I never used to make a point of reading the social and personal columns of The Jewish Chronicle. In fact, I didn’t read much of the paper at all but, entering the realm of the lower middle aged, my interest developed in surprising ways. I’m not sure whether I was prodded by a greater sense of my own mortality or whether I simply lost my bearings but I started to read the obituary reviews therein and started to better understand the sheer breadth of the Jewish experience. All kinds of people appeared, some distinguished and well known, others household names only in their own households, and this cast of characters encouraged me to peer inside what is euphemistically described as the hatch, match and dispatch department.
This perverse fascination with the deeds of unknown thousands ran strangely parallel with the deeds of an unknown few. These few were correspondingly difficult to identify as they reflected various antecedents whose origins were often deliberately shrouded in mystery. My genealogical quest has frequently been a tale of runaway vowels and gate crashing consonants, strangled words and stranded journeys. I have visited many worlds, some real and others virtual. My fingers and footsteps have tiptoed around the annexation of Central Europe, the pogroms, the exclusionism, the hope and despair. It is part of the Jewish experience, as is, of course, the gushing enthusiasm that accompanies the arrival of a new member of the community. It is no longer enough for the happy couple to be pleased to announce such an event. The language of the listings represents a sort of hyperbolical heaven these days. We have moved from pleased to delighted to thrilled to ecstatic to including every family member, even those too young or old to know what the fuss is all about. Sooner or later, somebody will internally combust with excitement and, simultaneously, appear in the dispatch column on the other side of the page. Under those unfortunate circumstances, mere sadness will surely be eclipsed by devastation and despond.
Amidst all this activity, my research efforts are becalmed. I have suffered neither agony nor ecstasy of late. I knew when I started that I was in for the long haul. That’s just as well. I’m now nine years into this labour of love and I have more unanswered questions than I care to remember. I was somewhat disadvantaged at the very outset by the realisation that, while one or two family members had more than a cursory interest in the subject, nobody actually knew anything. This may sound faintly unbelievable when you consider the endless Jewish diaspora but the truth is that, although one or two lovingly crumpled family trees emerged, the body of factual rather than anecdotal evidence was thin on the ground. I kept reading help guides online and offline that advised me to pin down my grandparents – as if grandparents are actually dashing around – so they could relive their memories and experiences on tape for posterity. I thought this was a great idea if you had any to ask. Alas, mine were all dead and my problem was further compounded by my father and his father being among the youngest of their respective generations. The easy source and flow of familial glue had long since dissipated.
When you start at the very bottom, the only way is up. At least, so we’re led to believe. I spent quite some time bumping sideways along the bottom, applying for a sheaf of certificates all united by the Heiser name. It took me ages to sift through them, weeding out the most improbable based on the little I knew. I had mistakenly thought that Heiser was a uniquely Jewish name, a bit like Cohen, Levy or Epstein, but it transpired that it had also been commandeered by our gentile brethren. The frequent appearance of Wilhelmina, Christina, Heinrich et al, even to my untutored eye, hinted that not every Heiser was a member of my clan. Nonetheless, a pattern started to emerge from around 1850 as one Abraham Heiser, abetted by his wife Sarah, fathered child after child after child. Two things struck me about this chain of events. Firstly, I would be spectacularly unlucky if this couple were not Jewish and, secondly, how, in an era of deprivation and harsh living conditions, Mrs H bore and raised so many children to adulthood. Was she blessed with an especially robust constitution or just good fortune? She lost two but eleven survived, one of whom was my greatgrandmother, Julia Heiser.
I still have no firm evidence of the birthplace of Abraham Heiser, despite a few tantalising clues. Census returns hinted at his origins in Prussia but here was a man who was content to reveal as little as necessary about his previous life yet to his dying day remained a foreign subject. He arrived in London around 1850 and was recorded in the 1851 census as a bead maker. This was relatively unusual employment for a young man in his position. Mid-Victorian London was, of course, replete with an extraordinary array of specialist vendors you’d struggle to find today and the Jewish quarter was no exception. Amid a plethora of eternal hawkers, pieceworkers and journeymen, some immigrants climbed with halting steps a little further up the social scale. An affordable home and an extended family certainly came in handy but hard graft blended with a little religious faith was the real driver. Abraham quickly assumed a wider patriarchal role and, by the time of the 1861 census, was a father of five, a bead manufacturer and installed at 17 Bell Lane in Spitalfields. This address was to be the family home until Sarah’s death in 1891 and my Heiser tribe certainly made their mark on the immediate area. Abraham graduated from the bead business to become a toy, china and Bohemian glass dealer, possibly from his own front door, and also secretary of the Princelet Street synagogue from 1871. His strong communal and charitable beliefs were imbued in his progeny. Two of his sons, namely Samuel and Solomon, gave conspicuous service as teachers at the Jewish Free School while a number of their siblings, in a quiet and modest way, also contributed to the lifeblood of their respective communities.
One such sibling gave an irresistible urgency to my researches. As his father before him, Michael Heiser prospered in an uncommon role. He was the third child of Abraham and Sarah, born in 1856, and married Charlotte Mendes whose father, of Sephardic extraction, ran a successful pickling operation. I have reason to believe from early trade directories that the Mendes family was engaged in salting and curing in the late 18th century. Michael’s involvement in the early 1880s witnessed a shift to accommodate the tastes of the burgeoning Ashkenazi population. Pickles and their cousins have been a fixture of the traditional Jewish spread for as long as I can remember and their consumption over this particular period simply exploded. Based in Lawn House Yard, Stepney, and a few other places along the way, Michael evolved a much bigger business and called it Brother Bung. This rather puzzling moniker is redolent of a fraternal backhander but actually depicted a monk holding a jar stopper. I’ve obviously got much to learn about Victorian marketing techniques.
However, the business became one of the three leading suppliers of pickles, piccalillis and sauces to the resident Jewish community and I imagined a wealth of material would emerge. I was completely and utterly wrong. There was no material, no ephemera and, for the most part, no interest. I gleaned a few insights on the pickling industry from sources at the Guildhall Library but I was desperately scratching around for something of substance. I then made a remarkable, yet wholly unexpected, breakthrough. I used my brain. It occurred to me, while burrowed in reams of paper, that people of a certain vintage might just have bought and remembered the product. Serendipitously, one of my father’s second cousins, a grandson of Michael and Charlotte, made renewed contact with a family member. This delightful lady, Rosalie Heiser, was the widow of another grandson, confusingly also Michael, who had actually run the business in the post war period. She had some interesting and rather forthright views on the family in general but precious little information about Brother Bung itself. She did have a pencil, festooned with the Brother Bung brand, and a trade publication that extolled the virtues of its innovative pickling processes but it seemed that any vestige of the company had been wantonly discarded or destroyed.
Fate then lent me a further hand, in more ways than one. I used to visit an elderly lady each week as a charity volunteer. She was dignified and genteel but her sad eyes suggested a life unfulfilled. I would talk to her, take her for a walk, perhaps out for dinner and generally try to offer her a little company and comfort. She was fifty years older than me and lived in rather scruffy sheltered accommodation, the state of which was exacerbated by her glaucoma, swollen feet and a most debilitating neurological condition that caused her to shake uncontrollably, an untreatable consequence of a hit and run incident a few years previously. The pain of loneliness, however, was even more pronounced and she had plenty to say. She had been a good Jewish girl. She had joined Habonim in her youth, she had been educated and she knew her responsibilities. She inhabited a rather courtly world of position and place, in both a Jewish and secular context, living at home until her forties. Though a working woman, she only achieved real independence once her parents had passed away whereupon she began a relationship with a rather older gentleman whose first wife had died. Her marriage delivered one slightly recalcitrant stepdaughter but the selflessness of her youth was not rewarded. She bore no children of her own and was widowed after a mere eleven years. She led an active life but her circle of friends and family were gradually diminished by distance and disability. Moreover, death overtook many of her contemporaries and, despite a shining spirit, life became a constant struggle.
I have to admit that I did not always enjoy our meetings. She became tremendously reliant upon me and I felt unable to meaningfully improve her lot. The underlying tragedy was that she was a member of an extensive and established Jewish family from whom she had largely been cast adrift. She received the odd phone call and letter but I sensed there was an unwitting indifference to her circumstances. It was hugely ironic to me that she could confirm that her own genealogical line was both intact and documented. Indeed, she recalled that a young woman, a member of her very disparate family, had compiled a tree and confirmed her presence within it. I do not know whether her physical isolation was the result of pride, ignorance or disaffection but I do know that it represents a graphic example of the fractured and fractious world we live in today. Oh, just in case you are wondering, her maiden name was Esther Hart – I suspect she features on the tree of a few readers.
She retained, however, keen memories of her youth and this is where I picked up some rare nuggets pertaining to my own family history. She vividly remembered preparing for Shabbat dinner after school with her mother and sisters and how her father had a habit of inviting unexpected guests, often travellers, who had no Jewish home to call upon that night. She would close her eyes and relive the vistas of her youth, the seaside, the countryside, the street markets and the Yiddish theatres. I closed my eyes too, drifting off as I imagined these innocent flights of fancy, but came back to earth with a loud and inelegant bump when she casually mentioned the night she’d got pickled. I knew that every Friday afternoon brought a blur of activity with a series of errands and deliveries that, if not undertaken on foot, were frequently accomplished by horse and cart. I must confess I raised an eyebrow when she said they were greeted one day by a pair of huge drays, accompanied by muscular men and rolling barrels, outside their home. I visualised her father slipping down a pint of Courage Best to brace himself before the davening began but realised, once I’d stopped interrupting her, that the delivery in question was altogether different.
The rolling barrels were miniature vats containing, of course, all manner of pickles! The local children would swarm around, occasionally helping themselves, waiting to sample this great delicacy. One evening Esther and her siblings rather overindulged and, as the acid took effect, they entertained their newfound guests with a startling display of flatulence. We both laughed long and hard at the thought of it but laughed even louder when she told me that the wind assisted proceedings that night were caused by none other than Brother Bung’s finest. Here, quite unexpectedly, was the living proof of a long lost Heiser family tradition and one very satisfied customer!
It was a magical moment in a relationship that didn’t provide too many. Her increasing infirmity stripped her independence and I cautiously suggested she consider a care home, after due consultation with her remaining family. She begged me not to let anyone take her away and I promised I would not. I lied.
Within six months, partly through some of my personal connections, she was admitted to a Jewish Care home. Her family did their best to assist, notwithstanding other priorities, but when I visited her there she resembled a refugee, lost, a little ragged and struggling to communicate. Moving house can be traumatic at the best of times but it is especially so when you are 89 and are not quite sure where you’ve moved to.
She had her own room and as fine a level of care and support as her circumstances allowed but she was quite unable to coax that wonderful memory and girlish zest back into gear. She said I would probably forget about her once she was ensconced in the residential home. I promised her I would come as regularly as possible. I am afraid I lied once more though this time without aforethought. My wife suddenly became very gravely ill and all my energies and resources were committed towards her and our three young children. Fortunately, my wife recovered but my relationship with Esther did not. I never saw her again.
It is remarkable how kismet plays its part. My Heiser hunting has been, for all its frustrations, a fascinating exercise that continues to bewilder and intrigue and I have made some wonderful discoveries along the way. However, my conversations with a neglected old lady gave arguably as much colour, meaning and life to my genealogical enquiry as any other. She represented a tangible connection to another world and those pickling Heisers. Alas, she was living proof too of the gradual disintegration of the wider family construct over the last century. The concept of community is a bit of a moving target these days. There is thus all the more relevance to the social and personal columns in tracking the rise and fall of the individual Jewish experience. Although I am principally motivated by Heiser and related interests, I do not lie at all when I say I keep an eye out in each issue of The Jewish Chronicle for a mention of Esther, albeit not under births or marriages. For all I know, she may have passed away already but, dead or alive, I remember her fondly. It was difficult not to be charmed by a near nonagenarian who still glowingly referred to her parents as mummy and daddy and reflected so happily upon the day Brother Bung came knocking!