Fired up to defend Britain
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.
Chaos: But London’s Jews were first in line to help dampen the wartime fires