15 February 2023
Stepney honours Max Levitas,
the Dublin-born hero of
the Battle of Cable Street
In my stroll around the East End last week, searching for synagogues and churches, I was pleasantly surprised to come upon Levitas House on Jubilee Street, new flats in Stepney Green that are a fitting memory and tribute to Max Levitas, the Dublin-born hero of the Battle of Cable Street and a veteran political activist.
Levitas House opened in 2020 and is close to the playground in Jubilee Gardens and to the Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob on Commercial Road, one of the last surviving, working synagogues in what was once the heart of the Jewish East End.
Levitas House was built on the site of an old car park that once been a hub for anti-social activity. The site was turned into a new housing scheme, and when it opened in 2020 it was named in honour of Max Levitas (1915-2018), a veteran anti-fascist campaigner and a hero in the Battle of Cable Street who helped beat off Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in 1936. His brother Maurice (‘Morry’) Levitas (1917-2001) was a veteran of the Connolly Column in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
Max and Morry Levitas were the sons of Harry Levitas from the shtetl of Akmeyan in Lithuania and Leah Rick from Riga in Latvia, who both fled in 1913 to escape antisemitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia. They met in Dublin and were married in the Camden Street Synagogue in August 1914. However, on the other side of Europe, Harry’s sister Sara was burnt to death along with fellow-villagers in the synagogue of Akmeyan, and Leah’s sister Rachel was killed with her family by the Nazis in Riga.
Harry Levitas was a prominent activist in the Amalgamated Jewish Tailors’, Machinists’ and Pressers’ Union, then known in Dublin as ‘the Jewish Union,’ which had its offices in a building shared with the Camden Street Synagogue.
The family lived in Longwood Avenue and Warren Street in Portobello, a part of Dublin known to generations as ‘Little Jerusalem.’ The Camden Street Synagogue closed in 1916, and the Levitas family attended Lennox Street synagogue, just around the corner from their home on Warren Street.
One Saturday in the mid-1920s, the synagogue almost went up in smoke. It was not, however, attempted arson. Four playmates had been anxious to bring the Sabbath to a speedy conclusion in order to resume playing on the street. So they came back into the synagogue to hastily say the final prayers, and accidentally knocked over a candle that set a cloth alight, fortunately quickly extinguished. The ‘culprits’ were three brothers – Max, Maurice and Sol Levitas – and Chaim Herzog, a future President of Israel and son of Yitzhak Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland.
Max Samuel Levitas (Motl Shmuel ben Hillel) was born at 15 Longwood Avenue in June 1915. When Harry was blacklisted by employers, the family was forced to move to Glasgow in 1927.
The family later moved to Whitechapel in the East End in London, where Max took part in the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936. He was an active 19-year-old member of the Young Communists growing up in Whitechapel when Oswald Mosley tried marching through a largely Jewish East End in 1936 with his blackshirts.
Max remained a political and social activist all his life, and was a Communist councillor in Stepney for 15 years until the 1970s.
The building shared by the Camden Street Synagogue and the union became part of the headquarters of Concern International, and in 2002 Max Levitas was invited to unveil a plaque on the building celebrating its links with both Dublin’s Jewish community and the trade union movement.
Max relived his memories of the Battle of Cable Street in an address at the 70th anniversary commemorations in Toynbee Hall in 2006, when he estimated 200,000 East Enders had prevented the blackshirts getting through. He delivered his last public speech at the age of 101 at the 80th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Cable Street in October 2016. He died at the age of 103 on 2 November 2018 after a life of political activism fighting for housing for the poor and social justice. He was buried in Rainham Jewish Cemetery.
His brother, Maurice (‘Morry’) Levitas (1917-2001) was born at 8 Warren Street. He was a veteran of the Connolly Column in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. He took part in the commemoration of the Connolly Column in Liberty Hall, Dublin, in 1991, when he was chosen to read out the list of members. He also attended a ceremony hosted by the Lord Mayor of Dublin in the Mansion House in 1997 to honour the surviving Irish members of the International Brigade. He died in London in 2001.
The development in Jubilee Street in memory of Max Levitas is the first of three sites completed in 2020 with 77 new council homes altogether, managed by Tower Hamlets Homes.
‘These new properties are a fitting tribute to the memory of Max Levitas,’ the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, said at the opening of Levitas House in 2020. ‘Levitas House will provide much needed housing in Stepney to people on our waiting list, part of our programme for 2,000 new council homes to help those bearing the brunt of the housing crisis.’
Levitas House is modelled as three sliced volumes faced in a variegated London stock brick, the two outer slices cut and carved out for balconies and set-backs. These take their cue from nearby 1930s balcony-access flats.
The five-, six- and seven-storey building provides 24 new council homes with affordable rents. The larger flats are for bigger families, each with its own outdoor space. Two of the flats are designed for families with disabilities with wider hallways with space for wheelchairs and showers with safety equipment.
Levitas House has a large playground with a climbing frame, swings and trampolines for its tenants and for other families on the Cliche Estate. A quarter of the new homes have been given to families from the estate who were on the local authority’s register in need of more suitable housing.
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