In April, I gave a talk to the Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation. The talk was about the history of the Jews of Belarus and I gave an overview of the history of the Jews going back to the 13th century. It was when I got to 1967, the Soviet Jewry Movement and the Refuseniks that some of the audience’s attention was particularly roused. The following day I received an email from Michael Yaffe:
I picked up your reference to Soviet Jewry as did my friend, Lawrence Collin who has forwarded to me the attached article he wrote on a gentleman called Michael Sherbourne, whom he suspects you might have come across.
For the past few years Lawrence has been interviewing Jewish 90 year olds with an interesting past and documenting the information with the intention one day of compiling this into a book. One person I introduced Lawrence to some years ago was the late Captain David Arkush, a dentist by profession but he saved the souls of many Jewish Japanese POWs whilst in captivity including my dear late Father-in-Law. David’s son, Jonathan Arkush former President of the Board of Deputies, a friend of ours arranged the interview which I as an observer found fascinating.
Of course, I immediately jumped into the conversation and a connection to Lawrence was made. Lawrence’s interview with Michael Sherbourne is a snapshot of a life lived to the full with twists and turns; a young stalwart who stood up to Oswald Mosely‘s fascists at the Battle of Cable Street on the streets of London, which was just the start of a lifetime of adventures and we are delighted to say that Lawrence kindly agreed to share the story here.
Michael Sherbourne answered the door of his home in north London but was extremely sorry – he was feeling unwell, and not up to doing the interview we had arranged. Disappointedly I returned to Westcliff having learnt a salutary lesson: always confirm with a nonagenarian that they are still in good health on the morning of any interview! Fortunately, Michael’s indisposition was only short-lived and I was able to return a few months later for the chance to gain an insight into an absolutely fascinating life spent fighting for freedom and democracy.
Michael’s story got off to a fast paced and rambling account of his life as we sailed backwards and forwards over many years. Frequently he would interject with the words “There is just so much to tell you, I hardly know where to begin”.
Michael was born in Fulham on 22nd February 1917, but grew up in Stepney Green in London’s East End, in a road called Gold Street. Close by were Silver Street and Brilliant Street. Michael quipped:
They were three roads with the most unsuitable of names. We never saw gold and we never saw silver and we certainly weren’t brilliant.
In 1933 after leaving school, Michael went to work for a wine shop and then passed examinations to work for the Civil Service, becoming employed at the Woolwich Arsenal on the 15” / 16” naval guns. Whilst in the Civil Service he joined the organisation Histadrut Hehalutz B’Anglia (1).
The 1930s saw the rise of Fascism. Both Germany and Italy were led by dictators and civil war had broken out in Spain following a bloody fascist uprising. Britain had the British Union of Fascists (BUF) headed by the charismatic Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts, an organisation which had been terrorising Jews throughout the East End. On October 4th 1936 Mosely planned to march through Stepney, an area with the largest Jewish population in England. Despite petitions from Jewish groups the Conservative government refused to ban the march. Uniformed fascists gathered in military formation at Royal Mint Street near the Tower of London, and planned to march to Gardners Corner in Aldgate, an area well associated with the teeming Jewish metropolis of 170,000 Jews living in the streets nearby. Ten thousand police officers had been drafted in whilst many streets leading to the East End were blocked by several hundred thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators, made of communists, Jews, dockers and local East End labourers. They flooded the narrow streets, making them impassable. Michael, who was nineteen years old, was one of many standing firm as four thousand officers on horseback assembled to give Mosely unhindered passage. Michael recalled the historic confrontation between the mounted police and anti-fascist demonstrators as Cable Street became the only possible route eastwards:
I was there with my three brothers and all my friends although we were separated in the crowds. There were 10,000 police there to protect the fascists. I was in fact right at the front facing the 4,000 mounted police, with their batons at the ready. 400 came forward on horseback, four hundred out of four thousand, to scatter us: but we scattered them by rolling hundreds of thousands of glass marbles along the ground. We didn’t throw them, we cast them along the roadway, and as soon as the horses’ feet touched them, down they went to the ground together with their riders. And when our front rank had used up all our marbles, we moved back to allow those behind us to come forward and cast their lot, and then the third rank came forward. Police helmets went flying everywhere and we cheered to the echo.
In the now famous Cable Street a hasty barricade had been erected, made of mattresses, furniture, planks of wood from a local builder’s yard and even an overturned lorry. Women in houses along the street contributed by hurling rotten vegetables, rubbish, bottles and the contents of chamber pots onto the police as they attempted to dismantle the barrier. Finally, the police gave in and told Mosley to march back through the deserted City of London streets towards The Embankment or Hyde Park – westwards, and no longer in the dreaded direction of eastwards. Mosely’s about- turn led to jubilation and partying in the streets of the East End. In the following months the government passed The Public Order Act of 1936 forbidding the wearing of political uniforms in public. BUF popularity was never the same. Cable Street stood as a testimony to the extraordinary power of ordinary people, when sufficiently roused, to confront extremist political groups. For Michael his experiences during this episode were (unbeknown to him) but a taster of further battles to come in later years.
By 1937 Michael was a committed Zionist and went for two years of residential training at the David Eder Farm near Maidstone in Kent (2). Michael’s mother, alas, never forgave him for his decision to leave a secure job with a lifetime Civil Service guarantee of security in order to follow his heart. His spirit of adventure and socialist aspirations were already much in evidence by this time (besides his Cable Street exploits) as he had previously been talked out of going to Spain to fight with the International Brigade against Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. There were nineteen of them at the farm, however, after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March, 1938, their numbers swelled to over a hundred when they were joined by eighty five Czech and Slovak Jews who had fled their country. A local builder helped them to hurriedly build huts to accommodate all the new intake.
At the end of July, 1939, Michael’s original group were considered agriculturally competent enough to make Aliya and all received certificates. There was, however, one very important snag, the somewhat unexpected ramifications of which Michael recalled fondly:
Nine of us were ready for making Aliya but we only had five certificates. One was for a married couple and the group looked at me and the girl called Muriel whom I had met (and who came from Leeds) and said ‘As you are both going together you ought to get married’. So we went down to Maidstone to the Registry Office and we thought it was great fun and the registrar said ‘If you don’t take this seriously I shan’t continue’. So we had to take it seriously. Then he looked at us and said ‘Who has got the ring?’ and we replied ‘What ring?!’ So we went across to Woolworths which had three-penny and sixpenny rings and splashed out on a sixpenny ring which my new wife wore until it went black and she finally lost it in the sea off Haifa, at which time I bought her a proper gold ring. An impromptu marriage secured, that still left a shortage of certificates so a member of the group called John Morris and his wife (a Jewish refugee from Germany) agreed to go to Palestine as tourists. However, after they had been in the country for five or six weeks and Britain had declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 John decided to come back to join the RAF in case he was registered as a deserter whilst his wife stayed on in Haifa.
Utilising their newly acquired agricultural skills, Michael and Muriel became Halutzim, being early members of a Kibbutz called Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee (3). Also during this period Michael worked as a Civilian Admiralty Officer with the Royal Navy in Haifa Harbour, and he anglicised his name so that in letters written to his brother, who had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans, he wouldn’t be identified as a Jew. A daughter, Norma, was born in 1943 but would not suckle, despite all attempts to encourage her. They took her to a Mother and Child Clinic (whose name somewhat perversely translated to ‘A Drop of Milk’) where various attempts were made to administer milk, but she would always vomit it up. She started to lose weight. Ultimately, in desperation, Michael sent his wife and daughter back to England where his daughter was found to be lactose intolerant (happily she is now seventy one, living on a Kibbutz, and has never since had a drop of milk in her life).
A second daughter, Lana, was born in London in 1946. The family were by now living in a basement in the home of relatives, when a friend, Teddy Kollek, visited, and asked why Zionists like them were living in England, not Palestine (4). So, in the spirit of true pioneers, they upped and left to return to Palestine in 1947, little knowing what tumultuous and cataclysmic events were to unfold during 1948! Michael recounts ‘his War of Independence’ first hand:
I went with my wife and two small children, via Marseilles. Arriving in Haifa in January, 1948, we were greeted with the sight of black smoke onshore from explosions. There I joined what became the organisation called “Machal” (Mitnadvei Hutz La’Aretz). On the road from Haifa to Tel-Aviv we travelled in an armoured bus, that was more like a large tank than a civilian bus (!) and it was fired on several times, particularly heavily as we went past Atlit, where the Arabs were entrenched strongly on the hills above.
When we got to Tel-Aviv we found it impossible to get to Jerusalem, which had been my destination, (where I had arranged to meet Teddy Kollek), as the road was completely blocked. So my family were ensconced in an immigrant hostel while I joined the force that was later formed as Hativah Sheva, or Seventh Brigade. The organization was so haphazard that we (other volunteers and I) called it Havita Zayin (Havita, being as you will know “Omelette” while Zayin, as well as being the Seventh letter, was also rather crude and obscene slang for penis…).
By April (1948) things were getting a little more organized and once the British finally left on May 16, (and incidentally I watched from Mount Carmel as the Royal Navy warships in Haifa Harbour were loaded with Arabs who were fleeing and were taken up the coast to Beirut) our Brigade was given the task of re-taking Latrun, under the control of the Trans Jordan Frontier Force (5). It had been in our hands but Ben-Gurion had ordered the troops out as they were needed elsewhere, and the Monastery was occupied by the Arab Legion, officered by British Army personnel, and commanded by Lieutenant-General Glubb (Glubb Pasha)(6).
We were told how important it was to re-take it, as it was blocking the road to Jerusalem but we were given an impossible task, as the Arabs were strongly entrenched and had 25-pounder artillery and a clear field in front of the monastery on a steep slope down (from their point of view, but UP from where we were based at Kibbutz Hulda). We had no artillery at all, and we were only equipped with home-made Sten Guns (made in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv), which were more dangerous to us than the enemy were! Many of our so-called “troops” were but boys straight off the immigrant ships, from the Concentration Camps, with no training in the use of arms, and our losses were very heavy. One young dead Jewish soldier had been killed while riding in a jeep bringing back some Arab prisoners. The jeep went over a bump in the road and his Sten Gun, which he was cradling between his legs, went off and the bullet passed through his head killing him instantly. Michael was told to go through his pockets to retrieve his personal possessions for next of kin. Eventually Ben Gurion realized that we just could not take it and we had to withdraw and re-group, being redeployed to The Golan via Galillee.
Michael’s considerable linguistic skills were also put to the test when he was whisked away to Sde Dov just outside Tel Aviv as the official translator for the Air Force. His task was to translate between English, Ivrit with a sprinkling of Arabic thrown in for good measure, yet another language he had managed to become familiar with during his earlier sojourn in Palestine.
Despite placing his life at risk for the sake of the fledgling State of Israel, it was not to be a place that the family were destined to stay. In one sense history was to repeat itself, but this time it was to be Muriels’s health which became a serious cause for concern when she contracted Tuberculosis (TB) in both lungs and was given only two years to live. Her resistance had become very low during Israel’s struggle for survival, with dwindling food supplies which had led her to starve herself in order to make sure that the girls were fed in a nutritional way. Relying on the emerging yet meagre health resources of a nascent country was not a realistic option, so the family came back to England in 1949. Upon their return to England, Muriel was hospitalised and survived with only half of one lung for the remainder of her life. Norma and Lana were placed temporarily in The Maude Nathan Home for Little Children whilst Muriel was in hospital (between 1951 – 1952) (7). When Muriel came out of hospital they were eventually housed in Stamford Hill.
Michael started a one year Teacher Training course at Camden College in the early 1950s learning basic Maths and English so as to be able to teach in Secondary Modern Schools. There were 450 men at College, including 85 who were active members of the Communist Party. Michael, who was strongly socialist, had been a staunch anti-communist since the signing of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact of Non- Aggression between Russia and Germany in 1939. At College they had to choose another language course – but which one to choose? One day, during yet another interminable argument in the library with one of his staunch communist colleagues called Jack Feldman, Jack pointed to some fading yellow covered books on one of the shelves, one of which was called Teach Yourself Russian. Jack sneered at the ‘easy to learn’ languages like French (which would have been a far more straightforward option) and bet Michael that he would not be able to learn Russian, a challenge which Michael immediately took up – eventually becoming fluent enough (in the 1960s) to pass a degree in Russian Language and Literature. Michael enrolled in Russian classes with a Pole who hated Russians but loved the language and who had been born and raised in Petrograd (later to become Leningrad). Starting off with six pupils the numbers gradually dwindled at the rate of one a week as the course became increasingly onerous, and eventually there was only one pupil (Michael) left – which effectively resulted in personal tuition for three hour periods twice a week for the next two years.
For Michael the 1950s and early 1960s were a quiet time, and little did he know that he was merely ‘resting’ between assignments. He taught in Robert Montefiore School and became friendly with the technology teacher who encouraged him to study Woodwork, Metalwork and Technical Drawing at Goldsmith’s College. Discovering that he had a natural talent for this area, he became head of Woodwork and Metalwork at Holland Park School – the first purpose built comprehensive school in the UK. Michael then went on to study French, Spanish and Russian, all to A level standard, before completing a degree in Russian in 1963. With a natural ability to soak up and master languages he was awarded the post of Head of Languages at Ashmole School, Southgate. 1964 was the year when he made the first of three trips with forty six Hackney schoolchildren from nine schools in Hackney to Russia via the auspices of The Wayfarers Travel Association (8). In 1968, an opportunity arose for Michael to become part time secretary of Cockfosters & Southgate Synagogue, for the princely sum of £50 per year. It was (although unbeknown to him at the time) as if his knowledge of Russian was leading him towards a vitally important time of his life, the canvas of which was still to unfold. Michael’s reaction was “If I know Shul committees I won’t last five minutes with them!” However, encouraged by Muriel, he applied and was accepted. The appointment was to turn out to last for twenty five years. The synagogue was in the process of moving into a purpose built building, complete with synagogue hall, and, in 1968, Michael was approached by a group of people enquiring whether they could hire the hall for their meetings. When Michael asked them why they wanted to hire the hall, he was told that the group was part of the Campaign to Free Soviet Jewry – a cause with which Michael was totally unfamiliar at that time. They told him how Jews who were applying to leave the Soviet Union were being penalised and discriminated against in so many ways, often ending up in prison or Russian gulags (9). However, spurred on by his continued anti-communist feelings, their cause immediately resonated with him. When the group found out that Michael spoke Russian fluently, it was manna from heaven, and a symbiotic bond between them was immediately established with Michael immediately to join the group. “We need you to make phone calls to Russia” they told him in 1969. Michael started off making one or two phone calls a week for the group, but within a short time he was being referred from one family to another, the numbers grew and the resultant cost to the group of the phone calls began to increase sharply – beyond their means. Somebody contacted Cyril Stein, the owner of Ladbrokes and a great Jewish benefactor and very religious man, and Cyril generously agreed to underwrite the cost of all the calls (10). Michael became the main source of information coming out and the main source of information going in as he served as a conduit, spreading the news in both directions. He also liaised with a group of women called The Thirty Fives who were led by Barbara Oberman and who would demonstrate regularly outside The Soviet Embassy as part of their Free Soviet Jewry Campaign (11).
Through his frequent phone calls, Michael got to speak frequently to Anatoly Sharansky, Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel, three of the best known Soviet dissidents and was the last person to talk to Sharansky before he was arrested (12). All conversations were recorded on a reel to reel tape recorder, after which the dialogue was translated by Michael to The Thirty Fives and the Israeli Embassy in London. He also translated the conversations during the early 1970s for an organisation called The Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry who were based in Washington (13). Other people and organisations were also in touch with Soviet Jews however Michael was the only person whose sole concern was to get the messages and news out from the Jews of the Soviet Union exactly as they wished without adding any spin or filtering the contents. This independent information gained huge credibility in the West and led to much adverse publicity for the Soviets internationally, the pressure of which was largely responsible for the Campaign’s eventual success. Soon Muriel was reheating Michael’s dinner several times a night as he was making as many as six phone calls at a time. He became so well known to the Russian switchboard operators, despite using different names, that, on one occasion, when he pretended to be a Russian engineer calling from Dniepropetrovsk, the operator laughingly told him ‘We know who you are, Mr Sherbourne!’.
It was during 1971 Michael that coined the new word ‘Refusenik’ meaning ‘A Jewish citizen of the USSR who has been refused permission by the Soviet authorities to leave the Soviet Union’. He based it on the use of foreign words to which the Russian suffix had been added, such as kibbutznik, moshavnik, nudnik, etc (14). The term ‘Refusenik’ was henceforth to become an iconic term linked indelibly with the plight of Jews in Russia.
Following the placing of Sharansky under house arrest by the Soviet authorities a show trial took place in secret to which only his brother was admitted. In classic John le Carre style, Michael arranged for a student to book into a nearby hotel and phone his father with a number that he (the student could be phoned on “just to check he was alright”. His father immediately let Michael have the phone number and after each day of the trial Leonid Sharansky (Natan’s younger brother) went to the hotel (after being tipped off by a messenger) where he proceeded to take the call from Michael! Leonid was then able to furnish Michael with all the trial details on a day by day basis, to the great consternation of the Soviet authorities who, for many years, had no idea how this confidential information was being leaked. Sharansky was eventually sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, reduced to 9 years when he was freed by the Gorbachev Regime in a new spirit of openness (glasnost) (15).
When Michael’s photo was discovered in the apartment of a Refusenik, during a KGB search whilst they were out, his picture was pasted across Soviet news bulletins, claiming to show “the dangerous British dissident ‘Lord Sherbourne’ who was working to undermine Soviet glory”. Pravda, the major Soviet newspaper, went on to run a lengthy editorial about that “Zionist provocateur and a typical representative of the rotten British ruling class, Lord Sherbourne”. Russia thus bestowed an accolade of the aristocracy on Michael – particularly ironic in view of the fact that any Western recognition for his tremendous efforts for the cause of Soviet Jews was to come much later.
Whilst in the initial years of the Soviet Jewry Campaign (1971 – 1973) the vast majority of emigrating Jews were going to Israel, by 1976 almost half were going elsewhere, often to America. Israeli officials were worried that, if this pattern continued, Moscow would cut off emigration. Around this time Michael discovered that somebody from the Israeli Official Committee was going out of his way to sabotage their campaign. Unwittingly Michael had been caught up in politics at a very high level as the two nations with the greatest interest in fostering Jewish emigration – the United States and Israel – found themselves at odds over whether Soviet Jews should be free to emigrate to the country of their choice (16). Eventually, Michael and other campaigners had a meeting with Menachem Begin, to voice their concern. Begin promised to read the letter they presented to him – only to pass all their concerns straight over to the person who was sabotaging their work in the first place!
Ultimately the Campaign for Soviet Jewry was shown to be highly effective: between 1970 and 1988, some 291,000 Soviet Jews were granted exit visas, of whom 165,000 emigrated to Israel, and 126,000 emigrated to the United States.
In 1986, nine years after being imprisoned, a frail Natan Sharansky, the most high profile of all Soviet dissidents was released, reunited with his wife, Avital, and they went to live in Israel – a fairy-tale ending. President Reagan, who was now president of The United States, had put pressure on President Gorbachev, who, in the new progressive spirit of the times, was sensitive to international opinion and condemnation. Many, many people had been working towards such an outcome and nobody less so than Michael. Sharansky and Michael have stayed in contact right up to the present day, just as Michael has with so many others who he helped to obtain exit visas from Russia.
In 2013, at the Limmud Conference, a moving occasion was witnessed when Sharansky, the guest speaker, presented Michael with a Jewish Agency Award for all his work on behalf of Soviet Jews. Michael quipped that, whereas at the time of his release, Natan was so thin, now he has filled out and Michael is the thin one of the two!
After the Soviet Jewry Campaign, life carried on for Michael, albeit a step or two down from his earlier frenetic activity. Invited to talk to people at Lady Sarah Cohen House, he found he was still there talking to them after twelve years. He had the innovative idea of arranging for outside speakers to come and talk to the guests, and this initiative has proved very popular, with some well-known names coming to speak. He was awarded a plaque from Jewish Care for ten years of service.
During Michael’s life he never sought honours or awards, but merely wanted to make a difference. There is no doubt that, in this respect, he has been completely successful, and a ringing endorsement of how one person alone can achieve so much.
By Lawrence Collin