The Salem Story:
From Turkey to Leicester Via Egypt, Germany, France and Clacton-on-Sea

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Aaron and Irene Salem

19th Century Turkey was a place of religious tolerance. Many Sephardi Jews had fled there from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. This is how Aaron Salem came to be living in Smyrna in the late 1800s. Aaron’s first wife died and so the family match-made for him with Irene, a lady from Corfu. Irene spoke no Turkish and Aaron spoke no Spanish. The plan was that, after their first meeting, if Aaron liked Irene he would turn and wave as he walked away. He turned and waved.

Irene and Aaron married and moved to Aaron’s home in Smyrna. They had a number of children but this story is mainly about Irene and two of her sons, Joseph and Maurice. All three ended up living in Leicester after a series of travels and escapes. All three are buried in Jewish Gilroes.

Early 1900s - The Salem family relaxing with friends in Smyrna

Early 1900s – The Salem family relaxing with friends in Smyrna

Joseph’s Travels

Turkey was not a rich country. Joseph left Smyrna in about 1907 to work in Barclay’s Bank in Alexandria, Egypt. The thought of slowly working up through the bank’s hierarchy wasn’t appealing, so with the impatience of youth, Joseph moved to Germany in c1913 seeking work. This was a period of Jewish cultural influence in Germany with no thought that Jews might be in danger.

Maurice and Clara nee Zara

In c1913 two of Joseph’s brothers moved to Berlin. One then went on to London, where Maurice, the youngest, joined him direct from Smyrna. In 1939, Maurice married Clara Zara, whose family had come to London from Cairo c1912. As they were both members of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Holland Park, the Synagogue gave them a small dowry as a “reward” for marrying a fellow Sephardi. Clara, later Clara Kalmus, is buried in Gilroes, as are two of her brothers, David and Leon Zara.

Joseph and Violette

Joseph settled in Chemnitz and married Violette Hazan. They had four children, Arno, Irene, Ralph and Juliette. They mainly spoke Spanish or Ladino (Sephardi equivalent of Yiddish) in the home but were both well-educated. Violette was taught by nuns in a Turkish convent, resisting their efforts to convert her. Joseph was educated in the Berlitz Business School.

When Joseph was called up to join the German Army, he fasted for three days and drank only Turkish coffee. Consequently, his heart rate was so high that he was deemed unfit for service. He set up a hosiery factory in Chemnitz and when his business prospered they moved to the affluent Shoenau.

The Salem’s family house in Chemnitz

The Salem’s family house in Chemnitz

Aaron and Irene Leave Turkey

When Arno was born in 1922 Grandma Irene visited from Turkey. At this time Attaturk was putting pressure on the Jews to leave Turkey and when Irene tried to return, her husband, Aaron, was waiting at the dock. He shouted for her to stay on the ship, boarded it from a rowing boat and they sailed to France and a new life in Paris.

From Nazi Germany to London

By the 1930s there were increasing political undercurrents in Shoenau. Some local Jews were beaten up in a café by the SA. The next day the SA went to their homes, apologized but, when Joseph was visiting a neighbour, the SA turned up, lined everybody along a wall and searched the property. They didn’t harm anyone but Violette decided it was time to leave.

c1930 (left to right) Ralph, Juliette, Irene, Violette and Arno Salem

c1930 (left to right) Ralph, Juliette, Irene, Violette and Arno Salem

In March 1933 Joseph took his family on ‘holiday’ to their grandparents in Paris and never returned to Germany. They lived at 32 Blvd d’Inkerman for three months and the children went to school in the Bois de Boulogne. They then took another ‘holiday’ to L’Angleterre a la mer, England by the sea. Maurice, the father of Irene Krantz, met them off the ferry at Southend and took them to a boarding house in Clacton-on-Sea from where they moved to Kilburn, London.

Leicester and Melas Hosiery

Their travels had been made easier, having Syrian passports, but in England they were not allowed to get a job. They were, however, allowed to set up in business and in 1934 Joseph met a rich Bulgarian entrepreneur called Mr K. A. Bojarjev. He encouraged Joseph to move to Littlethorpe, a small village near Leicester, where they set up a hosiery firm called KABO. This business failed but in 1935 Joseph set up Melas Hosiery at 10 The Crescent, King Street, Leicester. Melas is Salem spelt backwards and the firm made fully-fashioned stockings.

Also in 1935 Joseph’s father died in Paris. Joseph brought his mother, Irene, back to Leicester. When Maurice and his family arrived in Leicester to escape the London Blitz, he joined Melas and so Irene was able to watch her sons build up their successful business.

This story was narrated by Ralph Salem and Irene Krantz in 2014.