Jewish community’s ‘very quiet contribution’ to Derry’s history

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ALTHOUGH THERE is little evidence of a Jewish community in Derry today, most people over the age of seventy remember the Jewish families who lived here with affection.

The Jewish community in Derry arrived as the result of two separate waves of migration.

The first of these arrived at the very end of the nineteenth century following their expulsion from Russia.

Many of them didn’t come directly to Derry but did so after stopping off in other cities such as Glasgow and Manchester.

The majority of those who came were peddlers, taking goods from door to door, while others worked as small shopkeepers.

Most of the Jewish families lived in the same area, around Bishop Street, Abercorn Road and the Fountain. We also know that there must have been a significant number of them because there was, for several years, a synagogue in Kennedy Place, just off Hawkin Street.

For a synagogue to be established, there has to be at least ten men of the Jewish faith in the town or city. The rabbi would also ensure that all food was prepared according to strict dietary law - that it was kosher.

Jewish children would be taken out of school one day a week for instruction in the Torah, the Jewish sacred book, as well as for lessons in the Hebrew language. As the Jewish community became smaller - either through moving away or, in some cases, because they were no longer practising the faith - the synagogue was finally forced to close in the late 1940s.

Most of the Jews would have been strict in their religious practice, particularly with regard to observance of the Sabbath.

Fred Logan, former principal of First Derry School - who provided me with much of the information for this article - recalls that his mother would be summoned to the house of her neighbour, Mrs. Spain, on Saturday mornings to undertake tasks such as switching on the lights or lighting the oven.

Another well-known family at that time were the Fredlanders. Louis Fredlander kindly sent me a copy of his article about his late father who came from Russia and spent some time in Glasgow before deciding to settle in Derry.

Michael Fredlander was a horse breeder who had his own stud farm in Eglinton and sold horses as far away as America.

Another prominent Jewish family were the Gordons. The family originally had a picture-framing business at Newmarket Street but many people will still recall Nat Gordon’s Art Shop at the Diamond.

A second and smaller wave of immigrants arrived in the city immediately before the Second World War.

Many of these fled Austria to escape persecution by the Nazis.

They included Madame Beck, the milliner, and Louis Schenkel whose collection of almost one thousand cacti is to be found at Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. .

Tom Finnegan, then president of Magee College, and Alec Halliday, who had a commercial college in Derry, were responsible for bringing these people to the city.

In many countries, Jewish people found themselves persecuted for their religious beliefs.

However, this was not the case in Derry, where anyone I spoke to felt that they were good neighbours and hard working.

One story told of a Jewish peddler who sold pictures from door to door. Having carefully assessed his customer, he produced either a picture of the Sacred Heart or of King Billy, according to what he felt suitable.

There can be little doubt that the Jewish community made a very quiet but significant contribution to life in our city.