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A haven from persecution; For a people without a homeland, Birmingham provided refuge for thousands of Jews. Malcolm Dick explores the city's Jewish history.

Birmingham has been a home to people experiencing persecution for over two hundred years.

Eighteenth century sources document the presence of a small number of individuals with Jewish names. The 1851 census records 730 people of Jewish origin and in 1871 the number had increased to 2,360.

The late Zoe Josephs conducted extensive research into Birmingham's Jewish history. Her published investigations provide an insight into the origins, experiences and impact of the City's earliest refugee community.

Many Jews came to Birmingham to escape religious persecution in Central and Eastern Europe, though some came from elsewhere in Europe to flee from the Catholic Church.

The pogroms in tsarist Russia led to an increase in refugees in the late nineteenth century. Others came in the 1930s fleeing from Nazi Germany.

Late nineteenth century census returns show that about one half of Birmingham's Jewish residents were born in Britain. A permanent community had been established, Jews were not only newly arrived immigrants.

The first refugees lacked capital or access to education and were prevented from owning land or entering the professions. As newcomers in an alien city, they were forced to rely on their personal resources and mutual support for survival. In the eighteenth century many scratched a living by street selling and small-scale trading.

In the 'Froggery', where they lived, a damp low-lying area, swept away when New Street Station was constructed in the 19th century, they were able to create a synagogue. William Hutton, the Birmingham historian, described the community with patronising disdain in 1780.

'In the synagogue, situated in the Froggery, they still preserve the faint resemblance of the ancient worship. The whole apparatus being no more than the drooping ensigns of poverty. . . the proverbial expression 'as rich as a Jew' is not altogether verified in Birmingham, but perhaps, time is transferring it to the Quakers.'

In 1851 most Jewish immigrants were located in slums around Hurst Street with their Stibls (meeting houses) and synagogue in Wrottesley Street. Their work as glaziers, slipper makers, tailors and hawkers required little or no training or capital. At the end of the century the slipper makers and tailors developed Jewish trade unions to provide benefit funds, campaign for improved conditions and secure their observance of the Sabbath.

Not all were poor. A prosperous community was emerging focused upon the Singers Hill Synagogue consecrated in 1856. Luck, frugality and industry enabled a class of Jewish entrepreneurs to emerge, benefiting from Britain's international economic leadership and Birmingham's growing prosperity.

By 1871 nearly 100 Jewish families lived in Edgbaston. Others were moving to the Jewellery Quarter and Handsworth, becoming pawnbrokers, jewellers and merchants. There were many prominent nineteenth-century local industrialists who came from first and second-generation refugees. They included S J Levi in silver plating, Isaac Ahronsberg, a silversmith and manufacturer of spectacles and Jacob Jacobs who revived the mid-nineteenth century jewellery trade.

Jacob's most spectacular success was as chairman of the company, which created the Great Western Arcade, Birmingham's focus for fashionable shopping.

Suspicion and hostility remained. Jews were excluded from the prestigious Edgbaston Sports Clubs and traders had problems participating in local markets. There was opposition from within the Church of England which argued that removing legal restrictions upon Jews would 'ruin and demoralise the country.'

The gradual removal of discriminatory legislation in the nineteenth century enabled Jews to enter the professions and politics. Many were active in both the Liberal and Conservative parties and served on the town council and boards of guardians. Social organisations were also emerging by the end of the century. As well as synagogues there was a Hebrew school, debating, literary and sports clubs and a wide range of charities.

By the twentieth century about 6,000 Jews lived in the city, but in the 1990s, the total was less than half of this figure. Many moved to the suburbs or elsewhere, married outside of their religion or emigrated.

A harrowing aspect of Jewish history occurred because of Nazi persecution. A few Germans fled to Birmingham. Their history is recounted by Zoe Josephs in Survivors: Jewish Refugees in Birmingham 1933-1945.

Oral history tapes located in the city sound archives at the Museum and Art Gallery provide a permanent record of their experience. Documentary materials relating to the Jewish community is available in Birmingham City archives held in the Central Library.

Charitable work: A young boy receives medical attention in a hospital bed paid for by the Jewish community.

Place of worship: The interior of Singers Hill synagogue

For Jewish children in Britain, life was a mix between new and traditional cultures. Lorraine Blakemore talks to three descendants of Jewish refugees.

A Jewish childhood remembered

Andrew Cohen House is a residential care home for the elderly in Stirchley. A large number of the residents are descendants of Jewish refugees.

Minnie Locker was born in Dudley in 1910. Her paternal grandfather had been a rabbi in Russia from where the family originated. Her own father trained as a watchmaker and later went into business with 'a little shop with big bargains'.

Minnie married a Jewish man, Samuel Locker, who was ten years older than herself and experienced in the textile trade. With an aptitude for languages, he would go to the Continent and buy carpet direct from the mills.

Just before WWII, Samuel went into property. This proved to be timely when many Polish refugees were without homes and money.

'My husband used to arrange mortgages for them and allowed them to occupy rooms without a deposit,' Minnie recalls.

Gladys Jacobs was born in Birmingham of parents who were themselves second and third generation Jewish immigrants.

'My family were English Jewish. We mixed with Jewish people as much as we could, our parents were very keen that we should marry within the faith. I met my husband at a Jewish tennis club,' Gladys says.

As a child she attended King Edwards High School for Girls, then located in New Street. She went on to join a commercial college and worked in Barclays bank as a secretary book-keeper for many years.

'There were not that many Jewish people in Birmingham. My parents took me to Singers Hill Synagogue which was founded by my grandparents and their contemporaries in 1856.'

Gladys also remembers many German Jewish refugee children being adopted by Jewish people already settled in Birmingham.

Harry Elsbury was born in Leeds, the son of Russian immigrants. After serving bravely in the First World War, Harry returned to Leeds to find work.

This search led him to the Midlands. 'I came to Oldbury where there was supposed to a fair on. I stayed in Wolverhampton which was the nearest town with a synagogue. All my money was invested in what I was going to sell. I walked to an empty piece of ground, stood on a box, opened my suitcase and started talking.'

Harry became what was known as a 'pitcher' and even declares, only half-jokingly, 'I made sure the queue that formed outside my shop snaked round to Marks and Spencers in order to give them a fair chance!'

Harry's game: 101-year-old Harry Elsbury became a successful salesman.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 5, 2000
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