Bill Fishman, foremost historian and champion of the Jewish East End, was remembered at a warm and well attended memorial meeting in London's East End this afternoon. Bill knew he was part of a vanishing tribe, those who grew up in the Jewish East End as well as chronicled it - he described himself with his customary mischief, recalled colleague Nadia Valman, as "the last of the Mohicans".
Bill's great work was East End Jewish Radicals - retrieving the world just before the First World War when many poor Jewish immigrants in Whitechapel, Stepney and Spitalfields looked to anarchism as an ideology of self-respect and hope.There was a bit of the anarchist about Bill - and he was certainly in some ways anarchic. But Lord Trevor Smith, speaking this afternoon, caught the ambiguity about Bill when he described him as "an anarcho-conformist".
He found romance and valour in the tales of East End anarchists - and it was wonderful that among those present today was the grandson of Rudolf Rocker, the German goy who was the key figure in the Yiddish-speaking movement in the East End in the twenty years before twin events, World War and then the Russian Revolution, utterly changed the political landscape.
Bill also relished his army service during the Second World War, serving in India and Burma and picking up a smattering of Urdu which he used to theatrical effect in later life. And while of working class roots, the life his family led - as one of his sons pointed out - was determinedly middle-class, not in Whitechapel or Bethnal Green but first in North Kensington and later in the suburbs of Kenton.
I remember going on one of Bill Fishman's flamboyant guided walks round the East End back in 1981. A few years later, he was a key part of two radio documentaries I made - one for Radio 4 about Arthur Morrison's 'Jago' and the other for the World Service about Rudolf Rocker (the audio of both is here). He was warm and enthusiastic, and incredibly generous - he gave me two rare old socialist pamphlets, an act of great kindness ... though I found it disconcerting to be addressed in my late twenties as "boy", meant kindly of course but also putting me in my place.
The last time I saw Bill was at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Cable Street - an event he witnessed on 4th October 1936. He was very frail, but proud to be present to mark a defining political moment in the East End, when left-wing opponents of fascism made common cause to stop Oswald Mosley and his followers marching through the Jewish East End.
The venue for today's memorial meeting was so appropriate - Queen Mary in the East End, the academic institution with which Bill was most closely linked .... and surely the only university anywhere which is built around a Jewish cemetery, where today the harebells put on a marvellous display.
A very convivial lunch today at a friend's place - he's recently started renting a flat in Stepney Green. Dunstan Houses, to be precise. Top floor. In fact, the exact same flat where Rudolf Rocker - the leader of the influential Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement in the East End before the First World War - lived a century ago.
'Yes, this was the Rocker residence', he declared, with a distinct and entirely justifiable sense of pride. 'There used to be a portrait of Malatesta on that wall, and of Bakunin on that wall.'
Hang on a moment - entirely credible but how does he know? Well, because Rudolf Rocker's son, the artist Fermin Rocker, wrote a wonderful memoir of growing up in Dunstan Houses - graced by his own drawing of the building.
The family moved in in about 1910. 'Dunstan Houses', Fermin recalled, 'though hardly an abode for the affluent, nevertheless had its own class distinctions and offered a scale of accommodations for the poor, the poorer, and the poorest. ... No. 33 was in what might be termed the luxury wing of the building. We had such conveniences as a private kitchen and a private lavatory ...'
Fermin writes that he looked upon his father 'as a god' - a sentiment not entirely in spirit with the movement. Then again you could say that Rudolf Rocker's undoubted leadership of the Jewish anarchist movement (though he was himself a 'goy', a gentile) was also not entirely in step with the libertarian, 'no master, high or low', ethos.
Rocker's own memoir, The London Years, has a drawing of him by his son on its cover.
Heading back from Stepney Green, we drove along Jubilee Street - the site of the anarchist club, which thrived from 1906 for almost a decade and was the beating heart of the movement. Nice to have a sense of proximity to a culture, a movement, which has now so utterly gone.
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