Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue. Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (DS2007_190_001)
Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue.
Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (DS2007_190_001)

Like many working-class people, my grandfather left little archival trace of himself. He never wrote a diary, nor have his letters that he wrote through his life survived. But for a chance discovery of an old VHS tape containing a late-1980s video camera recording just a few years ago, there would be no visual or audio record of him either. 90 seconds of film made all the more precious to me by the fact that he’s actually on the telephone to my four-year-old self. It was recorded just before Christmas, 1989, a matter of months before he died. For over a quarter of a century none of us had seen him or heard his voice, such is the power of a tiny slither of videotape. But he did leave something behind: a photograph album carefully constructed in the last years of his life as part of a great project he’d embarked on to detail our family’s story, charting the progress of a small (tiny, really) English family that spent over a thousand years as farm labourers in the countryside of Somerset and Devon.

When I started my PhD, my grandmother got out the album and said it might be of some use to me. Flicking through it, I saw pictures of his childhood in South Wales, the quasi-rural existence of fishing and chasing rabbits that it was possible to live in the Garw Valley of the 1920s and early 1930s, I saw too the brief honeymoon spent in London during the Festival of Britain, and there were pictures of his time at police training college. Like every young man of his generation, my grandfather underwent a period of time in the Forces doing his national service. For the first time in his life, it took him away from South Wales and out into the world. His photographs chart the journey, from training at Maindy Barracks in Cardiff to shore leave in Athens to arrival in Mogadishu. Each of the images is fascinating in its own right, but the most beguiling of all are the handful that chart the passage of his troop ship through the eastern Mediterranean bound for Suez. This was 1948.

In August 1946, the British government opened the first of its transit camps for Jewish migrants to Palestine. Their aim: to manage the wave of Jewish evacuees from the liberated countries of Europe to the Middle East and settlement in the British Palestinian mandate. There is an irony that the first of these camps was a former prisoner of war facility used to house Turkish prisoners during the First World War, but that is only the start of it, as Simon Schama’s magnificent documentary series has recently illustrated. The British ran a blockade of the Eastern Mediterranean to enforce its programme of managed migration, with several daring attempts to break it by desperate Jewish refugees.  It was one of the most pressing tasks to land on the desk of the Attlee government and onto the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Aberdare MP George Henry Hall, in particular. British soldiers guarded camps that looked rather like the pre-war German concentration camps. Plus ça change. I have no idea how my grandfather responded to seeing row after row of white tents full of people displaced from a wrecked continent, for I never knew him as an adult, but I know how I respond to seeing the photographs he left behind.

What he saw in Cyprus in 1948 would not have been his first encounter with a Jewish population. Growing up in South Wales in the 1930s, going to school in Bridgend in the 1940s, he would have seen a healthy Jewish population. Bridgend had had its own synagogue since 1907, serving an Ashkenazi community, and right across the Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, in towns as diverse as Pontypridd, Brynmawr, Tredegar, Merthyr, and Aberdare, there were small Jewish enclaves each with a synagogue of their own. In North Wales, too, it was possible to walk the streets of Rhyl, Bangor and Wrexham and find the traces of their own Jewish communities.

The first decade of the twentieth century was saw the remarkable expansion of Jewish presence in South Wales and it was a more formal presence too, wider and more institutional than it had been in the nineteenth century. Such was the rate of expansion that by the eve of the Great War, there were as many as 25 separate congregations across the region.[1] Jewish life lived happily (generally speaking) alongside that of Catholic Irish and nonconformist Welsh. In 1900, the congregation Brynmawr were given a plot of land at a modest rent of £1 a year by ‘a Christian friend’ to build their synagogue. ‘It will accommodate 80 males and 50 women’, recorded the Chronicle, all at a cost of £700. The synagogue opened in June 1901.[2] Situated on Bailey Street, the synagogue was:

A pretty little building […] The walls are of local stone, cemented and blocked with rustic quoins and string-courses […] The ark rests on an oblong platform; it is of conventional design, the doors being handsomely painted to resemble dark and light oak. The building is very lofty, the most noticeable feature being the ceiling, which is of polished pitch-pine worked diagonally […] The architect was Mr W. S. Williams, who likewise designed the Tredegar Synagogue.

The Brynmawr synagogue was recalled many years later by Roy Gore, a non-Jewish resident of the town, who used to hang about the place on Saturdays ‘to listen to songs’.[3] The town had its Zionist association, formed in 1900, and a branch of the Jewish orphan society. A perusal of the Jewish Chronicle reveals not just this kind of activism but a Jewish community willing to engage with a range of debates both directly affecting their presence and that of the wider region in which they lived. Aberdare’s congregation, for instance, debated matters such as whether Hebrew, as a language, should be taught to children and whether Jews should ‘aspire to occupy prominent positions in the face of strong anti-Semitism’ and in New Tredegar they discussed matters such as whether ‘Zionism [was] an ideal’.[4]

Regardless of the outcome of the Aberdare debate, in the later Communist stronghold of Aberaman, just down the valley, the people there were regularly willing to elect Henry Cohen as one of their councillors. By the mid-1920s he had gained a position of prominence, chosen first as the Vice-Chair of the Health Committee of the Aberdare Urban District Council (the first Jew in South Wales to hold such a position) and then, in 1925, succeeding as Chair of the Health and Children’s Welfare Committee (again the first Jew to be in that position).[5]

Of course, it would be remiss to talk of the South Wales Jews without reference to the tragic events of August 1911, events which form the backdrop to the most famous Welsh-Jewish film of all, Solomon and Gaenor. At the denouement of more than a year of industrial unrest, rioters in Tredegar attacked a number of shops and premises, several of which belonged to Jewish merchants and trades in the town. As a relatively prosperous section of the population, the Jews had survived largely unscathed during an enormously difficult time for the working people of Tredegar, which is not to excuse their actions those nights in August, though it does force an economic explanation for the riots. Indeed most of the attacks on Jews through the first part of the twentieth century in South Wales, such as the wave of violence meted out on Jewish workers at the Dowlais Steel Works in September 1904, appears to have been motivated by economic factors, rather than anti-Semitic behaviour: even in 1911 the wave of violence was focused on pawnbrokers, jewellers, and the like and in most places non-Jewish shops were more likely to fall victim than Jewish ones.[6]

More substantially, there seems to have been no lasting ill-effects of the wave of violence in late-August and early-September 1911. Just a few years later, the Bargoed Jews were overwhelmed by the support of their Christian neighbours in providing finance for the Jewish war relief fund. ‘In view of the fact that the population of the district is (with the exception of a mere handful of Jews) entirely non-Jewish’, wrote the Chronicle in 1917, ‘it was gratifying to receive so much sympathetic support from Christian friends’. There rests a debate, although not really much of one as historical debates go, as to whether Wales was philo-Semitic or anti-Semitic in this period. On the evidence contained in the Jewish Chronicle, not to mention more physical evidence such as the Mikveh bath provided by Cardiff Corporation at its public baths on Guildford Crescent (this would be repeated again at the Empire Pool, opened in 1858) which opened in the 1870s, the Welsh would appear to be philo-Semitic. But why?

Perhaps the most powerful argument presented by Professor Schama in his recent series is this: that the Jewish story is our story, that is that the Jewish story tells the story of modern human civilisation. From the point of view of the modern Welsh, a nation of immigrants fused together into a society of often remarkable internationalist values, the Jewish story serves as a reminder that the valleys of the two western peninsulas of Britain provided a welcome home to a people fleeing persecution elsewhere. Without wishing to ignore the occasional violence and the hostility shown to wealthy Jews (hostility came because of their wealth, rather than their ethnicity – try being a Catholic aristocrat or Anglican businessmen in Abertillery or Brynmawr in 1934!), the history of the Jewish people who came to Wales is a relatively happy one, unlike the images my grandfather captured on his pocket camera in 1948.

[Please Note: This post was altered from its text on 22 January 2014 to remove any reference to Poland.  I had planned to write a piece about Polish refugees who came to settle in Britain as a way of further exploring the question of how Britain treats refugees from conflicts elsewhere in the world. Given the sustained pressure from a large number of visitors in recent days and the nature of their comments, this post has been scrapped and this blog will not deal with any matter relating to Poland or the Polish people hereafter. Interested visitors are welcome, suggestions and corrections are welcome (assuming they are offered politely – which in this case they were not), but the imposition of a particular narrative (and thereby a particular “stance”) on me and on the material I post is not. I can perfectly well make up my own mind without being told “the truth” by someone else. ]

[1] Jewish Chronicle, 22 September 1911.

[2] Jewish Chronicle, 27 July 1900, 21 June 1901.

[3] ‘Interview with Roy Gore’, British Library Sound Archive: F6008.

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 1 March 1911, 4 September 1908.

[5] Jewish Chronicle, 9 May 1924, 8 May 1925, 16 April 1926.

[6] Jewish Chronicle, 9 September 1904, 25 August 1911, 1 September 1911, 8 September 1911, 20 October 1911.