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The Education Of Audrey Kneller

Audrey Kneller sent me this candid memoir of her years in Spitalfields which is it is my pleasure to publish for the first time. In the second of two extracts, Audrey describes her education in Judaism.

Deal St School Trip 1955 – Audrey is third from right, peering round the girl in front

Yvonne was selected to start the following September at the sister school, Robert Montefiore Secondary Modern in Valance Rd, Whitechapel, which although not a Grammar School had a very good reputation. Under the fatherly guidance of headmaster, Mr Nurse, the school turned out first class citizens, well equipped to deal with the pressures of modern living.

Between 1953 and 1956, Yvonne & I walked to school down Fleur-de-Lis St, passing Commercial St Police Station on the left and the little grocery shop on the right, run by a kindly old lady who was always willing to sell us a couple of eggs or four ounces of butter if we ran short. We turned right into Commercial St, dominated by the vastness of the Godfrey Phillips Tobacco Company building, past the local tuck shop and a greengrocers run by two elderly ladies. One was a widow and the other had become a confirmed spinster after her fiancé was killed in the First World War. They told us they were almost killed during the Second World War when an oil bomb fell behind the shop. Luckily, they escaped through the front and lived to tell of their hair-raising experience.

Then we crossed over into Hanbury St and walked down towards Deal St. To a child, the road seemed wide and the walk long, punctuated by intriguing sights, sounds and smells. There was always a great deal of activity inside the workshops to the left and I remember wood shavings on the ground, and hearing the electric saw and smelling the sawdust as I passed. I always kept to the left-hand side of Hanbury St, never deviating from the route.

I noticed several half-ruined houses with no roofs, merely slats of wood where the ceilings had been, allowing the sky to peep through. Were they bombed, I wondered? I assumed this explained why there were so many ruined buildings. A common sight, particularly in Aldgate and Whitechapel, was where the whole side of a building was missing and you could see one bare wall, several storeys high, with fireplaces where the floors had been. I walked with a sense of horror and bewilderment. The war had only recently given way to an austere peace, and the reminders of the damage to life, limb and property moved me deeply.

The sight of my school at the junction of Deal St and Hanbury St told me I was safe. One day, my Mother came to have a chat with my teacher and they decided that I was like Schubert with his “Unfinished Symphony.” Although my work was good, I was rather slow and took a long time to finish. Yet they decided that the patience of the recipient was rewarded.

Every night I prayed that I would pass my “11 Plus,” so that I could go the revered grammar school in Spital Sq, the Central Foundation School for Girls. On the day of the exam, I was recovering from flu and had a coughing spell during the maths test. I was off sick when the results came through but I was told that I was eligible for a governors’ place at Spital Sq, subject to passing the entrance examination. I ran home with my head held high and told my family.

Later I realised that governors’ places were for those who had not passed but were termed as “Grammar Marginals,” so we could be given another chance. A couple of weeks later I entered the portals of Spital Sq to sit the examination but found some of the questions above my head, especially the arithmetical ones. Also the interview with the headmistress did not go well. She was not impressed with my replies to questions concerning a future career. So I was not surprised to learn that it was not my destiny to go there, but then another door opened.

A few of us who had not managed to get into Spital Sq were offered governors’ places for a Jewish grammar school in Stoke Newington, subject to an entrance examination, and the idea rather appealed to me. It was the Avigdor School, a privately-run school supported by the London County Council. The examination was incredibly easy, consisting of elementary questions about the Old Testament and, shortly afterwards, I and my fellows were awarded places.

Mr Nurse, my sister’s headmaster, was very disappointed at my decision to go to Avigdor School. He made no secret of this when he met me later at Yvonne’s prize-giving, as he had put my name on the waiting list ahead of hundreds of others to go to Robert Montefiore Secondary Modern. My mother tried to persuade me to change my mind but I was excited at the thought of striking out on my own.

On my first day at the new school, I was asked by the girl sitting next to me, “Are you “frum“?” This is a Yiddish term to describe someone who is religiously observant. In all innocence I answered, “Yes.” In fact, I was more in thought than deed, but Shula was frum and came from an Orthodox family. She immediately became my best friend. Her parents were émigrés prior to the war, her mother from Germany and her father from Hungary.

Shula was part of the generation of British Jewry whose parents had escaped Nazi persecution to form a new community in North London. I learned that Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill was thickly populated by Orthodox Jews of German and Polish origin.

Those of German origin were yekkes while the Poles were the chasidim (pious ones), who dressed in the sombre garb of their forefathers.The women were not allowed to reveal any part of their anatomy except hands, face and ankles, so they wore long sleeves and thick stockings. Married women had their hair cut short and wore sheitels (wigs). By contrast, the yekkes were less strict in their dress, the men dispensed with payos (sidelocks) and the women did wear sheitels but drew the line at sleeveless clothing.

Shula’s family did not view themselves as yekkes or chasidim and,  although strictly Orthodox, her mother did not wear a sheitel. Another girl in my class, Caroline Rosenthal, a bouncy girl with curly black hair and rosy cheeks whose family were Orthodox also immediately became my friend. Caroline was exactly a year younger than me but, because she was very bright, she had been moved up a year.

She invited me to stay with her for the week of Pesach or Passover, and it was then that I became acquainted with the way of life of Orthodox Jews. It had a profound effect on me. Until this point, my Jewish education had been sketchy but I was now at a school with a curriculum of Jewish subjects which completely changed my way of thinking.

Over the next four years I became transformed, partly due to the visits to the homes of my religious friends and partly due to my teachings at school. Prayer played a large part in my life and I was able to recite prayers in Hebrew off by heart. Becoming religious was not an easy transition and was not entirely welcomed at home where I found myself alone in my beliefs.

Yet I was happier than I had been for a long time, with reservations. I had achieved almost the impossible in my education but grown detached from my family who, by comparison with my new friends, seemed heathen to me. Although my mother kept a kosher home, I introduced stricter dietary laws. The separation of milk and meat utensils was approved of by my mother but greeted with dismay by my sister. My mother was hard pressed to please us both.

Years later, I realised my decision to go to Avigdor School in the face of my mother’s opposition was in some ways unwise. Although I learned about Judaism, which proved an asset in later life, I had no qualifications and the events which caused me to leave were unfortunate. The London County Council tried to close the school down because of “low standards.” But, years later, I learned from the Jewish Chronicle that the governors had not approved of the interest shown by the teachers in secular subjects and felt the school should confine itself to activities of a religious nature. In 1959, following an article which appeared in the Jewish Chronicle headed “Avigdor School Has Failed,” we heard that the school would close.

For the last year, we had only five pupils in our class. Ultimately, Shula was accepted by our sister school, the Hasmonean Grammar School for Girls in Hendon, while Caroline and l left to go to another grammar school in North London. It was sad that the Avigdor School which was the experiment and brainchild of Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, Principal of the Jewish Secondary Schools Movement, had failed. He was a hero who saved countless people from the Holocaust, risking his life to do so.

My education in Stoke Newington isolated me to an extent from Elder St. I grew away from it, looking forward to each school day when I could ride on the bus northwards to cleaner, fresher air.

Although none of my family were Orthodox, my maternal grandfather, Nathan, was very observant. After his passing, as there were no men to lead the way, observances slipped though my mother and her sisters upheld our faith. When High Holydays arrived, we dressed up in our best clothes and attended Morning Service. After lunch, Auntie Sophie’s front room was the usual place for the family to congregate. Friends, neighbours and children all gathered in their finery for a mootel (chinwag).

At Rosh Hashanah we would wish everyone Happy New Year over a drink of Auntie Sophie’s homemade morello cherry wine and a slice of cake. She lived all her days in and around Spitalfields, devoting herself entirely to her children and their families.

Towards the latter part of 1958, my mother received a Notice to Quit under the 1957 Rent Act. The landlord’s agent had observed the improvements she had made and, realising that she was receiving rent from the two flats upstairs, he reported back to the landlord who immediately gave instructions for her rent to be doubled.

My mother was offered the house for £2,000, which was a fair price at the time, but she could not buy it because of its poor state and the prohibitive cost of the repairs. She sought the help of her nephew who was a chartered surveyor. In those days, single women could not take out mortgages but with his help as a guarantor, they found a property.

We moved out of Elder St in April 1959 to a more comfortable two-storey terrace in Stoke Newington. Although it was as yet still untouched by bulldozer or developer, we knew the writing was on the wall for Elder St because our landlord had plans for number 20 that included demolition.

Playing in Toynbee St in 1952. Audrey is in the front on the left, aged seven and a half, and her sister Yvonne is at the back on the right. Brune House is behind and you can just see the bottom of a big sign advertising Charringtons.

You may also like to read the first extract of Audrey Kneller’s memoir

Audrey Kneller of Elder St

This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here

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The Education Of Audrey Kneller


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