Newham’s Jews battling blazes and bigotry in wartime

Fire-fighters put out a blazing building after an incendiary raid on the City of London during the B

Fire-fighters put out a blazing building after an incendiary raid on the City of London during the Blitz (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

When the prospect of war with Nazi Germany looked more like becoming a reality in the late 1930s, plans were made to cope with the expected air raids.

In 1938 the Auxiliary Fire Service was set up and began to draw men and women from all walks of life, including people who had previously been excluded from joining because they were seen as unsuitable.

According to Stephanie Maltman of Firemen Remembered, a charity which commemorates those who served during the war, before hostilities commenced it would have been unusual to find a Jewish person among the ranks.

But the need for volunteers led to scores of east London’s Jewish population signing up.

“Being Jewish in the fire service was unusual at the time,” said Stephanie, a retired history teacher.

“Jewish people had their own traditions and way of eating. It was difficult because they had to deal with more things. There was a huge amount of anti-Semitism back then.”

Nevertheless Jewish men and women did volunteer and, after 60 hours of training, joined regular crews at any one of the capital’s 60 fire stations or associated sub-stations, which were often set up in empty schools following the evacuation of children.

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Stephanie says Jewish people at the time were hit by a “double whammy”.

During the period known as the “phoney war”, before the outbreak of hostilities and the Blitz, members of the auxiliary fire service and their regular colleagues faced criticism from people who would shout and jeer at them, accusing them of doing nothing to help the war effort.

But tensions also arose within crews, as Stephanie explained: “There were members of the regular fire service who treated Jewish people quite badly. One woman was sent back to clean the toilets over and over again and at one station the men played a joke on them by serving them bacon and eggs for breakfast.

“Nowadays, people would be appalled by that.”

But the prejudice the Jewish firefighters endured did not stop them from battling against the flames and sacrificing their own lives to save people from across Newham, which according to one estimate was hit by 1,240 high explosive bombs between October 1940 and June 1941.

“There were all these problems beforehand, but Jewish people were used to that,” Stephanie added.

Once the Germans started their almost nightly bombing raids over London, traditional tensions had to be ignored if the regular and auxiliary crews were to do their jobs properly.

“Because they had to rely on each other so much, people’s tensions went into the background.”

For Stephanie, whose membership of Firemen Remembered has seen her interview members of the wartime fire service and raise plaques to commemorate those brave men and women, the importance of remembering the sacrifices London’s Jewish community made during the Second World War is great.

“They suffered an awful lot. It’s important for non-Jewish people to speak up for them so people don’t just think oh, it’s that lot again.”