the former

Merthyr Tydfil Jewish Community

Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales




Page created: 28 May 2003
Latest revision or update: 27 February 2013

 by Wendy Bellany

I was born in industrial Glamorgan but raised in rural Breconshire, near the town of Abergavenny, where my mother shopped at the Tuesday market, as did so many from the farming communities and the industrial valleys of Wales.

During the years of austerity, in the forties and fifties, she regularly stopped at the fabrics stall in the market looking for materials for the clothes she sewed for our family. One day, in the summer holidays, both my father and I were with her at the stall, and I overheard my father speaking in his first tongue, Welsh, a rare event in this anglicised border town. As we moved away from the stall, my delighted father said. "They are Jews from Merthyr Tydfil, and they speak Welsh!"

It was sixty years before I learned the identity of the stall holders, and I am now in regular email contact with Dora Rees, formerly Bernstein, daughter of Bernard (Barney) Bernstein whose father, Mark, had started the business about 1910, as a retail shop in Brecon Road, Merthyr Tydfil. Barney's brothers, Sol, known as "Dai", Eli known as "Steve", Sam and Sid, were all involved in the business and their sister, Mae had married Percy Fisher, owner of a long established drapery business in the town.

The Bernstein and Fisher families were of Litvak ancestry, the Bernstein grandparents having married at Hull in 1892.

Based at Merthyr Market, Dora's parents not only took their goods to Abergavenny, but to markets at Hay-on-Wye and Builth where her father, at heart a farmer, won a heifer in a raffle, but had to sell it as he couldn't take it home. As the three generation Bernstein family were selling their goods in their shops and market stalls, their community, where they were comparative newcomers, had already dwindled considerably from its peak around 1900.

And now, a brief account of Merthyr Tydfil and its history.

Merthyr is the Welsh word for martyr and Tydfil was a British princess, daughter of Brychan, for whom the town and county of Brecon and Breconshire were named. This early Christian was murdered by pagan Picts.

Merthyr is on the northern rim of the region now known as "The Valleys" but is really part of the Blaenau, the hills that include the Brecon Beacons.

Daniel Defoe in his "A tour through the whole Island of Great Britain " 1724, described the landscape as "mountainous to an extremity... looking so full of horror that we had thought to have given over our enterprise and left Wales out of our circuit" The parish of Merthyr Tydfil took in a vast tract of this upland territory , extending for nearly ten miles down the valley of the Taff, Merthyr Tydfil village lying at the northern edge of the valley, five hundred feet above sea level.

The village acted as a marketing centre for the farmers of the area, and perhaps in the 18th Century, the farms were visited by packmen working their way up the valleys from Cardiff and Swansea, but I have no evidence of this.

It was the immense upheaval of the Industrial Revolution that was to bring Jews to the area.

While looking into my own ancestry I found a connection with Merthyr in my great-great-great-grandfather, George Kirkhouse, mineral surveyor with his brother Henry, to the Crawshay and Guest families the great dynasties of iron masters who exploited the mineral wealth that lay in the mountains that Defoe found so full of horror (perhaps he suffered from vertigo?).

What Defoe would have thought of the Hell that was created in the peacefully rural Taff valley, I can't imagine.

I've hunted high and low and not been able to find an illustration that accurately conveys the horror of Merthyr during the industrial revolution, the period between the 1760s and the end of the Napoleonic Wars when the town emerged as the greatest centre of iron production in the world.

According to "The Jews of South Wales", highly recommended, there were Jews in Merthyr by 1830.Six out of seven dealers of old clothes in an 1830 directory had Jewish names, and by the taking of the 1841 census, a few brave families had settled in the town. Why?

The first half of the 19th Century had seen Merthyr grow rapidly around the iron works at Dowlais, Penydarren, Cyfarthfa, and Pentre Bach. The poor and workless from rural Wales and England, the Irish from their famine stricken land, they all came to Merthyr, first the young men, then the families, all housed in jerry-built slums, without light, space and air, and lacking in basic sanitation. Disease was rife, tuberculosis, and most dreaded of all, cholera, which visited the town in 1849, 1854, and 1866. There was no need of street-lighting, the light from the furnaces turned night into day, while the day was darkened by the clouds of soot that fell constantly on buildings and people. I'm now going to quote from an article by Charles Jones, that appeared in The Jewish Telegraph. It's undated.

"There was the smell of sulphur and a sense of urgency, steel-hawsers and pools of tar, clouds of black smoke from tall stacks, hissing steam, shrill whistles, loud hooters and showers of sparks from scores of furnaces -never ending clamour".

It was always a politically turbulent town, conflict between workers and iron masters was ingrained and the hill farmers , many who had been raised in the tradition of radical religious Dissent, with their anger at the ecological devastation of their land, were also thorns in the sides of the masters.

But, "Where there's muck there's brass" as we say in the north, there was a living to be made in the town.

How did the Jews find out that Merthyr, built with no service industries, and with a population now exceeding that of Swansea and Cardiff, was in desperate need of their skills? Was the word spread by peddlers, working up the valleys from their bases in Cardiff and Swansea, or did the news spread back to the Baltic States by another route?

For some years, timber used to make the pit props that shored up the coal mines of North Eastern England and South Wales, had been exported from Lithuania via the Baltic ports. There were Jewish timber merchants who could have recommended Merthyr, certainly it seems that the earliest Jews to settle in the town were from the Baltic States, and they brought with them their traditional and most welcome trades, glazing, furniture making, picture frame making, working in precious metals and jewels, tailoring, and most useful of all, pawn-broking.

Eight pawnbrokers are recorded in the 1851 census return, and pawnbroking was the foundation of many a Merthyr fortune. Even in times of prosperity, a proportion of the population would find themselves out of funds before pay day, and resort to the local pawnshop. In times of hardship, their presence meant the difference between empty stomachs and full ones for many families. The pawnbrokers may not have been loved, but they were indispensable.

If we take a look at the 1841 and 1851 census for Merthyr we see the Bloom and Levi families. I'm now in touch with their descendants in New Zealand, so good to find descendants of such early Merthyrians.Yentuv Levi, a poor man, has found a place in history. In 1864,the Jewish Chronicle reported his sad plight. He had been a subscriber to the synagogue fund, but was now appealing for assistance to Merthyr Community." Having four young children ill with fever for some time, and one buried only a few days since. he has been reduced to the greatest distress, his wife expecting to be confined daily" The Merthyr and Cardiff congregations gave £5 each and Swansea £8.15s. Yentuv was one of the deserving poor, having been a respectable tradesman in the town for 16 years.

In the 1851 Census, the first rabbi to the community is recorded, Harris Isaac.

The first synagogue had been built in 1848 and was followed by a second in 1852 but these buildings have long vanished.

By 1872 the Merthyr Community was prosperous enough to begin the building of the fine Gothic synagogue in Church Street, Thomas Town, which still stands, and the men recorded in the 1871 census I call the Synagogue Builders.

The 1871 Census introduces the families that were to become the most prominent in the 19th Century and beyond, William R.Cohen and his Gittlesohn and Levisohn nephews, the Goodmans and the Freedmans, and the ancestor of my grandchildren, Samuel Joseph Scheinman. I am once more indebted to the writers of this book for the following information. The site and building of the synagogue cost £1,800 pounds of which £400 pounds came from the congregation and included a gift of £200 from the Rothschild family. A mortgage of £1,000 was taken out, still being paid off as late as 1918, and there were additional expenses of £850

Samuel Joseph Scheinman was of a family of Suwalki shochetim. His father, Israel Loeb, had been shochet of Sejni in the Suwalki Gubernia, his brother, Jacob Hirsch appears to have followed in his father's footsteps. Jacob claimed to have been ordained by Rabbi Isaac Avigdor of Kovno, Rabbi Margolius of Kalvaria, Rabbi Lipsitz of Suwalk, and Rabbi Moses Bezalel Luria of Sejni. It is annoying that I have found more information on Jacob than I have on Samuel but I presume Samuel's religious training followed much the same course. He certainly married a Sejni girl, Chaya Sara Wigdorski, whose father, Josiel Ben Zalman, was also a rabbi.

As all the early records of Merthyr Tydfil's synagogues have vanished, I have once more turned to "The Jews of South Wales" so I can get some idea of Samuel's duties. He would have been paid a pittance, not more than £1 per week, and been extremely overworked, probably combining all the duties of an entire modern day synagogue staff in one, eking out his living by performing circumcisions, and killing chickens, for tiny Jewish communities in the valleys. He appears to have had a licence to perform marriages. His name appears on the marriage certificate of her ancestors, kindly sent to me by Jacqueline Gill.

If you could afford but one minister, then it was wise to select a shochet, who else could ritually slaughter? It is likely that Samuel was amongst his own people in Merthyr. Certainly the Goodman and Freedman families were of Litvak origin, the Freedmans were from Kalvaria. The Gittlesohs were from Kurland. Samuel had left Merthyr by the time of the consecration of the new synagogue, and the arrival of Abraham Abelson, Merthyr's first long- serving rabbi, in 1873, marks the beginning of a lengthy period of prosperity for Merthyr's Jews, as it was for the town itself.

Do take a look at Herman Gittlesohn, Master of the Loyal Cambrian Lodge. I owe my knowledge of him, and many others of the Merthyr Jewish community, to Merthyr's librarian and family historian, Carolyn Jacob, who sends me all she finds that is relevant to the Jewish community.

Herman Gittlesohn was very well-liked by Jew and Gentile, an affable and generous man, respected by both communities.

What were relations like between Jew and Gentile in Merthyr?

"Praise for the Welsh people is inexhaustible in my heart" said Ben Hamilton (Himmelstein), lawyer, Coroner at the Aberfan Inquest in 1966, when he spoke at the reconsecration of the synagogue in 1955.

He repeated the story that the first Jews to come to Merthyr looked through the windows of the houses of the Welsh, saw a bible in every home, and decided that this was the place to stay, as the natives were so pious!

On the whole, relations were good, which says much for the leaders of both communities. Certainly there was a sharing of charitable causes even the Baptists, (the most anti-Semitic of the Welsh sects) contributed to the Fund for the Persecuted Russian Jews, and prominent members of the Gentile community were invited to the weddings of the leading Jews, and to special ceremonies in the synagogue.

The annual Jewish Ball was much enjoyed by the mixed community.

The Jews posed no threat to the native Welsh population. They were not competing for work at the local factories, unlike the hordes of Irish, neither were they competing for the affections of the local girls. I know of only two "out" marriages, one that of a Jewish girl, the other of a man, and of only one illegitimate birth, the fruit of a relationship between a Jewish master and his Irish servant.

At a time of high illegitimacy, this is really remarkable, but then, I don't know everything!

There were no Jewish schools and Jewish children attended local schools, where they rubbed shoulders with Gentiles. The Merthyr Family History Society has kindly loaned me their transcriptions of school registers and I have begun to extract the Jewish names.

Merthyr's population always had a high proportion of immigrants. Dora Rees's best friend was a Gonzalez, from the Spanish community of Dowlais. Her first name was Blodwen!

The Welsh were divided amongst themselves where their religion was concerned, substitute "chapel" for "shul" in the old jokes on the lines of "that's the schule we don't attend" and you'll get the picture.

Romish practices were anathema to Welsh non-conformists, far more so than the practices of the Hebrews, and the unfortunate Irish were the underdogs in the community . S. Schwartz and Sons, furniture makers, advertised in the Parish Magazine and the Rector of the Established Church in Merthyr, was usually present at important Jewish Weddings and services in the synagogue.

The chapel-going Welsh were impressed by what they perceived as a Jewish form of the Protestant work ethic, and also by their temperance.

Indeed, the prosperous 19th Century passed by with little to upset the apple-cart.

I have some reports from the Merthyr Express on Jewish weddings (again forwarded to me by Carolyn Jacob) that reflect the pride and prosperity of Merthyr's Jews at the turn of the century. I don't think I'll have enough time to read through them all. My favourite is this one. The Price/Freedman wedding.

The Commercial Register of the Jews, 1893, shows the occupations of the leaders of the Merthyr Community. It would be the 20th Century before the young moved into the professions.

No-one could have foretold that by the end of the 20th Century the Merthyr Jewish Community would no longer exist.

The century did not begin well. This an extract from an article written by Henry Wellisch in the March 1996 magazine of the JGS of Canada (Toronto) titled "The Jews of Merthyr, Wales and Woodstock, Ontario" forwarded to me by Saul Issroff.

Henry begins.

"Enclosed with the letter (from David Morris, a PhD student) were copies of four news items in the Western Mail, and one short dispatch in the Times of London, dated 3 September to 11th September 1903.

The reports revealed that prior to the summer of 1903, several hundred Jews (escaping pogroms) had arrived in Merthyr from Central and Eastern Europe, and most found work at the Dowlais Iron Works. The relations between the Jews and other labourers, mostly Irishmen, were not very good. The local Jewish community with the help of the London Board of Guardians, was making preparations to send these foreign Jews to Canada and the US."

"At the beginning of September 1903, the situation deteriorated further. There was fighting in the streets, several Jews were beaten up, and a number of Irish labourers were charged with assault. Large crowds congregated in the streets and several houses occupied by Jews were hit by stones. To relieve the tension, charges against the Irish labourers were withdrawn when they assured members of the Jewish congregation that such assaults would not happen again"

Some of the unfortunate Jews returned to their countries of origin, others were assisted to Canada, while some had to remain.

No one seems able to give a satisfactory explanation for these events, which seem to have occurred when there was a shortage of workers at Dowlais, as many workers had gone to fight in the Boer War.

Had these desperately poor Jews been brought over to work for lower wages than those offered to the Irish labourers, thus putting them out of work? Were they prepared to work day and night (they were saving for their fares) thus robbing the Irish of overtime payments?

In his brief history of the Jewish community, Ben Hamilton claims that most were Hassids and had brought their own Rebbe with them. If that is the case, then their garb would have set them apart, making then easy targets for attacks, but I'm inclined to think that it was the former explanation that is the most likely. At this period of time 1901-1905 newly arrived Jews from Eastern Europe also took work in the pits. It is estimated that 300 families in all settled in Dowlais but most moved to the USA as soon as they could afford to move.

On September 18th 1903, a letter was published in the Jewish Chronicle. Signed I. Raffalovich, whose address is Synagogue Chambers, Merthyr, it warns Jewish workers not to be "Allured" by the prospect of finding work at Dowlais Iron Works, and that if they still persist in coming they do so on their own responsibility, and will have no one to blame for the consequences.

In August 1911, the immensely more serious Tredegar Riots broke out. The causes and effects of these would take up far too much of my limited time, you can read all about it in "The Jews of South Wales". It seems that Merthyr remained peaceful. I have been told that there were incidents and the Merthyr Express repressed all reports of them. I checked the Times of London which did report on the riots but found no mention of troubles in Merthyr.

As Merthyr's community had thrived during the years of industrial progress, so it was to decline as the iron, steel and coal industries collapsed. A brief resurgence of industrial power in the First World War, then the Great Depression of the 20s and 30s.

A new generation had entered the professions as doctors, dentists, opticians and lawyers, but many of Merthyr's Jews, still involved in trade, faced bankruptcy, and began to move away, though some managed to hang on during the lean years.

In the 30s and 40s a few refugees from Nazi- Occupied Europe, evacuees from Britain's blitzed cities, and some servicemen helped to swell the congregation of the synagogue for a time. Some city industries were re-located to the area, and some new businesses, notably on Treforest Trading Estate, were started by German refugees.

Robert Fraser, son of Austrian refugees, Erna and Herbert Fraser, sent me his memories of the fifties and sixties in Merthyr.

He begins after the retirement of the much beloved rabbi, Eli Bloom.

"The schule used to own a house for ministers, Cheyne Lodge, on Queens Road, Thomas Town. The first occupant I remember was Rev. Cohen, two sons, Neville and Saul who both became yeshiva bochers and turned up many years later wearing the Lubavitcher garb.

The next minister was Rev. Myer Fine who stayed for many years and officiated at my barmitzvah. He had a son, Irving, who became a rabbi under the name of Israel Fine."

"We had services on Friday nights for many years in the house of Harris Schwarz, the davening being done by Sam Bernstein. For Yomtov, a retired rabbi, Freedman I think, came to officiate. "

"The last bar-mitzvah was probably that of Howard Bloom (son of R. Eli Bloom)."

"I don't recall any weddings in the schul, the few that were celebrated were either in Cardiff or London."

"I remember Morris Silvergleit who always seemed as old as the hills and was only about four feet tall, collecting subs for the schule, he always got a nip of kosher wine at our house. My parents paid about 10/6 a time probably once a year. At Morris's funeral in Cefn, no one knew his Hebrew name so the rabbi buried him as Moshe ben Abraham."

"Mr Silverman the shammas taught the lower classes for cheder, three classes for different age groups."

"Kids came from all around the valleys some from as far afield as Tredegar and Blaina".

"Sometimes Rev. Fine took the class and would liven things up by telling us his exploits as a Hebrew translator for MI5."

In 1983 the synagogue was sold, its sacred items removed for safe-keeping to a yeshiva in Gateshead, its interior, including the memorial tablets, photographed by Dr. Cairns of Cardiff, and the photographs deposited in Merthyr Library, its Roll of Honour 1914-1918 moved to Cyfarthfa Castle Museum,as was the bimah.

The cemetery at Cefn-Coed-Y-Cymmer was carefully maintained by George Black, and since his death is in the care of Mr. Martin Barton and his sister, Mrs Nettie Whitten of Cardiff.

This is from Charles Jones' Jewish Telegraph article.

"Walking among the tombstones one remembers Tat Bernstein who never hurt a fly, Herman Gittlesohn, a gentle rotund little Dowlais pawnbroker, a compassionate man, who during the hungry years accepted parcels containing nothing but worthless rags, old Mr. Fisher who lodged with the same family for thirty years and whose English remained atrocious.

Ada Mendelsohn, lover of poetry, Liah and Manny Sidman whose shop on the Glebeland was a meeting place for everyone and so on ........

With the death in 1998 of George Black, Merthyr's long association with Jewry ended.

Only the lovely old synagogue in Thomas Town, the cemetery on the bleak hillside in Cefn–Coed-Y-Cymer and a few ageing voices are left to testify to an unique community. June 2001.

This article was published in SHEMOT  September 2001 (Volume 9,3)
SHEMOT is a JGSGB Publication


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