the former

Sunderland Jewish Community

Sunderland, Tyne & Wear





From Kretinga to Sunderland

A Jewish chain migration from Lithuania

Cause and Effect - 1850-1930s

by Gordon Leigh



The reasons for the choice of subject matter relate to aspects both of Jewish migration from Lithuania and of the Sunderland Jewish Community. Some of the inspiration for this study derives from the writer’s own background and family history. In 1905, his father, Nathan Leigh, at the age of l5 years migrated with his father from Ritovah in Lithuania, some 30 miles from Kretinga, and they settled initially in Durham City. Eventually his mother and two sisters joined them and the family later moved to Newcastle upon Tyne. He died in 1968. Although he never dwelt unduly on his early years or his place of origin, the migration from Lithuania has always been accepted as an important part of the family background.

As regards Sunderland, the writer has always been involved with its Jewish Community to a greater or lesser extent. From 1943, aged 12, he was part of a youth movement, with joint Newcastle and Sunderland membership, and from that age until 1960 participated in joint cultural, sporting and social events.  In the 1950s, the Jewish boys of Newcastle upon Tyne found they had much in common with the Jewish girls of Sunderland and there were frequent journeys over the 12 miles separating the two cities. The eventual decline of the Sunderland Jewish Community, to the extent that by 1999 they were unable to form a Minyan,1. is beyond the scope of this exercise.

Suffice it to say that, particularly in the post war years and especially in the last decade, young Jewish people moved elsewhere, often from university, to towns with greater Jewish populations like Manchester or London, for the purpose of career enhancement or of finding a greater choice of spouse.  Many were followed eventually by their parents and grandparents.  This exodus plus significant emigration to Israel, assimilation, and a relatively low birth rate took its inevitable toll.2. In recent years, a number of Sunderland Jewish families have moved to Newcastle, as the nearest Jewish population, some of them of Kretingan descent, which both renewed old friendships and proved to be of anecdotal interest.

A significant comment was made by Rabbi Dr. Salis Daiches in a Paper,3. when referring to the intake of Kretingan Jews, he said, ‘there seems no doubt were it not for this new emigration, there would be very little left of the Sunderland congregation. -- The new element soon began to play an important part in the history of the community’. The seminal work on the Sunderland Jewish Community is by Arnold Levy who said4. that were it not for the newcomers the Community ‘would probably have ranked as third-rate, whereas in fact it is first-rate.’

For all these reasons, this study, involving as it does a ‘tale of two towns’ and the inter-relationship of Jewish elements in both, seemed a worthwhile topic for a dissertation.

The main sources of primary evidence available are the various Minutes, papers and documents lodged with the Tyne and Wear Archive Department at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne. These include Minutes from the Sunderland Beth Hamedrash 1891-1914 (the very orthodox synagogue formed by the newcomers, literally meaning House of Worship); Minutes of the less pietistic and older congregation known as the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation 1857-1949; Minutes of the Sunderland Chevra Kadishe (Burial Society) 1895-1931; documents from 1891-1909 of the Sunderland Chevra Gemara (a Society or brotherhood for study of the Torah); Minutes of the Sunderland Hebrew Board of Guardians, 1869-1907, and sundry papers and documents including an unpublished Paper from Rabbi Susser in 1989 concerning the ‘the Rules and Regulations of the Adath Yeshuran 1823.’ (the name of the original Sunderland Synagogue, later to be  known as the Israelite Congregation, and finally as the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation);5. and hereinafter referred to as ‘Rules and Regulations’.

It was hoped that these papers would provide the core information for this Paper, but whilst all proved to have some value, the quality of the papers are variable in quality. Some of the handwriting in the Minutes of the Beth Hamedrash, especially those of David Gillis, and later Joseph Pearlman, are copperplate in quality, others are barely legible. As can be seen from the dates of the primary material the period from 1850 to the 1930s are not fully covered. In particular the early Minutes of the Chevra Kadishe and Chevra Gemora are lacking, and the Chevra Kadishe Minutes end in 1931. Moreover, the Board of Guardian Minutes cease in 1907. However, the local Sunderland press, lodged at the Sunderland Reference Library, and old editions of the Jewish Chronicle, deposited at the Manchester Central Library, helped to fill the gaps.

Dr. Harold Davis, formerly of Sunderland, now of London, kindly gave permission to access materials lodged in the Tyne and Wear Archives, and added much useful information, including an unpublished paper ‘Kretinga’. (for index not authorship purposes, marked ‘Leah Gillis.’) The actual author or source is unknown.6. Lt-.Col. Mordaunt Cohen, a friend and relative, kindly loaned many documents that would not otherwise have been seen, including a copy of an invaluable unpublished paper he read to the Sunderland Antiquarian Society on 28th February 1961.7.

Not unsurprisingly, there developed tension and discord between the old guard, known as Englishe Chayers by the Lithuanian newcomers, (a loose translation of which is pompous would-be English gentlemen) and the recently arrived Jews known sardonically by the established community as Greeners (signifying greenhorns or naive ignorant peasants). Yiddish is a language of subtlety, and is very difficult to translate.  The intention here is to trace those disagreements, analyse the causes and assess their effect. To put the whole exercise into context, it is also necessary to consider the conditions under which the Jews of Lithuania lived and what caused them to leave. The Encylopaedia Judaica was an obvious start to research that question, followed by the standard works of Graetz, Roth, Levine and others. Nicholas Evans of Hull University kindly introduced me to the Report  on the Alien’s Immigration Act 1903 (‘The Report.’) It was a salutary experience to be handed a closely written tome of over 900 pages, but the insight it gave was well worth the effort involved.

The author’s late father was reluctant to talk at length on his early life in Lithuania, and rarely volunteered information about that time. There was, however, a distinct impression given that the general migration from der heim was because of persecution and pogroms, particularly after the persecution of Jews in Russia following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. Certainly if these subjects were raised in conversation, he never intimated that they did not apply to him or his family. It was with surprise, therefore, that after considering a paper of Professor Aubrey Newman,8. it was realised that in Lithuania at that time there had been no pogroms.  The disadvantages arising from The Pale of Settlement and the May Laws, however, caused gross overcrowding, with consequent shortage of work in those cities where Jews were forced to work.  This resulted in too many people chasing too little work and consequent economic hardship. It was this hardship, allied to expectation of economic advantages abroad, which was the prime cause of the flood of immigrants to Britain from Lithuania after 1881, not direct pogroms or direct persecution. Certainly there were many harsh disadvantages facing the native Jewish population, which amounted to indirect persecution.  It is intended to analyse all these factors at some length.

Thanks are due to Nicholas Evans for providing some very useful and informative papers written by himself,9. John Klier,10. and Aubrey Newman.11. These papers provide a wealth of information which cannot all be included in an exercise of this size. Dr. David Patterson kindly extended an invitation to visit the specialised Library at Yarnton Manor, Oxford, containing much information on Kretinga.  Limitations of time and the distance involved, and the need of an interpreter for documents in Yiddish and German, precluded this work being undertaken but clearly this would be of use to other scholars in the field.

Similarly, when hoping to research details of the ship on which Barnett Bernstein sailed from Memel to West Hartlepool, Nick Evans generously gave of his time and advice.  Originally it was thought that the Maritime Museum at Hull could assist, - there were lodged there over 10000 Archive exhibits from the Ellerman-Wilson records (the shipping line which sailed that route), - but it transpired that if Barnett Bernstein arrived in England prior to 1st January 1860, then passenger lists of aliens are included in the HO/3 series at the Public Record Office, Kew Gardens, and further that the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool, has a national collection of Customs Bills of Entry that may include vessels arriving at West Hartlepool. This information is given for the benefit of possible researchers who may not be constrained by considerations of time or geography.

To fully appreciate the effect of the incoming Litvaks on the existing community, it was necessary to examine the kehilla, or congregation, as it had developed prior to the advent of those very different newcomers.  To effect this comparison, the time scale adopted commences in 1850 and extends to the period of the 1930s when the community was at its fullest strength.

Although there is a wealth of evidence relating to the Community after 1850, there is little documentation available for the years prior to 1850. The very first settlers, about 1750, were of German and Dutch origin, to be followed by Polish refugees who eventually formed a breakaway synagogue known as the Polishe Shool. There is evidence of an early schism between the two congregations, which uncannily resembled the later disagreements between the Lithuanian arrivals, known collectively as the Litvaks and the ‘Old Guard.’

Arnold Levy’s book, History of the Sunderland Jewish Community, is the seminal work on that subject and traces the history of a very orthodox and vibrant Jewish community in Sunderland based mostly on the strength and vigour of Kretingan newcomers, the Litvaks. The men identified as the leaders of the Sunderland Jewish community at the time of Levy’s death, in 1956, - Olswang, Cohen, Jacobs, Behrman, Gillis and Pearlman were all of Kretingan descent.  On closer study it became apparent that it was a fortuitous accident that brought Barnett Bernstein, the first migrant, to Sunderland, and that many of the other settlers followed on his recommendation. Bernstein’s story, it seemed, was worth relating in some detail, not only for its intrinsic interest, but as an example of a migrant who made good entirely on his own efforts.

At an early stage in the research, the writer accessed Sunderland Jewish Community Online where people with roots in Sunderland, now residing in America, South Africa, Israel and indeed world wide, keep in touch and reminisce about what was obviously a much loved Jewish community. The manager, David Gordon, proved very helpful and eventually the writer met Rosalyn Livshin M.Ed., who is a professional historian and genealogist, and has developed a most comprehensive and informative web site on Kretinga.12. She kindly gave access to her site and this proved to be a goldmine of historical, geographical and anecdotal information.  She has also given access to the family tree of the Cohen family, all of Kretingan origin or descent, many of them important figures of Sunderland Jewry.

In accessing materials held by the Tyne and Wear Archives Service, two difficulties soon became apparent.  Firstly, as one would expect, names are very rarely given in the Minutes and documentation relating to both the Sunderland Benevolent Society and the Sunderland Board of Guardians, so that it was difficult to identify Kretingan recipients of funds from those sources. Secondly there is no overall list of settlers from Kretinga. Arnold Levy, himself a migrant from Kretinga,13. cites eminent personages of Kretingan origin.14.

The part played by Sunderland Jews of different political persuasions in civic affairs. On one recent occasion, there was present in the Sunderland Council Chamber three grandsons and a great grandson of Charles (Reb Chatze) Cohen, a Kretingan immigrant, all Councillors, and consisting of a Leader and former Leader of the Council, both Labour, - one of whom had been knighted for his services to the Town, - and two Conservative  councillors, one of whom was the leader of the Conservative group on the Council.15. The ‘strong relationship’ with the Council, however, will concentrate on events concerning community rather than on individual Jewish political figures. (The Reb Chatze referred to had arrived in Sunderland from Kretinga in the late nineteenth century and was a deeply learned and orthodox Jew, who had a profound influence upon Jews of Kretingan origin.)

The community’s exceptional religious life will be described, as will be the unusually close relationship of Sunderland Jews of Kretingan descent, however widely dispersed, which still applies today, even though the community’s fortunes are at its nadir.

This Paper will examine in detail the effect of an influx of Jewish Eastern European religious tradition and culture upon an Anglicised form of Jewish worship, with all the tension and difficulties that this entailed. The similarities of both cultures, and, more especially, the differences, will be assessed and weighed.

Whilst noting the remarkably good relations with the Press and with civic dignitaries and notables, the writer will attempt the difficult task of examining the level of anti-semitism in Sunderland after the newcomers had arrived. To do this one must postulate some degree of prejudice existing at the outset, based on the public’s inherent suspicion of anything different from the norm.

A trawl through the local Sunderland newspapers for 1919, the year of the ‘Race Riots’, which affected nine seaports in England, may assist. Sunderland was not one of the nine, but neighbouring South Shields was such a port. The riots were caused by racial prejudice concerning coloured seamen and were not overtly anti-semitic, but 1919 may still serve as a benchmark because of the high emotions raised at a time of strikes and industrial unrest. Even a negative result of such search could in itself prove significant.

Footnotes    (returns to main text)

  1. That is to say to provide the necessary 10 males over the age of 13 years required to hold religious services.

  2. As evidenced by successive editions of the annual Jewish Year Book, this is a trend common to most provincial Jewish populations with the possible exception of Manchester and Leeds.

  3. Salis Daiches, An Historical Sketch of Jewish Congregations, Antiquities of Sunderland Vol. XV 1914 - 1915, p.82 - Read to the Sunderland Antiquarian Society on 8th December 1914.

  4. Arnold Levy, History of the Sunderland Jewish Community, p.227. Published by Macdonald, London (1950).

  5. G. E. Milburn, Church and Chapel in Sunderland, p.64 (from Occasional Paper, No. 4 1988. Department of geography and History, Sunderland Polytechnic) - refers to the congregation of Israelites as they were apparently known from 1790-1861. The Polish synagogue had merged or disappeared 1851-3 (Levy, History, p.41) so at the time there was only one synagogue until the advent of the Beth Hamedrash, composed of Lithuanian immigrants. The Israelite congregation became known as the Sunderland Hebrew Congregation in 1862 with the opening of the Moor Street synagogue and later moved to Ryhope Road in 1928. Rabbi Susser notes on the Rules and Regulations p.2 established that in 1845 the Adath Yeshuran was a forerunner of the 'Israelites', having the same minister, Jacob Joseph; services being held in his house; and sharing the same Minute Book. Susser concludes clearly...that the two congregations were in fact one and the same; and Vide Levy, History, p.53 and p.145.[Rabbi Susser's Article on the Rules and Regulations have now been published in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society, Vol. 40 (2005), pp.7-73. Webmaster's note.] 

  6. Dr. Davis believes it may be a translation of a Hebrew or Yiddish document.

  7. Entitled Notes on the Sunderland Jewish Community.

  8. Aubrey Newman. Trains and Shelters and Ships. A paper presented to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain in April 2000.

  9. (a) Nicholas E. Evans. A Roof over their Head. the Role of Shelters in Jewish Migration via the United Kingdom, 1850-1914. Avotanu, Vol. XVII, Number 1, 31-33-34 (2001)
    (b) N. E. Evans, Agents of the Oppressed: the Role of Shipping Companies and Emigration Agents , Conference on Jewish Genealogy (8-13 July 2001) Madelyn Cohen Travis (Editor) [the "July 2001 Conference"].

  10. John d. Klier, What Russian Archives tell us about Jewish Names - the July 2001 Conference.

  11. (a) A. Newman, Patterns of Late 19th and Early 20th Century Migration and Transmigration on from Europe. Avotanu, Vol. XVII, Number 3, (Fall 2001)
    (b) A. Newman & S. W. Massil (eds.), Patterns of Migration, Proceedings of the International Academic Conference of the Jewish Historical Society of England and the Institute of Jewish Studies, University College, London (1996) (ISBN 0-902528-31-9).

  12. Previously http://www.rosalynlivshin.com [Site no longer active - Webmaster's note].

  13. Levy died in March 1955, shortly before the publication of the History in 1956. An In Memoriam was added to the beginning of the work, by the Rev, Ephraim Levene at the request of his executors. It is stated therein that Levy was born in Kretinga in April 1886, and 'as a young boy he came with his parents to Sunderland where his youth was spent.'

  14. Haaretz, Jerusalem. In a newspaper article dated 9th February 2001 entitled Shtetl on the River War (that is a warm, close knit small community), refers to one such case concerning Dr. Charles Cohen, whose family preferred an English type of service and education to a Yiddish one.

  15. Reported in the Sunderland Echo, 8th October 1998.


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