Jewish East End Celebration Society
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Bernard Kops, the great East End playwright, novelist and poet, and honorary president of JEECS, has died at the age of 97

The son of Dutch-Jewish immigrants, Bernard was born in 1926 and brought up in Stepney Green Buildings in a world whose frontier was Aldgate East tube station, a world in which clothing from the Jewish Board of Guardians and food from the soup kitchen played a big role.

Despite the poverty – with seven children and just two beds – Bernard remembered it as a secure world. There was a close family, a park the length of Stepney Green to play in, the Stepney Jewish School, the Mile End Waste, with its political meetings and market stalls lit at night by naphtha flares.

Much of his work has focused on the East End.  His first play, The Hamlet of Stepney Green, was published to well-deserved critical acclaim in 1958. He has never stopped writing, with more than 40 plays for stage, television and radio, nine novels, seven volumes of poetry and two volumes of autobiography.

It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow of 1975 was a moving television drama  centred on the Bethnal Green Tube station disaster (on March 3 1943, 173 people, including 62 children, seeking to use the station as a bomb shelter were crushed to death in the worst civilian tragedy of the war).

Returning We Hear the Larks, written to mark the closure of Whitechapel Library – the so-called University of the Ghetto – in 2005 brought together characters from the old Jewish East End and the modern area’s Muslim residents in a drama that was given a special performance at the Library, starring Warren Mitchell.

He came back to a wartime East End setting with the radio play, The Lost World of Phoebe Myers, broadcast in 2006, the year that also saw the publication of Bernard Kops’ East End, a collection of his writings.

But his work has also extended well outside the East End boundaries, with plays set, for example, in Tsarist Russia and a Southend old people’s home.

His Dreams of Anne Frank, from 1993, brings to life the world of the Amsterdam attic room that sheltered the teenage Anne Frank and her family until they were betrayed to the Nazis.

He was also a teacher, encouraging budding young dramatists, and takes pride in the fact that his students have included people from many diverse backgrounds, including the Muslim community.

In an interview with The Cable in 2006, he described his work from the beginning as having been “of a oneness”.

“My first play was in a sense about a dying community; it’s what I experienced at the end of the war when people started to move away. And it’s also about where they go to and how it affects them; the changes that took place in the Jewish world. And then in a way it’s what the East End is about, as a kind of sanctuary,” he said.

“People settled there; it was nearest to home. But it was also a jumping-off place.

“Now, of course, there’s the Bangladeshi community. They too will grow and go. People work hard in the community when they come, then they establish themselves, the children grow up, they get an education, they want to be doctors and lawyers and all sorts of things and they move out. And then their children want to become painters and writers, and politicians and things like that.

“So I envisage the same thing happening all over again.”

That is what happened with the Indian community, he said. They flourished and now they write, they paint, they are doctors and lawyers.

“It’s all to do with the tribe, it’s all to do with what happens. So these are things I know. I don’t choose my themes, my themes choose me.”

The Jews moved on, he said. “The Bangladeshis came. There’s the same sort of energy there.”

When you talked to Bernard what always shone through was his essential humanity, which might well help to account for the contentment he clearly felt after some troubled years as a young man.

He died peacefully on Sunday February 25 surrounded by his family.

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For the old Jeecs site, visit www.jeecs.org.uk/archive