Life & Culture

Images from a vanished past


There will be many readers who remember Hessel Street and its market in the heart of London's Jewish East End and many more who have heard tales of it from parents and grandparents.

Far fewer have seen The Vanishing Street, the wonderful 20-minute documentary film made in 1961 as the bulldozers moved in to demolish the street's decrepit old buildings. By then it was almost a relic. There were still many Jews in the East End but nothing compared with a few decades earlier. Economic progress and the Blitz had moved them on.

Robert Vas's Hessel Street film (readily findable on Youtube) is a small masterpiece. It has no commentary. No commentary is required. We see a smartly dressed surveyor with his theodolite, measuring up for the demolition while the market stalls are set up and the locals, mostly not young, meet, chat and go about their business. Old men with black hats and long beards, sizeable ladies with loud voices. Wurst and viennas, fish, pots and pans, dresses and toys. A little shul where old men are davening shacharit. A barber's shop. A dress factory with dozens of women at Singer sewing machines.

There was a time in Hessel Street when you could choose your live chicken from a stall, get it kosher slaughtered on the spot and collect it when you've finished your shopping. This may or may not have been quite the case in 1961 but certainly we still see the shochets at work there, some smoking cigarettes as they slaughtered. We hear two women chatting, saying how most people had moved away. The film ends with a street chazan singing Eli Eli lama azavtani (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). We get a view of the new blocks of high-rise flats behind and the bulldozers moving in.

Seen today, it is a nostalgic film but not a sad one. The East End was somewhere to flee to and somewhere to escape from, as it has been down the centuries. In Hessel Street, and everywhere around, Jewish life has been replaced by Bangladeshi life. The kosher poulterer has been replaced by the Halal poulterer (eg Muslim Halal Live Chicken and Poultry, 14 Hessel Street), our market stalls by their market stalls, selling very similar things. Jewish poverty by their poverty and Jewish striving by their striving.

We celebrate the Jewish difference, and the Jewish East End was very different. Emanuel Litvinoff, born Whitechapel 1915, called his vivid, painful, boyhood memoirs Journey Through A Small Planet because living there was so intense and at odds with what surrounded it. Half a mile to the west or south of the shtetl, Jewish kids were most unwelcome.

Yet, at least as striking as the Jewish difference is the Jewish similarity. What is said about the people fighting their way into Europe today absolutely echoes what was said about Jews between 1880 and 1905 when millions fled from Russia and Poland. Then as now there were people traffickers exploiting desperate migrants, then as now they were fleeing from desperate circumstances. In 1886, the Board of Guardians, voice of the established grandees of the Jewish community said: "It is better that they live a life of sorrows in their native place than perish in destitution in a strange land."

In 1871, before Jewish immigration, the average occupancy of Whitechapel houses was just over nine people per house, in 1901 it was close to 14.

There were the unchanging complaints about immigrants and their strange ways of life. Local shopkeepers resented Jewish shops opening on Sundays when they could not. Trade unions complained that Jews were willing to work any number of hours and that sweatshops - owned and worked in by Jews - were undercutting union rates. There was a lot of old-country frumkeit and old-country anti-frumkeit feeling, too. On Pesach 1903, it was estimated that no more than a quarter of Jews went to shul.

As the decades passed, people moved away to more comfortable places but, given the means, the East End always knew how to celebrate in style. Nothing anywhere could outdo the glamour of Boris Bennett's Thirties East End wedding photographs, viewable online. Even for weddings in the 1890s, Bonn's Hotel in Great Prescott Street was laying on six-course wedding dinners with mock turtle soup and menu titles in French.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 120,000 Jews in the East End. Now there are very few. In 2009, Lucy Kaye, a young filmmaker partly inspired by seeing Robert Vas's The Vanishing Street, made Together Alone, a lovely half-hour account of the lives of five old Jewish people -Lily, Cyril, Rose, Hannah and Bleema - who had spent their lives in Whitechapel and still lived there.

They were all in their 90s, living alone and independently in flats. And a spirited lot they were. Hannah was the funniest and most outspoken. We meet her first in a laundrette: "f*** the ironing," she says, "as long as it's clean." Cyril loves Mario Lanza. He used to be a weightlifter and gives us a demonstration of the clean and jerk. Rose loves glamour and is indeed still very glamorous. On the wall she has pictures of Diana Dors and Elizabeth Taylor. In the fridge she has many varieties of lipstick.

Together Alone from Lucy Kaye on Vimeo.

Lily never married, she looked after her mother. Cyril never wed either. "I should have married," he said, "there was no excuse… but maybe there was. I never met the right woman."

We see the five of them prepare for Hannah's 90th birthday party at the Stepney Jewish Day Centre. " You're coming Thursday, they're making a do there," Hannah says to her friend Bleema.

"I'm going to try," she replies. "What do you mean you're going to try? What, you've got to work hard on it," says Hannah in that hectoring/humorous way of hers. Bleema was there at the party of course. And quite an affair it turned out to be. The band played She's My Kind Of Girl. There was tea and cake and dancing. Cyril sang Love Is A Many Splendored Thing.

These were Eastenders, Jewish Eastenders, the last of the breed.

'The Vanishing Street' is on Youtube:

'Together Alone' is online at

'Journey Through A Small Planet' by Emanuel Litvinoff is a Penguin Modern Classic

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive