Archive for the ‘World War Two’ Category

VE Day Walk supplementary

These images relate to VE Day 75 – The Walk

allied movie brad pitt marion cotillard poster

allied movie brad pitt marion cotillard hampstead

Brad Pitt & Marion Cotillard at the Hampstead location

nicholas winton

Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton

Nicholas Winton

Liam Gallagher

Liam Gallagher

lee miller by man ray solarized

Lee Miller by Man Ray

lee miller WW2

Lee Miller goes to war as an accredited US war correspondent

Lee-miller-hitlers-bathtub-nsu-art-museum-fort-lauderdale

Lee in Hitler’s bath tub, Munich – the day she photographed Dachau – by David Sherman

george-orwell-at the bbc

Orwell’s wartime broadcasts

eileen maud blair orwell

Eileen Maud Blair – Orwell’s wife

VE Day 75 – The Walk

flags VE day 75th 2020 london

Beginning of my VE day walk – a lone hint of celebration on our street – East Finchley, London N2

st pancras and islington cemetery commonwealth war graves

Coronavirus has stopped normal access to the commonwealth war graves in St Pancras & Islington cemetery

the commonwealth war graves in St Pancras & Islington cemetery

The commonwealth war graves in St Pancras & Islington cemetery earlier in the lockdown (before they closed the cemeteries)

naked lady henlys corner statue war memorial

I’m sitting just beneath Emile Guillaume’s La Délivrance known locally as The Naked Lady – it’s a WW1 memorial but it is opposite the flat where my great-uncle Bruno lived, a concentration camp survivor & refugee from Leipzig Germany, so its WW2 victory for me

children holocaust memorial henlys corner

Flowers for children VE Day 75, Henly’s Corner

clock tower war memorial golders green

The clock tower memorial to WW1 & WW2 at Golders Green with its distinctive blue

keith douglas poetry golders hill

WW2 poetry Keith Douglas in flower garden at Golders Hill – wisteria no hysteria, stiff upper lip

Comment: unicornsalmost

‪This Sunday, on @bbcradio3 : Unicorns, Almost – a play about the life and poetry of Keith Douglas https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000j2bn‬

hampstead war memorial

Hampstead war memorial to both world wars – a few hundred yards from where I was born, overlooking all of London

location Allied brad pitt hampstead

Film location of ‘Allied’ movie with Brad Pitt & Marion Cotillard set during WW2

Film location of 'Allied'

Film location of ‘Allied’

I met a family sitting out on their front steps down the road from here, told them what I was doing and they pointed me to…

nicholas winton s house willow road hampstead

Nicholas Winton saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazis when based in this house in Hampstead

liam gallagher RAF roundel

Liam Gallagher‘s RAF roundel window at his old place in Hampstead

lee miller roland penrose house downshire hill hampstead

Photographer Lee Miller‘s house Hampstead – she photographed WW2 for Vogue magazine including the liberation of Dachau & Hitler’s bathtub in Munich

hampstead heath pond

My dad remembered vividly a doodlebug V1 exploding in the corner of this pond near his childhood home – I never walk by without thinking of him Hampstead Heath, VE day 75

george orwell house hampstead parliament hill

George Orwell‘s house – his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy worked at the Ministry of Information during WW2 (in the censorship department) in Senate House, University of London & he famously used it as the model for the Ministry of Truth in 1984 – Orwell was in the Home Guard & broadcast for the BBC

ve day walk montage

That’s the VE day 75 walk done – 9 hours, 24,600 steps, good fun

VE Day 75

ve day trafalgar square 8 may 1945

8th May 1945, Trafalgar Square

The current situation of lockdown under threat of a deadly viral enemy is as close to war as my generation has ever come which makes it a most resonant time to celebrate this landmark VE Day, the 75th.

My most memorable VE day to date was one spent in Bangor, Co. Down, N. Ireland when my wife was working on the BBC’s live coverage of the event which involved the lighting of a string of lanterns right round the British coast. To help her manage the day, with a very demanding, experienced and alcoholic director, I looked after one of the main contributors, a charming old fella from Belfast who had survived the Belfast Blitz of 1941. I spent the day hanging out with him, chatting and making sure he felt looked after. He was interviewed in the evening by John Cole.

Today’s VE day I marked with a themed walk, made up last minute, partly on the fly. I came up with the idea while sitting in the garden in the early morning sunshine. By 9am I was on the road. 9 hours and 24,600 steps later I returned home.

VE day walk 8 may 2020

I’ll publish the details of the walk tomorrow – it ranged from photographer Lee Miller’s house to Liam Gallagher’s RAF roundel window, from the location of a Brad Pitt war movie to a tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the holocaust.

Half way I stopped to read some of Keith Douglas‘ poetry, a WW2 poet stationed largely in North Africa. He died shortly after D-Day at the age of just 24. The line

but time, time is all I lacked

from the last poem in the volume (a selection by Ted Hughes) seemed to sum up his artistic life. There’s a radio play about him on Radio 3 on Sunday (10th May) at 7.30pm called ‘Unicorns, Almost‘ by Owen Sheers.

I began the day by sharing an unpublished poem by Edmund Blunden entitled ‘V Day’. it’s in the manuscript collection of the Imperial War Museum. It concludes with the line:

 We have come through.

which seems very apposite and inspiring for these strange days.

V day page 1 poem edmund blunden

V day page 2 poem edmund blunden

Edmund-Blunden

Edmund Blunden – a WW1 poet who was still writing in 1945

Keith Douglas poet WW2

Keith Douglas

Coincidence No. 488 – Bletchley Park

bletchley park the mansion codebreakers

The Mansion, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

I go to meet my cousin from Melbourne, Australia at my old home tube in Tufnell Park. We have never met before. She has come to London to work as a mathematician at the Alan Turing Institute in King’s Cross. Mention of Turing’s name prompts me to ask whether she has visited Bletchley Park yet? She has. I explain how it was very little known about until Peter Bate, David Darlow & John Smithson made the TV series Station X for my alma mater Channel 4 in 1998. We talk about how the men and women of Bletchley Park did not talk about it for five decades until the interviewees for the programmes got permission from the MoD. We talk about Sue Black who saved Bletchley and who I got to know originally during my time at C4.

I get on the bus to come home. I open my novel, Old Filth by Jane Gardam, which we are reading for my book group. (I’ve just looked it up because I suspected as much… Jane Gardam is the mother of Tim Gardam, now Principle of St Anne’s College, Oxford, in 2003 Director of Television at Channel 4 when I joined.) This was on the page I was up to and started reading on the top front tourist seat on the 263:

But they had me later in the War at Bletchley Park and there we met again. [NB Bletchley had not been mentioned in the novel before or had any role in the story] Bletchley Park was full of innocent, nice girls (not me) who had a very particular aptitude (crosswords) for solving cyphers and things, as you will be hearing in a year or two when ALL IS TOLD (the fifty year revelation).

The Mansion, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

The Mansion, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

Hut 1, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

Hut 1, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

The Lake, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

The Lake, Bletchley Park (Dec 2019)

Coincidence No.s 309 & 310 – Bernstein

No. 309 Electric Chair

I am reading Sidney Bernstein’s biography (founder of the Granada cinema chain and Manchester-based Granada TV) by Caroline Moorehead. It mentions a trip he took to the USA in the 30s during which he visited an Alabama prison where the governor proudly showed off his electric chair – which, Bernstein noted, was yellow.

The same day I am watching the movie Just Mercy with Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan as part of my BAFTA awards viewing (it’s released on 17th January in the UK – well worth seeing). In one of the scenes we see the electric chair in the Jamie Foxx character’s Alabama jail – (half a century on) it is bright yellow.

just mercy poster jamie foxx michael b jordan film movie

The poster is also yellow

 

No. 310 Duff Cooper

I am reading Sidney Bernstein’s biography by Caroline Moorehead. It talks about his efforts to join the Ministry of Information once WW2 was declared. He finally got into the organisation through Duff Cooper, Minister of Information from May 1940 under Churchill.

With the Bernstein biog on the go, I also started reading today Paris After the Liberation: 1944 – 1949 by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper. Duff Cooper it turns out was Artemis’s grandfather. She is married to Beevor. The intro mentions that some of Duff Cooper’s personal papers are used as sources for the book.

Paris After the Liberation: 1944 - 1949 by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper

 

Dispatch from The Box

The daily thing is not quite working for me, so for this dispatch from The Box I’ve selected the next two documents (a telegram and a hand-written letter) and the next two photographs to make up a bit for the inactivity of the last three days.

49277840557_c24ae9f5d8_o me and dad

This one is 1963 or 1964. That’s me on the right, my dad on the left. It was taken at 2A Selvage Lane, Mill Hill, London NW7 (that was the full extent of the postcode back then), my childhood home. I remember those curtains from later but not the drawers. My dad’s haircut and glasses look pretty 60s to me, the vestiges of 50s quiff styles with regard to the hair, a predictive touch of the Ipcress File in those specs.

49277640021_21bf9e4273_o school assembly

The second photo looks like a school assembly. The Post Card / Correspondence / Address print on the back doesn’t give too many clues as to the vintage. My grandfather Ian would have been this age in the early 20s but this has more the 40s feel about it so it’s possible it is my mum’s school (except she was at an all-girls school for most of her school career) or my uncle John’s. The Chinese lanterns are an odd touch – was the hall decorated specially or was this not a school hall? It looks like they may be watching a performance, with which several are clearly engaging emotionally and almost all are giving their attention. Standing adults punctuate the scene, they have the teacher vibe. The crowd is mixed boys and girls, though with big blocks of boys together. Many seem in school uniform of some kind; lots of hats are being worn indoors, especially by the girls. I can only see one child in glasses (John Lennon-style – extreme right, half-way up). There are no non-white kids in sight.

49277840682_8b762e16be_k telegram ma

This is a telegram from my grandfather Ian (when he was still called Isadore in 1940 – he changed his name by deed poll on 14th October 1949 at a cost of ten shillings. His hit-rate on job applications immediately went up.) The off-the-shelf design of the celebratory telegram form is a bit more holiday than Watford. So this was sent from Watford where my mum was born (not sure why, I think they were still living in Dagenham – maybe the war-time demands on hospitals meant you had to travel further to give birth).

In March 1940 Hitler was planning the invasion of Norway and Denmark. Meat rationing had just started in Britain. A German air raid on Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands resulted in the first British civilian casualties of the war. Within two months Dunkirk will be under way and by September the Blitz will be unleashed.

On 26th March 1940, the day after my mother’s birth, this telegram is sent home to my great-grandmother in Dagenham, 30 miles away to the east. Is 6.54 the time? morning? how did he pull that off?

The concision is almost poetic: GIRL BOTH FINE

Now 79 years on there’s some irony and poignancy in the message. The younger is far from fine. She’s only a couple of days out of another hospital – UCH in London which two of said great-grandmother’s forebears were involved in founding in 1834, one of whom served as its treasurer for 18 years. Both my sons were born at University College Hospital.

49277166588_dca995a50e_k letter rita

This address in Paddington where my grandmother Rita lived was above A & J Falk, a tobacconist owned by her father (Jacob Falk).  This letter is written a month before her marriage – see wedding menu at Murray’s in first Box post. So by 1938 postcodes in London had evolved from London W to the likes to London W.2 but not yet added the next 3 characters of the modern postcode.

Although it is addressed to My Dear Ma I think this is to her prospective mother-in-law, the same as the telegram above. Her mother-in-law-to-be was profoundly deaf and that I believe made her life really difficult, and her children’s – Isadore and Henry referred to in this letter. Rita was born in June 1916 so had just turned 22 when she wrote this.

The fact that she is fantasising about having her own dressing table aligns well with the Rita I knew – she always had pretty objects on her dressing table, plenty of silver on the art deco wooden (walnut?) piece of mirrored furniture. She always used the acronym P.G. Cheerio I don’t recall her saying.

It was thoughtful of her to remember Henry, Ian’s younger brother. He was a lovely bloke and had one of the most splendid deaths I know. He goes to White Hart Lane with his son to watch a Spurs match and they win. He goes home and tinkers a bit in his garden – his profession was as a gardener. He goes in to have a rest in the armchair in front of the fireplace. He falls asleep. Forever. Way to go…

 

 

The Box

Last week I was given this box

box of telephone equipment

It seems to be from some kind of telephonic equipment, some sort of exchange

box of telephone equipment detail

Inside was a load of family photographs and a couple of old documents

pile of family photos photographs

My plan is to upload and explore two or three a day starting today. Here’s the first – a document from my grandparents:

wedding party menu murrays soho london

It’s the menu from their wedding party in 1938

wedding party menu murrays soho london 1938

Why it caught my eye was because of the venue, Murray’s in Beak Street, Soho – that’s where Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, made notorious through the Profumo Affair in 1963, worked as dancers/good-time girls. Here’s Keeler in 1960

christine keeler 1960 murrays club

Murray’s had opened just five years before the wedding (under that particular name – the venue originates from 1913 and finally closed in 1975). The sign is still there, or at least it was a couple of years ago when I noticed it walking by.

Murrays Cabaret Club 16-18 Beak St soho london profumo affair

16-18 Beak Street, Soho

menu murrays club soho 1938

So this was the era of French menus (to posh things up) and 3-letter telephone exchanges (STE for Stepney). Consomme Palestine is an interesting item. All in all not a bad meal.

My last Profumo adventure is here

The second document to catch my eye was this one from 1943:

national registration identity card britain

It belonged to my great-grandfather, Samuel, who was known as Choc. This was because he was rewarded with chocolate for good performances on the football field as a boy – and it stuck.

national registration identity card britain 1943

I’ll have to take a trip to Lichfield Road, Dagenham sometime soon. I did a talk out that way for Robert Peston’s Speakers for Schools this time last year  and knew I was in my grandfather’s manor for the first time.

identity card 1943 britain

“You must produce it on demand by a Police Officer in uniform” – how very unBritish. I blame the Nazis.

I’m currently working on a feature documentary about the Nazis with journalist Martin Bright and director André Singer. The Nazis, they do quickly get you down – the dregs of humanity.

Tinkety tonk old fruit, and down with the Nazis

Sign-off used by the Queen Mother in a letter two years before this Identity Card (in February 1941) and later adopted by Kermode & Mayo on their movies podcast.

4 places worth visiting in Vilnius

I was in Lithuania last week working on ESoDoc, a workshop and development space for social documentaries. The last time I worked on it was back in 2010 in Tenno, Northern Italy. We were based this time in the National Library of Lithuania and between sessions I adopted my favourite role of flâneur.

1. The National Library of Lithuania

the national library of lithuania vilnius 1919

Its classical grandeur dates back to 1919, the year after Lithuanian independence from Germany and Russia. It sits next door to the modern parliament building which stems from Lithuania’s second independence day, 11th March 1990, the first of the Baltic States to break away from the USSR.

Lithuania parliament vilnius

An important emblem of Democracy

The books in the main atrium are cleverly decorated with black covering on their spines to create the faces of various key literary/historical figures.

Lithuania national library vilnius

2. Knygynas VAGA book shop

Knygynas VAGA bookstore book shop Vilnius lithuania

Knygynas VAGA book shop

A book shop where you can get strudel – what’s not to love? Really enjoyed hanging out here. Had to speak German as the strudel lady couldn’t speak English. We struggled a bit trying to identify pumpkin.

I picked up two Lithuanian novels in English here: Cold East by Gabija Grušaitė (“A new voice that disrupted Lithuanian lierature”) and Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (a Lithuanian American, author of the very successful debut Between Shades of Gray).

3. The Republic of Užupis

uzupis republic vilnius lithuania

Border of the Republic

A hippy, bohemian quarter a bit like Chrisiania in Copenhagen. The name means “other side of the river” – it sits in a loop on the far side of the Vilnia. It declared itself a republic in 1998 – it has its own flag, currency, constitution and ambassadors (including my friend author Charlie Connelly who it turns out is their UK ambassador – I believe drink may have been involved in precipitating this appointment). They change the flag every season – it is currently blue for Winter.

uzupis flag vinius lithuania

Winter – blue, Spring – green, Summer – yellow, Autumn – red

It began life in the 16th century as a mainly Jewish area. WW2 reduced the Jewish population of Vilnius from 58,000 to 2,000. The Soviets then destroyed the cemetery up the hill from Užupis.

Now it’s mainly an artistic area, albeit a gentrified one at this point. Between the War and Independence in 1990 it was the realm of the homeless and prostitutes, very neglected. Needless to say, the artists moved in and made it cool and meaningful. Gotta love the artists. It still has a certain charm and some good street art. It seems to have been set up as an artistic provocation, to prompt important conversation. The Republic’s independence day is 1st April.

4. The Ghetto

the site of the great synagogue vilnius lithuania

Site of the Great Synagogue

Vilnius had two ghettos during the Nazi period – the small and the large. They both got liquidated (or “liquidized” as one Lithuanian tourist website has it) by Nazis and Lithuanian police shooting tens of thousands of Jews in the forests around the city. Above is the site of the Great Synagogue where 3,000-5,000 worshippers could be accommodated. It was damaged in the War but the Soviets were the ones who finished the job in the mid-50s, turning a magnificent building into an architecturally insignificant kindergarten (in the background above). I had an interesting chat with a Polish woman at this sign. She told me how poor all the Poles were before the war. Just like the citizen of Neulengbach in Austria (location of Egon Schiele’s studio) who told me how poor the Austrians were.

mural old jewish quarter ghetto vilnius lithuania

Commemorating the inhabitants of the ghetto

Despite these dark shadows I enjoyed the ghetto area in its autumn colours. I could sense the people. I sat in an open area reading a Lew Archer novel and sucking up the vibes. The city has peppered the area with monochrome murals of the former citizens, with QR codes linking to some basic information. I wonder what this fella would have made of QR codes…

mural old jewish quarter ghetto vilnius lithuania

QR codes schmoo R codes

Art Vandals 4: A kiss is not just a kiss

Weapon: Spray paint, red

Reason: Political, gender politics

George Mendonsa iconic photo by Alfred Eisenstadt sailor kissing WW2

V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstadt (14th August 1945)

This iconic image marking the end of the Second World War for the USA looks different in the cool light of 2019. From a celebratory V-J Day image adorning a full page of Life magazine it takes on a more problematic dimension in that it is unclear what the kissee feels about the moment.

The sailor caught in the kissing a stranger act in Times Square, New York died on Sunday, aged 95, in Rhode Island. George Mendonsa was 21 when he grabbed the kiss. He was home on leave from the Pacific theatre.

George Mendonsa

George Mendonsa

He was kissing 21-year-old Austrian-born American dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman. She died on 8th September 2016 at the age of 92. The photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt withheld the names of the kissers. Greta Friedman said (unlikely though it seems) she had not been aware of the photo until the 1960s.

Greta Zimmer Friedman - Austrian-born American grabbed kissed

Greta Zimmer Friedman

Interviewed for the Veterans History Project in 2005, Greta Friedman confirmed it wasn’t her choice to be kissed and that the sailor “grabbed” her, but also that the kiss was a “jubilant act” and “just an event of ‘Thank God the war is over’. ”

Eisenstadt said he watched the sailor running along the street, grabbing any girl in sight.

“I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture.”

Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt

A sculpture based on the photo is to be seen in Sarasota, Florida, entitled Unconditional Surrender. The original version was made by J. Seward Johnson II in 2005 – he went on to create a series of them in different locations across the USA and beyond. In 2019 that punning title doesn’t play so well.

Sarasota, Florida Unconditional Surrender by J. Seward Johnson II 2005

Unconditional Surrender by J. Seward Johnson II

On Monday, the day after George Mendonsa’s death, the statue was vandalised with the hashtag #MeToo painted in red on the dental assistant’s bright white leg.

unconditional surrender sculpture statue vandalism metoo

By Tuesday the civic authorities had it back looking ship-shape and Bristol fashion. The cost of the damage was estimated at $1,000 (£765).

unconditional surrender sculpture statue tweet vandalism

Good as new (how good it was new is debatable)

It’s not the first time Unconditional Surrender has succumbed to unwanted assault. It was accidentally hit by a car on 27th April 2012 and removed for repairs.

There have been issues around the possible copyright infringement by the sculpture of the photo. But Seward Johnson claims his source was another simultaneous photograph by a different photographer:

Kissing_the_War_Goodbye photograph by Victor Jorgensen

Kissing the War Goodbye by Victor Jorgensen – same moment as in Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day in Times Square

Greta Zimmer Friedman and George Mendonsa in photo taken by a Life Magazine photographer, at Times Square, New York

Greta & George back at Times Square years later

Times Square Unconditional Surrender sculpture at the site of the historic LIFE Magazine cover photograph by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt August 14, 2010 in New York. The sculpture is commemorating the 65th anniversary of V-J Day, DON EMMERT

Unconditional Surrender at the site of Eisenstaedt’s photo in Times Square – 14th August 2010 [Photo: Don Emmert]

Sydney Cohen vs 4,300 Italian Fascist troops: Syd won

sydney cohen syd king of lampedusa

Sydney Cohen

On this day in 1946 a plane went missing without trace over the English Channel. On board was Sydney Cohen, an RAF pilot and the ‘King of Lampedusa’. He was flying home to be demobbed but his aircraft crashed in the Straits of Dover. The wreckage was never found.

Lampedusa is a small island 175 miles (280 kilometres) south of Sicily. (These days it is most often referred to in relation to the European migration crisis, receiving migrants from North Africa.)

map lampedusa sicily tunisia

Syd Cohen was a tailor’s cutter from the East End of London. He was an orphan (born 1921) who before the Second World War lived with his sister Lily in a block of flats in Stoke Newington.

How he became Italian royalty is one of the great little stories of World War Two.

20 year-old Sydney Cohen joined the Royal Airforce in 1941 and was based at North Weald near Epping. He was subsequently stationed on Malta. On 12th June 1943 Sergeant Cohen took off from the island with his two-man crew in their Swordfish biplane. With him was Sergeant Peter Tait, navigator, and Sergeant Les Wright, wireless operator and gunner. They were on a search-and-rescue mission after reports of a German plane crashing into the Mediterranean. Returning from the mission their compass started malfunctioning and they found themselves off course (actually heading away from Malta) and low on fuel so had to make an emergency landing on the Island of Lampedusa.

fairey swordfish plane

Fairey Swordfish

“The plane had a fit of gremlins so we had to make for the nearest land. As we came down on a ropey landing ground we saw a burnt hangar and burnt aircraft around us.”

The Allies had been bombing the island. As Sydney prepared to submit to the inevitable fate of being captured…

“a crowd of Italians came out to meet us and we put our hands up to surrender, but then we saw they were all waving white sheets shouting: “No, no – We surrender!” The whole island was surrendering to us!”

“It was a bit of a shake-up but I put on a bold heart and asked to see the commandant. I was taken to the commandant’s villa but an air raid started and everybody suddenly dashed from the room. I concluded that the nerves of my hosts were a bit jagged. They asked me to return to Malta and inform the authorities of their offer to surrender. They gave me a scrap of paper with a signature on it.”

Sydney accepted the surrender of the commandant of the demoralised garrison, refuelled, flew the scribbled surrender on to headquarters in Tunis, and in effect single-handedly captured Lampedusa and 4,300 Italian troops. It was arguably the first step in the retaking of Europe by the Allies.

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison Lampedusa

Surrendered weapons of the Italian garrison

king cohen of lampedusa newspaper headline

The British press picked up on the story to help boost morale. ‘Lampedusa Gives In to Sgt. Cohen!’ was the front-page headline on the Sunday Pictorial the very next day. The News Chronicle gave it the headline: ‘London Tailor’s Cutter is now King of Lampedusa’ establishing the monicker which went on to provide the title for a highly successful Yiddish musical play by S.J. Charendorf.

grand palais yiddish theatre programme king of lampedusa sj charendorf

Programme from Grand Palais, East London

Charendorf was a Czech-American journalist, London correspondent for the Jewish Morning Journal of New York. He was on his way to the Ministry of Information to file his story about Sgt Syd Cohen when it occurred to him that it had the makings of a brilliant play. He turned back home to write it. He changed the hero’s name to Sam Kagan and created parents and a fiancee for him but Sam was clearly Syd.

poster king of lampedusa grand palais london

Poster from Grand Palais

In November 1943 Charendorf took his script to Meier Tzelniker, the actor-producer-director who ran the Grand Palais Yiddish theatre on the Commercial Road in Whitechapel. Tzelniker commissioned some music and wrote the lyrics himself. He also cast himself in the lead role alongside his daughter Anna. The show premiered on New Year’s Eve 1943/4. It was a slow burner but Charendorf got the newspapers interested in the story again and it took off.

King of Lampedusa 2nd act newspaper cutting

The King in Act 2

King of Lampedusa yiddish play

‘The King of Lampedusa’ was a huge hit at the Grand Palais with 200 consecutive performances.

play scene the king of lampedusa

Naturalistic East End cheek-pinching from The King of Lampedusa

The BBC went on to broadcast an English version with Sydney Tafler playing the title role.

In time it came to the treacherous attention of William Joyce aka Lord Haw-Haw. In one of his nightly propaganda broadcasts from Berlin he threatened:

“The Yids at the Grand Palais should not be laughing for much longer at the ridiculous play ‘The King of Lampedusa’ because they are earmarked for a visit from the Luftwaffe.”

Although Cohen went missing in 1946, he did get to see the play while on leave in Haifa in 1944. It was a performance in Hebrew at the Hamatae Theatre. But he never saw the London production.

A final weird twist of a bizarre story – In the wake of Sydney meeting his end on a plane, so did the would-be producer of a movie of the story. After the war the film rights to the play were sold, however the film was never produced because the producer who acquired them, Walter Sistrom, suffered a burst appendix on the plane taking him to Columbia Studios in LA and he died.

 

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