IVAN KOOP KUPER takes a personal journey through his mother’s East End from his home in Houston, Texas.
The average American’s only exposure to London’s East End, if any, is typically through the BBC television series EastEnders, syndicated to the US to be shown by PBS. This long-running British soap opera depicts the offbeat characters who live in the fictional neighbourhood of Albert Square in the fictional borough of Walford.
The real East End, however, comprises the very real neighbourhoods and/or boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Aldgate, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Bow, Mile End, and, in the shadow of downtown’s financial district, Whitechapel. Traditionally home of London’s underclass, many infamous and colourful characters throughout the ages are associated with the East End: Victorian-era serial killer Jack the Ripper, Joseph Merrick, known as the “Elephant Man”, sociopath gangster twin brothers the Krays, diminutive glam rocker Marc Feld, known as Marc Bolan – and my dear mother, the late Phyllis Bernstein Kuper
Phyllis Bernstein and friends in London
Born in 1924, in the predominantly Jewish working class neighbourhood of Whitechapel, Phyllis grew up in a three-room walk-up flat at 22 Greatorex Street, east of Whitechapel Road. During that era, in this community of primarily eastern European and Russian immigrants one could easily find a synagogue, a kosher butcher shop and a delicatessen on virtually any street corner.
Ironically, Phyllis and her two best friends, who happened to be sisters, were the only three Jewish girls at the neighbourhood Roman Catholic girl’s school. Whitechapel was a close-knit community where a favourite pastime was keeping track of your neighbour’s personal affairs and sharing the information with others while hanging laundry on the line to dry behind your block of flats.
The term Cockney has traditionally been associated with London’s East End to describe not only geographic location but also the local dialect. If you were born or lived within hearing distance of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow, an Anglican church whose origin dates back to the 11th century and which is located in an area known as the Square Mile, you were defined as a Cockney. Cockney English was the dialect spoken by actress Audrey Hepburn in her portrayal of George Bernard Shaw’s character, Eliza Doolittle, in the 1964 film musical, My Fair Lady. It was also the dialect spoken by my mother, who never lost her accent her entire life and who always appeared conspicuously out of place and a cultural novelty in suburban Houston, Texas.
Not far from where my mother Phyllis spent her formative years is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Established in 1570 and still in business over 440 years later, though,sadly, no longer so, it was here that both Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell and London’s Big Ben were cast.
Moszek – Monty – Kuper in London in 1945
If you go a little further south down Whitechapel Road you come to the Royal London Hospital. In operation at this East End location since 1757, it was here that Joseph Merrick, the renowned Elephant Man, lived out his remaining years of life in comfort, and found refuge from the relentless exploitation and abuse he experienced from English society, as a reaction to his severe physical abnormalities. Joseph Merrick died at age 27.
Both of Phyllis’s parents were also born and raised in the East End. Her mother, Dinah Wagner Bernstein, was a homemaker and her father, Jack Bernstein, a self- proclaimed “master hairdresser”, and a professional gambler. Although he was the proprietor of his own barbers shop, Jack could never quite get ahead in life because of his compulsive gambling addiction. He would spend many an afternoon at the nearby Hackney dog racing track, placing bets and squandering money that should have gone to taking care of his family.
Established in 1932 and in operation until 1994, the derelict Hackney dog track was only recently demolished in 2003 to make way for Olympic Park, the site of London’s 2012 Summer Olympics.
Phyllis Bernstein and friends having fun at a Butlin’s holiday camp
Jack Bernstein’s continual gambling debts prohibited him from raising his family out of an endless cycle of poverty and squalor. He was not very committed to his marriage and was also emotionally distant to his daughter. Phyllis would bear the emotional scars of her relationship with her father throughout her lifetime. She would also carry the burden of shame from a secret she kept buried deep within her.
During the Second World War, Phyllis and her parents joined the rest of their East End neighbours in seeking refuge when necessary in nearby Aldgate East tube station. There, the Bernsteins spent many a sleepless night on the platform as the bombs rained down outside in Germany’s Blitzkrieg of London.
Phyllis would tell my sister and me stories of how she would hear the air raid sirens at night, and how she and her parents would make a dash for the tube station with their pillows and blankets to find safety from the rain of the Luftwaffe’s V1 rockets that she always referred to as “buzz bombs”. When the sirens signalled that all was clear, the Bernsteins and their neighbours would re-emerge from their night of interrupted slumber into their bombed-out neighbourhood and go about their business.
Next door to the tube station is the Whitechapel Art Gallery and former library. Established in 1901, and still in operation, the unassuming little gallery brought major exhibitions of significant artwork to the East End of then unknown artists as diverse as the Spanish Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock of the US, and Frida Kahlo of Mexico. After the war, Phyllis met a dashing young Polish refugee from Lodz at a neighbourhood dance, and they were soon planning a new life together involving a move away from the UK. Phyllis and my father were married in 1948 and immigrated to the US two years later.
Phyllis Bernstein and friends in Greatorex Street
I remember my mother as being affectionate and nurturing, cheerful and outgoing, and kind and generous. However, conversely, she could be crude and crass, belligerent and antagonistic, and excessively neurotic and emotionally unstable. She also suffered from a host of phobias, compulsive disorders, and mood swings, and my sister and I never knew what mother, with what personality trait, would be entering our bedrooms while we were busy sitting on the floor doing our schoolwork while in grade school.
When I was a young, precocious lad, I once asked my mother: “Exactly where in London are your parents buried? What cemetery?” and “Who paid for their burial?” I remember my mother never giving me a straight answer and conveniently changing the subject.
It was only much later in life during one of my visits to England that I learnt that Jack had another wife and family during the time of his marriage to my grandmother Dinah, a fact that my mother became aware of at an early age as did the entire neighbourhood. This revelation ate away at my mother her entire life and was manifested by her irrational behaviour, hostility toward her family, and lifelong feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
In the summer of 2005, my older sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a disease that is prevalent among women of Ashkenazi lineage. My sister found herself at the receiving end of my mother’s tirades while growing up more than I did. This created a chasm between them that was never resolved. My father who spent the majority of his time away in the pursuit of supporting the family was oblivious to the dynamics of his family when he was not home. However, he knew all too well of his wife’s proclivity to fly into a screaming volatile rage without any warning in Houston’s finer restaurants and department stores.
Phyllis Bernstein in London, probably in 1945
Even while my sister was in a coma drifting in and out of consciousness at the end of her life, my mother would sit silently by her bedside but could not bring herself to speak to her and tell her that she loved her or that she was sorry for her irrational behaviour and for all the torment and grief she caused her.
By the time my mother left for America on the RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1950, Dinah was estranged from Jack who was now living with his other family. Phyllis would send her mother $20 a month to help supplement her living expenses where food rationing was still the norm in the devastation of post-war London. My mother received a letter from neighbours back home saying that Dinah had passed away in 1955. She eventually learned that Jack died in 1959. When I photocopied Jack’s death certificate at London’s Family Records Centre in 2006, I discovered that it was signed by my mother’s half-sister – a woman named H. Kaye.
Neither of Phyllis’ parents ever left the confines of their East End neighbourhood where they were raised, married and ultimately laid to rest. Through my research, I discovered that Dinah was buried at a cemetery in West Ham, and Jack at another in East Ham. Both died penniless, and to this day it is a mystery who arranged and paid for their burial. I also discovered that neither of my grandparents had tombstones or formal markers on their graves. Instead, they both have weathered index cards affixed to rusting metal poles indicating who has been laid to rest and when.
Phyllis died in 2007, 10 weeks after the death of my sister from postoperative complications after undergoing a procedure to repair a defective heart valve. I prefer to believe she literally died from a broken heart due to the death of her daughter and all the unresolved issues between them as well as the unresolved issues she always had with her father. I also believe she finally found freedom from the demons that plagued her throughout her life and that she is now finally resting in peace.
London’s East End underwent yet another transformation at the end of the 1970s. An entirely new wave of immigrants, predominantly from Bangladesh, now inhabits the once predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods. The synagogues were replaced by mosques, in place of the kosher butcher shops are now halal butchers and the smell of curry permeates the air as it drifts out of the cafes and restaurants that line Brick Lane in the neighbourhood where my mother once spent her childhood dreaming of a better life.