The fight to preserve South Wales’ Jewish history

Jews believed to have first settled in Swansea in the 1730s.

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July 23, 2019 19:31
3 minute read.
The fight to preserve South Wales’ Jewish history

The former Merthyr Synagogue in South Wales is believed to be one of the oldest Synagogues still standing in Wales . (photo credit: CHRIS ANDREWS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Jewish History Association of South Wales (JHASW) has launched a project to preserve and tell the 250-year-old story of the South Wales Jewish community.

The South Wales Jewish community is believed to date to the 1730s, “when according to oral tradition, the first settlement was established in Swansea,” the JHASW explained in a statement.

“A total of 72 oral histories have so far been collected, with more than 6,000 images put together in a digital collection,” it said, adding that some of the images are available already online.

“It is vital to record the stories of those still living before they are lost forever,” the group stressed.

As a result of the rapid expansion of the coal mining industry in the 19th century, there was major economic growth and a vast increase in immigration to Wales. This included a large influx of Jewish immigrants, and the founding of new Jewish communities specifically in the heavily industrialized South Wales valleys.

Meanwhile, in 1852 the Cardiff Jewish population only consisted of 13 families, but this changed in the 1880s after the influx of Jews fleeing Russian pogroms moved to the city, and Jewish population rose to a peak of 5,500.

A synagogue was also founded in Merthyr Tydfil in 1875.

Using the town of Merthyr as a broader example for how communities in South Wales have dwindled over the years, the JHASW explained that “during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were small Jewish communities in many of the South Wales valleys, as well as larger ones in the main towns.”

It said that according to The Jewish Yearbook, there were 400 Jews in Merthyr in 1919, 175 in 1939, 40 in 1959, and George Black, “The Last Jew in Merthyr,” died in 1999 at age 82.

“The decline of the Jewish community in Merthyr was, for the most part, echoed throughout South Wales due to an aging population, the migration of children to university, economic downturn, and movement to larger communities,” the JHASW wrote.

However in its 250 years of existence, members of these Jewish communities and those who once had roots there have made a huge impact on the greater society of South Wales, including in the economic, social and political fields, as well as in artistic life.
“The first phase of the project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Jewish Historical Society of England and individual contributions, is coming to an end in September 2019,” the JHASW said. “But much more needs to be done.”

The organization is “planning to create a website to showcase previously unseen material, research information on little known Jewish communities, and carry out more oral history interviews.”

The JHASW also plans to do a case study that will examine the history of people named on a Cardiff Reform synagogue’s memorial tablet, erected in memory of relatives of community members who died in the Holocaust. It is also planning to create a Jewish heritage trail in Cardiff.

The project was launched last year, and during its first phase, the project manager and team of volunteers came together “to plan the project, help with research work, and carry out interviews with members of the Jewish community.”

Over the last month, the JHASW ran a successful crowdfunding campaign, raising over £3,000 to get the second stage started.
The organization is also “submitting a grant application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund at the end of July and will know the outcome by the end of September. The new project is estimated at around £60,000.”

In hopes of creating more awareness, a traveling exhibition titled Voices and Images of the South Wales Jewish Community opened at its first venue on June 17, and is scheduled to continue onto several other locations until mid-September.

“It captures the spirit of communities through excerpts from interviews with those who were there,” the organization said, “through the stories of their lives, and their parents’ and grandparents’ lives.”


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