Bearskin hats, motorbikes and Saatchi & Saatchi – Yanky Fachler tells surprising stories of Letchworth’s 20th-century Jewish community
PUBLISHED: 13:06 14 February 2017 | UPDATED: 15:07 15 February 2017
Letchworth, Stotfold and Shefford may not be the first places that spring to mind when you think of Jewish history – but as a visiting author explained last night, the connections there are actually quite strong.
Yanky Fachler, born and raised in Letchworth’s 20th-century Jewish community, returned from his home in Ireland to address the Letchworth Garden City Society with the talk entitled ‘The Tiny Jewish Community with a Global Reach’ – and the Letchworth Settlement’s Brunt Room was crammed full.
His talk and Q&A centred on the wedding-day vow of his parents Eli and Eva Fachler to rebuild the family lost in the Holocaust – but took in topics as diverse as the founder of Tesco supermarkets, an original manuscript written by the philosopher Maimonides, and a blessing given in Sollershott East to fledgling communications firm Saatchi & Saatchi.
Yanky started by noting that being predominantly Orthodox in character, the pop-up Jewish community that appeared in Letchworth in the 1930s differed from those typically emerging in the towns around London.
“This did not happen by chance,” he explained.
“In 1939, a religious property developer called Abba Bornstein had just completed the Aborn estate – Hallmead, Mullway and Monklands – and this rapidly became a magnet for religious Jewish families.”
Much of Letchworth’s Jewish enclave of about 500 people still worked in London, and commuted on the 5.30am ‘workmen’s train’, holding religious services in some of the carriages.
There were as many as 10 people per house across the Aborn estate – and the community included Abba Bornstein’s own brothers Solomon and Moses, whose factory in Weston made bearskin hats for the Grenadier Guards.
Others included the prominent Ashkenazi rabbis Eliyahu Lopian and Isidore Epstein, and Samuel Fisher – later Lord Fisher of Camden, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress.
There was also Rabbi Asher Feuchtwanger – who many of the local children dubbed ‘Rabbi Fartwanger’ – Sigi Stern, who started a kosher butcher shop in The Wynd, and relatives of Tesco founder Jack Cohen.
The family connection notwithstanding, the first self-service store in Letchworth was not a branch of Tesco but Fox’s Stores, set up by the Jewish family of that name.
Yanky told how his mother Eva arrived in London with her sister Marian and parents Sam and Melanie from Germany in 1938, and came to Stotfold in 1939 when Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld’s Jewish Secondary School was evacuated to Shefford as part of Operation Pied Piper.
“The 500 refugee pupils were billeted in Shefford, Clifton, Stotfold and Meppershall,” said Yanky.
“My aunt Marian and mum Eva were billeted with the Carr family in Stotfold, and when the air raids got worse Sam and Melanie joined them.
“And it was in Stotfold that the family heard about the Jewish enclave in Letchworth.”
The family rented an ‘upstairs flatlet’ from Abba Bornstein in Hallmead.
When Eva was subsequently called up, she chose to work on the land, on one of the half-dozen kibbutzim – collective farms – operating in Britain during the war.
Yanky explained: “The Ministry of Agriculture didn’t mind if young Jewish refugees wanted to pretend that they were already living on a real kibbutz in British-governed Mandatory Palestine, so long as they fulfilled their work duties.”
It was at this kibbutz – Hardmead, in Buckinghamshire – that Eva met Yanky’s father Eli, who had left Berlin as a 15-year-old in May 1939 as part of the Kindertransport programme, which brought 10,000 youngsters to the UK.
Eli was assigned to work at Hardmead in July 1941. The kibbutz soon moved to Buckingham, and in early 1944 Eli joined the British Army.
In December that year, Letchworth’s Rabbi Isi Broch officiated as Eli and Eva married on the kibbutz in Buckingham. Standing under the chuppah, or wedding canopy, they vowed to rebuild the Fachler family – which Eli feared had been destroyed by the Nazis.
“Sadly, my dad’s fears proved correct,” said Yanky. “His parents, grandparents, and dozens of uncles, aunts and cousins, were swallowed up by the Nazi murder machine.”
By the time of Yanky’s birth in January 1946 at Lister Hospital – then in Hitchin – about 80 per cent of the Letchworth Jewish community had returned to London. When he had his bar mitzvah in 1959, only 20 families were left.
Yanky went to Wilbury Junior School, with other members of his family going to Westbury, the Grange, Highfield, Letchworth Grammar, Hitchin Grammar and Hitchin Girls’ Grammar.
He left in 1957 to study at Carmel College, the Jewish boarding school in Oxfordshire, where he eventually became head boy – and a year later his family moved from Hallmead to a larger house in Sollershott East.
Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon – who lived in the same road – owned the largest library of Judaica in the world, and also had a passion for fast cars and motorbikes, often taking Yanky out racing around the streets of Letchworth.
“Rabbi Sassoon told me he had turned down an invitation to become chief rabbi of Israel because he did not want to be swallowed up in politics and bureaucracy,” said Yanky.
“Another time, he told me that two brothers from his Sephardic community in London had come to Letchworth to ask his blessing for their new business venture.
“We’re talking about Maurice and Charles Saatchi – Saatchi & Saatchi.”
The rare items in Rabbi Sassoon’s remarkable library included a Spanish Passover Haggadah, hand-written about 1320, that was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1975 and now resides in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Yanky also recalled Rabbi Sassoon taking him into an unfamiliar room and showing him a handwritten Hebrew scroll of a work by Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher – with the rabbi then telling him: “Maimonides wrote this in his own hand!”
That manuscript is also now in Jerusalem, at the Jewish National and University Library.
Yanky concluded: “I like the idea that for 35 years, this magnificent collection of works by the People of the Book resided in Letchworth, the town built on a book – Ebenezer Howard’s To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform.”
The Sassoons’ and Feuchtwangers’ departure for Jerusalem in the late 1960s spelled the beginning of the end for the organised Letchworth Jewish community, with Yanky’s own family leaving for London shortly afterwards when there were insufficient numbers for the Saturday morning services.
His father Eli was the last president of the Letchworth Hebrew Congregation.
Yanky, who published the book The Vow about his parents in 2003, told how ‘it was standing room only’ when he gave this talk in Jerusalem two months ago, with the audience including more than 30 people with strong Letchworth links – some of whom had travelled from across Israel to attend.
Eli died about a year ago, and 95-year-old Eva still lives in Jerusalem.
They went a long way towards fulfilling the vow made on their wedding day to rebuild their family, with seven children, 24 grandchildren and – as of last month, Yanky said – 100 great-grandchildren.