On Friday 2 November, the East End lost of one its brightest radical flames. My friend Max Levitas died at the age of 103, after a long life of community service and activism. Max’s roots were in the old Jewish East End of Whitechapel and Stepney, amongst the refugees from Russia and Poland, and in the Communist Party before the war.
Max was one of the last survivors of the famous Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when East Enders united to stop Oswald Moseley’s fascist Blackshirts marching through the Jewish neighbourhoods. The anti-fascists – Jewish tailors, Irish dockers, and workers of every hue – erected their barricades, withstood brutality from the mounted police as well as the fascists, and stopped the Blackshirts in their tracks. In the thick of the struggle was Max Levitas, then a tailor’s assistant working on the Commercial Road. Later, Max was at the centre of another battle when the Communists stormed the Savoy during the Blitz, demanding adequate air-raid shelters for the East End.
Max was elected as a Stepney councillor in 1945, as one of ten Communists, and served as a councillor until the 1960s. He fought against slum landlords, rogue employers, indeed anyone who tried to exploit his beloved community. He remained a fighter all his life. In the 2000s, when the English Defence League (EDL) starting organising in the East End, at the forefront of the counter-demos, alongside young Bengalis, was Max. Even as he turned 100, he was campaigning with me to stop the council unfairly charging leaseholders.
As the East End changed around him, Max remained a constant reminder of the area's shared radical past. He loved the traditions and the history of the East End, and could recite the names of the old campaigners and community leaders like a roll of honour. Well into his 80s and 90s he was a spellbinding orator. I have seen him captivate a room with flights of old-school oratory, of the kind his generation learned on soapboxes and street-corners. His was a life of struggle and compassion, and we will miss him.