How the British Media Turned a Holocaust Survivor’s Name into a Byword for Shady Landlords

January 8, 2020 | Caryl Phillips
About the author:

Born in Poland in 1919 to an acculturated Jewish family, Peter Rachman was captured by the Germans in World War II, escaped to the Soviet Union—where he was sent to a Siberian prison camp—and then was able to join a Polish army unit fighting under British command in the Middle East and Italy. After the war Rachman settled in England and began a career in real estate, eventually amassing a small fortune and dying in 1962. A year later, his incidental connection to a major political scandal attracted the attention of the tabloid press, as Caryl Phillips explains:

On July 14, 1963, The Sunday People published a lead story supposedly exposing the late businessman’s nefarious practices under the banner headline “Rachman—These Are the Facts.” The paper identified Rachman as a central figure in an “empire based on vice and drugs, violence and blackmail, extortion and slum landlordism the like of which this country has never seen and let us hope never will again.” With no fear of a libel suit from a dead man, other newspapers followed and targeted Rachman, although there were plenty of examples of unscrupulous landlords at work in London.

The BBC reported that in order to extract maximum profit from his houses, Rachman would not hesitate to [rent properties to black people], so that rent-controlled white tenants would feel they had little choice but to leave, enabling the landlords to let out their flats at a higher rate. Panorama reported that, if this didn’t work, Rachman would pay Caribbean immigrant tenants to play deafening music at all times of the day and night. The BBC also reported claims that Rachman hired black hoodlums to intimidate white tenants, or, conversely, white hoodlums to harass black tenants.

But something else had happened to Rachman’s name: it was turned into a noun, “Rachmanism,” by no less a figure than the Labor party leader Harold Wilson, who would become prime minister little more than a year later. In a 1963 parliamentary debate on housing, Wilson condemned “the disease of Rachmanism,” and the term soon entered the Oxford English Dictionary.

While Rachman was indeed a somewhat unsavory character, Phillips writes, the main accusations against him are entirely baseless. His willingness to rent properties to blacks at a time of severe racial discrimination helped him make his fortune—but also provided housing to those who had trouble getting it. Indeed he is still fondly remembered by London’s Caribbean community. It’s difficult, Phillips concludes, to believe Rachman would have acquired such notoriety had he been, say, an Anglican.

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