This is why we are proud to call Britain Great


Whitechapel, Sunday October 4, 1936. As Mosley's Blackshirts attempt to force their way through the heart of East End Jewry, the local community is out in force determined to stop them: Jews of all traditions but Irish Catholics, too, dockers, Communists and trades unionists. Among them, two young people still around to tell the tale as centenarians.

Aged 108, Hetty Bower recalled "this little ginger-headed chap coming along [from Gardiner's Corner]. 'It's all right! They didn't pass! They didn't get through!' And a great big cheer went up!'' What compelled her to join the protesters? ''Well, first of all, my parents were Orthodox Jews, so I had a religious upbringing. Not only my own feeling about Hitler and what he could do, but my people… I realised what would have happened to my parents, so I had double reason."

Local lad Gus Bialick was also in the throng. His father Isaac had escaped persecution in Poland at the turn of the century, paying people-traffickers for a passage to America but landing, penniless, in London. Here, he found sanctuary and settled, making a family and establishing his tailoring business.

Gus, born in 1914, had experienced the worst the Depression could inflict on poor families and was watching events in Europe with alarm. "I was afraid for the older generation because we never knew what the future held for us. Fascism was growing in great strength and it was a difficult period. The fact that we were young Jews made us drift towards the Communists, for the simple reason that they were the ones who were fighting Fascism the hardest.'' The BUF did not pass in Whitechapel but the fight against Fascism had barely begun.

Hetty and Gus are among the dozens of "ordinary" people I and my colleague Steve Humphries interviewed for a new BBC2 series and accompanying book, Britain's Greatest Generation, commissioned for the 70th anniversary of VE Day.

The book and the four oral history documentaries made by Testimony Films celebrate the lives and achievements of an exceptional generation. They tell the stories of our parents and grandparents and, through them, the story of Britain in the 20th century.

Those born between 1910 and 1925 grew up in the shadow of the First World War and spent much of their young adulthood fighting the Second. One of Gus's earliest memories is of his father pointing to the sky where a Zeppelin airship drifted in flames over north London. Hetty's lifelong pacifism was forged in childhood when she saw limbless ex-soldiers in 1916 begging on the streets. They both went on to do their bit, and more, during 1939-45, and to build the better life they dreamed of during the darkest times.

This generation learned about war early and led lives their great-grandchildren can barely imagine today. There are stories here of hunger, hardship and struggle, prejudice, pain and loss, but also of the blissful freedom to play in the streets or roam the countryside, the excitement of courtship and the joys of building family life in the post-war world. The people we interviewed weren't sentimental about their experiences; they were realistic, stoic, patriotic. Their testimony was occasionally disturbing, sometimes hilarious, never less than moving.

Of the 40 or so subjects who made it into the book and series, the Jews had some of the best stories and most eloquently expressed that old-fashioned patriotism. Dorothy Bohm, now 90, left her family in what was then East Prussia and arrived alone in Britain in 1939.

She was 15 and found herself in a school outside Brighton. "They'd never seen a foreigner, never mind a Jewish person, and they were wonderfully good to me, amazingly good. I have a tremendous love for this country, for what it stands for, what its principles are, the humanity compared with other countries. This country lets you be, it accepts you. It has much more freedom, and freedom is important."

In his 101st year Gus Bialick goes into to schools to talk about his life experience for a charity that works for better inter-generational understanding. He enjoys it and the young people learn a great deal. He's seen good and bad in Britain but his view is positive: ''When your parents are immigrants, and they come from an area of the world where the rulers don't care for their own people or those with a different outlook, you know that this country, England, stood for something better, and you wanted to be part of it.

"My father lived to be 100 and every day he loved Great Britain. He arrived here as a boy to a nation of civilised people, and that was something he absolutely delighted in."

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