Interviewed by Moses Seitler, grandson
3 October 2019
I’m Rosalind Anticoni. I was born a Benardout, in Middlesex Hospital, I think, on 10 December 1937. I have a sister, five and a half years older than me.
My father was born in the UK. He was the first one – well, I think he was – born here, from Salonika.The family must have come over in 1905 or 1906: my grandparents, one daughter and three sons. My father and his brother were born here and two more daughters after that. They lived in the East End for quite some years, but they must have moved to Shepherd’s Bush round about 1924/25, because the community started there in Shepherd’s Bush: the Turkinos and Salonikalese.
My mother was born in Istanbul. She came to England when she was four. I never asked her until I was 12, “How did you come from Istanbul?” and she said, “In a horse and cart.” So, of course, I burst out laughing! I said, “Oh, don’t be silly. You can’t come all that way in a horse and cart!” And I never forget her reply, “Oh well, I didn’t then.” And I didn’t pursue it, I don’t know why. I imagine if she was four, probably the only journey she remembered was from her home to the port or the station. Why didn’t I ask again? Why didn’t I ask anybody?
My parents spoke Ladino at home quite a lot of the time. My mother’s father lived with us and he didn’t speak English, or hardly did, and so we spoke to him in Ladino. I have great recollections of my father saying to my grandfather, “Mind what you say, what you do, when you go out.” You see, in 1939/1940, I think my father was very anxious that we showed ourselves to speak good English, so they didn’t speak to us children [in Ladino] sadly. And the same has happened to most families. Some still do remember and some can speak. I have a couple of cousins who speak quite good Ladino – my sister can manage. But by the time I was around, it had come to an end. Apart from food.
Our food is very Eastern Mediterranean. We knew vegetables that most English people had never heard of: aubergines, courgettes, olives, fennel. And we used them in different ways. The family were not well-to-do, so meat was a luxury and a lot of things were vegetable based: stuffed vegetables but not stuffed with meat, stuffed with rice. Anyway, I’m sure during the war we couldn’t get aubergines and you couldn’t grow them in this country. But even things like runner beans we would cook differently – with garlic, onions, tomatoes: that was the basis of every meal. You sauté the onions and add the tomatoes and oil, of course, and then you go from there. Even potatoes you could do that with.
It is interesting how that side of the Sephardim has carried on with the foodstuffs. We have tried, I think three times, to have Ladino language sessions at the synagogue, but even before the first evening was over it just disintegrated into “How do you cook this and how do you cook that?” So, it has never been successful. Somebody once said, “Once there is no need to keep secret, you lose the essence of secrecy.” Talking Ladino was our secret language. Once there was no need to keep that, you lose it.
George’s cousin, Andre Aleon, has kept a history of Ladino, of her family. About five years ago, there was a gathering in the town of Ayllón in Spain. About 40 or 50 people from all over the world went back to this small town. They gave all the returning Jews a symbolic key to show they were welcome, and there was an address and a talk and everything else. And they were all so delighted, they decided they would like to have a little plaque, which they would pay for, the 40-odd people, and have it put up next to the town hall. They had it made but, when Andre went back three years ago, she couldn’t find it. They had shoved it somewhere out of the way, and she felt that it didn’t mean anything to them, after all. She was sad about that.
My mother never went back to Turkey, but we have been back many times and met quite a lot of the Jewish community there. There are about 15,000 Jewish people in Istanbul now, in Turkey as a whole. Very lovely, very warm. I didn’t get any feeling about Salonika, but Istanbul: I could really imagine living there. It’s a fabulous, fabulous city.
The last time we were there was about five years ago. We were trying to find information about our families, but it is very hard to get information out of the immigration office. [My husband] George had taken with him a letter written in Turkish, to see if we could find out where his grandfather was born, where he lived and where his business was. But the boss of the immigration, or whoever it was, wouldn’t help us at all.
A lot of family, of course, moved to America. There’s a big Sephardi community in Seattle, all Turkish, from Istanbul originally, and Izmir. I have quite a few cousins there. I imagine they went there before the Second World War. At one point, Greece was the largest centre for Jews in Europe: two thirds of the population was Jewish. And the banks, the ports and everything closed on Friday lunchtime and didn’t open until Saturday evening, Sunday morning. Then, when Hellenisation came in, they saw the writing on the wall.
Migration to England
I think my grandfather was very far-sighted to have moved to England. They came over as cigarette makers. He then realised that the carpet business was really on the ball, because England has fantastic stately homes with beautiful carpets in a bad condition. My father and his elder brother – the two oldest brothers didn’t want to join in, but the two next ones down did – built up a very successful business, The Anglo Persian Carpet Company in South Kensington, established in 1926, I think. It was in the arcade, so everything in the office used to rattle because the District Line and Piccadilly Line trains went underneath.
They had some Turkish, Salonikalese, who would sit on the floor cross-legged repairing the carpets. They also had English staff as well, a couple of girls who were expert in repairs and cleaning. My father wasn’t easy to deal with, I’m sure. People used to come in and say, “I’m looking for a carpet,” and he would say, “Well, go to Harrods!” Unless they knew what they wanted, he couldn’t be bothered.
Our house was full of carpet: I thought it was normal to have carpets in the toilet! Including the outside toilet! They would come and they would go. Because if you had a client who wanted a particular carpet, suddenly you would come home from school, “Where’s the hall carpet gone?”
It was a really good business. He was there from 1926 until well into the Seventies. But when my mother developed Alzheimer’s at the age of 65, 63, things became very, very difficult, so he sold it and that was the end of that.
I’ve been a member of the Holland Park Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue all my life. As a child, of course, it was packed. I mean, at Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, we sat on the stairs. And of course, all the cousins were there – so many! If you consider my father was one of eight children, and his eldest sister had five, the next one had three, you couldn’t keep up with them. My mother only had one brother, but her sister-in-law was one of five girls and one boy. And that has happened a lot in the family: five girls and one boy. The Benardouts had lots and lots of girls and so the name has pretty much dropped out.
My grandfather was very religious. He said prayers morning and evening. It seems to be different now. There has been quite a lot of inter-marriage, obviously. The old idea that the Turkinos sit on one side of the synagogue and the Salonikalese on the other side has rather gone to pot. Before George and I got married, my father said to me, “You can’t marry out, he’s got to be Sephardi. He’s got to belong to our synagogue and he’s got to sit on the right side.” And my sister and I both did.
We’re noticing now that a lot of the girls are marrying non-Jewish. Not the boys: the girls are. The girls still come to synagogue, but of course their husbands are not coming. The children are all having Bar Mitzvahs. So, the children are still carrying it on, but it’s hard for them.
Quite a few members of our congregation are from Gibraltar. I never realised that, in 1939, the Jewish community of Gibraltar all moved out to Jamaica and they stayed there for the length of the war. When the war was finished, they could have stayed in Jamaica, come back to Gibraltar or come to London, and the majority of them came here.
The French community have been very supportive, particularly if their children go to the Lycée Française in South Kensington. They have boosted the numbers. There are some delightful, absolutely lovely families. But two families have gone back now. One because of Brexit and another because the grandparents missed the children. We also, of course, have got quite a few from Iraq and Iran, although most of them belong to Lauderdale Road. Thank goodness, they have made a success of their lives, having been booted out in a very unfair way with no compensation, no nothing.
My mother and her five girl cousins, third cousins, they used to get together quite a bit. They would play canasta and solo. The men played bridge mostly. On Saturday nights, they would very often get together at my father’s sister’s house in Ealing. They all congregated mostly in Shepherd’s Bush and Ealing. But my parents went across the Hammersmith Bridge into Barnes, and I’m not sure whether that caused bad feeling. They thought we were stuck-up because we had gone over the bridge. I don’t think my parents had friends, it was all family.
In the summer, my father had a big American car, a Hudson Terraplane, and we used to go down to a swimming pool in Camberley. We’d all meet up at 11.30 on a Sunday morning at some garage down the Great West Road. There would be about four cars with six or seven people in each of them. There was always one uncle who had a terrible old car, which would always break down on the way. We’d spend the whole day at the swimming pool with our picnics with ten, twelve cousins and husbands and wives and everything. And the picnics we’d take! That was lovely.
For me, being Sephardi gives me a natural affinity to Spain. My father and I always felt this: as soon as you got over the border it was kind of, “Aah, we’re home.” It doesn’t matter how many years or centuries have gone by, there is a connection. I suppose it’s the language: even though it’s ancient, they understand you. It’s like saying to somebody on a London street today, “Whither goest thou?” It sounds odd, but they will understand you. They ask, “Where are you from?” My father used to say, “Mexico,” because it’s simpler. But when he knew people better, he would tell them.
Despite Brexit, I would never think about seeking Spanish or Turkish citizenship. My father was so proud of being British, he really was. His father spoke very good English, my grandfather on my father’s side. They all spoke very good English right from the start. No, they were British and no question about that. I wouldn’t try that.