An important website outlining the contribution and heritage of Jewish people here sheds light on the stories of those who contributed to local society, writes Anne Marie McAleese
In the 1970s a German-born Jew was one of the largest employers in Northern Ireland. Few, if any, of Rolf Noskwith’s workers were aware that three decades earlier during the Second World War, he had also been one of the youngest and most significant code breakers at the now famous Bletchley Park operation in Milton Keynes.
His fluency in German, a degree in Mathematics from Cambridge University and a love of problem solving made Noskwith, who founded lingerie factory Adria in Strabane, an obvious code breaker. He was recruited in 1941 and worked in a team under the direct leadership of Alan Turing.
His incredible life and times are one among 70 newly recorded lives touched by unimaginable terror and yet marked by indomitable bravery and resilience of the Jewish Community in Northern Ireland that are told via an online heritage map.
It is the first time the history of the community, its notable figures and locations, have been documented in this way. Unequivocally, their stories are inspiring and heart-breaking in equal measure.
Perhaps one of the most striking lives featured is that of Edith Sekules. She escaped Hitler’s Holocaust and survived forced labour in the Soviet Union. In 1950 she embarked on an incredible journey that brought her to the fishing port of Kilkeel in Co Down where she died at the age of 91 in 2008. Her reflections are both poignant and inspirational.
“The camps weren’t pleasant, certainly, but looking back now I can see that by keeping us captive, the Russians actually saved our lives. They kept us away from the Nazis.
“Often in life from the darkest night comes the brightest dawn,” recalled Edith.
Other stories highlighted include Viennese businessman Alfred Neumann who single-handedly arranged for the transfer of more Jewish refugees into Northern Ireland than any other individual. He helped establish new industries, including a training centre for local people at Court Square in Newtownards. He, along with the Belfast Jewish Refugee Committee, helped rescue Jews from the horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe. Jews in Northern Ireland used the New Industries Development Act to secure a safe passage for refugees to Belfast. Sadly, the story of ‘Ulster’s Schindler’ ended in tragedy when Neumann was killed on the ill-fated Arandora Star in July 1940.
Having endured incarceration by the Nazis in the Terezin ghetto and fearing persecution after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, Zdenka Wolf came to Co Antrim, where she lived and worked for many years in the village of Crumlin.
As a young Jewish man growing up during the Troubles in Belfast, Steven Jaffe — who is director of the heritage map project — knew little of the trials and tribulations endured by these exceptional people who survived the horrors of Hitler’s reign and who settled in Northern Ireland.
“These are real men and women who experienced hardship, tragedy and trauma,” he explains. “The extent of which we didn’t fully know until we started researching them.
“Thousands and thousands of Jews were fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 40s. Northern Ireland was a safe haven and they were offered a warm welcome.”
Steven also points out that while many refugees settled in north Belfast, others built successful lives and businesses beyond the city in Tyrone, Armagh, Antrim, Down and Derry. Towns and villages including Cookstown, Lurgan, Portadown, Fivemiletown and Millisle all became places of refuge for a people under siege in Europe.
Born in Belfast in 1964, Steven grew up off the Antrim Road and was a member of the small and close-knit Jewish community in the city.
He went to Belfast Royal Academy and won a scholarship to Cambridge University where he studied history.
Since 2009 Steven has acted as a consultant on grassroots advocacy with Jewish community organisations in the UK.
He also helped found and co-chairs the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel group.
For the last four years he has conducted Jewish heritage walks both in Belfast and London. Bernard Enlander, also Belfast born and bred, helped Steven to write the stories contained in the map.
The project secured a grant from the Shared History Fund, which enabled the development of the digital Jewish Heritage Map of Northern Ireland.
Steven is at pains to stress that the Jewish experience of living in Northern Ireland is not exclusively linked to the rise of National Socialism in Europe in the 1930s and 40s.
In fact, there was a Jewish community here dating back to the 19th century when the early Jewish settlers here were German. The famous yellow fountain at the back of the Victoria Square Shopping Centre in Belfast is in honour of Daniel Jaffe, a successful linen merchant who arrived in the city from Hamburg in 1851.
His family went on to establish their business premises at what is now the Ten Square Hotel and his son Sir Otto Jaffe became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899 and again in 1904.
Although they are not related, Steven is immensely proud of what this family achieved and the positive legacy, like many others, that they left.
Many Jews also fled from Tsarist Russia in the early 20th century. More than two million attempted to get to America.
Many of those that didn’t make it to the New World stayed in the United Kingdom and developed prosperous businesses and healthy congregations in north Belfast, Londonderry and Lurgan.
Some were door-to-door salesmen, often leaving the synagogue in Belfast after the Sabbath services on Saturday evenings, travelling far and wide selling everything from a needle to an anchor.
In Shrigley, Co Down, the Utitz family ran a thriving tannery business and in Portadown members of the Bloch family started Ulster Laces. At one stage the firm’s largest customer was Marks & Spencer and they employed over 700 workers at three different sites.
It’s unclear whether there was a significant Jewish presence in Co Fermanagh. To date, research indicates that while there may have been some families there, they were not present in any great numbers.
Steven believes that the story of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland is characterised by diversity and the lasting contribution that a tiny group of people can make in society.
“Many of the early settlers here were noticeably foreign. They had no English and a distinctly different culture and faith. And yet they were warmly welcomed by the people of Northern Ireland which in turn, allowed them to thrive, create successful businesses and contribute to the culture and professional life of the province in a meaningful way,” he says.
“It is testament to the compassion of people in every county in the province and as relevant today as it was almost 200 years ago.”
Steven also believes that it’s vital for the global Jewish community to be aware of the experience of their ancestors here. The Belfast Community at one time had a future President, Chief Rabbi and Foreign Minister of the State of Israel living in it. Extensive scrutiny indicates that Northern Ireland is and has been a much more diverse place than people sometimes think. There are also many similarities that unite Jewish and Irish history, such as emigration and the urge to give the next generation a better life.
“It’s very important to preserve and promote our heritage. The Jewish story here is part and parcel of the wider history of Northern Ireland and for the first time we are now comprehensively dealing with our story in this place.
“We hope that these previously unrecorded lives will jog a lot of peoples’ memories — of people they went to school with or worked with. It may help to shed new light on familiar places. We hope that we can also start a conversation and that the map will be a platform to share memories and thoughts.”
His sincere hope is the digital map will help to create a sense of pride and he is grateful for the support of the Shared History Fund administered by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Throughout the project there has been tangible involvement with former members of the Belfast Jewish Community who now live across the world.
Many donated photographs and memorabilia which feature in the online site. The aim was always to make it a user-friendly site to use.
Today there are around 200 Jewish people across Northern Ireland. Membership of the synagogue on the Somerton Road in Belfast has diminished, amounting to only 60 individuals.
Steven also has faith that even in the darkest moments there is always hope and refers to the Hebrew toast “L’Chaim’’ which means “To Life!”
The Belfast Jewish Heritage Project has ensured that the light will continue to shine on a part of our shared history that we should be proud of. For that we should be truly thankful.
The new online map can be found at www.belfastjewishheritage.org