Socialist Worker

Harold Rosen: A rebel from the East End

It was with deep sadness that Socialist Worker heard that Harold Rosen, a lifelong socialist and educationalist, died on Thursday of last week. Harold was born in the US in 1919 into a Jewish Communist family. He came to London at the age of two

Issue No. 2113

Harold Rosen at Cable Street in 2005 (Pic:» Guy Smallman )

Harold Rosen at Cable Street in 2005 (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

‘My mother was on the committee of Stepney’s CP. Before the First World War my grandfather had been a member of the Social Democratic Federation, which was about as left as you could get then. Later he supported the CP but wasn’t a member.

During the 1926 General Strike I remember standing in Commercial Street as troops went by in armoured cars to go to the docks.

My mother and grandfather were holding my hands and cursing under their breath.

We lived in an area that was 99 percent Jewish, with immigrants from Russia and Poland.

My mother was unusual in that she was born in England. She taught my grandfather to read English.

He was fluent in Yiddish and Russian, but he would get me to read to him from the CP’s Daily Worker paper and from other journals.

The whole family were atheists. But my grandfather had a very sophisticated approach to how to relate to the majority of people who were religious.

He said you mustn’t offend people unnecessarily. Like many young people I thought it was easy just to say, “I’m having nothing to do with religion, as it’s just a means to keep people passive.”

So I would say things like, “I’m not going to fast in public during festivals such as Yom Kippur.” He would say, “Don’t be silly. If they see you eating bread they won’t understand.

“If there is a funeral for one of the neighbours, what do you expect me to do? Refuse to go to the synagogue?”

These were his neighbours, his friends. He was respectful of them.

You have to understand that for many Jews practising their religion was a way of asserting your identity, just as it is for Muslims today.

He was very hard on religion but did not make futile gestures to offend religious people.

At 15 I joined the Young Communist League. I used to sell their paper, Challenge, in Brick Lane’s markets and tenements. There were so many strands to East End culture – political strands, religious, Zionist and so on.

But I often feel there was a certain shared humour and culture, and there was always political argument.

That was due to the fact that people mostly shared an immigrant experience of pogroms where they had come from and, at this stage in the 1930s, of facing the fascists.

My first wife came from Bethnal Green. It was the interface between the Jewish and non-Jewish areas, and somewhere Oswald Mosley’s fascists built support.

It was a serious business: organising to protect ourselves from the fascists and to launch a counter-offensive.

The most famous counter-fascist event was at Cable Street in 1936, where tens of thousands of people stopped the fascists marching.

The whole day was a tremendous victory. It also exposed the craven attitude of the Labour Party and the Jewish authorities. They just told us to stay off the streets.

There were many good people in the Labour Party. But it was so right wing that one of its East End MPs supported the fascist leader Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

The barrenness of its meetings also contrasted with the CP.

We always had cultural activities. And by taking up the social questions people faced the party really undercut the fascists.

There was a terrific battle against rent rises in Bethnal Green, which the Communist Party led. It exposed the fascists, who were not going to come out seriously against the landlords.

There was political competition within the Jewish area as well. By the mid-1930s the Zionists were very active and quite powerful.

In a sense you felt it was a choice between Zionism and the Communist Party. If you look at any immigrant community there are political divisions.

You can look back and see how we made all sorts of mistakes.

But one of the things we got right is that we constantly discussed political ideas, history and general Marxist education.

There was a stream of socialists visiting our house – Jewish and non-Jewish. They were dockers, factory workers, trade unionists.

Our family may have been unusual in the strength of its Communist preoccupations. But under the impact of huge world events there was political discussion of one kind or another across the East End.’

For a full version of the interview go to » The real lives of Eastenders

Article information

Tue 5 Aug 2008, 17:37 BST
Issue No. 2113
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