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Esther Rafer and the Jewish East End

By Emma Crew

When planning our Curious Minds sessions for people living with dementia we decided to include objects and photographs relating to specific people who lived in the Jewish East End. I chose to show some of our items linked to Esther Rafer.

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Her descendant Sheila donated a fascinating collection of items from her life including family photographs, shop receipts, birthday cards and letters. From these, we can piece together her story from her birth in Russia to a family of butchers to her marriage to Abraham Rafer and the butcher’s shop they ran on Hessel Street.

There are family photos with their four children David, Joseph, Minnie and Cecilia and letters they sent to each other showing their close relationship.

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There are receipts showing their move to Upper Clapton in the mid- 1920s. They finished their careers in the cinema business running the Empire in Mile End and also building four more cinemas in London and Kent.

So far so good- but once you start to look closely at the dates on the different items you run into problems. Esther and Abraham appear in the 1911 census in Hessel Street where they record that they have been married 5 years.

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Their son Joseph sent them a silver wedding anniversary letter writing ‘My dear parents, wishing you every Happiness, Health and Prosperity on your Silver Wedding’. A lovely letter- the only problem is it is dated ‘June 12th 1933′. This would mean they were married in 1908, not 1906. Esther and Abraham hosted a Silver Wedding Dinner in their home on Sunday 2nd July 1933 so as a couple they recorded their wedding as 1908.

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Then there is Abraham’s date of birth. In the 1911 census, he gives his age as 28 suggesting he is born in 1883/4. However, we also have a small paper certificate dated 12th December 1917 which discharges Abraham from the army declaring him ‘permanently and totally unfit for service’. The Doctor found evidence of problems with his chest and lungs leading to a medical discharge. Abraham is described as being 5” 2 with blue eyes and brown hair. He is also recorded as 38. But how can a man who is 28 in 1911 be 38 in 1917? This certificate suggests that he was born in 1879 which matches his certificate of Naturalisation dated 1931.

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The more I compare the different documents and photos the more interested I become in the contrasting information. Unable to find an exact reason for the difference in dates I have been asking participants in our Curious Minds workshops to give their opinions.

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A couple have suggested that there was a language barrier and Esther and Abraham were confused when filling out the 1911 census. One man suggested that families didn’t record the year their children were born so lots of people didn’t know how old they actually were. Another man pointed out that many young men in Russia pretended to be younger than they were to avoid conscription in the Russian army. We’ll never know for sure but these little mysteries have sparked many interesting discussions at our Curious Minds workshops.

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