Sylvia, age 76, was born in East London in 1927. She has lived most of her life in London -on the east side and the south-west, with just a two-year absence from London during World War II.
Having come from Poland at the beginning of the twentieth century to escape Russian persecution, Sylvia's parents had moved into London's East End along with many thousands of other Jewish people from eastern Europe, packing into an area where they could live cheaply. This is where Sylvia and her brothers and sisters were born, during the Slump of the twenties and thirties that occurred in the aftermath of World War I - a time of mass unemployment and poverty in Britain as well as many other countries. Sylvia tells of the Jewish people, many of whom could not speak English, who were engaged in the rag trade in London. However, she says that "in the slump there was very little work, and [if they did] they used to be working in the most terrible conditions." She would see the "sweat shops," as they were called, crowded and dirty, where her father and uncle worked, when taking dinner to them there.
This also was the time - in the thirties - when the actions of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists wreaked havoc in the streets, instilling fear in the Jewish population. Living next door to a synagogue as a child, near Cable Street, Sylvia remembers seeing Mosley leading marches, smashing Jewish property.
It was a hard time for many, Sylvia's family included, her mother sewing late into the night to earn some money, her father not having work, thus unable to support his family in the traditional manner. "We were in three small rooms - seven of us," Sylvia says. Not all children attended school - some had no shoes, or coats to wear, Sylvia explained. She attended school up to the age of twelve at which time, as the youngest in her family, she became part of the mass evacuation of children, mothers and the elderly to safer country areas in 1939, in anticipation of bombing in London as WWII got under way.
Sylvia stayed at her temporary home in the country, in Bampton, for two years, returning there many years later and visiting the couple who had taken her in. She has since, in Memory Lane, written about her visit and her recollections of that time. "She was so nice, really, but at the time I felt she was so strict," Sylvia says now.
She returned to East London after two years, but not to school. Instead she got a job at a local book shop, and also enrolled in evening classes - as part of further education - at Toynbee Hall in the east end, deciding on dancing classes and the debating society. Dancing was a particular love of Sylvia's, and she went on to audition for the Unity Theatre, a left-wing theatre sponsored by trade unions, Sylvia says. She recalls one of its celebrated performers - Paul Robeson - African American singer, actor, and political activist. So, at the age of sixteen, Sylvia auditioned for a Unity Theatre production, becoming a dancer in the chorus and performing in reviews over the next few years, until she married.
Her family were quite sober, she says, and it took a long time for her to get out of the East End Jewish ways - the narrow family-focused life. Her mother was in her forties when she had her, and lived to age ninety-six, but seemed suppressed - possibly affected emotionally by the life she had led, she thinks. Her father had been deaf, and not easy to live with.
In 1950, at age twenty-three, she married a man from East London who, she says, was left-wing, attractive, and could always make her laugh. Over time his political views changed and she was no longer as happy in the relationship, she says. Their two children, a boy and a girl, were nine and seven when they moved out of the east end to south-west London. She continued to work all this time, often in temporary clerical work so she could pick up the children from school every day. When they were older she worked full-time, although she found the clerical and secretarial kind of work that she did was never fulfilling for her. It was twenty years before the marriage finally ended, in divorce, and following that Sylvia's life started to improve.
A few years later she met someone with whom she would enter another relationship lasting about twenty years, until he died. He was eleven years younger than Sylvia, who was in her early fifties when they met. They had not lived together, and both worked during the week; weekends were taken up going out and spending time together. Within a few years of his death, Sylvia set about doing things she had wanted to do but for which there had not been enough time.
Nevertheless, retirement was not an easy time for her. She says, "I'm very glad I retired - at sixty-five - because it wasn't an interesting job . . . For the last year of my working life I'd planned - wrote to all these various associations to find out what I could do, 'cause I was very scared of retiring. I was very scared." Everything seems to have come together for Sylvia. She is now associated with several organisations - including a pensioners' forum, an arts forum, and an organisation for older women. She also writes short pieces about her life, dances as a member of a group, and acts in plays. She has been performing once again in front of an audience, one recent event being a play about racism and the different generations, as Sylvia explains, "how old people are intolerant of young people, and young people are intolerant of older people."
Sylvia says she sees this as probably the best time of her
life, apart from family set-backs. "I'm doing what I want to
do and I'm very fortunate I don't have any health problems,"
she says. She is currently seeing someone, but committing
time on weekends to spend together is often not possible.
She also enjoys being with friends, and is close to her son
in New York, her daughter, and the grandchildren who are
in university, as well as her sister and sister-in law. When
not busy with other activities Sylvia likes being on her own.
She says, "I feel I need my space in order to do the things
I want to do."
Twice within the last year, with two separate groups of women, Sylvia has toured the house and grounds of Hillcroft College - a college for women who left school early, who have not had the opportunity for an education. This spring - in 2004 - she plans to visit Hillcroft College again, this time to take a computer course.