Lox, lax or smoked salmon? Yes! That was the question. Whether t’was nobler at Menachem’s, the grocers, to request an ounce of lox as did some of the newly immigrated Yidden, like us. Or should we brazen it out aping those who had landed on British shores at least five or maybe even ten years earlier and order “smoked salmon?”
“Holy bagel” was what we called this round delicacy! Without it, filled or topped with Yiddish-spoken lox – or lax as some Americans call it – or smoked salmon, occasionally adding a dollop of cream cheese, there could be no Sunday breakfast. In areas thronged with Jewish immigrant remnants, or sometimes actually born “Englishers,” London’s self-imposed ghettos promoted a herd like mentality in that respect at least.
A bagel, just to remind those who might not be in the know, can also be spelled beigel, beygl (Yiddish) or bajgiel (Polish). It is a bread product originating in the Jewish communities of Poland. Traditionally shaped by hand into the form of a ring from yeasted wheat dough, it is first boiled for a short time in water and then baked.
We lived in one of London’s less popular but nevertheless thriving North West communities, Willesden. Even though we’d lived in England for only about five years, my parents caught the lox bug. They would dispatch me to Menachem’s popular grocery store monthly for our delicious Sunday treat. I’d catch the 66 bus to the “Goldene Medina” of Golders Green; a suburb popular since the mid-1940s. Jewish lox shoppers came from near and far but a large number of our fellow Jewish compatriots managed to settle there following their Golden Holy Grail.
Finally I arrived! I’d join the throng of posh people who did not notice this eight year old being jostled. What shiny patent shoes scraped impatiently towards the front of the queue! I could see my face in them – all ruffled hair sticking up – pinkish with effort. Peeking over the counter, inhaling delicious picked cucumbers and herrings floating in barrels beside me, I could hardly see what all the fuss was about.
Sunday’s ritual of queuing, come rain or shine, at Menachem’s was sacrosanct.
“Now Mr. Lerner, what’s your pleasure this loverly Sunday morning?” Haughtily our shul neighbor puffed up with, “A quarter lax and if you don’t mind, sliced as thin as possible.”
It would hardly do for someone like me to similarly order or to intone sharply, “If not thinner” as did his fur-wrapped companion. Nor did I understand the one who ordered “Quarter smoked salmon – best part.” What was that?
Leaving Sunday’s paradise, one by one members of the lucky flock would ease their way out onto the Golders Green Road’s gray concrete slabs. Out of Menachem’s gaping space, breathing freely once more, many Mr. and Mrs. Lerner’s of all shapes and sizes become disgorged onto the broad pavement. Lurching towards their nose to tail patiently awaiting vehicle they held their prize mouth-watering paper bags aloft.
Of course, even an ounce of lox was not for everyone. There were the “bits!” These clung onto smoked salmon bones, were cut away as not being of high enough quality to serve normal customers, and were gradually bagged separately. Waiting anxiously, sufficient of my delicacies slowly accumulated and were weighed. “Here, missy, yours I believe!”
Blushing as the bag was handed down to me over the counter I paid the give away price and made off to show my parents the loot. Nor did we put it into a costly bagel. It was years later that smoked salmon entered our lexicon and affordability. But to my mind nothing could compare with those bits, atop slightly burnt toast, eaten in our remarkable rented house.
Why remarkable? Ah, thereby hangs a tale – as they say! Clearly I was not a geborener – no, I was not born in London and neither were my parents. My father was born in Poland and my mother and I in Germany, where we lived. We fled Germany for Belgium’s Antwerp, which was no safer and, seeing Nazis loading Jews into cattle carts, in 1940 we fled to the shores of Dunkirk where hundreds of little boats rescued retreating British troops from German bombs over France. There are many angels in various guises in life’s journey. One of them is the British officer who was prevailed upon to push us into one of the boats, thus sailing us to the safety of England’s shores. Safe – undeniably, up to a point! But, having lost our documents during our hair raising escape, we were interned along with other enemy aliens – but more of that later.
For now it’s a relief to return to my dream world of reality and into the saving bosom of Anglo Jewry. Indeed, it was a real pleasure that at my Golders Green stage this immigrant child already had some of her own clothes and not hand me downs. And my joy at wearing normal sandals! Discarding my leather lace up booties, which German born mother said were compulsory ankle strengthening props, was a release from which I had long devoutly wished. My father’s Polish head was concerned with our daily bread, and not bothered with perpetuating continental norms.
But I have to explain the remarkable house. It was not remarkable because it was our second house on finally landing in England as the only German civilians miraculously fleeing on a little boat from France’s Dunkirk shores – with British soldiers. Those who managed to survive that is, and who were being desperately evacuated from German strafing pursuers. You could say perhaps that it was a special house. Blessed with a delicious white stuccoed front which pregnant like bellied from ground to second floor, a front door was set to the right. Just beyond that a little fence with a wooden door.
I was just able, on tip toes, to release its catch and slip through to the garden’s lush lawn after school. There the marbled rockery glinted inviting me to perch among blue Iris and golden-petaled sunflowers. Nibbling their kernels a black cat would sometimes join for a taster.
With a linoleum-floored kitchen, carpeted dining room and morning room, it was cozy. My bedroom, up a broad 15 stairs, was next to that of my parents. With a view of the quiet suburban tree lined street I’d often stand at the window day dreaming while night was already falling, but slowly as was its wont in London. Day dreaming? Definitely, and maybe somewhat nostalgic for our very first house. There, Mr. and Mrs. Alderman rescued us from sleeping in the streets.
It was when we were released by British authorities, finally convinced we were not enemy aliens who came with the troops as Jewish spies, that we ended up on a small street in an adjunct of Milton Keynes called Bletchley, Buckinghamshire – to this day I know not how. My mother held tightly onto my three year old hand as my father knocked on door to door, from house to house. Luckily speaking, English – unlike me – my mother asked, “Have you got a room?”
Askance I saw irritated mouths and faces. “No Jews here!” The door slammed shut in front of us. Again my mother asked, “Have you got a room?” And again, we were told, “No Jews here!” Slam! Eventually I asked, “Mummy, was ist dass (what is that): No Jews here?”
Gently putting her hand over my mouth. “Shush, mein kind,” she said. So I shushed until a dark red painted door was magically opened by a small apron wearing angel who said, “There’s the attic, if you want. As we walked up three flights of narrow stairs I gave out a little whoop of... what? Joy? Or relief, especially since my mother did not put her hand over my mouth and say “Shush, mein kind.”
It was in that small attic room with a bed, little gas cooker and corner wash basin that we ate, slept and laundered clothes on a corrugated metal frame. Wonderful sudsy smells wafted above the basin when the laundry was carried down to the garden washing line on alternate days to those of Mrs. Alderman. My father did not wait for alternate days to travel into London. There, daily, he met fellow compatriots who somehow also succeeded in escaping the Nazi terror to again ply their trade, furs. Selecting, cutting, designing and sewing capes, hats and coats from mink, ocelot, beaver and even chinchilla for fashionable customers.
Gradually amassing sufficient funds my father, in his deep Polish-accented Yiddish type German instructed my mother – and I translate - “Ginchu,” he said, mother’s name being Regina, Gina for short and Ginchu my father’s name for her. “Ginchu, take this money and go buy some silver candlesticks for Shabbos.” Holding my four year old hand I, of course, ambled along by her side along a fairly smart area. There we bought our first Shabbat candlesticks. The following week the same command but this time. “Ginchu, take this money and go buy a silver becher (goblet or Kiddush cup) for Shabbos.”
They gleamed like beacons of hope on our little table as we enjoyed mother’s chicken soup – a main meal with wings to suck on. For my father this was his meal every night when he came back from work, but our main staple, boiled egg and bread, was eaten gratefully, uncomplaining. We were there as grateful refugees. Still, sometimes even I felt it to be under sufferance. Mrs. Alderman might sharply say to my mother, “Not so much laundry, you’ll break the clothes line: A kindness never to be forgotten, but not relished.
Then an amazing thing happened. My industrious six-foot father Aron, somewhat bald but with a handsome smile and winning ways, rented a house in London’s Willesden. True, this was a rented house – but remarkable. Why? Not because it was roomy with a garden and a bedroom all to myself. No! It was because we were not living under anyone’s largess. We could call this remarkable house, in Dobree Avenue, my father’s first great achievement, our home! From there I was instructed once a month on a Sunday. “Go buy a quarter of bits for two shillings, and here’s sixpence for the bus.”
It was a while before our immigrant status developed into joining the landed gentry. Off I’d go to Menachem’s and, drawing myself up to what was by then almost my full height, order “A quarter of smoked salmon, cut thin if you please, and three bagels.”
Meanwhile, my mother began baking the most delicious apple yeast cake with crumble, or what she called Streusel on the top. After our Friday night three-course meal with chopped liver, chicken soup, of course, and meat balls with mashed potatoes, my father would fall asleep while my mother read the Jewish Chronicle newspaper. I’d creep into the kitchen and nibble – not the “bits” of lox – but the Streusel off the top of the cake. No one ever seemed to notice – nor that I’d relieved them of a few of the “bits” on my bus journey home.