the former

Sunderland Jewish Community

Sunderland, Tyne & Wear





From Kretinga to Sunderland


Chapter 3

Barnett Bernstein and the later Kretingan Immigrants


Barnett Bernstein
(Illustration 5)


The story of Barnett Bernstein (see portrait)59. demonstrates how incidents in the life of a single individual, planned or unplanned, can affect a large number of people, in this case the future of the Jewish community of Sunderland. He was the son of a carpenter in Kretinga, and did not appear to be exceptional in any way. The circumstances of his escape from the Russian army and a fortuitous arrival at and settling down successfully in Sunderland, - as shown by his transmitting considerable funds - by their standards - to his parents, led to very many of his friends and relations coming to settle in that town on his recommendation.  In all probability they had never previously heard of Sunderland. It is possible that they might have heard of Sunderland’s apparent prosperity at that time, but Bernstein’s success would be a more likely incentive to them.

At the age of 10, Barnett Bernstein was employed as a ‘water-boy’ by Wolf Charles Behrman, a man of some affluence in Kretinga. This involved watering the horses and keeping the household supplied with water drawn from deep wells in the household courtyard.60. When he was 14 years old he was impressed into the Russian army, which normally meant 25 or 40 years service. He must have been a good soldier because after 14 years service he was allowed home on leave. Desperate to escape, friends from the Behrman household helped him to cross the border into Germany, and, reaching Memel, he took passage on a timber-laden ship to England. Neither he nor they knew the precise destination in England.61. The journey, as Bernstein recounted to Arnold Levy on several occasions, was unpleasant.62.

Finally the ship landed in the Hartlepools. After clearing Customs, a kindly Customs Officer escorted him to the home of the Cassell family in West Hartlepool.63. Abraham Cassell was the most prominent Jew among the town’s Jewish community. They were not at home, and by signs and gesticulations the Customs Officer made him understand that he should sit on the doorstep until they returned. He did so. Later that evening they returned and welcomed him into their home. The next morning, upon ascertaining that he had a good working knowledge of glazing, Mr. Cassell provided him with a glazing crate, some tools, putty, and a small stock of glass, and sent him to the dock to enquire if any ship required glazing work.

No business was forthcoming. Bernstein walked from ship to ship, until, near dusk, he finally found a ship requiring his services. Unknowingly, he had walked some 15 miles to Sunderland. He stayed overnight in Sunderland, and needing more glass and supplies required an interpreter who could speak Yiddish, the common tongue at that time for all Jews.  A Jewish youngster eventually came to his aid and took him to his home where he was given board and lodgings. From that day on Bernstein remained and resided in Sunderland.

In addition to glazing, Bernstein carried out furniture repairs. He prospered and finally became a fully-fledged furniture manufacturer.  On his death in 1910, Levy relates, he left ‘a considerable fortune.’64. A search of the Probate Registry reveals no record of either Probate of a Will or Grant of Letters of Administration to his estate, so it is not possible to quantify the value of his estate or its distribution. The lack of Probate or Grant could occur in English Law, if, for example, the deceased left a small estate, - not the case here, according to Levy and older surviving members of the Sunderland Community who still recall the flourishing Bernstein furniture - making business, - or if the major part of the estate is jointly held with another. A more likely scenario is that the deceased had made a gift of most of his assets during his lifetime.

As already stated, from the time he started earning money, Bernstein remitted a monthly sum to his parents in Kretinga, which must have been very important and welcome to them in a time of dire financial circumstances in Lithuania. Every pound sterling sent meant 10 roubles there, a vast sum in those days, and every such pound sent attracted more immigrants.65. The good news spread rapidly with the result that many relatives and friends from Kretinga followed him to Sunderland. Prominent among them were the Jacobs, the Olswangs, the Pearlmans, the Cohens, and the Levys (of whom Arnold Levy was one) and many others who were to become prominent figures in the history of Sunderland Jewry.

Many of Bernstein’s friends also migrated to Sunderland, notably Samuel Behrman who had aided Barnett in his escape to England, and was a grandson of that same Wolf Charles Behrman who had once employed a young water-boy. His wife Channa joined him shortly afterwards, and their home became a Mecca and a meeting place for incoming Kretingans.66. Except for scraps of information, Barnett Bernstein now fades from the scene.67. 68.

The Jews in Sunderland of Kretingan origin were a closely linked community within a community, and maintained full links with their families and friends in Kretinga itself. This was particularly evident in 1889 when a great fire gutted the city and practically the whole of the Jewish population, then numbering some two thousand, were rendered homeless and lost their entire possessions. ‘No more than 5 percent were covered by insurance, and most of these were under-insured,’ states Levy, who with his parents also originated from Kretinga.69.  Most of the houses were of wooden construction and the flames spread rapidly. Fires were not uncommon in Lithuania and ‘Leah Gillis’ refers to an earlier fire in Kretinga in 1855 when the Beth Haknesset (Synagogue) was destroyed by fire and was not rebuilt until 1860.70.

When the news of the 1899 tragedy reached Sunderland, prompt action was taken. A fund-raising committee was formed, which produced a ‘comparatively large sum’71. and the then minister of the Sunderland Congregation, Rev. A.A. Green was sent to Kretinga to distribute funds with the assistance of the local Rabbinate. A public appeal was decided upon and the Trustees wrote to the Jewish Chronicle asking the public to consider the enclosed letter of Rev. Green, which set out in harrowing detail the extent of the fire, the plight of the homeless and the dangers of pestilence.72. Again, the amount raised is not known, but Levy notes that it took several years for Kretinga to be restored to its original state.73.  One of the seven named trustees of the Appeal fund was B. Bernstein.74.

Footnotes    (returns to main text)

  1. With Acknowledgement to Levy, History.

  2. A. Levy, The Behr Tree, p.89. [See The Behr Tree on JewishGen - Webmaster's note.] There is some doubt about the age and dates because Levy states in The Behr Tree that Bernstein was born 'about 1835' and at the age of 14 was conscripted into the Russian army where he served for 14 years before migrating to England 'about 1863'. In a later 'History of the Sunderland Jewish Community', (published seven years later in 1956) Levy gives the date of migration as 'about 1859'. This was after the benefit of his speaking to Bernstein himself on many occasions. It follows that if 1859 was the correct date he was born in 1831, (then adding 28 years this takes us to 1859), or alternatively he could only have served 10 years in the army, which seems unlikely as this would be something about which Bernstein was unlikely to be mistaken. Unfortunately no gravestones can be traced to assist on this point. A search of the records reveal also no Probate or Grant of his estate was obtained on his death in 1910.

  3. Levy, ibid., p.8.

  4. Several German soldiers considered it was amusing to lower him into a net and 'duck him' in the North Sea ibid., p.90.

  5. Abraham Cassell was born in Memel and was destined to become the grandfather of two future mayors of the town, Ernest Bloom and Marcus Bloom, according to Levy The Behr Tree, p.91.

  6. Levy, The Behr Tree, p.91.

  7. Levy, History, p.94.

  8. Levy, The Behr Tree, p.90.

  9. Levy, ibid., p.91.

  10. To complete the picture, Bernett Bernstein married Minna Silberstein on 23rd October 1861. Between 1861 and 1886, they produced six sons according to the Brith Milah, a record of circumcisions between 1848 and 1886. Further research may disclose the number of daughters. In passing reference Levy mentions one daughter, Grace (Mrs. D. A. Olswang) who died in 1886. (Levy, History, p.103.

  11. Levy, The Behr Tree, pp.94-99. It was at 'the turn of the century when Arnold migrated to Sunderland with his parents' and as a young boy would know a great deal from his parents and others about the circumstances of the fire. Arnold Levy died in 1955 just before the publication of the 'History' in 1956, and this information is contained in the interesting 'In Memoriam' prefixed to his work (at pp. vii to xii) by Rev. Ephraim Levine.

  12. Leah Gillis, Kretinga, an unpublished paper, date and author unknown. p.1.

  13. The exact amount raised is not known. Levy either did not know or perhaps omitted or chose not to mention any amount.

  14. the Jewish Chronicle, 26th July 1889. (the letter from Rev. Green, incorporated within the Trustee's letter was dated 21st July 1889).

  15. Levy, History, pp.94-9.

  16. V.D. Lipman, The Jewish Historical Society of England, Transactions, Vol. XVII, pp 184-5.


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