The other day, my brother, David, sent me an email.
Inside was a picture
of our paternal grandfather Lewis Silver’s alien papers and a link to Britain’s
national archives site.
A statement on the site declared that Lewis’s
records had been sealed in 1931 for 100 years.
I tried to think what
could possibly be in those records.
Lewis’s story is certainly not
unusual. In fact, it’s similar to that of many Jews who emigrated from Eastern
Europe to the UK at the start of the 20th century.
In 1902, our
great-grandparents, Shimon Silverman (born Zlotnikovich) and his wife, Mara
Faiga, left their village near Vilna, Lithuania, for England with their
children, including Lewis aged 13.
They settled in Hackney, east London,
which had a large Jewish immigrant population.
Shimon’s lifestyle in
Hackney was probably quite similar to that in his village back in
Every day, before starting his job selling fruit, he headed to
the local St. Thomas’s synagogue (which was in a street with the same name) for
He and Yeshaya Davidovich, the synagogue shamash
(beadle), Shabbat wine seller, and Torah scholar with a small following, were
usually the first to arrive. They would sit and study Torah together while
waiting for the rest of the congregation.
Over the years, their Torah
study occasionally drifted into discussions about their families.
told Shimon how his family came from a little village near Lodz, Poland, where
he had worked in forestry for a local count. Due to Eastern Europe’s constantly
shifting borders, at the age of 16 he had served in the Russian
Leaving Poland with his wife, Rivka, and his children – despite the
misgivings of their rabbi, who feared for their descendants’ religious future –
they arrived in Hackney, and moved into a house that they shared with a famous
local rabbi, the Kamenitzer Maggid, who was passionate about Zionism and
Yeshaya and Rivka had a large family and were extremely
poor. As was common practice in those days, they sent one of their daughters,
Dora, to Melbourne, Australia, to live with her uncle, Yankel Teitlebaum, and
his wife, who were relatively better off but childless.
Australia, Dora missed her family and wanted to return to
However, World War I then broke out. Several years passed before
there were civilian ships between the two countries and she was finally able to
Shimon told Yeshaya of his son, Lewis, who had studied to
become a cabinet maker – a skill he used during World War I to build wooden
airplane frames – and had then set up a grocery store in Hackney’s Amhurst Road
with his brother Meyer.
And that’s how our grandparents, Lewis and Dora,
Now, this was an unusual marriage: Lithuanian Jews rarely married
their Polish coreligionists, due to cultural differences. Apparently, so I’ve
been told, Polish Jews used to put sugar in their fish.
doubted that this was the reason the British authorities had decided to seal
Lewis’s records until 2031.
There was, however, the incident with the
barrel of herrings: For many years, Lewis and Dora lived above their grocery
store, where they worked very hard to bring up three children: our father,
Simon, and his sisters, Thelma and Eunice. After Lewis and Dora’s fathers died,
they took on the task of caring for their mothers.
They also sent money
to Dora’s eldest sister, Dina, who had remained in Poland (and subsequently
perished in the Holocaust). So, when one day they opened a long-neglected barrel
and found herrings inside that had very obviously seen better days, they
couldn’t bring themselves to throw them out.
Since, over time, the
herrings had turned into anchovies, they sold them at a premium rate.
I think they got away with it. Every single piece was snapped up, and, for ages
afterwards, people would ask them if they had any more of that delicious
herring. I reckon the anchovy saga wasn’t in the archives.
Lewis and Dora
instilled in their family a love for Israel. Dora organized a group of women in
Hackney’s Jewish community who collected money for a yeshiva in the Holy
During the years that Lewis and Dora worked in the store, they
never dreamed that they would ever be able to actually set foot in the Jewish
homeland. So, they were especially proud of Lewis’s maverick cousin, Barnett
Silverman – a fellow Hackney grocery store owner – whose adventures during his
unsuccessful attempts to move to the Promised Land during the British Mandate
have been passed down in family legend.
And now it can finally be told:
During World War II, cousin Barnett’s Mare Street store was destroyed in a
bombing raid. Knowing that the local council tended not to grant building
permission, he didn’t request it. Instead, he quickly hired some laborers, who
rebuilt the store practically overnight.
But I imagine that the current
occupants of that building are probably blissfully unaware that they’re living
in an illegal structure.
There was also the fact that Lewis and Dora
never got around to applying for British citizenship.
As aliens, they had
to report to a police station for permission whenever they traveled out of
London. This probably didn’t affect them too much, as they were hardly ever able
to spare the time to travel anywhere.
Lewis and Dora have long since
I’m sure that it would give them a lot of pleasure to know
that many of their descendants have finally made it home to Israel.
discovered that Britain’s national archives automatically seal the records of
everyone for 100 years, as a matter of course. My brother paid a fee and sent a
request to unseal the records, which was immediately granted.
archives people informed us that we can pay to have someone there copy them and
send them by mail to us here in Israel.
So, hopefully, one of these days,
we’ll get the chance to read all of Lewis and Dora’s story.