Michael Philip Davis, born Posimensky, came to the East End as a small child in the 1880s. Some 70 years later, he wrote a fascinating account of his early life, his eventually fulfilled dreams of settling in what would become Israel, and his first visit there. His great grandsons have kept his memory alive and Eliav Schmulewitz, one of them, contacted JEECS for help in tracking down more about his time in London. A posting on our Facebook page yielded at least one new discovery. Here below (unedited except for some explanatory additions in brackets) is Michael Davis’s account of his East End days, followed by some of Eliav’s findings and his request for further information. You can read more of Michael Davis’s own account on http://www.cabinetmaker.blogspot.co.il/.
My father, G.R.H.S., left Swinchan, Vilna, and came to London over 70 years ago; and a year or so afterwards, my mother, G.R.H.S., followed, with the four children – two sisters, my brother, and myself.
There is still in my mind the memory of mother having to lift us out of the waggon because the horse couldn't pull it up the hill; and when we arrived in London I was just over four years old, so there is little I can clearly remember about Swinchan.
For some time we lived in a garret in Brick Lane, by the railway arch, and later we moved to Booth Street, which is now called Princelet Street. Opposite our house was the old Booth Street Synagogue, and it was there that the Machzike Hadath [“Upholders of the Faith”] Congregation came into being.
There was a Chazan named Moshe, G.R.H.S., with a long white beard, who taught me Hebrew. It was a pleasure to look at him, and I liked him very much, and he took a liking to me also. After some time the Machzike Hadath moved to its present Synagogue at the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane.
Originally a Hugenot chapel, the former Spitalfields Great Synagogue was home to the Machzike Hadath congregation. Philip Davis's father was one of its founders. The building is now a mosque.
My father was one of the first members, and attended all the Services as it was the only Orthodox Synagogue at that time. They had a very learned Rav, Rabbi Avraham Aba Werner, G.R.H.S, extremely clever, and liked and respected by all.
My father worked very hard, day and night, as a cabinet maker, and as he didn't work on Sabbath he had to come in on the Saturday night, after the termination of the Sabbath, to make up the lost time. The workshop roof leaked and the rain came in, and he used to put a sack on his back to cover himself from the rain while he worked.
Now a society was formed which called itself Cyprus, and the members were all those who wanted to go and settle in Palestine. But at that time it was under Turkish rule, and it was forbidden under heavy penalty to sell land to anyone of the Jewish race; so they decided to settle in Cyprus, which was as near to the Holy Land as they could get.
My father joined this society, and he paid ten shillings [50p] a week to it. He only earned 30/- [£1.50] a week, and mother, G.R.H.S., couldn't manage on the £1 that was left, so she took in lodgers, and cooked meals for them.
It was very hard for her, with four children and another on the way, and in spite of the hardship and poverty it was an open door for any near relatives or landsmen who came from Swinchan. I remember that on Friday she used to put sand on the floor to make the room look nice for the Sabbath, so you can picture the state of our house in those days – no carpets such as we have today, or even lino, but what could you expect on father's earnings of 30/-a week, of which he gave 10/- to the Cyprus society.
It was decided to send a commission to Cyprus to see the land and the conditions there, and as the members were master tailors and cabinet makers and diamond cutters and many others, they went by votes, and the master tailors were selected to go.
It upset father, he felt that tailors were no use on the land, they needed men who could work on the soil. Anyway, they went to Cyprus and were away for some time, and when they came back they gave a very bad report, and it seemed that all their funds were lost.
After some time the PICA [Palestine Jewish Colonization Association], a Rothschild concern, came to their help and paid out a very little for it, and the Society disbanded. They had a Synagogue in Vine Court, which was a very large room, where all the members prayed on Sabbaths and Festivals, and it was in that Synagogue that I had my call-up for Barmitzvah. And the Synagogue also disbanded, and that was the unhappy end of the Cyprus Society.
The former Vine Court Synagogue. Vine Court is a tiny turning off Whitechapel Road. Enter a cobbled alleyway under an arch and on the left hand side (on the right in this photograph looking out from the alley) is 'Malhi House' – formerly Vine Court Synagogue. It was there that the author had his call-up for his barmitzvah.
Now I come to myself, and how I became a Zionist. I saw my father, how he sacrificed himself for Cyprus, just because it was near to Palestine, and how he hoped that one day he would be able to go there, and I realised that I must try for Palestine, and I worked very hard for our cause.
Every day we pray for Zion and for Jerusalem, without lifting a hand, and I felt praying was not enough. So when Dr. Herzl came on the scene with his idea for a State for the Jewish people, I felt I had to help. I went canvassing every Sunday for the Jewish National Fund, and sold Shekolim. Also at this time I had my own affairs to look after.
My Rabbi Moshe gave me a good Hebrew tuition, and when a Yeshivah was formed in Stoney Lane, Houndsditch, he recommended me to join it. There were two large rooms, with about a dozen boys, and we studied all day and had our meals there. It carried on nicely for some time, and several times we were visited by Dayan [religious judge] Sussman and Dayan Spiers of the United Synagogue, who took great interest in us. After some time passed the Yeshivah couldn't afford to supply us with meals, and they appealed to people to give us a day each with meals at their homes. We tried it for a while, and we were not very popular in some of the homes; we heard such remarks as “The lazy lads are here again” and “Let those lazy boys go and work for a living”; and sometimes in stronger terms. So we dispersed, and that was the end of our study.
When the Dayanim Sussman and Spiers heard about it they offered us places at Jews' College free of charge, including my friend Rosenbloom G.R.H.S, and myself. I was very pleased, and so was my father.
But fate ordered otherwise; Dad got very ill, and the family had to be supported, so into the workshop I had to go and do my duty. My new struggle started, and it was not easy. My brother Aleck G.R.H.S. also came into the cabinet making. He was younger than I, and he helped me very much in everything I did.
Mother looked after us bravely. Then we moved to Hoxton Street, as there was more room, and it was more central in the cabinet trade, and we used to go round hawking the furniture we made, on a barrow, to show it and try to sell it. There were plenty of disappointments, in many places we were told to “come back tomorrow”. One man even said he thought the goods were stolen, and I told him to call a policeman.
And so we carried on for a long time, until we heard that the London County Council was going to cut a new road through Hoxton Street, and our house would be pulled down. So we went to the agent for the Landlord, and begged him to give us a tenancy agreement on the house, so that the L.C.C. would have to give us compensation if they demolished it; and he did give us the agreement.
After a few years had gone by the house was getting dilapidated and a lot of repairs were badly needed, but the agent would do nothing. We wanted to leave, but unfortunately we were tied down by the agreement.
One day, passing through Kingsland Road, we saw that the old Police Station was to be sold or let, so I said “Let us write and ask what rent they want for it.”
The family laughed at me and said that we hadn't the cash it would cost. But I begged Aleck G.R.H.S. to write to the Commissioner of Police to ask the rent, and the reply came back that it was open to offer. So I said: “Let us offer any rent, as we couldn't afford to make it into a workshop anyway.” So we sent in the ridiculous offer of £120 a year, and after some months went by and we heard nothing, we forgot it altogether.
Then after a long time, a letter came accepting our offer. We were all stunned with surprise; we couldn't get involved in such an undertaking. So we wrote back and said that to break up the cells and convert it to a workshop would cost a lot of money and we couldn't do it. So the Police wrote back and told us to get an estimate and let them know the cost, and they would pay it. So we signed the agreement and took it; and afterwards the L.C.C. demanded that we install fireproof ceilings on the first floor, and other things, and we couldn't afford it.
So I said “What can they do to us? All they can do is to cancel the lease”, which was in father's name.
We wrote to the Police about it, and they came down, and we told them the position. In a few weeks we got an answer to go ahead with the work and send them the bill. And that is the short story of the Miracle of Kingsland Road that happened to us – and the One Above looked down on us and looked after us; as the old saying goes, we were like unto the young fools who stepped in where angels fear to tread.
The reason I mention Kingsland Road is that I was always sorry that I missed my chance of making an easier living by becoming a Minister. The hard work began when Kingsland Road was settled. But Sundays were my canvassing days for the J.N.F. [Jewish National Fund] and I had plenty of rebuffs.
One Sunday I called on a Mr. Levene. I had called on him several times to try to get a donation, and he refused me each time; but I worried him each time, and at last he said: “No wonder you have a Police Station in Kingsland Road.” He meant that I take the money for myself. As it happened, I belonged to the Bethnal Green Talmud Torah, and he was on the Committee, and the Rev. J. Goldbloom was the Headmaster, so I told him about it. He asked me to attend the next Committee meeting, and the Rev. Goldbloom said to him: “How dare you say such things to Mr. Davis.” And he made Mr. Levene apologise to me for the insult, and pay a donation to the J.N.F.
One day a man went up to my father and said: “I would never believe that your son should canvass for Zionism. I always took him for a religious young man; how can he do such a thing?” So when I heard of it I went to this man, and said to him: “How can you, a Cohen, talk like this? All our prayers are for a return to Zion and Jerusalem.”
And he was dumb, and said nothing.
I went to all the Zionist meetings, and met the great Jewish leaders of those days. I was at the historic meeting that was held by Dr. Herzl in the Queen's Hall, at the back of what is now Broadcasting House, and also at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington.
When Balfour returned from a visit to Palestine I remember hearing him say: “We opened the door of Palestine to you, you must work hard to keep it open, and it will not be easy.” There were many of the great men of our race at that meeting, a great crowd and a lot of excitement. Then, at the Great Assembly Hall in the Mile End Road, when Israel Zangwill spoke, and Prof. Brodetsky [Selig Brodetsky, a member of the World Zionist Executive, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the second president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem] was in the chair, and others of great fame; and many other smaller meetings such as the King's Hall in Commercial Road.
And I was sent to Manchester as a delegate to the Mizrachi [religious Zionism] conference, where we had a very good reception on the Sabbath in the Great Synagogue, and on the Sunday the conference started in full swing.
Now every Sabbath I went with my father to the Machzike Hadass Synagogue for the Service, and in the afternoon we went to listen to a sermon by a Rav, as this was the only Orthodox Synagogue then. One Sabbath, the lecturer was Rabbi Gold, G.R.H.S., of the Mizrachi movement, and when he started his sermon there was a great uproar.
They said: “We do not want to hear anything about Palestine, where they work on Shabbat and eat treifah [non-Kosher food]”; for there was a lot of opposition to Zionism from very Orthodox Jews.
So there was a lot of shouting, and it took Rabbi Gold a long time to get their attention, and when he promised to say only a couple of sentences, they quietened down a little, and he said: “The difference between Palestine and London is that in London there are also religious Jews, and in Palestine there are also Jews who work on Shabbat and eat treifah and do other things that are forbidden by the Torah.”
And what he meant by that was that in Palestine they are mostly religious, and only a few are not, but in London they are mostly not religious, but a few do keep the religion.
So they let him get on with his sermon.
The journal goes on to explain the author’s commitment to Zionism and gives a fascinating account of his first visit to the Holy Land, his problematic travelling companion, meetings with Chaim Weizmann, serious rioting in which his life was in danger, and the bad news from home that meant he had to leave. It is fascinating and you can read it on Julian Cosky’s blog http://www.cabinetmaker.blogspot.co.il/.
An amazing find from a JEECS appeal .
Eliav Schmulewitz, one of Michael Davis’s great grandsons, wrote to JEECS asking for help in uncovering more about his forebear’s life in London. A posting on our Facebook page yielded results. Below is the story of the discovery.
Eliav wrote: “I am looking for information regarding my family who migrated to England in the end of the 19th century.
“The family name is Posimensky. According to a diary that my great grandfather wrote, his father is one of the founders of the Machzikey hadat congregation,
“He was also a cabinet maker in the East End so maybe there is information about a Jewish cabinet makers trade union.”
Our Facebook posting resulted in what Eliav called “an amazing respond from a person on Facebook. He uploaded a picture of my great grandfather’s brother’s naturalization papers (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153110150963983&set=p.10153110150963983&type=1&theater).
Again thanks a million.”
Who was Michael Davis? .
Eliav Schmulewitz has uncovered some interesting facts
The dates in the journal suggest that Michael Philip Davis’s father, Tuvia, left the town he calls Swinchan around 1880. According to the 1911 UK census Aleck Posimensky was born in Russia on 1888 and Leah Posimensky in England in 1892, so that narrows the arrival to England to somewhere between 1888 and 1892.
Swinchan is probably the city now called Švenčionys in north east Lithuania, near the border with Belarus, a distance about 85 km from Vilna.
Michael’s father, Tuvia, was born around 1860, when the town was part of the pale of settlements – the area in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed. The town’s Jewish population peaked around the year 1880 at about 4,500.
On June 22 1887, a great fire killed three-quarters of Swintchan’s population probably as part of the pogroms that started in the south west. Maybe this is what sent the Posimensky family to England.
Tuvia and Mariasha become Davis and Mary. The 1911 UK census has 13 people named Posimensky. Names, ages and places of birth are shown as: Davis Posimensky, 50, Russia; Mary Posimensky, 47, Russia; Simon Posimensky, 28, Russia (and living in North Manchester); Michael Posimensky, 26, Russia; Ray Posimensky, 26, England; Aleck Posimensky,23, Russia; Leah Posimensky, 19, England; Ray Posimensky, 16 , England; Nancy Posimensky, 14, England; Dora Posimensky, 12, England; Solly Posimensky, 10, England; Asher Posimensky, 4, England; and Nathan Posimensky, 2, England.
Asher and Nathan are Michael’s sons: Michael married Rachel on 1905 and she is probably one of the people listed as Ray Posimensky. Michael’s parents are named as Davis and Mary, anglicised from Tuvia and Mariasha. So Davis here is a forename but subsequently became a surname.
Eliav’s detailed findings are at https://posimenskydavisfamily.wordpress.com/