Family & Education

Secrets hidden in an old tin box

When Judy Simons cleared her late mother's house, she found a box containing family secrets - including the story of a jilted bride who ended up in the madhouse. Now she's written a book tracing not just her family's history but also that of the Jewish


My mother never threw anything away. Born in Sheffield in 1915 she died just a few months before her hundredth birthday. When my brother and I began the job of clearing her house after her death, paper spilled from every cupboard. We trawled through the detritus of a life of visible memories, trying to determine what might be worth rescuing from among the piles of out-of-date bank statements, ancient knitting patterns, forty-year-old copies of Popular Gardening and our school reports from sixty years ago, most of mine reminding my despairing parents that “Judy could do better if she only made more effort”.

And then, at the back of the wardrobe, behind the discarded coat hangers and piles of old wrapping paper, folded neatly in case it could be re-used, was a locked tin box. Lies and secrets. Secrets and lies. Perhaps every family has them. Why should mine be any different? Even so, I was unprepared for what I found.

The contents of this unassuming box revealed a history I never knew. Here was a grandmother who at the age of twelve lied her way across Europe; a secret wartime marriage that was never disclosed; a six-year old orphan boy who arrived in Sheffield like a parcel in the luggage rack of a troop train; a jilted bride consigned to a madhouse for 60 years; a philandering husband who moved his mistress into the marital home; and a bridegroom who vanished into thin air. Faded photographs of people in old-fashioned clothes, a coroner’s report, military medals, fragments of memoir, diaries, birth and death certificates and a gold ring in a tiny brown envelope were the clues. How could I decipher them?

Writing family history is like trying to do a jigsaw when half the pieces are missing. There’s no perfect image on the front of the jigsaw box to act as a guide. There are only signposts that can as often or not lead in quite the wrong direction. The letters with their indistinct signatures and the census forms completed by strangers because no-one in the family could write. It’s not easy to complete the picture when the answers to the questions are hidden in the unrecovered minds of the dead. My journey through the box of memories was to unearth the shameful secrets that others had wanted to forget.

Many of us who are second generation Anglo-Jews took our origins for granted. Our grandparents were economic migrants, had fled the horrors of the pogroms or like my grandfather had feigned TB to avoid conscription into almost certain death in the Russian army. They were lost, frightened and feisty individuals. Now that we are grandparents ourselves, we are keen to salvage that past and transmit the stories of our origins to our own grandchildren, whose centrally heated, Tik Tok lives are worlds away from such struggles.

My mother, Ena Brown had been the Sheffield correspondent for the Jewish Chronicle for 40 years. Her cupboards contained bundles of her published pieces, tied together with fraying string and labelled by year. And in 1944 my father had founded the Sheffield Jewish Journal, the community magazine, copies of which were stacked up inside another wardrobe. Together they presented a unique portrait of the achievements, the spats, the divisions and the gossip in the steel city community.  As I made my way through the cupboard of family skeletons, the deeply personal stories merged into the wider social history of a provincial community from its earliest years, a history which unlike those of Leeds and Manchester Jewry, had remained largely untold. It has been an extraordinary journey.

The Northern Line: the History of a Provincial Jewish Family by Judy Simons is published by Matador Press £9.99.


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