Sunbathing shop-workers, wearing goggles, in 1930s Leeds. A mediaeval Jewish man, in a Colchester court to see his sons accused of illegal acts. And a classroom of JFS pupils in the days when teachers wore bowler hats and the pupils caps in the classroom.
All these and much more can be found on a website which will be launched this Sunday by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Hidden Treasures: celebrating Jewish archives in Britain, showcases and celebrates the British archive collections, large and small, across the UK, which hold material relating to Jews and their experiences in Britain.
This is an absolute gift to historians, whether professional or amateur. With many of us digging into family history, the Board has brought together sources of documents and photographs to help us make links, find facts and imagine more vividly the lives of those who came before us.
The project was devised by the Board’s archives and heritage manager, Dawn Waterman, who is responsible for the Board of Deputies’ archives at the London Metropolitan Archives and at the Wiener Holocaust Library. Also a trustee of the Jewish Historical Society of England, she has a long-standing interest in archives and the stories they tell about Jews in Britain.
It has its origins in her first dates with her late husband, the eminent historian David Cesarani. “Early dates took place in the Mocatta Library at UCL — where they kept huge bound volumes of the JC, going back to the first edition. We were checking footnotes for his book on the history of the JC [The Jewish Chronicle and Anglo Jewry 1841-1991]. I suppose it’s not everyone’s idea of a hot date but I found it fascinating.”
On honeymoon in Sicily: “We spotted a Via Judica and spent an afternoon in a rather dusty archive, researching the Jews of Taormina for a feature for the JC.”
The new Hidden Treasures website is a portal to more than 25 diverse collections held by national and local government institutions including The National Archives, Liverpool Record Office (which holds the Merseyside Jewish Community Archive), Hull History Centre and the Imperial War Museum and by universities such as Southampton, Leeds and UCL.
There are also archives held by specifically Jewish-oriented organisations including the Jewish History Association of South Wales, Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, The Wiener Holocaust Library, Sephardi Voices UK and, of course, the JC itself.
Archives are joining the project all the time. “If you work for an institution, organisation or community group with an archive that relates to the history of Jews in Britain, do get in touch. We’d love to feature you in Hidden Treasures and if you are an organisation within the Jewish community with records you think might be of interest more widely, talk to us and we can advise,” says Waterman.
She has picked out some images to introduce the project. The sunbathing shopworkers were employees of Burton Menswear — still part of the British high street — and their picture was part of a bundle of photographs found among the Burton archives (held by West Yorkshire Archives) in an envelope labelled “Welfare”. It shows one of the many benefits offered by the Jewish-owned firm to its staff in the 1930s.
“This is one of my favourites,” says Waterman. “Montague Burton created a pioneering welfare system for his workers, making a morning glass of milk and a nutritious lunch available, and having an on-site dentist providing dental care at a nominal charge. And this sun room. Any employee wanting to take a course of sun-ray, radiant heat or infra-red ray treatment could do so, as long as they had a medical certificate giving details of the treatment required and it was carried out under the supervision of a qualified nurse.”
Sir Montague Maurice Burton was born Meshe David Osinsky. He opened his first shop in Chesterfield in 1904, aged 19. Business boomed, with 400 shops, mills and factories by 1929. Hudson Road Factory in Leeds was the largest factory in Europe, with 10,000 workers on site and the world’s largest canteen. Burton suits revolutionised the industry.
“Apparently the expression ‘the full Monty’ — which I knew as the title of a popular film — actually refers to the whole suit from Burton — trousers, jacket and waistcoat, that’s everything you’d need.”
Next on her list is a mediaeval doodle made by the clerk in the margin of a legal document from 1277 regarding criminal cases in the king’s forest, held by The National Archives at Kew.
The sketch of “Aaron – son of the Devil” appears next to a case about the killing of deer near Colchester by a gang of youths. Among the accused were Isaac and Samuel, sons of Aaron of Colchester.
It’s one of the earliest English images of the “Badge of Shame”, the mediaeval equivalent of the yellow star, which took the shape of the tablets of the law, cut from yellow taffeta, and which Jews over the age of seven had to wear.
The material in the archives is not confined to documents and photographs. The Wiener Holocaust Library has two copies of what has been called “history’s most infamous board game”, Juden Raus! which came to the library in the 1950s and was featured on a special Holocaust Memorial Day edition of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
“I was astonished when I came across the board game at the Wiener Library. It’s basically Nazi Monopoly. Rather than buying houses and hotels, the aim of this game is to round up Jews and deposit them outside the city walls. The winner is the first person to remove six Jews. It was absolutely socially acceptable for adults and children to play this game. It was seen as fun for all the family.”
The archives in the Wiener Holocaust Library, as well as those of the AJR’s Refugee Voices and World Jewish Relief’s Kindertransport collection, reflect the background of many Jews now living in Britain; survivors and refugees and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. These and many of the archives featured by Hidden Treasures are valuable to people tracing their family history, including many local archives.
I’m itching to see what the archives have from South Wales, Manchester and Ladbroke Grove — my husband’s and my attempts to trace our family’s histories having thrown up interesting questions but few answers — but many will head for archives from the East End of London, which is well-represented. The photo of the classroom comes from the Anglo Jewish Archives at Southampton University and shows boys studying the Torah at the Jews Free School. It is taken from the 1905 diary of Samuel Morris Rich who taught at JFS, then at Bell Lane in the East End, from 1898-1938.
Waterman knows that many will welcome this help with tracing family history. Some archives need to be visited in person, but much can be done online. “With the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, we held a very successful family history workshop at Jewish Book Week earlier in the year. The genealogists showed what can be discovered online. This was one of the last big communal events before lockdown. We’re hoping to be able to do the same again in 2021.
“The social and personal announcements in the JC, commonly known as hatched, matched and dispatched, are a terrific resource. There was a time when a couple weren’t really considered to be engaged until the announcement had appeared in the JC.” And of course there is much more to be found in the JC archive, including information about the growth and demise of communities and institutions.
The story of the Jews in Britain isn’t just about the past. Hidden Treasures also features the contemporary archive that is being created now by the Board of Deputies. It is collecting digital material showing how the Jewish community in Britain is responding to the corona-virus pandemic.
JC readers have been among those responding to a call for this material, which includes a prayer for the recovery of Boris Johnson, a “Love your neighbour as yourself” card offering assistance and a leaflet from Salford City Council in English and in Yiddish explaining the restrictions on meeting in groups.
“We’d be delighted to receive other digital material demonstrating the practical, spiritual, inventive and compassionate ways the Jewish community has responded to the pandemic.”
The pandemic has meant that the Board’s plans for events held at the archives have been put on hold for the time being.
“Archives, like everything else, have been shut for months. But they are gradually opening up. So, if you’ve planned a staycation in Britain, and there’s an archive near your holiday spot, why don’t you get in touch and see if they are open for visitors yet?” says Waterman.
The celebratingJewisharchives.org website will be launched at an online event on Sunday, July 26. The event will feature, among others, speakers from The National Archives, West Yorkshire Archives and the Wiener Holocaust Library and will be chaired by Gillian Merron, chief executive at the Board of Deputies.
No registration is necessary for the event which will be streamed from www.facebook.com/seethetreasures