Putting sugar in fish: Lewis and Dora’s story

From Lithuania to Britain, my grandparents’ story can finally be told.

Lithuanian grandparents 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Simon Silver)
Lithuanian grandparents 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Simon Silver)
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 Lithuania.
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 morning prayers.
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.
Yeshaya 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 army.
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 vegetarianism.
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.
Once in Australia, Dora missed her family and wanted to return to England.
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 return home.
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, met.
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.
Nevertheless, I 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.
But 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 Land.
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 passed away.
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.
I 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.
The 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.