Cock­ney Girl: The Sto­ry of a Jew­ish Fam­i­ly in WWII London

  • Review
By – July 4, 2019

Gil­da Moss Haber’s mem­oir Cock­ney Girl: The Sto­ry of a Jew­ish Fam­i­ly in World War II Lon­don is a true-life Cin­derel­la sto­ry. Not because it has any fairy­tale qual­i­ties — far from it, but because the nar­ra­tor grows up as the large­ly unwant­ed and unloved sin­gle child of a hard-work­ing Jew­ish cou­ple in Lon­don. She comes out of it as a capa­ble and suc­cess­ful young woman. Her par­ents run a bar­ber­shop in the East End, and the author’s sen­so­ry descrip­tions of the shop and the bustling street life are evoca­tive. Through­out the book, the author’s love for Lon­don and, in par­tic­u­lar the Cock­ney East End, shine through. Where­as the peo­ple in her life don’t pro­vide an anchor for this child, East Lon­don itself does.

Her moth­er sends her to orphan­ages mul­ti­ple times with­out any expla­na­tion. Whether the father had any say in these deci­sions is unclear. The girl’s six week quar­an­tine in an orphanage’s lone­ly attic due to scar­let fever is par­tic­u­lar­ly har­row­ing. When the moth­er final­ly picks her up, she offers no hug and on the train home devours a box of choco­lates with­out offer­ing even one to her hun­gry child. As the Blitz descends on Lon­don, she glad­ly has her daugh­ter evac­u­at­ed to the coun­try along with most oth­er school-age kids. Rarely does the daugh­ter receive a vis­it or a let­ter from her par­ents, nor do any oth­er rel­a­tives show any par­tic­u­lar inter­est in her. This dis­tance remains large­ly unex­plained. The mother’s strained rela­tion­ship with her own moth­er pro­vides only a par­tial clue. While the author sticks to the child’s point-of-view through most of the book, some flash­backs could have been used to reflect on the book’s over­ar­ch­ing quandary — the mother’s cold­ness towards her child.

Among the many unaf­fec­tion­ate rel­a­tives and fos­ter par­ents, there is the rare dose of love, fuel­ing the narrator’s trust in human­i­ty. Her mater­nal grand­fa­ther, who wel­comes her with a hug and shouts of Sis­ser­le” when­ev­er she has made her way, alone, through the streets of East Lon­don, teem­ing with teas­ing blokes and bois­ter­ous anti­semites. Or her young Uncle Max, who unwit­ting­ly takes her along to wit­ness the 1936 Cable Street Bat­tle, when East Enders take to the streets to stop fas­cist Oswald Mosley from march­ing through the large­ly Jew­ish quarter.

The last time the moth­er sends her daugh­ter away, she makes a choice that final­ly lands Gil­da in a lov­ing home: the White House, a home for Jew­ish refugee chil­dren from Europe. Here, Gil­da final­ly gets the Jew­ish edu­ca­tion her par­ents nev­er gave her, which she hun­gri­ly absorbs. It sets her on a path to find mean­ing in the cus­toms her par­ents only per­func­to­ri­ly performed.

The author mas­ter­ful­ly brings to life the bus­tle of the Cock­ney East End in the 1930s and 40s. It also gives the read­er a good idea of what an Eng­lish child­hood dur­ing World War II was like, in a Lon­don cov­ered with ash­es or explod­ing with bombs.

Annette Gendler’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Jour­nal, Tablet Mag­a­zine, Kveller, Bel­la Grace, and Art­ful Blog­ging, among oth­ers. She served as the 2014 – 2015 writer-in-res­i­dence at the Hem­ing­way Birth­place Home in Oak Park, Illi­nois. Born in New Jer­sey, she grew up in Munich, Ger­many, and now lives in Chica­go where she teach­es mem­oir writing.

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