My birthday is on October 27. I’ve always had a bit of a timekeeping problem. In 1940, during the Blitz, my heavily pregnant Mum was evacuated to Bowness in the Lake District with my sister Jo, my adopted teenage sister Margit (a Jewish girl from Berlin, brought to England from Nazi Germany via kindertransport) and Niuta Nadel, a close friend of Mum’s, who lived practically next door to her in Whitechapel in the 20’s and 30’s. I should have arrived on October 10, but I didn’t. Now it was October 27. Mum was going nuts with impatience. She persuaded Niuta to take her for a row on Lake Windermere. Halfway across Mum’s waters broke. They scurried back to the shore. I was born in the lobby of the guesthouse.
This portrait is of Niuta, my fairy godmother, born at the end of Brick Lane in 1900. Her parents were Russian dentists. I asked her about her childhood. “Danchik, it was so noisy at night I couldn’t get to sleep,” she said. “What do you mean noisy?” I asked, “Was it all those hay wagons rattling over the Brick Lane cobbles?” “No,” she said, “It was Russians, shouting and arguing.”
Let’s pay a visit to the Nadel home at 10, Osborne Street in 1907. It’s Niuta’s seventh birthday. Her Mum has made her a lovely birthday cake. She’s invited a bunch of noisy grown-ups to Niuta’s birthday party – but none of Niuta’s little friends. Will there be presents for the birthday girl? No, there won’t. Just one cheap Russian birthday card that makes Niuta squirm. Mum says Niuta must never lie. But look – their signatures are lies!
Lev Bronstein’s signature on the card is a fib – why’s he pretending to be who he isn’t? And you know what? They’re all ex-jailbirds. Ioseb, the Georgian, is smelly. He’s staying around the corner in Rowton House, the sixpence a night dossers house in Fieldgate Street. He’s just gobbled up all Niuta’s birthday cake. He’s written “Kiss kiss, Ioseb” on the card! Eugh. That’s not Ioseb Dzugashvilli – he’s Joe Stalin. Lev is really Leon Trotsky.
And Alexei Peshkov writes plays and fairy tales. But his name’s a fairy tale. He’s Maxim Gorki. Aniuta likes the fourth one. He listens to her, tells her jokes, bounces her on his knee. But he’s not her Uncle, her ‘Dza dza’. And he’s not Ilyich Ulianov either – he’s Vladimir Lenin who lives with his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, near the British Museum and edits that newspaper called ‘Spark’– Iskra in Russian.
Suddenly Stalin stands up. He’s swaying and excited. Oops! Is he drunk? He shouts “Comrades! Next week we’re going to have a great big party!”
(That’s ‘Bolshevistvo Partiya’ -“big” is большевик , “Bolshevik”, in Russian).
But little Niuta’s not invited.
This a trueish story about my beloved Auntie/Godmother Aniuta Barr (Anna), who grew up in a Russian Jewish home with dentist parents in Osborn Street. Her mother was one of the first female dentists in this country. And little Anna did sit on Lenin’s knee. She later became a Russian interpreter and was a close friend of my Mum.
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