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Diana White Remembers Jewish Brighton and Hove

Interviewer - Betty Skolnick

In this interview Betty Skolnick talks with Diana White at her home in Hove, 24 April 2003, and Diana White recalls Jewish Brighton from the late 1920s onwards, with important recollections of the formation of the Progressive synagogue in Brighton and relations between the different sections of the community. She also recalls the effect of the War on the Jewish community and the Jewish refugees who came to Brighton and Hove.

Diana, our objective is to talk a bit about the synagogue, but as I explained to you, in order to put that in context could you tell me a little bit about your childhood, when you were born, where you were born, who your parents were, etc.

I was born on the 25th of November 1922 in Kemp Town, Brighton. My parents came to live in Brighton from London in 1912. They were leading members of the congregation down here. At that time there was only one synagogue, Middle Street Synagogue, which my father, my mother and I went there every week. We were very strong members of the synagogue. It was a different atmosphere in those days. As I say, only the one place to worship. The family life was close-knit and everybody seemed to know everybody else and it was a different atmosphere all together from what we get now.

Was your whole extended family in Brighton?

No, no. I had a sister who was in London. She was down here until she was 18 and then she left to go teach in London, but my father travelled to London every day on the train and came home in the evening. Brighton was full of kosher butchers, delicatessen shops, totally different from today where you can't get a thing.

Were all these shops in one particular area?

Yes, there were two Jewish butchers in Bond Street, just off North Street. One was called Frankels and the other was called Glassman, and they were at loggerheads all the time. It was an experience on a Thursday or a Friday to go in there. It was real spit and sawdust. And on the Friday especially I can always remember, they used to sit me on the counter and Mr Glassman used to get hold of my cheeks and pinch my cheeks and "Ah, lovely girl, kinahora!" [laughter] And it was such a different atmosphere. From there we used to go over to the delicatessen shop and get things like olives and cucumbers for the weekend. Things like that.

So the Jewish community was really much more obvious. Everything was very overt and open?

Yes. Oh yes, yes. I've never, thank goodness, I've never experienced any anti-Judaism at all. I went to a Jewish school. In those days there were five Jewish schools down here. I went to a Jewish school from the age of 5 until I was 11.

What was the name of that school?

It was called Southdown College for Young Ladies. It was situated at the top of Brunswick Place, next door practically to our own synagogue. Our own synagogue was then a gymnasium, so in those days I used to do knees bend, arms stretched with my little blue bloomers, whereas, that's where I pray nowadays. And the office where I worked for ten, twelve years, was Matron's office, where every Friday night we used to have to go in there to be given syrup of figs if we had tummy troubles. So the synagogue has not only been my synagogue where I pray but it was part of my education right from the age of 5.

Do you remember when the Liberal synagogue was being discussed or was founded?

Yes, yes, it was in the 1930s. I think I'm correct in saying, I'm quite correct in saying their first premises was 29 New Church Road, which is now the Orthodox school, the Torah Academy. And they started there. But it was not long afterwards that the late Lord Cohen, who was one of the leading lights of that time, of the Liberal Synagogue, bought the property in Lansdowne Road. And the Orthodox then bought the property in New Church Road. Because my father was one of the instigators of buying it, because in those days people had moved out from Brighton and were moving into Hove and they were finding it too difficult to walk to Middle Street and they had to find an alternative and that's how it started in New Church Road.

This is a slightly diversionary question, but what accounts for that move westward. Is that an indication of upward mobility?

I think that it was a case of Hove was coming to be the place to be, as we now call it. It was coming up-market and people drifted into Hove. There were more blocks of flats being put up - I'm talking about the Thirties, middle Thirties and people were getting used to living in blocks of flats. Embassy Court is one of the blocks of flats from the early Thirties. Many a rich Jewish person went into Embassy Court.

Diana, you would have been very young in 1935 when they first moved into New Church Road, but do you remember any of the discussions or comments within the Jewish community about this Liberal movement, this Progressive movement?

Well first of all, thank you for saying I must have been very young in 1930, having been born in 1922. There was an atmosphere. The Liberal service was very Liberal in those days. When I look back, I wonder what I saw in it. The leading lights in those days were Claude Hershman and Hymie Middleburgh and Claude was a kind of person who would never ever think of covering his head. In those days nobody thought of covering their head when they went to synagogue. The whole service I think from about - the Shema was the only thing that was said in Hebrew - the whole service was very Anglicised, very, very British, if I can say that. But it appealed to a lot of people, people who were beginning to think Orthodoxy was a bit too much in those days and this is something new, let's try it. And we slowly got a very strong following.

Did you join yourself as a member when you were older or did your parents become involved?

My mother loved the service. We lived very close to Lansdowne Road. We lived in Holland Road, just above the Orthodox shul. My father was astounded at the fact that my mother wanted to go to one of our services and we used to more or less creep out on a Friday night, my mother and I, and she loved the service, because she was very - although they were strict Orthodox and came from a very Orthodox family - she was very Anglicised, if you get my meaning, and, but my father was very, very anti. I think the more we said we'd go up the road the more he said he'd go to the corner.

They moved to Lansdowne Road in 1939. You would have been seventeen.

Was it '39?

'39 it was actually consecrated. It's possible they were holding services before then.

Yes, they were. About '37, '38

Did you and your mother start going?

Creeping out on a Friday night.

And were you the instigator of that rather than your mother?

My mother! And I went with her. We never became members of the synagogue. And then during the war there was a lapse of course because we moved into Burgess Hill and there was no Progressive synagogue there obviously. And after the war, in 1947, a Mrs Enoch, who was a rather strong member of the Progressive shul, decided that we ought to have a youth group, and all the young fellows and young girls were coming out of the forces. And we started this youth group and I was roped in and it wasn't long before I became the Honorary Secretary. And we had, I think one of the finest youth groups that anybody can imagine. There were all types of Jewish people there, there was the Orthodox, there was the not so Orthodox, and us. It was a wonderful atmosphere and on one occasion in June I think there were four weddings on one Sunday made from this youth group. But it really was fantastic. And it was then, in 1947, that I realised it was about time that I really thought about Progressive Judaism and joined the shul.

What, if I can just take you back to your mother for a minute, what do you think it was about the services that attracted her, the fact that they were in English, that they were nearby?

The fact that they were in English and she could understand them. As I said, they were, my mother's parents and grandparents and her ancestors were of English origin, and she still had that, although they were Orthodox Jews and kept everything she still had that little bit of English behind her, and half of the service was in English or three-quarters of the service in those days, or nearly all of it!

And the hymns?

Yes, and they had hymns. She didn't like the hymns actually. She was very anti. She thought that was going too far.

It was too much like a church?

Yuh, yuh. She kept up her membership of Middle Street, and I still went with her to Middle Street.

And can you remember how you felt, how you reacted to the differences between Middle Street and Lansdowne Road?

I think that, to be quite honest with you, the attraction was not so much the services as the fact that there were a lot of young people there and a very nice lot of young men there, and there was this fantastic youth group. And I slowly took to the service, and, you know....

You were going to say, the Youth group was founded around '45?


'47. So you were going for several years before that was established?

Not really going. No. [laughter] But when my mother died, much to our surprise, in her will she put that she wanted to be cremated, which was very, very anti-Orthodox. So again, the Liberal came into being and did the service.

When did your mother die, Diana?

My mother died in 1958. My father died in 1954 and, uh, but there was always this little thing going...

Tension in the family!

This little thing going. What do you go around the corner for? [laughter]

He didn't stop her?

No, no. He wouldn't stop her. Friday night she was at the Liberal. Saturday morning she was at Middle Street. [laughter] Possibly, her true allegiance was to the Orthodox. But it was the devil in her. [laughter]

Take me back to the Youth Group. You obviously were enjoying the company!


Can you tell me a bit more about the activities that you undertook, and what the relationship was with the rest of the congregation?

The relationship with the rest of the congregation had to be amicable, because half, well nearly all their young people joined the Youth Group. We did everything, from lectures, going away at weekends to...every year we had a wonderful show, a variety show, with singing and dancing, all in the Montefiore Hall. How we did it I don't know, but we had a back stage and goodness knows what, very impromptu everything was. And we had such a lot of activities, youth group activities, because in those days youth groups were the up and coming thing. We took part in the pageant to, I think, I can't remember what it was to celebrate, not the Battle of Britain: the Festival of Britain and we were at Arundel castle and we had the Duke of Arundel's girls in our set. We were an Elizabethan set. We did ever such a lot of things. We used to take part in the annual play-wright competitions and acting competitions.

Who was holding these competitions?

Well, it is was the education authorities that used to do the art, you know, the [inaudible] came under the art sections, and we used to have to have a play, a one act play, and the finals took place at the opera house, at Glyndebourne..

Were these plays you had to write?

No, no, no. Just one act plays that you used to get from the library or from somewhere.

That's wonderful.

It was wonderful. But you see in those days there was the Orthodox, the Progressive and by that time the Reform, but we were all together. There was nobody saying, well you can't go there, that's the Orthodox you can't go there, you musn't go to the Progressive.

So you feel these were more amicable times?

Undoubtedly, undoubtedly.

How curioius.

Yes, some of the sons and daughters of the hierarchy from around the corner were with us.

Was that because they felt there was no religious element in the Youth Club?

We used to have services. But now the Orthodox wouldn't even come into our services, which is a great pity.

So the youth who were involved with the Youth Group who belonged to Orthodox synagogues just participated in Liberal services and didn't question it?

Yes. And we didn't stipulate that if they belonged to the Youth Group that they had to become members of the shul. One of our leading lights was the late Geoffrey Cobbs, who was a wonderful member. He was a member of Middle Street. Stanley Jackson, another person, he was a member of Middle Street or around the corner by then. No, it didn't make any difference. It was just lovely.

Did you meet your husband through the Youth Group?

No no. I never married until I was 41. And I met my husband one Friday night, sitting in the shul in a Friday night service and I saw him sitting in front of me and I said to Rabbi Baylinson, "Who's that?" And he told me that he was a member whose wife had died 18 months beforehand. And he introduced us and that was that. That was in January, engaged in June and married in September.

That was quick!

Yes, there wasn't any reason! [laughs]

Would I even suggest that! We'll have to delete that! Diana, one of the things that struck me when I was looking through the minutes of those early years is plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose. All the things we discuss at Council now, be it small attendances at services, be it the roof leaking, be it disgruntled members, it all was happening back in 1939 and 1945.

It will never change.

Were you....You sat on Council during that period, didn't you?

I was on Council from 1952 I think it was right until ten years, no it must have been about 15 years ago.

And can you talk a little bit about what being on Council was like? The problems that arose?

The problems are exactly the same today as they were in those days. There were times when financially we were very down. That hasn't changed, but there are facilities now where you can get over that. In the olden days there weren't. It was always the same, people were leaving, because this wasn't done, and that one hadn't been rung up, and what have you. And that one was having a row with that one. But other than that we plodded along, we tried to keep the synagogue in good shape, we were very thrilled when we could afford to have new seats put in. Out of all the synagogues in Brighton and Hove ours is the most comfortable. But, you know, if we got the money and we were able to do it we were on top of the world.

Was money raised through a lot of fund-raising?

Every year we used to have a very big dinner and ball. That was the highlight of the season. The usual fund-raising events that we don't have now, because it's not the right thing. It's not the up and coming thing to have card evenings now, I don't think.

One has to find out what members want?

Yes, but oh, Seder nights were just the same - very well attended. And we always had a wonderful reputation for having a wonderful choir.

Can you tell me a bit about how the inside of the sanctuary developed, because I know, I've seen photos before there were lecterns. I've never seen photos before there was an Ark, so that must have come in quite early. Do you remember?

I don't remember so much about how it came into being. We had very, very big, old-fashioned desks that they absolutely... you couldn't see whoever it was, even the tallest person, they were so high. And then Mac Magrill decided, well, with the Council, decided to design and make the lecterns that we have now.

When was that?

After the war it must have been. Yes, it was after the war. I should think in the '60s. In the 60s when he designed the...

So there was something temporary there for a long time.

Oh yes, very big hefty. I think...

Was this that architect's table?

That was the architect's. There were two of those.


I think there were two. No, or was there one in the centre? It could have been just one in the centre, which we sold and got quite a lot of money for it. Of course there was the organ. The last organ was presented by the family of the late Mrs. Goodenday. I can remember that going in. [pause] It grew from nothing.

Can I take you back to something else then that struck me? I'm moving around a little bit because what you're saying is sparking things off. It was fascinating to me to read comments in the minutes from the war period that reflected what was going on in the outside world. For example, comments about refugee children wanting to be bar mitzvehed. Do you have any recollections that you can share about how the war was impinging on the congregation?

I'm not very good at this because as I say, I wasn't in Brighton and Hove during that period.

Oh, of course, you were in Burgess Hill.

I was in Burgess Hill and I worked at Hayward's Heath. We were far too close to the coast for it to be safe and so my mother decided and we bought a house in Burgess Hill, and we were at the congregation which was Orthodox down there.

Do you remember, because he may have come over while you were still in Brighton, Dr. Lemle, the German Rabbi?

Yes, I remember Dr. Lemle. He was a charming man. He was a refugee. He was our first, no he wasn't our first rabbi. I can't remember who our first rabbi was. I can just vaguely remember him. He was a very, very charming man. He used to visit our home, because my father had a lot to do with the refugee committee down here.

Did he talk at all about what was happening in Germany?

No, he was a very quiet man in that respect. I think he liked, he probably couldn't, he liked to forget and throw himself into what he was doing now.

And had he come from a Reform German congregation?

I have a feeling he could have been Orthodox as most of them are. I can't remember really.

He was interned here. Do you remember....

I can remember because we had four refugee boys with us. My family had four refugee boys. And they've all turned out multi-millionaires now.[laughter] One of them's got Herstmonceux Castle. He bought Herstmonceux Castle and given it to....

From Canada. Was he a refugee in your family? I met him.

I have a book about him. Do you know Alfred Bader?

I don't know him. When Queen's College had a ball and invited people from the community, and David was invited. That was about eleven, twelve years ago when we first moved here.

I've got a book on that with photographs of my mother and my father. What were we talking about?

We were talking about Dr. Lemle being interned.

Oh yes, they went to the Isle of Man. Because Alfred went I can remember them taking him away and my mother was broken hearted. But after a time they came back. I don't think they were there the whole of the war. They got sorted out.

Dangerous aliens! But Dr. Lemle didn't come back?

No, I can't remember who we had after that. We had so many. Mr Fay, Archie Fay was there most of the time. He was much loved. He and his wife Elizabeth were fantastic.

What recollections do you have about the refugees who were in Brighton at the time, and speaking German, and how they integrated?

They integrated wonderfully. Don't forget, the one's I'm talking about were the German refugee children so they were very adaptable. They soon integrated with all the schools and things they were at. They slowly forgot their past and we had a lot of them in the Youth Group. They were....

When you say they forgot their past you're implying that they were never reunited with their families?

No, no. Very few of them. One of our boys, Otto Marks, who's now Fred Marks, as soon as he was 18, he wasn't interned because he was too young. When he was 18 he joined up in the army. He used to work for Lyons, you remember Lyons? His uncle was one of the directors of Lyons although we had him, and he joined up and immediately got his commission because it was the end of the war and he could speak German fluently and he was taken into all the camps, to help with the POWs. And he is more English than an Englishman now. He was for years more English than an Englishman.

That accounts for two. It's interesting that you had four. Did you have them all at one time? It's very generous.

Yeh, we had a very big house in Burgess Hill. It was a five bed-roomed house. My mother, my father and my sister was in London. They sort of, you know, they came over and we had his brother, we had Fred, I call him Fred, Otto's brother, Herbert, who was younger than he was. I can remember these two boys coming in leiderhosen and couldn't speak a word of English, and they hadn't been here very long, and one of them came to my mother and said he felt very ill. He had scarlet fever, so he was taken away immediately to the isolation hospital which we had in those days. Then there was another, Hannah, Hannah, who I've seen down here. Do you know Alfred Huberman? He was one of them. His son was married last week in Middle Street. They used to have clubs and things down here.

You mean specifically the refugees?

Yeh, yeh, hmm.

But the ones your family took in presumably were teenagers?

Oh yes. They were 13, 14, some of them had just been Bar Mitzvahed.

A difficult age?

Yes, but my mother adored them. She could never have a son. She gave all her love to these, you know, a strange upbringing really. All these people. [laughter]

[tape inaudible] The Royal Flying Society, the Royal Flying Association.

I've taken us on a diversion. We should go back to the synagogue. But rather than me asking you any more questions, if you were writing a history of those early days of the synagogue, what would you think would be the most important things to record, to retain?

The differences, the difference from the way I was brought up. It times I will admit at the very beginning it was more church-like than synagogue-like. But it was fascinating. It fascinated us, you know what I mean, in a strange way. It kept the holidays and they fasted, but it was very, very English.

Was the thinking behind it discussed and shared with the youth, other than the fact that it was in English and much more Anglicised, did the sort of philosophy behind it come across to young people?

I hope so. We didn't have such a lot of young people at the beginning. They were the offspring of the ones that were there. At the beginning it was very, very small. We've always been the minority congregation down here. But it soon caught on.

The congregation was very large in the '60s and '70s.

Yes. They got up to 600 mark. But then unfortunately, but that was only because we didn't have a Reform congregation. And as soon as the Reform congregation started in Holland Road, we started losing members.

Did it provide an alternative to Orthodoxy but one that wasn't too far away from it?

It think it was a sop to some people's conscience. That they hadn't really gone right over to that awful lot the Liberals. It sort of like, just wandered a little way off. Because when they built their big shul in Palmeira Avenue we lost a lot. We lost a lot of young marrieds, because it was a more modern, beautiful shul, and that's when that happened.

So are you suggesting that it was more a pragmatic, social decision, rather than one of conviction?

Yes, definitely. A lot of them, and they're still there today some of them. And I know they were lured there by the beautiful - which it was, let's give credit where it's due - and it was a sop to their conscience. They hadn't gone too far away.

You've held just about every position in the synagogue I believe, over the decades.

Even a year of being the Treasurer, which nearly put us in queer street.[laughter].

Is that when we had a £25,000 deficit? [laughter].

Yes, probably, yes. No the point was, they didn't have a treasurer. I was Secretary most of the time, and then in 1970 they needed a paid secretary and Freddy Zara who was then our Treasurer - who went over to the Reform, don't say I said that - he invited me to take on the job as secretary, and I said yes, I would. And I stayed there until 1970 odd until Charles Wallach came, and then I decided it was time I left.

So are you responsible for those beautiful entries in this great big log book of marriages and deaths?

I was responsible, I became Marriage Secretary when Henry Cushman retired. I think that was about the 1960s, until the very last wedding I did which was about three, four years ago which was the Magrill wedding.

I would love to reinstate those log books with the handwritten entries. It's not the same having them on the computer.

No. The point is if you made a mistake on them you had to sign, you had to explain. It was quite a job. Every month I had to go to the Town Hall to register the weddings we had, and I was paid the lump sum of one pound one shilling, in the old days a guinea, for every wedding I did. And that went right on until I retired, and whether they still do I don't know.

So you were paid by the Council?

By the Council. Marriages and...acting for them you see. So that lasted right until - the one pound - I used to go mad with it! I enjoyed doing that job. And then of course I was the, you had to deal with the burials, deaths, what have you - both ends of the scale - the comings and the goings.

And we also recorded bar mitzvahs and births. It's a lovely record.

Yes. It's lovely to see it in front of you. No, I had wonderful, wonderful times. I don't regret one thing at all about 'going over' [laughter]. The only thing I worry about now is passing over!

Let's skip over that one for now! It's very nice to look back and feel that way.

Oh yes, yes. And there were times, especially after my parents died and I had some very good non-Jewish friends. Not so much after my parents but after my husband died, and I had some very good non-Jewish friends and I could have easily have slipped right out of Judaism but for the fact that the shul pulled me back. And now we've got this Friday night, with all sections of the community, we meet on a Friday night.

Oh, this is your women's group.

Men as well. Oh, yes. Our Friday night group, they pulled me back again to Judaism, otherwise I think I might have....

Slipped away?

Hmm. I would have never slipped completely away, but I was getting a bit down.

Well it should be there for you in those difficult times. The synagogue should. This is before my time, but someone who was as active as you would have had that support.

Sometimes, sometimes.

Why don't we stop there and what I will do is, it will take me a few weeks but I'll transcribe the tape, and I'll share the transcription with you and if there's anything that occurs to you in the meantime or when you're reading it you can write it in. Ok. Because the idea is to have the information rather than to have an exact transcription of the tape. And if you'd like a copy of the tape I can get a copy of the tape made for you.

Because we could have made more about the schools. About the five Jewish schools.

Yes, we can talk about them as well. I've got this one particular project in mind, but there's so much more to be said about the Jewish community. And it will be interesting to see what the exhibition in the library is like, and maybe we can identify holes in that. But when I have the transcription I'll also enclose a release form, which will explain to you what the information will be used for, and where it will be archived, and if you want to indicate any passages you don't want made public you can do that. So we'll end this interview, and thank you.

End of tape.

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