My Mother's Story

As told by Sarah Snelwar Byron to Valerie Byron


Valerie Byron

© Copyright 2019 by Valerie Byron   

Photo of a sunset. (c) 2002 by Richard Loller.

My mother, who was born in 1911, passed away in December 2001.  She scribbled many interesting pages about her early life, together with more intimate stories about her love affair when she was older.  After her death, I was able to piece together her thoughts as a memoir, which I am submitting for this contest.  This piece gives a fascinating glimpse into life as it was in the East End of London in the early 1900's.  Her parents ran a famous kosher restaurant, The Warsaw, in Stepney and managed to raise six out of seven children, the last one dying at 21 of tuberculosis.

Her father, Alec Snelwar, and her oldest sister, Betty (aged ten) were witnesses at the Old Bailey Courthouse in London the very year my mother was born in the murder of Leon Beron by Stinie Morrison, a famous murder at the time.  Browse - Central Criminal Court 

I was born on August 7, 1911, around noon. From hearsay, the local doctor who delivered me spoke gravely to my parents. He warned them of the hazards for my mother, not only because of her undergoing surgery for collapse of a TB lung, but to the unborn child, me. Despite his warning, my mother gave birth to my brother fifteen months later.

My mother married my father in 1899. He was chosen for her because she was orphaned in her eleventh year, a week after her mother came to join her family in London, from Makowa, Poland. Her mother, too, had TB. Mother lived with his sister, and worked in their restaurant, until she married.

After the birth of my sister, Betty, in 1900, my mother realized that if she did not take on the responsibility, she and her children would have no means of survival on my father’s earnings as a cobbler. She appealed to her sisters and brother to help her start a restaurant of her own. Her life from birth to death was a hard one.

She rose at 5:00 am, cleaned the ashes from the long fire ovens in the kitchen, brought in the coke from the adjoining yard, and lit the fires, one at each end of the range. The baking ovens were in the center, and the cooking pots were on top of the stove. She always checked the ovens to make certain the cats were not sleeping there to keep warm.

The dark angels reaped bumper harvests in the London ghettos during the early part of the twentieth century. Diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and pneumonia were merciless killers, bringing certain death and desolation in their wake. The world waited painfully for science to discover another miracle to combat the formidable Apocalypse Horseman of death and disease. Smallpox was already outlawed via vaccination of school children. The antibiotics, penicillin and sulfa drugs were number one priority being researched in the laboratories. Meanwhile, deaths reached epidemic numbers in the first three decades of the century.

Before I reached my third birthday, I was to have experienced two hospitalizations. The first was when I was barely one year old. When I first broached my family with questions about memories that haunted me for years after, they could not believe I could remember and recount my vivid “hallucinations”. Yet no-one could have planted those impressions in my mind, for the hospital was isolated and in quarantine from visitors.

I can remember my crib, and the burning fever that consumed me. My mother bent over me, here eyes full of fear. She was murmuring words in Yiddish – “mien orrima kind” (my poor child) – then she stepped away before I could try to make her aware of the red and black devils that I could “see” on each side of the crib, and implore her not to let them get to me.

I was aware of my mother weeping as a nurse arrived to pluck me out of the crib, wrap me tightly in a red blanket, and whisk me away in the white ambulance, while I feebly struggled to escape from her encircling arms and the hot blanket.

My next memory was of white uniformed nurses and doctors bending over me, trying to force medicine down my throat, and the indignity of having my nose pinched, and horrid, bitter liquid poured down my throat.

It must have been soon after I returned home that I was again in the hospital, with an abscess under my arm that had to be drained, the knife cutting deep close to the wall of my heart. The scar still shows deep, after eighty years have passed; so do the memories stay sharp and clear in my mind’s eye. This time I was in a small bed at the entrance of the ward. When I came to after the surgery, I thought I saw my mother standing at the foot of the bed. She seemed to be beckoning to me and saying “come, my darling, and I’ll take you home.”

Please take me, mama,” I cried piteously.

You must come yourself, my darling.”

I can’t, mama. Can’t you see the big bird beside my bed? It will peck my feet.”

At that, my mother seemed to shake her head sadly and retreat from my bed, and out of the ward. Despair gripped me as I heard her footsteps receding down the corridor, and outside the hospital walls. My heart felt like lead, and I cried with tearing, painful sobs, feeling utterly abandoned.

Later, I awake from a wretched sleep. Along the rows of hospital cots I could see a long expanse of floor under the beds. My heart contracted in fear, for it appeared to be someone, or some “thing” was crawling towards me.

Why, I thought is it coming to me? I could hear strange sounds emanating from the beds. Coughing, snores, and moans. Perhaps, if I made some noise, it would go away. I shut my eyes tightly, made some whimpering sounds, and did not open my eyes again. I must have lapsed into merciful oblivion.

I don’t know how long I stayed in the hospital. I remember matron coming each morning on rounds. Every day she brought a toy, and gave it to a child in the ward. I thought “she hates me”, that’s why she never gives me a toy. How could I know that parents sent in the toys for their children?

Now I know that my mother was busy with a new baby brother, another claim on her already overtaxed body, and no respite from the demands of feeding so many people in the restaurant. She had neither the time nor the strength to make the long journey to the hospital, so she could not know how even a toy can be comfort to so small a child.

So, with the preoccupation of keeping me alive, my frequent convalescences away from London’s fog and grime, it was to a houseful of strangers that I returned, and a new world to be discovered and explored just before the summer of 1914, when I would be three, and ready to go to school.
These were the years just prior to World War I and I felt the terror engendered by the fear of war all around me. I can never remember my parents ever leaving the restaurant. My mother and father were always there. There was always discord. My mother worked unrelentingly and my father would lend money to the immigrants who frequented our restaurant. He signed guarantees for them, and all he ever received in payment were a few objects d’art – he loved beautiful things. He had beautiful copper plate handwriting and a dry wit. He was always making quips and if a customer complained the soup was cold, he’d call out to the waiter “Close the door, the draught is making the food cold.” Or he would point to various customers and enumerate their hometowns, crying out the name of their home town, as he pointed at them.

My only recollection of my father’s parents was a photograph that hung in my bedroom over a safe in 32 Osborn Street. My grandfather had a long, grey beard and my grandmother was a tiny lady, dressed in Victorian black. My brother, Morrie, tells me he recalls my grandfather selling carved wooden and tin toys at a street corner in Old Montague Street, where my grandparents must have lived. My grandfather must have survived my grandmother. I have no memory of them so they must have died before I was born on August 7, 1911. I don’t even know their names, except I believe I was named Sarah for my grandmother, and perhaps my brother, Jack, may have been named for my grandfather – either “Jacob” or “Meyer” (his given name was Jack Meyer). I deduce my grandfather may have been named “Meyer” and grandmother, “Sarah”.

Again, from deduction, my grandparents must have emigrated from Warsaw with their children, all of whom lived in London, except Frank, who went to the United States. My brothers, Morrie and Alf, both met him in New York where he eked a modest living as a watch repairer. My brothers had worked their passage to the States, Alf in 1919 or 1920, and Morrie in the mid 1920’s. Frank never married. He lived with a widow lady until he died around 1930, and left no will, so his few pieces of jewelry, a ring, gold chain, and meager savings automatically came to my father, Alec, at a time of great economic depression. My brother, Morrie, bought the diamond ring from my father and the gold chain. The ring was given to Morrie’s first wife, Rose, then later to his second wife, Gertrude. Now Fran, Morrie’s daughter-in-law has it.

My father was betrothed to my mother through my mother’s sister, Chia. He was Chia’s choice for her. My father’s only experience of work was with uppers (shoes) – since his sister was married to a shoe manufacturer (Sweetman).

My father used to tell me stories of his early youth in Warsaw (I was very young at the time) – of wild escapades in the army – he would have been about 15 or 16 – and of his family’s exodus from the Russian Czars’ oppression, to immigrate to London. My earliest memories of my father were when I was a baby in a crib in the restaurant in Osborne Street. I remember spending long hours in a corner by the cellar door, and a long narrow gas lit room with rush benches nailed to the walls with iron tables. There was a counter closing off the dining room from the kitchen at the back. One side had food displayed (gefilte fish) herrings, and a bread slicer. At the other end was a tea urn. My father would sit by the counter and take orders from customers. The floor was paving stones covered with sawdust. My mother slaved in the kitchen day and night, rising at 5 am, going to Spiralfields market with the kitchen porter and a hand cart, to queue for rationed food, sacks of potatoes, rice, and vegetables. She would bring home the food and then light the large iron range with coke. There were large ovens in the center, and grids on top to cook soups and vegetables. The coke was stored in the tiny yard at the back of the restaurant and there were two lavatories in the yard – no indoor plumbing. Chickens used to roam the yard and kitchen. I remember certain customers – a man from South Africa, portly, with a Dutch name; and a little man, like Charlie Chaplin, who would peer in my pram and sing “Go to market with a basket.” My earliest memories were of my brothers and sisters looking down worriedly at me. I was always fretful and crying, and I can remember my feelings of frustration and boredom, and fear of the strange shadows thrown by the flickering gas jets on the walls and ceilings which created grotesque shapes.

In August 1914, I was three years old when war was declared on Germany. The restaurant was frequently raided to catch men who were eligible for war conscription. I remember my father showing men the way down to the cellar, and upstairs where they would leap over the roof tops to elude the military police. It was the time of Bolshevites and refugees who regaled us with stories of the Russian Revolution, all of which filled me with inexpressible terror. My mind was filled, by osmosis, with pictures of the “Hun”, tossing babies on bayonets. My nights were filled with nightmares of trying to hide in the cellar, away from the Hun. There was talk of King George and Queen Mary’s coronation in 1910, the Steinie Morrison unsolved murder case, stories of Jack the Ripper (King George’s older brother, the Duke of Clarence, was a prime suspect). All of these happenings were in the locale of Whitechapel, and the people were frequenters of our restaurant, Snelwar’s Kosher Restaurant. My childhood was filled with unspeakable horrors; then there were the air raids - Zeppelins, which we saw being shot down in flames by anti-aircraft guns and searchlights criss-crossing in the sky. There was the nightly rush to air raid shelters in stables and docks, filled with sand bags, and the terror of people rushing to take cover from the long nights. In the mornings, after the raids, the children searched for shrapnel in their sheets and kept them as souvenirs.

My father’s brother, Zelig, his wife, Esther, and their three children – Izzy, Solly and Sadie (contemporaries in age to my brothers Morrie, Solly and myself), used to be frequent visitors and would go to the shelters with us at night. Zelig was never employed and was always in the restaurant, eating all his meals there. My father must have given him money, which he liked to gamble away on the horses. My aunt and cousins relied on us for a good meal.

My childhood spanned the years from 1914 when I was three years old, until I left school at age fourteen in 1925.

The world was still young in the production of inventions. Automobiles were for the very rich, and rarely seen in the meaner streets, where most transport was done either with horse and cart, or “shank’s pony”, our own two legs.

Electricity was only just being installed in homes, and for a long time the existing street lighting was provided by gas lamps, the lamplighter’s evening appearance with his long pole as unremarkable, and taken for granted, as the mail man.

Four years duration of World Ward I restricted activity, limiting us within the boundaries of home and school during the day, and at night, waiting for warnings of approaching enemy aircraft. We were then rushed through the street to the nearest shelter, mainly in sandbagged cellars of stables and docks. There we would huddle in fear and discomfort until the sirens sounded the “all clear.”

As I grew to school age, I was close friends with my cousin Sadie, who was a constant visitor. Sometimes I’d go with her to visit our Aunt and Uncle Sweetman – I can’t remember my Aunt Sweetman who died of cancer of the brain during the war in 1918, but I remember the anxiety. I would go by train to visit and play with our Sweetman cousins who lived in a fairly affluent house in Cambridge Heath, Hackney.

My father’s youngest sister, Polly (Pearl) Mordecai lived in a tiny terraced house at 22 Ewing Street, Stepney. I never knew her husband who, we believed, had fled to Buenos Aires, leaving her with six children (Florrie, Josh, Syd, Morrie, Dick and Sadie Mordecai). They were terribly poor – I don’t know how my Aunt Polly lived – maybe her sister “Aunt” Sweetman and my father helped her. She, too, would be a frequent visitor at our restaurant, with the children. Florrie, Josh and Syd were contemporaries with my sisters Betty and Corrie and my brother Alf. Morrie, Dick and Sadie were contemporary with my brothers Morrie and Stanley, and with me.

Whenever they came, I felt my mother’s despair, having to feed so many hungry mouths, gratis, and I would always feel a desire to offer them food, which I felt they were hungry for. What terrible times. Hunger, no work, and the Depression post war. I loved Florrie. I remember her more clearly than I do my own sisters. She came to our house, a young, beautiful girl, and I remember hearing about a lecherous neighbor, married with children, with whom I went to school, who tried to seduce her by offering her money to sleep with him. She later married and had a child, but lived unhappily and in hopeless poverty. I lost track of her and her brother, Josh, a gentle, handsome young man, also struggling to survive in the Depression years. Syd was institutionalized until he died in a mental hospital. Morrie married and divorced in the same year and also died early. Dick married and lived a better life, buying a tobacco/sweet shop in Maida Vale. He had twin sons, but I heard he died about thirty years ago. The youngest, Sadie, I never heard of again. She was dwarfish and odd.

A sad history. My cousin and namesake, Sadie Snelwar, Zelig’s only daughter, contracted ulcerative colitis which turned to cancer, requiring a colostomy. She was chronically ill from the age of 18 until she died in 1944. Her mother, Esther, became deranged because of her daughter’s tragic illness and tried to kill herself. She died in an asylum for the insane.
Radio had not yet been invented for public broadcasting. It was not in the budget for the poor working class to own a gramophone. It was not until my two older sisters became secretaries, and working in “The City” that we were able to afford to go “Up West” to shows, and to the dance Palais. They even purchased a fancy “His Master’s Voice” phonograph that was displayed in a cabinet. Every popular dance tune selection from every musical comedy was played and danced to in our parlor. My sisters (as were most young people of that era) were “dance mad”. Their dance partners would call for them at weekends, and they would practice the Charleston, Black Bottom, the Blues, Tango and Quickstep, preparatory to entering dance competitions.

I would sit, quiet as a mouse, in a corner of the parlor and watch them swing and wriggle in the fashionable long-waisted, short-skirted evening dresses, the rows of fringes swinging in time to rhythm and contortions.

Often, the dancers would gather around the piano and sing melodies, popular during the war. “There’s a Long, Long Trail Awinding”; “Roses of Picardy”; selections from the “Chocolate Solider”, “Maid of the Mountains”; and “Lilac Time”. Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Jack Buchanan, Beatrice Lillie, Gladys Cooper and Sibyl Thorndike were the greats in entertainment. Lids of chocolate boxes had pictures of the popular “Prince Charming” – no other than David, the Prince of Wales, or the reigning musical comedy queen.

When my sisters left with their beaus to travel to the theater or music halls, we younger members were left to devise our own entertainment. This rarely took place in the house, except when my cousin Hannah, or my father’s niece, Sarah, came to play with me when I was confined to bed with whatever ailment was prevalent at that time. Then we had a wonderful time. We would dress up in my sisters’ assortment of glamorous evening dresses and shoes. I would say to my cousins, “Look, here is the princess’s cloak. It is magic. Whenever she wants to, she wears it and it makes her invisible.”

Whath’s invithible?” my cousin would lisp.

Why, stupid, don’t you know? It makes you vanish before your very eyes.”

Oh, I thee. . .” my cousin’s mouth would drop, and a blank look would glaze her eyes.

My brothers Alf, Morry and Stan, with their counterpart cousins, Albert, Len and Sam, would meet at the street corner and plot in hushed voices who were to be their next victims and their strategy.

In the evenings, the streets were quiet. The horses and carts had long since been stabled, and there was no fear of traffic. The boys would line up in a single file, one hand on a shoulder, the other brandishing a rudely contrived sword, adorned with orange box sticks of wood, with a cross-piece as a handle. They would troop up and down the pavements, chanting “Come to the Russian war, boys, come to the Russian war; if you see a soldier pass, stick a bayonet up his . . . “and end up chortling, choking with merriment.

A more innocent pastime would be a row of bent backs across the road, from one pavement to the other, and they would play leapfrog, raising their backs higher after each leap.

On Friday nights, as the devout families would walk out for the eve of Sabbath prayers in the local synagogue, the men, wearing their best Sabbath garb, complete with silk hat, would suddenly have their hats jerked from their heads. In the dimness of the twilight, they could not see the cotton thread tied from a door knocker across the street to where the mischievous scamps lay in wait, convulsed with glee at the bewilderment and dismay they had caused.

Not to say that the boys did not have more constructive outlets for their energies, such as the local libraries, where they could get their fill of books – and I’m sure that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn provided them with many ideas for mischief. They would somehow find an air gun, and with unerring aim, they would lie in wait on the rooftop of our three-story house, for the cacophony of the cats’ chorus – and, while the cats pursued their amorous serenades, the darts from the air gun would find their target. My brothers, knowing my fondness for the cats, would take delight in describing the howls of the unfortunate felines as they leapt high in the air.

The schools provided playing fields for cricket and football (netball for the girls), and we would visit neighboring schools for match games. We also had organized rambles in the rural areas. It was fun riding the local trains, to rest our eyes on clean, green fields and to learn the names of flowers and shrubs - picking wildflowers, for pressing and naming in our botany notebooks.

In those days, families lived in close proximity to each other. For an evening out, they would visit, en masse, parents and sometimes all six children. After a good meal, my mother would take time off to sit with the relatives and chat. The children would play in the street with their cousins, or go for a walk along the main Whitechapel Road, within reach of home, should an air raid alert start early.

One such night, the first warning light from the electricity company flashed earlier than usual. My visiting cousins and I ran to the nearest air raid shelter, while my parents hurried to where they always took us. That night was different. The German Zeppelin was something new, the L33, on its first raid over London. My mother, when counting heads missed me and, although assured that I was with my cousins, went out to find me to bring me back to the others. What a sight met our eyes. The sky was criss-crossed with searchlights. The din of the anti-aircraft guns was deafening. Shrapnel from the spent shells flew all around us. My mother was dragging me along, while I hung back, my eyes glued on the flashes of fire in the sky. And then, the zeppelin was caught in the network of searchlights, the guns found their target, there was a mighty burst of flame, and the airship spiraled down slowly into a field near Enfield Town, some five miles from East London.

Next morning, my brothers were in the streets at the crack of dawn to collect the pieces of shrapnel, and to listen to me, for the very first time, with interest, as I described my eye-witness experience.

My passion for the movies was insatiable. I would go to the Bioscope Kinema a few doors away whenever they had a matinee, to gloat over Pearl White and Ruth Roland, and still spellbound through the serials. When the credits appeared at the end of each episode, I would wonder if I could survive until the next week. Would the heroine be rescued in time from the oncoming train, while she was bound to the rails?” Would she be able to hang on to the cliff with her hands bleeding, and the branch almost wrenched from its roots? I would hurry to the Brick Lane Palace; study the posters to see if they had the next episode on their “Now Showing” bill. I sometimes saw two movies in a day.

My brothers and their cronies would haunt the exits of the larger movie houses, slyly slipping in as the crowds exited. They would sneak into the rest rooms until the lights dimmed for the next performance. We children lived from one picture to another. The Mack Sennett comedies were the first movies I can remember, with Fatty Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin and Buster Keaton. The vamp, Theda Bara, the virginal Mary Miles Minter and Mary Pickford, and the Gish sisters, all made the light relief for us in those war weary years.

As we reached the end of junior school days and were reading for our entry into grammar school, we took more interest in social clubs, girl guides, and boy scouts. My brothers joined the Jewish Lads’ Brigade, took up weight lifting and body building, athletics and drilled as cadets. Much to my mother’s relief, the war ended before they were eligible for conscription.

My father and mother struggled to keep the restaurant going – when my brother, Morrie, returned from his travels to South Africa and America in 1925. He worked to modernize the restaurant, which was divided into the sections – a front and back. Morrie painted the walls, installed electricity, and bought a soda fountain for the front part, with blue wicker chairs and tables, creating a modern ice cream parlor. The back was the restaurant. My father worked long hours in the cellar, churning ice cream, and we enjoyed a little prosperity from the novelty of having a younger clientele who would make our soda fountain the meeting place and rendezvous for their after movies and theaters, supper and refreshments.

While my brothers, Morrie, Stanley and I were available to work in the restaurant, we managed to make ends meet, but it was long hours and when Betty and Corrie were married, Morrie looked for work as a traveler. Stanley became completely enwrapped in taking illegal bets, and one day we were raided, and the restaurant was closed down. There was the threat that my father would be deported back to Warsaw, and we had no means of living with the restaurant closed down. My mother, brave lady that she was, implored the Chief Inspector of Police to give her a reference, and she invaded the Home Office and pleaded with the Home Secretary not to deport my father, swearing that he had no knowledge of what Stanley was up to. With the Chief Inspector’s recommendation for clemency, he relented. I remembered well the raid. A swarm of plain clothes policemen entered the restaurant, placed a uniformed police guard at the door, and searched all the customers for betting slips.

I remember it as though it was a scene from a movie. Stanley dashed for the kitchen in the back. A newspaper vendor named “Hobo”, who used to take bets for Stanley at the street corner, asked me for a lemon tea, and started to swallow the bets with his tea. The police dashed after Stanley, who was trying to burn the betting slips in the kitchen coal stove. I remember how they arrested him and my father, and the terror and despair of my mother, and the rest of us, the ensuing week. My mother was made of iron to do what she did – against all odds.

Looking back at those days, comparing the golden era we are supposed to have reaped, I wonder. Children could play in the streets, close to home, and among familiar faces. The local “bobby” would walk his beat at night, trying the doors of business premises to make sure “all’s well”. Many a night, my parents would drag their weary limbs up the private stairs to bed, and soon afterwards there would be the sound of heavy footsteps, a voice booming “Mr. Alec, this is Police Constable Jones.” A flash light would throw its beams upwards. My father had not secured the front door properly in his weariness. The local police were well known to us, and would often nip in to the kitchen for a hot drink and quick smoke. They were human beings, and our friends.

In these days, we are prisoners behind the bars of our homes. The enemy is without. We lock and bar our doors, check and double check. We look behind us and fear our shadow.

Those days of childhood, when war was a way of life, did they hold the terrors we now live with? Times when we make our own curfew, afraid to take an evening stroll. The lawless hold us prisoner, while they haunt the streets for prey.

During the years 1925-1934 my younger brother Jack was diagnosed as “terminal” with TB in both lungs, and when he died in 1934, my mother had a breakdown. The restaurant closed for non payment of taxes and rent. My father was sick with diabetes and kidney trouble. I remember how I went to escort him to the station to take him to Betty in Whetstone, while my mother was with her sister, Dora, in a state of breakdown. My father’s shoulders were bowed, and his head was down as he shuffled beside me. In a broken voice he said “This is what we’ve come to, after a lifetime of struggle. I have been told by Betty not to wear my cap in her house…” His voice faltered, and I was so stricken at his despair that I asked him to come and stay a day or so with me.

By this time I was married and had a young son, Alan, who was a few months old. My father eagerly agreed – he’d never even seen my flat in Ladbroke Grove. I asked my cousin, Carrie Clarfelt, who lived in a big house opposite me (she let furnished rooms), to lend me a folding bed. She refused, saying “make your father comfortable, and he’ll be with you forever.” I was angry with her apparent callousness, but she was right. In fact, dad stayed until my husband, Lawrence, left his job with Cousin Harry Stanley, and we moved to Manchester to live in Morrie’s house in Warwick Road, Manchester. Morrie had offered my husband a job as manager of his electrical accessory warehouse. My mother, father and Stanley came along too, and when we moved to another house because Morrie’s wife, Rose, was pregnant, mother, dad and Stanley lived with us until dad died of untreated diabetes and kidney failure in 1937.

Thereafter, mother went to Luton, after Stanley married in 1938. She married her dead sister’s widower, Elias Lipsky, but then returned to live with me in Sale after my marriage ended and when Valerie was born in 1942. Mother, who had contracted skin cancer, lived with me until her death in February 1952. It was two years later that I emigrated to California with Valerie. My son, Alan, had been in boarding schools from 1940 to 1953, and he went straight into the army for National Service in 1954, when Val and I left for the States, via New York to Los Angeles.

We returned to England in late 1959 when Alan entered medical school. After his graduation and marriage to his first wife, Jackie, and the birth of my first grandson, Richard, I returned to California in 1968. Valerie joined me in March 1969, met her husband Bill on July 4, 1969 and was married December 7th of that year.

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