Fired up to de­fend Bri­tain

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

ing Nazism. Some worked down the (Pet­ti­coat) Lane on the stalls, oth­ers had their busi­nesses in the area.

Ac­cord­ing to the 1931 census, 330,000 Jews lived in Bri­tain — of whom about a third lived in Lon­don’s East End. The rise of home­grown fas­cism un­der the lead­er­ship of Oswald Mosley per­suaded many Jews to join the Com­mu­nist party be­cause it was viewed as ac­tivist and de­ter­mined to stand up to the acolytes of Hitler. Their Jewish­ness was of­ten de­fined by a re­jec­tion of angli­ci­sa­tion and as­sim­i­la­tion. They did not warm to the lu­mi­nar­ies of An­glo-Jewry such as Sir Basil Hen­riques and Lord Bearstead who ad­vised them to be­come “English­men of the Jewish per­sua­sion”.

Fol­low­ing the bat­tle of Ca­ble Street in 1936, the East End of Lon­don be­came a bas­tion of the Com­mu­nist Party of Great Bri­tain (CPGB). In­deed it is es­ti­mated that ap­prox­i­mately 10 per cent of Bri­tons who fought in the in­ter­na­tional bri­gades in Spain were Jewish, yet Jews were only just over one half of 1 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. The hyp­notic em­brace of Com­mu­nism was bro­ken by the Molo­tov–Ribben­trop pact, but for those who re­mained in the CPGB, many joined the Fire Ser­vice once Hitler had turned against Stalin and in­vaded the USSR in 1941.

Yet the Fire Ser­vice was also a mi­cro­cosm of Bri­tish so­ci­ety — and it also re­flected an­tisemitism within Bri­tain. The strug­gle against Hitler was not per­ceived gen­er­ally as a strug­gle against an­tisemitism but pri­mar­ily as one for the se­cu­rity of the coun­try and the free­dom of its peo­ple. As Cham­ber­lain him­self re­marked af­ter Kristall­nacht: ‘‘No doubt the Jews aren’t a lov­able peo­ple: I don’t care about them my­self, but that is not suf­fi­cient to ex­plain the pogrom.”

Some in the Fire Ser­vice found a scape­goat in ‘‘for­eign Jews’’ due to the un­em­ploy­ment, hunger and in­jus­tices of the 1930s. Oth­ers — par­tic­u­larly those who had seen ser­vice in the armed forces — had never met a Jew be­fore and their views were coloured by his­toric stereo­types. Yet the strug­gle against Nazism and the com­mon suf­fer­ing — Hitler’s bombs did not dis­tin­guish be­tween Jew and non-Jew — bridged the gap.

The fire­fight­ers of the Se­cond World War were re­garded as nei­ther civil­ians nor mem­bers of the armed forces – and their story, un­like their present-day Ir­ish-Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, has been marginalised and with the pas­sage of time for­got­ten. The Jewish con­tri­bu­tion to their re­mark­able per­sis­tence in stand­ing up to Hitler has also been lost in the mists of time. A new book by Martin Su­gar­man re­claims them for the 21st cen­tury reader. It doc­u­ments their brav­ery and their sto­ries dur­ing the Se­cond World War. It re­claims those who per­ished from the anonym- ity of the grave and re­stores them to their right­ful place in his­tory.

It is clear that for the au­thor of this work, this is a labour of love. The ded­i­ca­tion is all too ap­par­ent. This book is there­fore above all an act of re­mem­brance.

Th­ese Jewish fire­fight­ers of yes­ter­day un­der­stood the evil of the times and they acted. They did not stand aside. They did not be­come by­standers.

The mish­naic sage, Han­ina ben Dosa, per­ceived such mo­ti­va­tion and such de­ter­mi­na­tion 2,000 years ago:

‘‘When one’s deeds are even greater than one’s knowl­edge, the knowl­edge is ef­fec­tive.

But when one’s knowl­edge is greater than one’s deeds, the knowl­edge is fu­tile.’’ Martin Su­gar­man’s book, Jewish Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Fire Ser­vice in the Se­cond World War, is pub­lished by Val­len­tine Mitchell.

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

Chaos: But Lon­don’s Jews were first in line to help dampen the wartime fires

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