By Ann Rabinowitz
November 2, 2010
Many times, the dry uneventful array of data that records can tell us of our ancestors’ lives are all we have. Their everyday troubles and turmoil can only be imagined as they are lost to us, perhaps as these things were not passed on. It is just such a real life story that follows of the transitional time between the World Wars when the Jewish emigrants lived in decaying inner city slums in the British industrial cities. It was a time, too, when they were in the process of moving out into more livable neighborhoods and suburbs.
Tears of sorrow met her at the beginning of her life as her parents died when Rosie was just a babe and they followed her to the inevitable end of it. It was not unusual in those days for young parents as well as their children to perish of diseases that today would be easily controlled by medication, good living conditions and proper food. Those emigrant families who lived in the slums of Manchester, England, as Rosie’s parents had, worked hard and had little left for essentials never mind luxuries of any sort. It was not a kind or gentle life by any means.
A very fortunate orphan was Rosie as she did not have to linger in an orphanage as other children left bereft of relatives did. She was adopted rather quickly by a Rabbi’s family who lived on Harris Street in the Strangeways area of Manchester. There, she was brought up in a strict orthodox environment as the daughter of a rabbi. Eventually, she grew up into a beautiful and lively girl. Her family was poor by today’s standards, but they had the basics and got by with their religion as their spiritual support in times of need.
Young Rosie had many friends, amongst them, my mother’s two older sisters, Ada and Sadie. They were neighbors as my family lived at 19 Cheetwood Street which was the next street over. They all went to school together as well and were chums throughout their growing up years.
These girls reached maturity in an era when social and religious barriers were breaking down due to the War. The fact that women were now in the workforce in the factories and other commercial places, also changed how they were treated and accepted in society. They dressed in a modern fashion, spoke the latest lingo and went out to places and did things that their grandmothers or even mothers probably would not have approved of in their time.
The streets, where many lived in Manchester, were diversely populated and Jews and gentiles intermixed where they had not in the past. There came a time where mixed marriages and other untoward things occurred as well. It was a period during which people of different social classes often interacted and enjoyed each other’s company, especially in public venues such as the dance halls, theaters and the movies.
Jewish girls and boys were no different from others in Manchester as these venues provided an easy means of finding glamour, excitement and romance. They participated in these public activities with much pleasure and interest. This was despite the fact that these things were far removed from the religiosity and backstreet houses without indoor plumbing or electricity that most shared in the slums they came from.
This novel and fascinating world opened up new avenues of adventure, especially for the girls of the slums and Rosie was no different. Despite her strict religious upbringing, Rosie would sneak out and go dancing at the popular Ritz Ballroom along with her friends. There, she became well-known for her excellent dancing skills, grace and beauty. She won prizes for her dancing and attracted the best partners. As a consequence, she eventually met a very charming Irishman, a popular exhibition dancer named Mickey, who was originally from Dublin, Ireland.
It was love at first sight and a fine romance, at least, for Rosie. The two became successful exhibition dancing partners and they won competitions galore as they danced across the county of Lancashire into places outside Manchester such as Blackpool and Southport. Their popularity soared wherever they went on the dancing circuit.
As a result, Rosie soon forgot her strict upbringing entirely and had intimate relations with her partner. Little more than a teenager, at the time, she became pregnant and was therefore forced to marry Mickey. He was not happy at this unexpected turn of events as he wanted to be carefree and unattached. Little did he think when he started his relationship with Rosie that he would be stuck with marrying a Jewish girl and pregnant at that.
Her family was horrified at this turn of events; especially when Moylan demanded that she convert and raise their child as a Catholic. Totally besotted with Mickey, Rosie readily accommodated him and his family’s wishes and took instructions to become a Catholic. Her religious family disowned her as a result.
Little knowing what she was getting into; Rosie, who was in the throes of love, moved in with Mickey’s large family. She ended up being the navvy and scullery maid for them all. She was forced to take a fulltime job in the daytime, took care of her baby son in the evening and then had to slave over her husband’s family as well. It was not the life she was accustomed to or thought she would have one day. However, she loved Mickey with all her heart and stuck it out. In any case, she could not go back to her family as they had already sat Shiva for her.
In those infrequent moments of free time that she had, she would escape the drudgery of her life and come over to visit her girlhood friends, my aunts, and sit for a while, to chat and to knit. She was always knitting sweaters, caps and mittens, all for her beloved baby; it was her relaxation and saving grace.
Eventually, Mickey decided to seek greener pastures and left Manchester for his native Dublin with Rosie and their son in tow. She was pregnant again and shortly afterwards had a baby daughter. In Dublin, Mickey set her up in a jewelry store cum pawn shop. The choice of the store was not an accident by any means. As it so happened, this charming and debonair Irishman was something of a confirmed jewel thief and an all-round gonif and used the store to fence his loot.
He had a set routine. He would come in every day, bring in the loot and then later in the day return to take all the money from the till. This left Rosie and their two young children, Michael and Patricia, with hardly a farthing to survive on. If she did not cooperate, or withheld any of the takings to use for food or, if she did not make the requisite amount of money he thought she should, he would beat her soundly. There was many the occasion when she and the children were left with nothing to eat.
In times of dire need, Rosie would implore my mother’s sister Sadie, who now lived in Dublin too, to give her some money or food to help her carry on and feed her young children. This Sadie did with a heavy heart as she saw how her friend was suffering and was continually degraded by her abusive criminal of a husband. She wondered, how had a young and beautiful Jewish girl allowed herself to be brought so low?
Her life had devolved into a day-to-day struggle for survival. Her children came to hate her too, although they did not hate their father, who certainly merited their hatred. In part, their hatred of her sprung from her Jewish origins which they denied and did not accept. She had made the ultimate sacrifice and had given up her religion to raise two children who continued to hate her for it.
By the time, Mickey had run off to London with one of his own kind, a kept woman he had taken from off the streets. There, in the British capital, he pursued smuggling, gunrunning and other sundry criminal activities. He was an opportunist and took whatever was going that he could make some money off of. It was said, in private, that he was connected somehow with Aristotle Onassis and his gun-runners and perhaps the IRA. He was an urban legend, of a sort, talked about in whispers, with stories of his escapades making the rounds in polite company.
Surprisingly, one night, he turned up in Dublin at my Aunty’s house on Harold’s Cross Road. He was armed to the teeth and he told my Uncle that he was on the run from the Garda Síochána and needed a place to hide. He threatened my uncle and stated that, if he did not cooperate, he would kill the entire family. My uncle fearing the worse, put him in the attic at the top of the house, the attic where, as a child, I would later read and enjoy quiet moments.
The fugitive stayed for three days before he was willing to leave. During this time, the family was nervous wrecks, fearing that he would do something or the Gardai would come and someone would get injured. Eventually, he left as silently as he had come during the night and was never caught. Fortunately, for my family, they never saw him again either.
It was sometime after this that my Aunty Sadie had some word of Rosie whose life had degenerated as the years had gone by. Finally, after years of deprivation and hardship, her beauty and grace long gone, Rosie had become fatally ill from consumption. This disease, which was so rampant amongst the poor, had come to haunt her as a result of the damp and dirty places that she had been forced to live in due to lack of proper support from her husband. Her children had, by this time, all, but abandoned her to her fate.
As she lay on her death bed, the fury of the consumption upon her body and the battle against it all, but lost, she begged for my Aunty Sadie to be called. Sadie came immediately to bid her friend a fond, but bittersweet farewell. She hoped to give her what comfort she could as she lingered in the damp and moldy coldwater flat in the poorest section of Dublin.
As she lay there, Rosie used the last of her strength to tell my Aunty Sadie that she wanted a priest to give her the last rites and have a mass said for the repose of her soul. My Aunty was thoroughly appalled at this unexpected request. It was the last straw. She had expected to hear that Rosie wanted to repudiate her old life which had given her so much pain. Then, she thought, Rosie would ask for a rabbi to be at her side at the end. After that, perhaps, she would then request to be laid to rest in a Jewish burial ground amongst her own people.
Since that was not to be the case, Sadie thought the situation over calmly. She realized that perhaps Rosie’s adopted religion was not something she took lightly. Neither did she adhere to it only to please her husband and his family. She truly believed in it. It appeared to be the only tangible thing she had left after a life of destitution and abuse. Why deny her this last consolation? Thereupon, the priest was called, the rites were given, and Rosie went peacefully out into that good night that all must face in the end.
Occasionally, during the years that followed, my Aunty would see Rosie’s children, now adults, strutting about the Dublin quays as bold as brass and stamped in the image of their benighted father. It was then that she would again ponder the sad fate of her friend, Rosie, the poor and beautiful Jewish orphan, who had met such a bad end. The poignant memories of their childhood and later adulthood would assail her. She would then weep a bit to think of how far from a fine romance her friend’s life had turned out to be.
© Ann Rabinowitz, 2010