Eastern Evening News. January 17, 1912
A VENERABLE NORWICH JEW
THRILLING STORY OF ESCAPE FROM RUSSIA
Among the many strangers who have come to Norwich and who have settled down in the Cathedral city for the remainder of their lives, few can have made its acquaintance under stranger circumstances than Mr. Joseph Levine, of Synagogue Street, who claims to be the oldest member of the local Jewish circle. He is now 86 years of age, with the snows of winter in his hair and beard, broken physically by the constant buffetings of a hard life. He is a Polish Jew, and in his youthful days had a short but bitter taste of conscript life, and sought the hospitable shores of Britain as a refugee from the cruel regime of Russia.
His gorge rises as he recalls the brutalities of the Russian officers to the ordinary solders. “Not only have the latter very poor food,” declared the old man, “but they have very small pay, and life in the Army is very horrible. Before now I have seen with my own eyes callous officers strike their men so fiercely if their mouths happened to be open that when they closed part of the tongue would tumble to the ground.” Small wonder that through fear of having to endure such barbarities the young Jew made up his mind to escape to a country whose fame for liberty and kindly treatment had spread to his little native town of Mittau near Riga.
Mr. Levine’s life story is made up of sunshine and shadow – unfortunately the latter has predominated – and his interesting experiences have been told to many on his various journeys throughout Norfolk. He travelled in jewellery, and, as he remarked to our representative, “my customers came some distance to hear my leetle bit of nonsense.”
When he was asked to relate how and why he left Russia and his homestead, a flood of recollection was let loose and with sobs Mr. Levine told his story. He first described how when as a boy he returned from work in a tailor’s shop his brother told him that a “call” was to be made for the army, and that they were on the list. His mother hid her sons in the attic “where the hens were roosting.” Her heart beat with fear as the tramp of a dozen gendarmes was heard outside the house, and she swooned when the solders cried out, “We have got the birds,” and bore them away.
But Levine was lucky, for after three months his mother procured a certificate of release, and her boys regained freedom. Shortly afterwards they both decided to flee to another land. Mr. Levine had out of his weekly earnings of 30s.or ten roubles saved some £2 or £3. “My mother did not really know of my intention to leave home,” he said, although she guessed something, and I was afraid to tell her. My father was out. I simply said “I am going for a walk.” With a cry that she would never see her sons again she fainted. Levine and his brother walked out into the night and took their first steps towards England, “the place,” he said, “where in those days I heard the best fortunes in the world were to be made.” The journey was not without adventures. After a long weary tramp, relieved by rides in wagons and changing their names each time an inquiry was made, they came to Memel, a seaport town in Prussia.
Here they fell among friends of their own race, who were so interested in their fight for freedom that they subscribed a sum of money to assist them. It was at Memel that young Levine met the first rogue, who under the pretence that he would find him a ship, and book his passage to England, fleeced him of his money. He was penniless.
“What did you do then?” inquired our representative.
The old man’s face broke into smiles as he related the good fortune which fell to him. “I wandered about, and saw above a shop a name the same as my own, Joseph Horrowitz. I added Levine to it when I came to England. I told him exactly what had happened. He expressed his sorrow, and after a time, finding that we were related to one another he gave me four sovereigns, which I tied in a girdle round my loins. He then arranged with a ship owner, and I worked my passage across the seas.” It was a cargo sailing vessel, which instead of going to London came to Norfolk, and Levine and his brother landed at Wells-next-the-Sea.
His description of the journey to Norwich was distinctly amusing. “I could not speak a word of English,” said he. “After great difficulty I learned how to ask, “Right way to Norwich.” We walked for three days and three nights. Our only food was fruit, which we gathered on the way, and turnips from the fields.” A great fear filled the brothers during those nights when they slept under the hedgerows. “We heard the braying of donkeys. Neither of us had ever seen a donkey in Russia. Wolves and bears there were, of course, but no donkeys. The noise of these asses during the stillness of the night terrified us out of our six wits, for we thought they were lions!”
When Mr. Levine came to Norwich, which was about the time of the Crimean War, he had little difficulty in getting work as a tailor. His first job was with a firm in London Street, where he was paid 3s 6d for making a pair of trousers. “I could make during a week six pairs. For coats I got 10s. but I was not a good coat hand, and earned about 15s or 16s a week. I also got 2s. 6d or 3s. for making a waistcoat. After wards he worked for Womack in Dove Street, and Hook, sen., in St. George’s. Having a longing to set up in business for himself Levine saved a little money and opened a little shop on the corner of St. Miles’s, at the bottom of St. Lawrence’s Steps on which now stands Bullard’s Brewery. It was a tobacconist’s and tailoring business.
“One of my customers was the late Sir Harry Bullard, who in those days was a big Liberal, and talked a lot about politics to me. It was due to his influence that I became a Liberal and have remained such to this day, although Sir Harry Bullard forswore his political faith. There were plenty of bribes offered in those days added the old man, “but I never sold my vote.”
It is curious that after having voted for very many years Mr. Levine was struck off the voters’ list some ten or twelve years ago. He explained that he never took out his naturalisation papers, and was regarded in consequence as an alien.
Mr. Levine has seen many ups and downs in business. He gave up his shop and travelled throughout the country on cheap jewellery. On an average he walked 20 miles a day, his little shop which, like a snail, he carried on his back, weighing about 5 stone. He then went to Yarmouth, where he earned his living as a tailor, going out like Autolycus, with his wares when business was slack. Mr. Levine, however, came to Norwich again and opened another shop for tailoring and tobacco in St. Benedict’s.
“About a year afterwards,” he said, I was married, and, on my wedding day, got a present with my wife of £50. I was, indeed, a rich man.” His wife was Miss Hannah Bendon, whose brother kept an optician’s establishment. Of the four children of the marriage one is Mr. Louis Levine, a dealer in antiques, etc., who has two businesses in the city and one at Cromer. In 1866 Mr. Levine took a shop in St. Gregory’s Church Alley, which he kept on until October, 1909, when he retired into private life.
Discussing his impressions of England, Mr. Levine confessed that he was better treated by the natives than by his fellow Jews. What struck him very forcibly, however, was the difference in the prices of food in Russia and England.
“When I went into a Norwich shop and secured some bread I had to put lot of it back because it was so much dearer than I thought. I had to pay 10d. or 11d. a pound for butcher’s meat which I got in Russia for a penny or twopence. Geese in my home only cost a shilling and chickens threepence or fourpence. Cigars and tobacco were almost thrown at you. Cigars were four a penny! Clothes, however, were very dear, and poor people could only afford a decent suit in rare instances.”
Mr. Levine and his wife’s family were among the best supporters of the Jewish Synagogue in Norwich, and for many years the venerable Jew, following the old custom, sat up with the dead of the chosen people.
We are indebted to our congregant Leona Levine for providing this insightful story of her great grandfather Joseph Levine. Indeed his story echoes those of many of our ancestors including my own who landed up in Newcastle thinking they were heading to New York.
If you have similar interesting stories in your family please contact me with a view to sharing them with us.