Solomon Smilansky was born in 1897 in Krishinev, then part of Russia, where he met and married Yetta Frankel, a religious girl educated by her rabbi grandfather. Solomon and Yetta left Krishinev in 1922, and arrived in London’s East End with their new baby, Isaac. Yetta gave birth to a second son, Samuel, in 1924, a lively boy his tata nicknamed a ‘cockney vilde bria’ (wild child).
The family settled in Bacon Street, off Brick Lane, from where Solomon made waistcoats for retail tailors in the city, and sent his sons to the Jews’ Free School in Bell Lane. The irony of a Jew living in Bacon Street was not lost on him - he saw humour in most things, and treasured his anglicised name, Solly Smile - much to the irritation of Yetta who clung on to their past culture and rarely ventured beyond their home.
Like so many other East End tailors Solly worked extremely long hours and, despite his Singer sewing machine whirring throughout the night, he frequently found time to make rag toys for his sons. Solly also loved to shmooze. Whether delivering work, having a massage at the Russian Vapour Baths or sizing up the sharp tailoring of Hollywood stars at the Mayfair cinema, his trips along Brick Lane always took twice as long as anyone else’s.
When Solly was late returning home on 3 March 1943, Yetta wasn’t unduly worried, long used to her husband’s unreliable timekeeping. That evening, in the chaos of an air-raid alert at Bethnal Green Underground Station, Solomon Smilansky got caught up among the panic as he tried to seek shelter. Alongside 172 others, he tripped, fell and was suffocated in what was to become the largest civilian accident recorded during the war.
(2006) textiles & vegetable pigment: 400 x 150 x 50 mm