Charity fights to preserve memory of Wales’ fading Jewish life

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Charity fights to preserve memory of Wales’ fading Jewish life

Thousands of Jews once lived in villages dotted around south Wales, but the 250-year-old community risks disappearing entirely

Annual day outing of the Rapport company. (Credit:  JHAW, courtesy of Philip Kaye)
Annual day outing of the Rapport company. (Credit: JHAW, courtesy of Philip Kaye)

South Wales’ once thriving Jewish community risks fading into obscurity, prompting archivists to double efforts to digitise images and record testimonies. 

Thousands of Jews once lived in villages dotted around south Wales, with approximately 6,000 living in the country in 1918.

But the 250-year-old community, now concentrated largely in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, risks disappearing entirely as populations age and younger generations move away to cities like Leeds, Manchester and London.

The decline is such that some find it challenging to maintain their way of life.

There are no Jewish schools in Wales or kosher slaughterhouses, with  products delivered from London every two weeks

“It can be difficult to even find a minyan,” said Klavdija Erzen from the Jewish History Association of South Wales, referring to the quorum needed to hold some services.

Clergy and congregation members of Cardiff’s Jewish community, 1932 (Credit: JHASW)

Estimates suggest the number of Jews living in south Wales could have dipped into the hundreds since the last census recorded over 1,400 Jews in the region.“I would like to be optimistic but it’s very difficult to be,” Erzen said.

The charity, the Jewish History Association of South Wales, has spent over a year digitising more than 6,000 images and interviewing some 72 Welsh Jews dotted around the UK, now showcased in a travelling exhibition.

“They talked about everything,”Erzen said, “Memories of their parents and grandparents but also received memories, anecdotes, stories from ancestors who came from Russia and Poland.” 

Credit: JHAW, courtesy of Zelda Jacobs

The charity is now crowdfunding as part of a bid for Heritage Lottery funding for a further project estimated to cost around £60,000. 

If successful, the bid would see the completion of further research, a heritage trail in Cardiff and a new digital toolkit to enable small local communities to collect and preserve their heritage. 

“The aim of this project was to identify what Jewish heritage there is in south Wales, then preserve it and share it with future generations in terms of digitising it but also depositing with archives and museums for safekeeping,” Erzen said. 

Hymie Kahn, police officer, 1940, credit: JHAW, courtesy of Laurence Kahn.

The Jewish contribution in Wales across business, art, culture and society risk being irretrievable, Erzen said, pointing to the example of an industrial estate in Treforest where the predominant languages were Polish, German and Czech during the 1940s. 

“When Jewish communities left, they left a big void behind,” she said. “The same thing happened all over the valleys. There were huge communities in Merthyr, Tydfil, Brynmawr, Aberdare and Pontypridd and local people remember them very fondly,” she said. 

Amid rising antisemitism, non-Jews who have had little contact with Jewish communities should realise what they brought to Wales and the UK, Erzen said, pointing to reports of vandalised Jewish cemeteries and shuls in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport.

But she added: “In general, interviewees said they had not experienced a lot of antisemitism in their lives, but that is personal perception. Whether that is true or what they wish to remember is a different question. Oral history always is a creation of new history.”

To support the Jewish History Association of South Wales, you can donate to their crowdfunding campaign before July 12 on crowdfunder

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