Sir Arnold Wesker’s blue plaque recognizes Jewish contributions to British life
By Jerry Klinger
LONDON – Sir Arnold Wesker’s simple rectangular blue and white historic plaque at a school in Hackney, London, evokes a familiar London identity. The plaque, although of a different design, is easily associated with the famous (and especially circular) program of blue and white plaques led by English heritage found across London and the UK, which states that it “celebrates the connections between notable figures of the past and the buildings in which they lived and worked”. Over 950 Blue Plaques have been placed in London.
Although Jews have been a part of British history since Roman times, only one blue plaque contains the word Jewish. A blue plaque can be found on the former home of Sir Moses Montefiore, “philanthropist and Jewish leader”. A second Blue Plaque is on Eleanor Marx’s house. There is no Jewish or Jewish word on it. But it’s on a house, # 7 Jew’s Walk in London.
Eleanor Marx was the daughter of Karl Marx. Eleanor was an ardent socialist. She committed suicide by drinking prussic acid. She was reportedly devastated after her idealism was shattered when she learned that her father had allegedly made a housekeeper in his service pregnant.
Other sources claim that she was depressed when she learned that her partner, Edward Aveling, had married another. When Aveling’s health deteriorated, he returned to Eleanor. She treated him but then she inexplicably chose to kill herself. Aveling has been accused of causing her death or even murdering her. An inquest has ruled that she died while suffering from temporary insanity. Aveling died four months after Eleanor. His remains were cremated.
Karl Marx would have abandoned the child and the mother. He denied their existence. It would have been very bad for the Father’s Manifesto as a fighter against societal economic exploitation. Karl Marx preferred to live the lie rather than reveal his ethical and moral bankruptcy, certainly his personal hypocrisy.
What story about Marx and his daughter was true is mired in obscurity. Enough was true of everyone to keep scholars open to conjecture.
Blue Plaques only have a few words to tell great stories. They are notable for their scarcity of interpretation, reflecting lives and events that shaped British life and society, like a savory appetizer.
The Blue Plaque whets the reader’s appetite to discover the main course for himself.
Arnold Wesker was an English Jewish playwright. He was born in 1932 in Stepney, London (East End) to poor working class Socialist / Communist refugee parents.
Artistically prolific during his lifetime, he authored 50 plays, four volumes of short stories, two volumes of essays. He has been active in journalism, has written children’s books, poetry and more. His plays have been translated into 20 languages and have been performed around the world.
He was an ardent promoter of the British arts and humanities. He was an activist who served prison time to protest nuclear weapons.
In 2006, he was knighted by the Queen for his lifetime achievement.
His writings humanized the working poor in Britain. Three of his first pieces, Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots, and I’m talking about Jerusalem, interpreted the life of the Kahn family.
The Kahns were poor Jewish EastEnders. Their story is taken from his own life and the family he grew up in.
The Kahns were idealistic communists. Religion had failed them. They believed that the socio-economic revolution promised by communism would end the suffering and economic exploitation of the masses.
Communism, for the Kahns, would finally put an end to millennia of anti-Semitism.
The coins retraced their lives over a 20-year period of sweeping upheaval in Britain through the Great Depression, the rise of the British Fascist Party, World War II and the Hungarian Revolution.
Over the years, the family, its idealism, its roots have deteriorated. The decline matched Wesker’s reality, as socialism and Marxism turned out to be failed ideologies. Experience has shown that the end does not justify the means.
For Wesker, anti-Semitism has remained and remains endemic in British life. Jews should not hide their heads like the ostrich in the hope that evil will pass by them. Jews must face evil, support others who are oppressed, resist if necessary.
Chicken Soup with Barley opens in Kahn’s apartment. It’s 1936. The family discusses the upcoming anti-Semitic, fascist and intimidating Cable Street march through the predominantly Jewish East End. Here is the dialogue:
“Monty: Sarah, do me a favor, leave the fist until later.”
Dave: If, on the other hand, they try to get on Cable Street, then they’ll meet dockers and more barricades. And if there are any who pass through that lot, they still can’t hold their meetings in Salmon Lane or Victoria Park Square.
Sarah: Why not?
Prince: Because since seven o’clock this morning some of our comrades have been standing there with our platforms.
Monty: Wonderful blood, isn’t it? Makes you proud, huh Sarah? Every section of this working-class area that we approached responded. The Limehouse dockers came to the man. The lot!
Prince: Unions, cooperatives, members of the Labor Party and the Council of the Jewish People.
Sarah: The Council of Deputies? (The organized British Jewish federations.)
Harry: Here she is again. Not the Jewish Council of Deputies – they asked the Jewish population to stay away. No, the Jewish People’s Council – the one that organized this mass demonstration against Hitler a year ago.
(Sarah shoots her head.) “
The Battle of Cable Street, when Jews and non-Jewish workers in the East End clashed with Sir Oswald Mosely and his 5,000 black-shirted fascist protesters, has a blue plaque.
The Wesker Plaque is an effort by the British branch of the American Jewish Society for Historical Preservation, chaired by renowned British historian and educator Martin Sugarman. The plaque is on an exterior wall of the Northwold Primary School that Wesker attended.
The text specifically includes the word Jewish. It is a reflection on the Jewish community and the contributions to British life.
It is the only interpretive plaque at Wesker in the UK
Five new marker projects in the UK are under development for 2022.
Jerry Klinger is the president of the American Jewish Society for Historic Preservation.