Lithuanian migrant experiences – Book review

By Jo Manby

Cheetham to Cordova: Maurice Levine – A Manchester Man of the Thirties, by Maurice Levine. Neil Richardson, Manchester: 1984

Whilst reading Shadows on the Tundra, a new release by Peirene Press of the testimony of a Siberian gulag survivor, I was reminded of a slim, privately published volume that I first read some years ago while working on book abstracts at the AIU Centre.

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Shadows on the Tundra, the story of the Lithuanian Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s horrifying experiences, is an incredibly important piece of international survival literature, belonging in the hallowed company of Anne Frank’s diaries, the works of Primo Levi and of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Cheetham to Cordova: A Manchester Man of the Thirties on the other hand provides the opportunity of a glimpse into the Lithuanian migrant experience here in the UK, as told autobiographically by Maurice Levine.

Setting out his origins, Levine describes how his great-grandmother was born in the late 1700s and remembered Napoleon’s army retreating from Moscow in 1812, when French soldiers passed through her village. They were starving, and some French officers knocked on the door ‘offering a gold watch for some potatoes’ (p3). The family kept quiet about any food, in case the whole village was ransacked.

In the late 1880s, after the death of Czar Alexander I, pogroms against the Jews began, and in the 1890s came the great exodus of Jews from Poland and Lithuania. Levine’s father told him about attacks on his shtetl (small village), which incidentally was situated in the province of Kovno, now Kaunas, where Dalia Grinkevičiūtė was from.

Levine’s mother, who had been a dressmaker from the age of 8, met his father and they married. The two of them came to England from Lithuania in 1895, with Levine’s older brothers and sisters. They settled in Manchester in the mainly Jewish areas of Cheetham and Strangeways. Levine recalls the ‘fights between Gentile and Jewish youths during the First World War’, partly down to the fact that some of the Jewish families had Germanic-sounding names. He recalls the ‘scuttlers’ and the ‘napoo’ gangs; the private gambling houses and Jewish clubs; and later on, he tells of working in clothes factories such as the raincoat firm, Cohen and Wilkes.

Levine joined the Communist Party in 1931, the YMCA and the debating society County Forum. With the rise of fascism in Europe, and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Levine himself went to Spain to fight along with five other young men from Manchester. They were trained at Madrigueras, then on active duty in the province of Cordova.

His anecdotes from this period include some poignant scenarios. Twenty peasants on burros circling the square of Mondejar village at dusk, waving their sickles above their heads and singing Republican hymns, finishing with the Internationale and a game of football. Convalescing with a wound in an American Medical Centre in a hunting lodge formerly belonging to the Spanish Royal family, a pile of oil paintings of its members thrown into a corner of the stables.

Towards the end of this engaging memoir, Levine talks about interviewing ‘Two Gun Cohen’, a body guard to Sun Yat Sen, who became a general in the Chinese army under Chiang Kai Shek. He also met Paul Robeson after the Second World War: ‘Everyone who knew Robeson liked him.’

On his return to Manchester, having been demobilised at York, ‘a great swathe had been cut in Piccadilly and other parts of the town by bomb and fire… The old lively and warm atmosphere of Strangeways had gone forever.’ He worked with his brother Sam in a clothing manufacturing firm from 1949 until retiring aged 60 in 1967.

Though there is not much to connect Maurice Levine and Dalia Grinkevičiūtė apart from their Lithuanian origins, it’s interesting to read two such different accounts of the lived experience of this turbulent period of relatively recent history. If Levine’s parents had not been driven out of Lithuania in the late 1890s, Levine’s story could have been more similar to Grinkevičiūtė’s.


This book can be found in our local studies reference section (MAN/HI.2/LEV), and is also available in the Central Libary’s Local Studies, as well as Abraham Moss and Newton Heath libraries.

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