BORN LONDON, DECEMBER 7, 1920. DIED LONDON, AUGUST 3, 2009, AGED 88
HEADMASTER OF Ilford Jewish Primary School from 1975-85, Harry Balkin introduced generations of children to “the delights of Judaism, literacy, numeracy, arts and good manners”.
Humorous, enthusiastic, unassuming but firm, he inculcated a sense of Jewish identity and involvement.
The youngest child of Lithuanian immigrants, Harry moved at two from the East End to the docks at Canning Town where his parents, Joseph and Rebecca, ran a small general store. At three, he and his late brothers, Alec and Sam, survived a house fire in which his 16-year-old sister died.
Alongside elementary school, he studied Hebrew at the cheder of the East End’s Great Garden Street (Federation) Synagogue. He left school at 14 and taught children Hebrew, attending night school at Yeshivah Etz Chaim.
His father, a member of the small Canning Town Federation shul, intended his sons for the rabbinate but they volunteered for the army in the Second World War. Harry was a lance bombardier in the Royal Artillery.
He took part in the 1944 D-Day landings and served in northern Europe. He never forgot the experience of entering Bergen-Belsen, where he made lifelong friends with a Warsaw-born inmate, whose wife he helped trace.
Set on a teaching career after the war, he worked for the Inland Revenue in 1946 while waiting to enter Wandsworth Training College. On qualifying, he started his lifelong career at Stepney Jewish School, which became a primary school in the post-war changes.
His progressive ideas included using art and drama for children from non-observant homes to learn and enjoy Judaism and Jewish culture.
In the post-war decline of East End Jewry, the 100-year-old school relocated in 1970 with 40 pupils to Barkingside, Essex, as Ilford Jewish Primary School. Harry Balkin was deputy head.
He became headmaster in 1975, on his predecessor’s retirement. His own retirement 10 years later followed the opening of a new wing which expanded pupil numbers from 370 to 480.
Parallel with mainstream teaching, he was head of three synagogue-based Hebrew classes, including Tottenham, another Federation shul. He moved there with his mother in 1953, five years after his father’s death, to be near his brothers.
He staged Purim and Chanucah plays there, taught barmitzvah boys, introduced eshet chayil ceremonies for girls, and was also the shul’s treasurer and vice-president, and High Holy Days officiant. His wife, Pauline Crammer of Leicester, whom he married in 1959, chaired the ladies’ guild.
His mother died in 1966 and the family moved to Palmers Green and Southgate (United) Synagogue, whose cheder he had headed even earlier. He was warden for nine years, served on the board of management, sang in choir, gave Yiddish lessons and conducted services for patients at Friern Hospital.
When the school moved to Ilford, he became head of Ilford (United) Synagogue’s 300-strong Hebrew classes. He also took children from the school and B’nai B’rith Stepney Settlement to Jewish holiday centres on the south coast.
As he disliked driving, he used his travel time on three buses to write award-winning plays, poems, stories and articles.
At his final home in Radlett, Hertfordshire, from 2000, he gave barmitzvah lessons, lectured and served a year on the shul board of management. He also coached pupils in Hebrew reading at Hertsmere Jewish Primary School.
He is survived by his wife, Pauline; children, Esther and Brian, both former IJPS pupils; and four grandchildren.
PHOTO: PETER FISHER
Committed head Harry Balkin