Monday, 22 October 2012

Climbing the stairs

Lewis (Leibisch) Levin was a brother of my great-grandmother Mikhlya. He was born in 1861 in Streshin, a little village on the river Dniepr, in what is now the south-east of Belarus. In the early 1900s he came to London accompanied by his three children from his first wife, who had died a few years previously, and his second wife with her own daughter. They found somewhere to live in the heart of the East End, where tens of thousands of East European Jews had settled over the previous 20 years or so.

My own grandmother - Lewis' niece - came to London soon after, aged about 18, and stayed with the Levins, probably helping to look after the children. Within a couple of years there were two more boys, and they moved from one accommodation to another, always along Whitechapel High Street and Mile End Road, presumably to have more room for the expanding family. In every document, and in various trade directories, Lewis is a 'Paper Bag Maker', even sometimes a 'Master Paper Bag Maker'; his own children, and my own young uncles and aunts, were all roped in to work in his paper bag factory, which was mostly located on the kitchen table.

We knew that he had died in 1927, aged 67, and that he was probably living on his own by this stage - his second wife had died when the boys were very young, his older children had all left home for marriage, America, or the Russian Revolution, and the younger boys didn't see their futures in paper bags and left home to work elsewhere and to put themselves through night school.

The figure of Lewis has long fascinated me, and a few months ago I ordered a copy of his Death Certificate, to see if it could offer up anything new about him. And so it did - an address: "of 84B Whitechapel High Street". So now we knew where he had been living at the time of his death.

The next time I was in the area I looked for the building. Next to the Whitechapel Library I found number 82; a few doors down was number 87. The two or three buildings in between did not appear to be numbered, but I assumed 84B would be one of them and duly took a photo as evidence.

My cousin Beatrice, Lewis' great-grand-daughter, is currently in London - her mother Alice (Lewis' grand-daughter, now aged 101) is unwell, and Beatrice has come over from the US to be closer to her. Yesterday afternoon Beatrice and I went on a 'Musical Walk round the Jewish East End', organised by the Jewish Music Institute, and guided by the historian David Rosenberg (highly recommended, by the way). Beatrice's grandfather Sam had been involved in the Workers' Circle, a friendly society established to further the interests of working-class East European Jews, from the 1910s onwards, and her mother Alice was active in the Yiddish theatre movement from the 1930s, and Workers' Circle and Yiddish theatre both featured in David's programme for the Walk.

The group met outside the Library, and then David led us off down a narrow alleyway between two of the neighbouring buildings - Angel Alley, you can see it at the extreme left of the photo above. There on the right a notice was pinned to a door: 'This is NOT 84B, it's 84A. 84B is opposite!' You can hear the exasperation in the printed words. You can probably also hear my involuntary intake of breath, for 84B turns out to be the premises of Freedom Press, the long-established Anarchist publishers and booksellers.

David was going to tell us about some of the radical figures and groups that flourished in the area 100 years ago, but Beatrice and I were just standing there, minds racing, staring at the building.

After the Walk, we grabbed David for a chat over a superb falafel lunch (PilPel, Brushfield Street), then made our way back to see if the Freedom bookshop at 84B was still open. It was. We explained why we had come, and asked the lady in the shop if she knew how the building was being used in 1927. She kindly went off to find a book containing a history of the organisation - and its premises - which told us that at least before 1942 there had been a printing press occupying the ground floor.

"Would you like to see upstairs?" I had to ask her to repeat the question, partly because I don't hear very well, but mainly because I couldn't believe what I had just heard. Upstairs? Lewis must have lived upstairs, 85 years ago. We took a deep breath, and followed her up. The staircase, banisters, walls, and some of the doors, looked as though they had had nothing done to them in 100 years or more.

She took us into one of the rooms, and we discussed the layout. The room we were standing in had a structural beam across the middle, and we reckoned it had probably originally been two rooms. On the landing there was a blanked-off door which confirmed this.

So we sat, and stood, in one half of the room, looking out to the brick wall opposite (the Library building, in fact), and tried to imagine a bed, and a chair, and a table. Where was the sink? There probably wasn't one, he'd have had to bring water in from the bathroom. Was there even a bathroom? How did he cook? Did he cook?

But it was the stairs that got me. He must have gone up and down these stairs every day for months, maybe two or three years. And here we were, treading the same steps, holding on to the same worn banisters, knocking on doors - his door, maybe - to feel the wood.

He fell ill here, and died at the London Jewish Hospital down the road in Stepney Green. I've just looked at the Death Certificate again. He died on 20 October 1927. Just 85 years and one day before we came to visit him.