A pioneering activist in housing, education reform, women’s and environmental issues, Josephine Zara, who has died aged 97, was involved in all the major controversies of her day, from squatters rights to CND and anti-apartheid protests.
Joining the British Communist Party in the 1940s inspired her lifetime of leftwing anarchist and feminist political activism, undeterred by marriage, children, divorce, romantic flings – and even a spell in prison.
Josephine Sarah Chiswick was the eldest daughter of Ethel Marion Chaplin and Sidney Emanuel Chiswick. Her paternal grandmother Millie Chissick (Tschissik / Chizhik) was a doyenne of the Yiddish Theatre, having travelled with the company across Europe to London. Kafka’s 1911 diaries reveal he became besotted with her after seeing her perform in the Café Savoy, Prague.
The family moved from Fulham to Bradford in 1927, but the couple divorced in 1943. Ethel was left to bring up the three girls on her ownwithout support, and the bailiffs came to take away their furniture. Ethel rented a little house in Bradford’s ‘back to backs’ for five shillings a week with gaslights, a cold tap and outdoor toilet. The three sisters, Josephine, Betty May and Sonia Pamela slept in one bed together and bathed once a week in front of the fire. Both Josephine and Sonia contracted scarlet fever and were sent to an isolation hospital. Visitors were allowed once a week and talked through a window – an experience Josephine finally relived in her care home due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. It was a hard life, but Josephine fondly recalled playing games on the street and, as a rare treat, saw Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and Laurel and Hardy at the cinema.
She went to Grange Grammar School but left at the age of 16 and worked at Bradford Library, bringing back books she and her sisters would read with relish, with much-enjoyed literary trips to Haworth Moors and the Brontë parsonage.
She enlisted with the WRAF in 1941, and became an incendiary officer during the Blitz, recalling years later the frisson of venturing out to London jazz venues during the war. After joining the British Communist Party, she remembered being castigated by grandmother Millie for selling the party newspaper on the streets of Hackney. In 1943 she met Israel (Izzy) Haikin with whom she discussed Stalin and the overthrow of capitalism in the UK.
Josephine served a short sentence in the ‘glasshouse’ military prison for protesting against British attempts to withdraw from the Anglo-Soviet Treaty. She married Israel in 1946/47 and had her first child, Jack Dougal, in 1950. The couple were involved in post-war squatting campaigns and protest movements in Holborn. Josephine continued her commitment to housing rights for many years and became close friends with Ron Bailey, a leader of the post-war squatters’ movement. She and Izzy squatted in Russell Square to prevent it from returning to private hands and it is to this day a public park. But the couple broke up and she met Liam Maguire, an Irish poet and playwright. After Rory James was born in 1953 the family went to Ireland where Josephine taught in a local school, but poverty drove them to Harlow New Town where she found a teaching job and a house. Their daughter, Sarah Ruth was born in 1958. Josephine taught in a ‘remedial’ class for boys and recognised that many behavioural and learning difficulties were due to deprivation, violence and neglect, rather than low intelligence or bad character. Thus began her life-long commitment to educational reform.
Despite the demands of a job and motherhood Josephine was active in Harlow CND, the Committee of 100 and ‘Spies for Peace’– a largely anarchist group which broke the silence about government preparations for nuclear war. She also joined the anti-apartheid movement – and eventually volunteered on a people’s farm in democratic South Africa. She also ensured that Jack received musical training to nurture his talent as a violinist.
In the late 1960s, Josephine studied Educational Psychology, first at Cambridge then Exeter Universities, learning the theories behind her beliefs in children’s potential, her rejection of violence to mould behaviour and the blame placed on mothers for children’s failure to thrive.
Back in London, Josephine worked at the Word Blind Centre in Coram’s Fields, with Sandyha Naidoo whose ground-breaking work benefitted thousands of children and adults all over the world, particularly in the field of dyslexia.
Josephine continued her pioneering work in education at Wandsworth Technical College, training teachers in new pedagogic approaches, structuring lessons around children’s needs. She met and later married Colin Webb, with whom she lived in rural self-sufficiency in Norfolk. But they moved to Spain where the marriage deteriorated, and Josephine returned to the UK at the age of 60 to live with her daughter Sarah Ruth in Brighton.
There she reignited her passion for feminist, peace and environmental politics, lived in women’s collectives, defined herself as a lesbian and rekindled her Jewish identity. She took part in many demonstrations for women’s rights and against deportations. From her 60s onwards Josephine travelled the world alone, embarking on extreme adventures to Yemen, Egypt, Gambia and Cyprus, and her travel writings at the time reveal her independence.
In London once more, Josephine became involved in local politics and ran courses for women at the Hackney Women’s Liberation movement.She then moved to Bournemouth to be near her son Jack before returning to London in her late 70s. She found a new boyfriend at the age of 80, Herbert Trent, who died in 2016, and became active in the Older Feminists Network, the University of the Third Age (U3A) and campaigns around environmental and social justice issues.
In her 90s, she was still running courses on Dante, Mary Beard and poetry writing, and supported a lunch club for asylum-seekers as well as financially contributing to many human rights causes.
Josephine has shaped many people’s lives, and was a truly global citizen. She is survived by her children, nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchilden.
Sarah Maguire and Kieron Chissik
Josephine Zara: born June 24, 1923. Died August 27, 2020