Sylvia Manasseh

Interviewed by Melvin Altwarg

My mother was born in Singapore. Her mother was born in Spain. I think my father was born in the Middle East somewhere. He was one of 12 or 13. One of them disappeared somewhere. They never knew what happened to him.

I was born in Calcutta, India. There was quite a big Jewish community there, but we weren’t great synagogue goers. We went once or twice a year on special days.

We had a big house, but part of it was let. We didn’t use all of it. We had a Scottish nanny. My brother and I shared a nursery at the top of the house. And we saw our parents once a week for lunch in the dining room. Otherwise, we just kept to ourselves at the top of the house. There was a little nursery school, in our flat, and other children used to come and join us at the school.

My father was in charge of the Calcutta branch of the family firm that imported and exported jute sack. His older brother, got ill, was sent back to the UK to recover and never went back, so my father was stuck there. There were three offices, in London, Calcutta and Singapore. And I think, for a bit, there was one in Rangoon, in Burma.

Wartime in Calcutta
I was in boarding school in England. I went out to see my father in India at the beginning of the war and got stuck there because nobody could travel during the war. I joined the Girl Guides, so I could do something useful while I was there. When the war started, the Girl Guides became the Women’s Services – the Women’s Auxiliary Corps they were called, WAC with ‘I’ in brackets for India.

When I started, my first job was in the anti-aircraft brigade working for a brigadier. And then, because I didn’t get hysterical and hide under chairs when the Japanese were bombing us, I was sent to work for General Stewart, who was in charge of Bengal, as his personal assistant. He was very nice. I was terrified of him until I heard him talking to his wife on the telephone and he was so terrified of her that I then wasn’t very frightened of him anymore That was in Fort William in Calcutta. I was the only woman at the fort, so I had to have lunch with all the men officers.

Boatloads of Jews were being sent out from Germany to Hong Kong or Shanghai to escape being murdered by the Nazis. The boats would stop off in Calcutta and my mother and one or two other Jewish women used to go and if anybody needed help, they would get them off in Calcutta. I think there was a Jewish women’s committee that used to look around to see what jobs they could find, and when a boat came in, they’d try and fill these jobs with the Jewish refugees.

Post-war experiences in England and Singapore
After the war, I was sent to stay with this horrible uncle in Oxford. And then I think I went to some sort of a school or an academy. I’m not quite sure. I remember we lived at the top of Headington Hill, and I had to cycle down it. It was terrifying. I did something in Oxford, I can’t quite remember what it was. Nothing very exciting.

I didn’t go to university. I went to an art school in Brighton – as a student, and then I taught there. After that, I taught in Singapore. My parents had gone there after the war. My sister went out, but they couldn’t cope with her. She was very, very difficult. They thought I could help, but she wouldn’t listen to me.

I got a nice job at the Teachers’ Training College. First of all, I was in a very old building. Then they moved to a new building and they said, “The art department makes such a noise, push them away.” So, I got my own building, which I was allowed to design with the help of a very nice architect. He gave me everything I wanted. I asked for a pottery studio, which they’d never had before. So, I introduced pottery into schools in Singapore. I encouraged the pupils to look in their own gardens and see if they had clay that they could use: I told them, if the rain doesn’t go through, it’s probably clay and you can use that.

I lived in a block of flats that belonged to my mother’s brother, called Amber Mansions on Amber Road. Amber was a family name. My mother’s family was called Elias [an important philanthropic Jewish family in Singapore, they set up the Amber Trust to support impoverished Jewish youth and built the road in 1921.

It was when I left Singapore and came back to England that I became a sculptor. All the sculpture you can see is mine.

I did a portrait of Singapore’s first Chief Minister.