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Finchley Road restaurant remembered as ‘saviour’ for Jews fleeing fascism

PUBLISHED: 10:00 30 November 2013

Marion Manheimer, whose parents ran The Cosmo, with John and Ursula Trafford and Frank Harding. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Marion Manheimer, whose parents ran The Cosmo, with John and Ursula Trafford and Frank Harding. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

A plaque commemorating a cafe once considered a “sanctuary” for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression was unveiled by the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) last week at its former home in Finchley Road.

The Cosmo, also known as “Sigmund Freud’s favourite caff”, was legendary among north London’s Jewish community and found itself becoming a home away from home for those forced to flee violence spreading through central and eastern Europe.

Originally opening as a coffee bar in 1937, its servings of goulash, Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel provided refugees – many of whom came from Vienna and Berlin – with familiar tastes and smells.

Ursula Trafford, 86, and husband John, 94, both refugees who celebrated their wedding at The Cosmo in 1957, returned along with dozens of former customers to reminisce about their former “safe-haven”.

“We used to sit in this dining room for hours - it was just such a warm and friendly atmosphere,” said Mrs Trafford.

“We would obviously talk about what was going on in our homelands and in the war, but mostly we were just eager to meet other people like us.

“This country saved us and The Cosmo became the kind of sanctuary we needed to help build a new life in London.”

As Belsize Park and Swiss Cottage became the new home to more and more refugees, The Cosmo’s dining rooms – which now form part of an Indian restaurant – came alive with countless dialects.

Behind every conversation in Hungarian, German, Russian, or Yiddish, one would find a story of the persecuted who were fleeing far-right regimes and anti-Semitic barbarism.

Marion Manheimer, 63, whose parents took over The Cosmo from its former Hungarian owners in 1957, said its role as a “sanctuary” was symbolic for her family.

“My father left Berlin to escape the Nazis but lost many members of his family,” she said. ‘‘He would hire people he met on his travels and the place became full of people who had come to north London to escape fascism. It was also a great place for a conversation.”

When talk strayed from how the streets of north London compared to former homes in mainland Europe, psychoanalysis was often a common talking point.

The cafe was a favourite haunt of Sigmund Freud, who lived a stone throw’s away in Maresfield Gardens, and the proximity of the Tavistock Centre, in Belsize Lane, meant the restaurant’s 1950s panelled dining room remained full of “psychobabble”.

But while the décor and conversation remained unchanged, the outside world moved on.

Slowing business and rising rents meant the restaurant was forced to close in 1998.

The AJR hopes the blue plaque will preserve the memory of the building’s former role.

Frank Harding, trustee of the Association of Jewish Refugees, said: “The Cosmo for many years was able to recreate an ambience similar to the one its customers came from.”


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