Just how well do, or did we know our parents, grandparents, or indeed any of our forebears? This month’s blog demonstrates the importance of memoir and recording first-hand experiences, recollections and reflections for future generations. It is written by my second cousin once removed Catherine (Cathy) Aynsley-Smith and is an extract taken from Chapter 8 of her family history book which is headed FREEDMAN AND COFNAS ANCESTRY, “My Mother’s Story”.
Cathy, her sister Vivie and I share mutual ancestors in John Smith (1813 – 1881) and Hannah Aynsley (1837 – 1922). They are granddaughters of my great-granduncle George Aynsley-Smith senior (1886 – 1942), (who along with his eldest son Philip, were the compilers of so much of our mutual paternal line family history), and his wife Jeanne Eugenie Mournetas (1878 – 1947). Their father was the second child of three sons and one daughter born to the couple, George Aynsley-Smith junior, (Dick), ‘a nickname he had been given when very young by the family cook due to his love of spotted-dick pudding. Or so the story goes.’ Their mother was Asna Freedman, and this is her story …
Extracts from ‘My Mother’s Story’
My mother, Asna Freedman, was born to Jewish parents Joseph Freedman and Jane (Janey Myers) Schneider at 57 Lord Street, Cheetham, Manchester on 4th May 1914. (Lord Street was also sometime home of the Jewish Soup Kitchen.) She was the youngest of eight children born to the couple. Her eldest brother was Abraham (Abe) born in 1896. He was followed by a sibling in 1901 who died in 1911 and whose name is not known, then Miriam (1897), Golda (1900) who died aged 17 from the world-wide influenza epidemic. There followed Frank (1903), Sally (1905), David (1909) and lastly Asna (1914).
The little I know about her early life and her family comes from the odd snippets of information she told me and from notes that she wrote in later life. Some of her life experiences are described in the ‘diaries’ that she wrote at my request when she was in her eighties. Much of that information was new to me as she rarely mentioned her childhood and in fact, the diaries tell far more than I can. They give an interesting flavour of various parts of her life which I have copied verbatim.
Memories of her young days written by Asna in 2001
Cathie once suggested I write down incidents in my life as they came to mind & this morning, Sept 18th 2001, I am doing just that. I received a notice in the post this morning from the BHA (British Humanist Assn) about a Xmas holiday in Buxton, so memories came flooding back.
Although pumping was quite difficult for small children nevertheless we wouldn't forego this pleasure which I looked forward to daily.
Asna’s notes continue:
But I remember her telling me on many an occasion how this curtailment of her formal education disappointed her and affected her future life. In the 1920s her sister Sally went to work in London and some years later at the age of nineteen Asna left Manchester to follow her. Due to the poverty she saw in her childhood she developed an interest in politics and through attending political meetings and demonstrations she met my father Dick (George Aynsley-Smith junior). When in her eighties she would often talk about their life together and describe how they ‘had 44 happy years together’ and explain how he came from a Quaker family but that as ‘he too felt the same about religion and politics as I did so that there was no disharmony on these issues, nor on any others that matters, such as the emancipation of women, equality in the home and workplace etc.. I felt very bereft when he died over 16 years ago and still do.’
All sorts of thoughts pass through my mind in the morning and today, for some unknown reason, my mind went back to my brother, Abe.
Strange. I cannot recollect anything about him before he married in 1921. He was in the Army in the ‘Great War’ (1914-1918) & I seem to remember him in ‘Kahki’ (sic) uniform on his return but no other memories of him at home until I used to visit him & his wife, Emma, at their home & even then only after the birth of their first daughter, Eileen, when I was 8 years old. I remember that Emma made my first gym slip when I started secondary school & seemed bad-tempered at the fittings & ‘ticking me off’ for various reasons.
However, I digress, as I was actually thinking of Abe in a much later period in connection with myself. I went up to M/c to tell him of my intended marriage which he opposed on grounds of religion (as I knew my mother would too) but said if I intended to go ahead – which I did – advised me not to disclose this to my mother & I followed his advice – perhaps I should say his wishes – which I’ve always regretted. I’m sure she would eventually have become reconciled (she had met Dick in London & when I tentatively brought up the question of our marrying, put the same religious objection though she thought ‘he was very nice’ & I am certain that knowing & seeing Cathie, my first baby, would have given her some pleasure in the last few months; she died in Aug ’43 without knowing I was married or of Cathie’s existence. Something I cannot remember without pain. What surprised me was being warmly received by both Abe & Emma when I called some months later with Cathie whilst staying in M/c with Sylvia & Maurice for a few weeks during the heavy bombing. After that first ‘reconciliation’ we remained on amicable terms, but didn’t meet again only communicating by letter & a phone call – before mother’s death.
The diaspora of Jewish people to Europe was to escape from the persecution that beset them continually in Russia and Eastern Europe. But they had a hard time in the countries where they settled with only low paid, mostly manual work, open to them. There were certain periods over the centuries where they did enjoy freedom to pursue their cultural and professional careers as in Spain and Germany and for a short time in England but these periods always passed with further oppression and discrimination and so they fled to whichever country would take them. In the time of the Spanish Inquisition many Jews converted to Christianity otherwise it meant death, unless they could escape and some came to England.
I remember them in Manchester when I was a child as their religious practices were slightly modified allowing them to use transport on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) and as many were quite affluent having brought their wealth with them from Spain, we saw them arrive to their special Synagogues in their cars – quite a phenomenon in those days of the early 20s. The Synagogues were called ‘Reform Synagogues’. I remember when a young child going to our own Synagogue and sitting in the Balcony where all the women sat – we had a good view of all the happenings below. At a certain part of the Service the Scrolls – “Torahs” were brought out of their little Ark and carried round, their coverings were of white satin, which I thought was lovely!
I was told by Sally that my parents experienced hard times but always ‘pulled through’. I don’t know a great deal about my parents’ early married life but Jewish immigrants had a hard time and in those days it was difficult for them to work in the professions or follow a career, the only work being available was manual (in the tailoring trade mostly) or in business.
I believe at one time my father ventured into the coal business, having one employee to deliver, but he was no businessman and was a soft touch when families were badly off with no heating in winter and did not insist on payment. This venture didn’t last long! As my father’s attempt in business wasn’t very successful and having been a teacher in the Jewish Community in Russia, he started a small school. By the time I was born he had been teaching Hebrew in a room in the Synagogue which I visited with messages or whatever for my father. Whilst waiting till there was a break I’d sit and watch and listen but not understand apart from a few everyday words. Girls were not included in this education as primarily it was to prepare the boys for their Bar Mitzva at the age of 13. My father was called a Rebbe i.e. teacher & my Grandfather was a Rabbi – the Religious Head (Minister) of the local Jewish community.
The boys came after their English school-day finished and for a full day on a Sunday. My Father also officiated in the local Synagogue and helped my Grandfather in his duties as a Rabbi both were held in high regard by the local Jewish community in our area – Jewish people seemed to have lived in various areas of Manchester by the time I came on the scene.
A wonderful insight into times gone by. I would have loved to know my ancestors lives. Its inspired me to start writing my own.
Hi there Mandy. I am so pleased you enjoyed the blog. I have passed your comments on to Cathy Aynsley-Smith who I know will be delighted you enjoyed reading her mother's story and providing the inspiration to get writing yourself too - excellent stuff!
With best wishes
An insightful story. Thank you for sharing it. It has always been a great regret to me that my Naylor grandmother seldom spoke of her parents. We, as children, learnt a little about her siblings and it is only through the occasional (remembered) remark and further research on my part that I have been able to come to some conclusions about her parents' lives.... if only we could go back in time and ask the questions and get the answers we need, to enable us to understand those things which we want to know!
Hi there Margaret
I hope this finds you well! I know what you mean - our memories and the memories of those close to us are so precious! I do keep at my Mother to get scribbling too.
I have passed your comments on to Cathy Aynsley-Smith who I know will be delighted you enjoyed and related to her article.
Hi, I'm Cathy's son and I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't know a lot of this history. It's been fascinating to read about how my Grandma (Asna) grew up and developed the socialist ideals that have continued in our family to present day. I have recently started to contribute as an activist in the local branch of the Spanish Podemos party in Barcelona. I hope she would be pleased about that.
P.S. I remember Grandma looking after me one day when I was sick, and when she realised I needed to be sick, she gave me a glass of salt water to drink. After 10 minutes of gathering the courage to drink it, I finally threw up without a drop having passed my lips. I always wondered if she knew exactly what she was doing.
Hi there Nick
Apologies, I have only just noticed your comment. If only all our ancestors had written their memoirs or even just kept a diary, how much better we would have known them!
Asna's story Part II will be going live tomorrow (27th March 2021).
With best wishes
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