the former

Sunderland Jewish Community

Sunderland, Tyne & Wear





From Kretinga to Sunderland


Chapter 2

A tale of two (very different) towns:- Kretinga36. and Sunderland


The differences between the two towns so far as their Jewish populations were concerned were far greater than any similarities, particularly as regards their traditions, backgrounds and standards of religious observance. In describing the two towns, it is important to realise that the incumbent members were anglicised in their practices, were attached to their form of service and were not disposed to give up their traditional ways to any ‘foreign’ Jews. With some exceptions, they might, as Jews, ensure that the newcomers were not left destitute, but in general financial aid was the limit of their benevolence.

The Litvaks, on the other hand, were certainly not asylum seekers in the modern sense. They had chosen to emigrate, and even if their financial position had deteriorated since leaving Lithuania, many of them had been of good position and well respected. They held fiercely to their traditions and certainly were not going to follow the ways of the existing congregation, which to them lax in its religious ways and lacked true religious devotion.  Both sides, with few exceptions, were proud and often intractable.

This pattern of conflict between the old and the new was widespread in Anglo Jewry. To take an immediate example, the neighbouring Jewish community of Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1866, — the dates do not exactly synchronise, — there was a secession of synagogue members of the Temple Street synagogue, leaving to form a rival New Hebrew Congregation. The same problems that would bedevil Sunderland regarding appointment of a Second Shochet and recognition of an independent marriage secretary — as will be later described — caused bitterness and dissension in Newcastle.37.


Kretinga is situated in North-West Lithuania in the District of Kovno, about 3 miles from the German border, or 13 miles from the Port of Memel. Neighbouring townlets with a Jewish population within the District of Kretinga are shown in Illustration 2 circled black (not currently available). From 1745-1915, Kretinga was under Russian occupation and was the regional capital of the area.38. Until 1914 it was the centre of the import-export trade for the region as it was only 3 miles from the German border. At first it was in the District of Vilna, later, from 1843, of Kovna. In the period of Independent Lithuania, !918-1940, it was also the regional capital.39. (The Frontispiece Illustration shows Kretinga Market Place as at the end of the Nineteenth Century)40.

Jews did not settle in Kretinga until the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. There were a number of eminent Rabbis who lived at or near Kretinga, and the Jewish population was mostly intensely devout, knowledgeable and observant, factors that ultimately had a great influence on the enlarged Jewish community in Sunderland.41. Among the Ashkenazim,42. possibly the most Orthodox group, was that ‘of the Lithuanian Pattern’, represented by the Yeshivot (schools of intense Jewish learning; (singular noun – Yeshiva) with the strongest possible emphasis on the study of the Torah (the Law), to the virtual exclusion of all else, and the strict observance of its most detailed practices.43. The importation of this strict orthodoxy was to have a profound influence on Sunderland Jewry, and was the cause of later dissent. The Jewish Kretingan population figures are of interest   and are shown in the Table below.44. (In 1949 following the Holocaust not a single Jew remained; the Nazis with help from the Lithuanians, massacred them all.45. To complete the picture there were three Jews only resident in Kretinga in 1989.46.)

Year Jewish Population Total Population Total % of Population


















The Town of Sunderland, by 1880 was an extremely profitable business community, through the combined effects of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the railways, the development of its harbour and other river improvements; its proximity to the sea; and being within 4 miles of the exposed part of the Durham coalfields. To take two telling statistics, between 1851 and the end of 1856, the quantity of coal exported from the Wear rose by 56 percent, and the export of coal increased to over 5 m. tons yearly during each of the years 1904 to 1929.47. This apparent prosperity and opportunities for advancement could be a major inducement to potential migrants, - if they knew of Sunderland’s existence, - quite apart from the prospect of freedom of speech and freedom from injustice and discrimination.

In order to assess the influence of the Lithuanian immigrants, one must determine the type of Jewish community which existed in Sunderland prior to the mid-nineteenth Century. At the time of the 1851 census return, the number of Jews in Sunderland taken from the two existing synagogue returns, was 150 to 200.48. In 1866 a ‘correspondent’ with the Jewish Chronicle stated the Jewish population was 250.49. By 1888-1892 ‘half of Sunderland’s thousand Jews were connected directly or indirectly with Krottingen.50. At the Sunderland Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1876 it was stated the Jewish community numbered 600, and thus had doubled since 1858.51.

It is generally agreed that the first known Jew to settle in Sunderland, in or about 1755, was one Abraham Samuels, described as a jeweller and silversmith. He died in Sunderland in 1794.52. Cohen claims that the earliest Jewish settlers in Sunderland were either Dutchmen or Bohemians who had sojourned in Holland for a short time.53. Sunderland ships had sailed to Holland, Scandinavia and Danzig since 1620, and the cheap fares on the return journey to Sunderland by the Wearmouth coal ships, after shipping coal to those ports, was a likely further inducement to potential migrants.

Between 1760-1780, terrible atrocities were committed by the Cossacks against the Jews in Poland at the instigation of Catherine II, Empress of Russia.54. As early as December 1744, there had been enacted ‘the Edict of Expulsion against Jews in Bohemia’, and this was enforced most rigorously after 1760.55. Many Polish Jews fled to the nearest port, Danzig, and thence to England, many of them, presumably because of the booming coal trade, to the north-east coast.56. We know that Polish Jews settled in Sunderland because of the existence of a synagogue in Vine Street, known as the Polishe Shool or synagogue. What is not known are the names and date of arrival of the first Polish immigrants, or their place of departure.

At first the newcomers worshipped together with the earlier settlers, but by 1781 the numbers of Polish worshippers had grown sufficiently large enough to warrant the establishment of their own synagogue. Probably the reason for the ‘split’, as it became known, was that the expelled Jews from Bohemia were Polish Chassidim, that is to say followers of a pietist movement originating in the early eighteenth Century among the Jews of Eastern Europe, whilst the original Jews of German and Dutch origin were Missnagdim, the literal interpretation of which is ‘opponents’, that is to say opponents of the Chassidic movement in all its aspects.57.

Although there is no direct evidence in support, it seems probable that the older community zealously guarded their rites and practices and the privilege of having priority in their being called up to read the Law, whilst the newcomers resented being considered foreign interlopers whose views were given little weight by the established majority. Certainly, in broad terms, this was the pattern of later schisms, - some 80 years later, - namely upholding the old against any encroachment by the new, as detailed in Chapter 5 herein.

Be that as it may, the Polish synagogue was duly formed, but by 1860 at the latest, it had foundered and closed. As early as 5th July 1841, the spokesman for the Polish synagogue, Myers Marks, was pleading the lack of both members and funds in a letter to Sir Moses Montefiore, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, based in London. On the other hand the Israelite congregation prospered and opened a new synagogue in 1861.58. This was two years after the arrival of Barnett Bernstein, and before the new wave of immigrants had gathered momentum.

Footnotes    (returns to main text)

  1. With Acknowledgement to Levy, History, for frontpiece Illustration.

  2. G. D. Guttentag The Beginning of the Newcastle Jewish Community, The Jewish Historical Society of England, Transactions, Sessions 1973-5, Vol. XXV & Miscellaneous, Part X.

  3. Bert Kagan Yidishe Shtet, Shtetlach un Dirfishe Yishuvim in Lite, p. 52 (New York 1991) as cited by Livshin - and Dov Levin, Editor Pinkas Hakehilot Lite, p. 617 as cited by Livshin.

  4. Dov Levin, ibid.

  5. With acknowledgement to Levy, History

  6. Levy, The Behr Tree, p.5 Published privately, 1949. [See The Behr Tree on JewishGen - Webmaster's note]  

  7. Jews following the traditions of European Jewry as opposed to the Sefardim tradition of the Middle and Far East, Spain and Portugal.

  8. Levy, idem, p.95.

  9. Livshin, Home Page, p.2, - citing several authorities.

  10. Levy, History, p.99.

  11. Livshin, Home Page, p.6.

  12. Stuart T. Miller, Sunderland: River Town and People: a History from the 1780s to the Present Day, edited by Geoffrey M. Milburn and Stuart T. Miller, p.17 anap. 19, respectively.

  13. Roth, op. cit., p.103.

  14. Jewish Chronicle, 11th January 1886, cited by Mordaunt Cohen in an unpublished talk given to the Sunderland Antiquarian Society on 28th February 1961, p.3.

  15. V. D. Lipman, Social History of the Jews of England, p.22.

  16. Cited in Cohen, op. cit., p.10.

  17. The Manuscripts of James Corder, deposited at the Sunderland Reference Library: and Vide Cecil Roth, The Jewish Monthly, Vol. 3, No. 4, July 1949.

  18. Cohen, op. cit., p.9, following Levy, History, p.30.

  19. Graetz, History of the Jews, Vol. V. p.388.

  20. Roth, History of the Jews, and Levy, History. 29.

  21. Lithuanian Jews, on the other hand, would sail from Memel to West Hartlepool, at a later date, because of its geographical position and it being the recognised coal trade route..

  22. Cohen, op. cit., p. 3.

  23. Levy, History, pp. 40-54.


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