Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Story of Chuts: How Cigars Saved My Family

In the 19th century my Dutch Jewish ancestors decided to move from Amsterdam to London. My first ancestors to make the move were my 4th great grandparents Abraham Moscou and Schoontje Veerjong in 1867 (although it is disputed if Abraham was around for this move). Most of the family moved to London, including my 3rd great-grandfather Morris Moscou. Morris' future wife's family, the De Haan family, also made the move around this time as they appear in the 1871 England Census living in Spitalfield. By 1881 another set of my 3rd great-grandparents, the Nunes Vaz and Robles family, had made their move to London from Amsterdam.

I had always wondered what caused my ancestors and their siblings to move to London from Amsterdam, a city in which Jews were seemingly able to thrive with very little anti-semitism for hundreds of years. Through the House of Orange and the Napoleonic Emancipation, Jews in Amsterdam were treated better than most other Jews throughout the World. One of the things I noticed about most of my Dutch Jewish ancestors was the fact that they were almost all cigar makers. There were even stories that my Nunes Vaz ancestors worked on the same bench as Samuel Gompers, who helped set the 8-hour workday.

I soon found that while Jews were treated better in Amsterdam than in most other places there were still some anti-semitic laws. Jews were not allowed to join guilds, which would have been something extremely useful to cigar makers, nor were they allowed to own their shops. Seeking better opportunities in their trade my ancestors made the move to London which was a major center for cigar making during the 19th century. These Dutch Jewish immigrants gained the nickname of Chuts, which is often attributed to the Dutch word 'Goed' which means good. They mostly settled in Spitalfields in the East End of London in an area nickname 'The Tenterground', an area originally established by Huguenot refugees.

Many of these Chuts established small workshops and factories for cigar and cigarette making. Many of the shops were situated in Bethnal Green, White Chapel, and Spitalfields, areas that are all close to the Tobacco Dock in Wapping. Tobacco would come in from the United States and sold to the jews who then treated, stripped, and processed into cigars and cigarettes. The cigars the chuts made were known as "British Cigars" and were considered of high quality.

With the progression of technology and machinery in the late 19th century the cigar making jobs in London became less available and caused many Dutch Jewish families to immigrate once again around the turn of the century. While some of these Jewish families went back to Amsterdam many either stayed in England or immigrated to the United States, Australia, or New Zealand. The United States was going through a golden-age of cigar making and there was a lot of available work. My family decided to move to the United States for stability but they were also bringing safety to their descendants. My family's decision to pursue the cigar making industry in the United States ultimately led to the safety of my family. Not only did this decision to officially move to the United states save them from enduring the bombing of London, which so many of our English relatives suffered through, but it also saved the family from the fate of the many relatives in Amsterdam who were murdered in the Shoah.

There is a family story which comes from the early 20th century when my 2nd-great grandparents were trying to decide whether to stay in London or move to Boston. My 2nd-great grandfather had been pursuing a career in London as a vaudevillian actor and dancer under the name William H Macknay and liked it much better in London. The family had already been to the United States, having lived in Michigan and Boston, but went back to England because my 2nd-great grandfather didn't really like it in America. During an argument about where to live my 2nd-great grandmother told her husband "In England we starved, this is the country that gave us something to eat." They went to America where the family flourished, safe from the horrors so many of their relatives endured.