Today, as Two Bronze Pennies is published, might be a good time to post this, a short story set a little later than the 1890/91 of the novel. But still in the Jewish are of Leeds known as they Leylands.
On the nights of third and fourth of June, 1917, large gangs invaded the Leylands – the area where most of Leeds’ Jews lived. – in an anti-Semitic riot They caused plenty of damage, but the Jews did fight back. The estimate from the police is that up to a thousand people were involved. There was no repeat on the third night as the police flooded the area with constables, and no more real incidents to follow.
The first night took us by surprise. We all knew something was going to happen – everywhere we went in Leeds it seemed as if we’d heard something saying ‘Jew this,’ ‘kike that,’ ‘yid something else.’ But we hadn’t expected them to come through the Leylands, breaking windows, daubing their hatred in paint on our walls, and ready for a fight. They beat old Mr. Kazinsky until he bled and left him lying on the street.
The baker, the tailors, the little shops on the corners, they looted them all. And it wasn’t just a few of them who came; they arrived in their hundreds. As soon as we heard the noise, we dashed out, still in our braces and shirts. We grabbed what we could – sticks, stones, bottles, anything – to defend what was ours.
But the first night we never stood a chance. There were just too many of them. Not just young men, but miners and older folk who should have known better. And where were the police?
They came when it was all over. Of course.
When the morning came we counted the cost. Seven in hospital, but they’d all survive, thank God. At least another twenty hurt. More windows broken than people could count. Women worked out on the pavement, heads bowed in sorrow as they swept up the pieces of glass that glinted in the June sun.
‘Jews are cowards.’
Someone had painted that, some bastard who could have been on the front line himself, in a trench. Let him tell that to the two brothers of mine who were dead in France or Belgium, or somewhere like that. The War Office had never told us exactly where they fell. Or they could say it to the other Jews who’d joined the Leeds Pals and lost their lives on the Somme last year.
The old folk here felt the fear from the night. They’d seen it before in the pogroms that made them flee their homes and come to England. They believed they’d be safe here. Now they were busy repacking old suitcases, sorting out the little things they wanted to take, preparing for a new journey, a new life somewhere else. A place where hope might grow.
But for the rest of us, Leeds was the only home we’d ever known. We spoke Yiddish, but that was only at home. In town it was all English, sounding as Yorkshire as anyone.
This was our land, too, and we’d be damned if we’d let a bunch of thugs push us off it. We were proud of the place. I’d even wanted to put on a uniform and fight for the King, but my father wouldn’t allow it.
‘Moishe and Abraham are dead,’ he told me in his slow, sad voice, looking at the photographs of them lovingly displayed on the mantel. ‘I’m not going to lose all my sons.’
So while another generation cleared up the debris and trembled, we made our plans. They’d return. If you were Jewish, you knew that; it was deep inside. Once the blood lust rose, they returned. That was history.
We met in the ginnel behind Sam Cohen’s sweatshop. There was no sound of sewing machines from inside. People should have been working, but no one had the heart for it today. They were looking ahead and making plans with fearful eyes.
About twenty of us gathered. David was the leader. A good Jewish name for someone in command, I thought. He was eighteen, big and strong, the kind of person who had the kind of quality you just wanted to follow. He wouldn’t fight for the flag until they conscripted him, but he’d fight for our piece of this city.
‘Ben,’ he nodded as he saw me. I was fourteen, but tall for my age, and he could see the anger burning in my eyes. I knew all the faces there. Not just the boys, but the girls, too. This was their battle as much as ours, and everyone was welcome. We didn’t even need to say it.
David had his two lieutenants, Isaac and Adam. Isaac was a fat boy with spots on his face who waddled rather than walked. But he had a quick mind. He understood things without even seeming to try, one of those who hardly needed to try in school. And there was Adam. He was a fighter. A year younger than me, but I didn’t know anyone who’d dare go up against him. Together, they’d help us win.
‘They’ll be back tonight,’ David said, and we all agreed. ‘Isaac’s had a few ideas…’
They waited until long after dark, until they’d had time to drink down their courage. I’d been sent down to the bottom of Poland Street to be a lookout. It wasn’t dangerous work. I’d grown up here, I knew all the back ways around, and I could run fast. Especially if someone was after me.
In the end I heard them before I saw them. Swearing and shouting, some of them singing “Tipperary” like an army on its way to war. If you’re that keen, join up, I thought bitterly. See how you like the real thing. But they’d be discovering what war was like soon enough.
There were plenty of them, even more than the night before, I could see that. As soon as they came into view I dashed off to give the warning. David gave his instructions. It seemed as if everyone in the Leylands under the age of twenty-five was ready to fight. This time the bastards wouldn’t find it as easy.
A few people stayed in view, just as Adam planned it. Enough to tempt them on, but able to scatter quickly before they were hurt. We’d hidden little arsenals everywhere. Rocks, cobbles, stones. Heavy branches that we’d collected from the trees around Meanwood during the afternoon. We were going to use bits of Leeds to defeat them.
Some of our lads darted towards the invaders, throwing stones that deliberately fell short. It was enough to provoke them, to get them chasing the throwers, to draw them into our territory. They sprinted and our boys disappeared, vanishing down tiny entrances, over walls, through houses, until all the goys found themselves running along an empty street. The ones in front were halfway down when they began to wonder if something was wrong. Those farther back were busy smashing windows and yelling out their taunts. They weren’t thinking of anything but destruction.
We came at them from behind, throwing the rocks first, enough to send them running a little, so they all crowded together. They had their backs to us, turning as soon they heard our boots, some of them going down from the stones. They were armed with sticks, but so were we. And we weren’t afraid. We weren’t the type who thought that the only way to fight was by terrorising people in the night.
A few of them found their bravery and fought back. More of them were startled and bunching in on each other. They hadn’t reckoned on any resistance. In their minds, Jews really were cowards, we didn’t fight. But the surprise was just beginning. As they moved away down the street, bedroom windows opened and pans of hot water that the girls had been heating on their stoves were emptied on them. Hot enough to scald. That got them screaming.
One big goy had Adam pinned on the ground. He’d raised his stick, ready to bring it down, when my branch hit him hard in the back and he collapsed with a cry. Then we were kicking him, giving him bruises to remember for a few weeks.
There was blood running on pavement and men crouched, nursing their wounds, holding their heads and their arms. Some of theirs, some of ours. But the Jewish boys were quickly bustled away indoors, to any house where they could be tended.
We could hear the police whistles blowing from a quarter of a mile away. That was our signal. We melted away so quickly we might never have been a dream. A nightmare. We knew where to run, and before the coppers even arrived we were all back in our own houses, sitting as if nothing had happened.
We hurt, we had wounds, but we’d given better than we got. We’d won.
They ran right into the police when they tried to flee. Plenty arrested. A few unconscious on the cobbles. But no one was likely to die, thank God. No one would have wanted that on their conscience.
The next morning we all met again. No plans this time, but to celebrate. We’d seen them off. There was damage, a few shops looted, some windows broken. But nowhere near as bad as the night before.
We could still see the blood dried on the streets. Some of our boys showed off their injuries, trying to impress the girls.
‘They won’t be back,’ David announced. ‘They won’t want another beating.’
That night the police were out in force. If they’d done their job properly in the first place, there wouldn’t have been a problem. We wouldn’t have been forced to become the law.
People still looked at us in town. Some of theirs still spat. There was the odd scuffle. But the riots were over. It might not be peace in France, but it was closer to it in the Leylands.