Bill Fishman, "anarcho-conformist"
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.
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