by Phil Jacobs
I met a woman Friday morning that I'm not soon to forget.
Her name is Gilda Moss Haber, Ph.D.
She lives in Silver Spring and runs a hat business from her living room.
These aren't just any hats. There are U.S. Army officers' caps to Russian sailor hats, pre- and post-Soviet Union. There are G.I. helmets from World War II to British bobby helmets to you pretty much name it. Then there's a tree of ladies hats, including a hat straight out of the Red Hat Ladies' movement, one that she made herself.
Then there is the dining room with china and porcelain. It's a place where someone with Attention Deficit Disorder, like myself, had a difficult time taking in all at once. There was just so much to look at.
But the best part of the experience was listening to Haber's story, her life story and the one that is the basis of her book, Cockney Girl. She describes herself as a "second-generation British Jewish-East End London cockney educated at Spitalfield Girls' High School, London School of Economics, Columbia and NYU."
She came to the United States to pursue her graduate studies on her way to settling in Israel. She's still not in Israel yet, but she frequently visits and speaks in Israel and other nations. She teaches social psychology and English at Montgomery College.
She describes Cockney Girl as a "second-generation Jewish-British child's eyewitness account of tumultuous East London and her eccentric family in England from 1934-1950." She was 5-20 years old.
"Both cockneys, friend Joyce Kennel and I, roamed East London most Saturdays while my operaphile mother set and permed ladies hair and my deaf barber father shaved dockers for ... Christmas."
There is the pain she experienced that is difficult to understand and should be. "Mummy," she wrote, "dropped me, aged five, at a Dickensian orphange for two years. I joyously returned to sooty East London witnessing the 600,000 Fascist-Anti-Fascist 1936 Cable Street Battle."
She was dropped at the orphanage, because her mother didn't want to care for her. She writes of how in 1939, London children were evacuated from London to the country to foster parents. When she was 14, her mother sent her to the White House Jewish refugee orphanage in Great Chesterford. It was there she wrote this Anne Frank-like diary. When the war was over she returned home, a stanger to her parents and immigrated to America.
Haber is extremely busy. After the quick tour of her home, which also included family photographs from the WWII era, she sat with me at a local Silver Spring restaurant for coffee. She didn't have much time, because she had to get over to Montgomery College to teach.
She told me about her children, and more about her hat business. Mostly, though, I just loved listening to her, and I can't wait to report more in this space about her book. The chapters in the book range from prewar England to wartime England to postwar England.
Here's the bottom line about Haber. She remembers living with her parents in an apartment above a store. While her parents were away from work, she'd be left alone in the apartment, and sometimes that meant being a little girl dealing with the scariness of the darkness. She lived on the top floor of a building with an apartment in between the landlord's store and her apartment. Somewhere on that second floor, she would have to pass a mannequin with its head missing.
She kept bringing this up during our meeting at Silver Spring restaurant.
Yet she survived, found love in art, writing, reading and has an incredible imagination.
We have her here in Silver Spring now.
I can't wait to finish her book and tell you more.
In my 10 months at Washington Jewish Week, she is one of the nicest, most incredible women I've ever met. Her book is dedicated to the memory of Anne Frank, who she describes as "my contemporary."
She dedicates the book to her children, Yael Ash, Elisheva Shira and Jonathan Haber, and to her grandchildren.
There are people with incredible pasts living in our neighborhoods. Some of them sell hats in their living their rooms and have a sad, but enlightening story from WWII to tell.
Haber is telling that story now. I'll put down the coffee, stop eating the French toast and listen for a while longer.
More to report on this blog next time from Dr. Haber.