival at The London Hospital.The neighbours blamed my mother.
‘How could you let your mother clean the stairs, and her half-blind? No wonder she had a stroke, May She Rest in Peace.’
But there had been no talking my determined grandmother out of doing anything she wanted to do.
She could speak little English and she never spoke her native Russian. She spoke to me and my sisters in Yiddish and we answered in English. Though both our parents could speak Yiddish, we understood but couldn’t speak it.
My grandmother was a tall, commanding woman with dark hair piled on top of her head. As a deeply orthodox Jewish woman it would have been a sheitel, a wig. I always went to bed before she did, so I never saw her without it. I loved her and looked forward to curling up against her warm back in the big double bed we shared.
She was kind to us but very tough. She’d had to be. In 1903, together with my ten-year-old mother, she fled the small town of Mogilev and the widespread pogroms in Belarus, one of the areas forming part of the Pale of Settlement. Established by Empress Catherine the Great in 1791, the Pale was the only area in Russia where Jews could live, unless they had some special employment, such as jeweller to the Crown. The Pale included present-day Poland, Latvia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as Belarus, but it formed only a small part of Imperial Russia.
My grandmother had few happy memories of Mogilev. After her mother died giving birth to her, she’d had a miserable childhood as the unwanted stepdaughter of her father’s second wife. She fell in love and married my grandfather when she was seventeen, but her happiness was short-lived. My grandfather died of pneumonia when her baby daughter, my mother, was just two.
After she was widowed, my grandmother made a poor living taking in lodgers. They slept on shelves around the central pot-bellied stove and ate at the long wooden table her husband had made for her as a wedding present. A careless shard of glass from the windows of the synagogue, shattered when the Cossacks rode through the town pillaging and burning, pierced my grandmother’s right eye not long after she got married. It left her with an unsightly white scar. She was virtually blind in that eye.
She scraped together enough money to book a passage for herself and my mother on a ship bound for America. Their miserable voyage in the filthy, crowded steerage section was interrupted by a stop in the Port of London but, instead of continuing the journey to America they had paid for, they were forced off the ship by jeering Russian seamen. It was a frequent practice – to sell tickets to the USA, but only take the emigrants as far as England.
They wandered the streets of East London, sleeping in doorways, until an elderly Jew took pity on them and offered them shelter in his basement in Old Castle Street. They shared it with his family of six.
The Jewish Board of Guardians gave my grandmother the money to buy a willow basket and she got a pitch to sell bagels in Petticoat Lane Market on the corner of Wentworth Street and Goulston Street. She was at her pitch every weekday, summer and winter, leaving home at four in the morning to get her bagels from the baker. On a good day, she sold out by late afternoon but, when the weather was bad, she’d have to trudge home with some unsold. She would pick up barely damaged fruit and vegetables from the market refuse and with the leftover bagels, that would be their food until she’d sold enough to pay the baker what she owed.
There was no question of my mother going to school when they came to England. Soon after they arrived, my grandmother apprenticed her, then aged eleven, to a dressmaker who paid her threepence a week. My mother didn’t tell my grandmother that the dressmaker treated her as a servant, cleaning her house and running errands for her.
In her second year, the dressmaker started to teach my mother how to cut out fabric and make up the garments. My mother learned quickly. When she started to earn a proper wage, she bought my grandmother a large black umbrella, and the man from the hardware shop made a stand for it. Before that, when it rained, my grandmother draped herself and the basket in a big grey tarpaulin. She even went out in the snow, when there were hardly any passers-by.
‘What do you think we did in Russia then? Sit indoors all day? Your father, May He Rest in Peace, had to deliver ice on his back to the rich people in all weathers. That’s why he got pneumonia and died.’