Monday, 25 May 2020

Britain is still a country for five old men who, when young and in the 43 Group, fought fascists on its streets

The '43 Group' was formed in April 1946 at Maccabi House, a Jewish sports club in Hampstead, North London, a couple of months after four Jewish ex-servicemen had encountered a far-right rally at which “aliens in our midst” were denounced. The 43 pledged to stop fascism by physical means if necessary and were soon engaging in confrontations on the streets.

The Group had a thousand members and naturally the numbers of the survivors have declined over the years. Vidal Sassoon died in 2012 and Morris Beckman in 2015 :

Britain was a country for a time and now says "Goodbye" to an old hairdresser called Vidal Sassoon who once fought fascist on the streets of London.

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an indefatigable anti-fascist called Morris Beckman.

Daniel Sonabend, the author of 'We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain' said that the Group's confrontation with the Far Right : “This was happening in the shadow of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Some of these Jewish men and women had escaped nazism, some had seen the concentration camps, some had been prisoners of war, plenty had lost family. They had seen how fundamentally violent fascism is when it is allowed to take the reins of power. These people will kill us, put us in the gas chambers. Therefore, they said, we have to stand up for ourselves.”

It took four years to see off the postwar fascists and the group disbanded 70 years ago next month. Now there are only five members still alive :

Jules Konopinski, now 90 years old, was born in Breslau, Germany in 1930 and escaped to Britain with his mother in 1939. He joined the 43 Group when he was 17 and had a reputation for being a tough young fighter. He recently said : “The enemy hadn’t gone away. We Jews, all our lives, have been taught that if anyone spits at you, you walk away – that’s the teaching of the rabbis. But there comes a time when you have to make a stand – and we made a stand. I’m very proud of what we did.”

Harry Kaufman, now 89, was born in Walthamstow in 1931. Joining the 43 Group at just sixteen years old, he was for a long time the Group’s youngest member. He left the Group in 1949 when he was called up for his National Service.

Jules and Harry :

Martin White, now 88, was seventeen when he joined the group and said that he was fighting against anti-semitism from the age of five. On his first day at school he had his hand shut in a desk and had been kicked by othe boys for being a Jew. "My big sister said to me that :"You've just got to go and fight. You've got to go back tomorrow, find the boy and hit him." An that's what I did and I've been fighting every day since." Young Martin was often known to have said at 43 Group meetings : "Let's just throw bombs at them" and it was in an effort to curb his radicalism and that of other members of the Group, that the older group members began to hold educative talks on its aims, objectives and acceptable methods.

The last two surviving members of the Group are Jerry Kaffin and Gerry Abrahams.

Daniel Sonabend explained why, in his opinion, the resurgence of fascism in the aftermath of the War has had little attention from British historians : “It goes against the narrative we have in this country of postwar Britain – that we were the victors against the Nazis. Having to confront a notion that there were fascists who were tolerated by the government, protected by the police and, at some points, gained a hearing among their audiences on the streets is a bit jarring. In August 1947, there were antisemitic riots in Manchester, Liverpool and other cities, which have been largely forgotten. They are alien to the story we tell about ourselves.” 

Police break up clashes between followers of Sir Oswald Mosley and protestors in Ridley Road, East London on 20 March 1949 :

Ridley Road, in Dalston, East London, was one of the regular battlegrounds between fascists and 43 Groupers, as it had been between the BUF and their enemies in the ‘30s, and would be again in the 1960s.

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