DAVID WALKER hails a book that is both a riveting read and a fitting memorial to the many brave Jewish members of Britain’s wartime fire services
See below for great book offer, valid until April 28
“Windy Yid” was an all too common epithet faced by Jewish volunteers in the fire services at the start of the Second World War. The mindless, anti-Semitic comment from passers-by seeing them training reflected a belief that they were sheltering from active service in the front line and staying safe in Britain.
If there were bombs, it was alleged, the Jews would run away rather than stay to fight the resultant fires.
It was a view that for the most part did not last long as the Blitz got under way and the heroism of the fire services and their many Jewish members become evident amid the huge dangers they faced, the amazing acts of self-sacrificing bravery they performed, and the vast number of lives they saved amid the bombing. One of only three wartime fire service recipients of the George Cross, the highest civilian honour for bravery, was a Jewish fireman, Harry Errington, whose parents had anglicised their name from Ehrengott. And there were many other citations for outstanding acts of bravery among the fire services’ Jewish members.
Special Offer. Publisher Vallentine Mitchell is offering this book at a great discount to JEECS members. To obtain your copy of Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War: Last Voices at a bargain price follow the instructions at the end of the article. Offer valid until April 28 2017.
And yet, certainly in the early days, the services’ Jewish members faced anti-Semitic taunts not just from passers-by but from their fire service colleagues, among whom Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts had a significant following.
The Government had set up the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1938 as the threat of war loomed to supplement the regular fire services. The war itself brought other, related services – fire watchers, fire guards, street fire patrols, for example. And many of those volunteering for such duties were Jewish.
Their stories are told by Martin Sugarman, archivist at the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, in his book Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War: Last Voices.
The wartime fireman at work: an iconic still from the 1943 film featuring the work of the fire services, Fires Were Started.
The book, to which JEECS’s own Stephanie Maltman (a prime mover in the charity Firemen Remembered, which seeks to ensure firemen of all creeds and races killed during the war are never forgotten) made a sizeable contribution, has a similar format to the same author’s Under the Heel of Bushido: Last Voices of the Jewish PoWs of the Japanese in the Second World War, reviewed in the last issue of The Cable.
There is a brilliant overview of the Jewish contribution to the fire services, with important facts and figures putting everything into context, a host of individual stories looking at the men and women who played such a vital role in seeking to keep a beleaguered civilian population safe, a roll of honour naming those killed in action or while on active service (a tragically long list) and a record of honour listing as far as is possible all the other Jewish members of the wartime fire services. Two appendices look at other fire units and examine levels of anti-Semitism in the fire services.
The book is also splendidly illustrated.
Many of the Jews who volunteered were of course British-born and bred, but often others faced problems in volunteering because they had been born overseas and officialdom at the start of the war did not know how to deal with people who, though basic common sense would tell you were against Hitler and all he stood for, had been born abroad. The book recounts how some already accepted in the fire services were summarily removed because they were seen – short-sightedly – as aliens not to be trusted.
Taxi-drivers formed one group especially welcomed into the fire services in London because they knew their way round the capital and could therefore be relied on to drive fire engines knowing where to locate the addresses to which the engines were being sent. And, of course, many taxi-drivers were Jewish. Their cabs, too, might well be put to fire service use, suitably modified, for example to tow fire pumps to where they were needed.
At start of the 1930s, 330,000 Jews lived in Britain, about a third of them in the East End. Jews were a little over half of one per cent of the population. But their representation in the wartime fire services was much higher than this.
In 1937, Britain had about 5,000 full-time firemen. By 1940 at the height of the Blitz, the fire services had expanded to 225,000, 193,000 of them volunteers in the Auxiliary Fire Service.
Jews had been among the first to enrol. When war came, an estimated 85 per cent of the Civil Defence in the East End was Jewish. Across London as a whole, the figure is put at a third, and at some Auxiliary Fire Service stations in the East End such as Wellclose Square and Fairclough Street maybe 90 per cent of the personnel were Jewish.
In their introduction Martin Sugarman and Stephanie Maltman note that the Jews Free School in Bell Lane in the East End was, like other schools, used as a fire station after the children had been evacuated in 1940s.
They quote from the memoirs of Jim Barnard, a senior London fireman and later Deputy Chief of Essex, who trained auxiliaries. He recalled that most of the 400 men he trained in Whitechapel for the AFS were Jewish, many of them Petticoat Lane stallholders and taxi drivers, and he remembers them, the authors say, with respect and affection.
Although anti-Semitism seems sharply to have reduced, there remained all too many anti-Semitic incidents, although there were also incidents of station officers, for example, drawing up rotas to try to take account of the Jewish holidays. In Stepney the ARP controller in September 1941 allowed Jewish fire guards to find a substitute if their turn of duty fell on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.
And among ordinary firemen there was appreciation of the kindness they encountered from East End Jewish families who would provide tea and cake during incidents even though they clearly had little to spare.
The Roll of Honour includes many East Enders as well as many others killed amid the devastation wrought in the East End. There are particular tragedies.
Hyman Feldman of Stamford Hill, whose family belonged to both the Jubilee Street and Philpot Street Great Synagogues in the East End, had a brother, Louis, who died as a prisoner of the Japanese. Hyman was hit by an exploding bomb in Dod Street in Stepney, dying with the rest of his team and leaving a wife, Rebecca.
Albert Victor Coster, who lived in Sheridan Street, was just 14 when he died in 1943, having been firefighting since he was 12 and also acting as a fire watcher.
George William Blumson of Vallance Road, killed on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Vallance Road in 1941, was also a fire watcher. He was 15.
Teenage cousins Sydney and Morris Gevelb lived near each other in Jubilee Street. Sydney was a fire watcher; Morris worked with St John’s Ambulance. Both died in the same incident in Commercial Road. Sydney was 17, Morris 18.
What was it like being a fire officer. Take a day – and a night, and the following day – in the life of Sam Chauveau. He was born into an Orthodox family in the East End in 1912 and was to become co-commander of the Burdett Road station in Stepney. His grandchildren called him Fireman Sam.
Having played a part in fighting the fascists in the East End in the 1930s he joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1938, starting at Bishopsgate Fire Station and then taking charge of a station at the Stock Exchange. He worked as a trainer running five-day courses on incendiaries and other aspects of fire-fighting. His station was one of those with an aged, but expertly overhauled, London taxi used to tow fire pumps.
The morning had been uneventful, a time for chores. By 1 o’clock, they were finished; the men could relax a little. Then came the sirens as the first daylight German raid on London started. Equipment was got ready, the engines prepared. An hour later, came a shout out to a clothing factory in Mile End. There a burning beam fell across his neck and he suffered severe burns. The injury notwithstanding, Sam stayed on the job. The clothing factory fire was dealt with and the crew returned to the station. No sooner were they back than there came another call, to a burning food warehouse in Wapping Lane.
That blaze too was eventually extinguished. But there was to be no rest. Some 12 hours after that first call-out to Mile End came orders to provide reinforcements to crews tackling a fire at East London Rubber Company in Shoreditch. After six hours, the flames had been conquered.
But there was still no break for Sam and his team: a new fire started at the rear of the building. It was not till 3.00 in the afternoon, 21½ hours after the first call-out, that the team was able to drive back past the ruined buildings of the East End. In a final twist, the iron gate giving access to the fire station was off its hinges, and they had to park in Bartholomew Lane.
Even now there was to be little respite; at 9.00pm the alarms were sounding again.
There were many days like that for Sam across the City and the East End. In July 1944, he was on alert in West India Dock when a V1 rocket came down and he was forced out of active service with injuries to his head, back and legs.
The Sam Chauveau Room at the London Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark is named for him, and in 1996 Sam unveiled a plaque at the London Stock Exchange commemorating the 45 firemen and women who served in the Stock Exchange fire station during the war. He died in 1998.
The highest ranking Jewish officer in the Fire Service was also an East Ender, Sidney Hart or Hartz. The family were members of Bevis Marks Synagogue, and Sidney went to the Jews Free School in the East End (later, as we have seen, to be converted into a fire station for the war) and was also active in the Gravel Lane (off Houndsditch) Jewish Lads Brigade.
A printer, he was a part-time fireman and was called up full time when war broke out, serving at Bishopsgate station. His father was a fireman, too, and his mother often turned up at fires with pots of tea. His wife and sister also served in the wartime fire brigade.
Sidney remained in the brigade until well after the war, serving in Wales and ending his career as station officer at Tilbury before retiring in 1969.
Sam Chauveau’s and Sidney Hart’s stories are just two of the many fascinating tales the book contains of the Jewish men and Jewish women who did so much during the war, often at great personal risk to themselves.
To bring the stories to light has involved assiduous detective work by Martin Sugarman, aided by Stephanie Maltman, to whom he pays generous acknowledgement. There has been wide-ranging research into written records plus a multiplicity of interviews with those still alive among the many who served and with the families of those who died before work started on the book.
That, alongside forewords from two eminent historians and from two very senior figures in the modern fire brigade, plus the two appendices mentioned above, have created a riveting book which is also a fitting memorial to all those who were prepared to sacrifice so much for the sake of their fellow men and women.
Jewish Participation in the Fire Service in the Second World War. Last Voices. Published in 2016 by Vallentine Mitchell. www.vmbooks.com. ISBN 978 1 910383 07 0. £35.
JEECS SPECIAL OFFER PRICE £28 (20 per cent discount, post-free in the UK). Offer valid until April 28 2017. Call 01752 202301 and quote “JEECS 17”.