Interview: reflective piece
Avril Lappin’s Reflections on being interviewed.
I was born in 1948, in the shadow of the 2nd World War. My best friend’s father survived Auschwitz and there were other Holocaust survivors, old men, sitting quietly in Wilson Road Synagogue, who spoke with thick eastern European accents. It is fascinating to look back and see how the world has changed. So has the face of Anglo Jewry. When I was growing up there were many Jewish communities dotted round the UK – in Sunderland, Middlesborough, Darlington, Hull, Nottingham, Leicester, Swansea, Cardiff, Belfast and several more. Now the majority of Jewish people live in only two places, Manchester or N.W. London.
What were these small communities like? How did they function? What kind of lives did the people who lived there have? Of course there are documents and statistics, but what better way to keep the memory of these communities alive than to record an oral history. For this reason I applaud and was delighted to take part in Sheffield University’s History Department project.
Listening to my own testimony again, I realise several things I missed out and I would like to add them here. The Jewish Community in Sheffield when I was growing up was mainly professional middle class, or aspiring middle class, with a number of wealthy businessmen in the mix. I recall a group of boys who were sent away to public school and returned in the school holidays when there were many parties and socials, to the great interest of the girls. (None of the girls went away to school). For me, growing up in the late 50’s and heady 1960s, Sheffield was a wonderful place to be. It was warm and welcoming and safe, yet at the same time outward looking and aspirational. Like me, all my girlfriends left home to go to university, which was remarkable, bearing in mind that in the 60s only 3% of the population went to uni, of which only a small percent were girls.
I note that many interviewees were asked about assimilation, bearing in mind many members of the original community in Sheffield were refugees. Some had fled the pogroms in Russia, like my grandfather, later many Holocaust survivors arrived. The Sheffield I remember was proudly Ango-Jewish. Our parents and grandparents were very grateful to this country that had given them refuge and treasured the freedom it gave them. We had our Orthodox Jewish Synagogue, but mixed comfortably with the wider community. Each year the synagogue hosted “Hospital Sunday” when it honoured the Lord Mayor and civic dignitaries, who all attended a special service and money was collected for local charities.
I realize there are a few characters who loomed large in the community and I should have mentioned them. One was Armin Krausz, a local cutler who owned a cutlery factory and has written his own history of the community in a book called simply “Sheffield Jewry.” I remember him, and his daughter in law and son, Peggy and Neville, a very cultured family, very orthodox, who would hold soirees round the piano in their beautiful home. He was the prime mover behind the establishment of a Hillel House in Sheffield, to give a home to the many Jewish students who came to the university.
Teddy (Edward) Isaacs and his wife were also incredibly supportive of the students. I’m pleased their daughter, Jill Shaw, has been interviewed for your project. I was great friends with her younger sister Liz, who now lives in Israel. I well remember them, every Shabbat after Shull, walking up Eccleshall Road like Pied Pipers, with a trail of students following them to their home for Shabbat lunch. The family were also leading Zionists, passionately supporting the new state and key members of the many Zionist societies in the community.
The other person who should be mentioned is Dr. Friedlander, Head of Jewish Eductaion. He and the Rabbi (Rabbi Chait of blessed memory, who gave his sermons every Shabbat as though he was a Shakespearean actor) often clashed about the way our education should proceed. He had a guttural European accent. I don’t know when he arrived in Sheffield, but I recall a learned, cultured man, who ran the Cheder. He also took the post Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes and I thought his lectures were fascinating.
The other thing I should have mentioned (maybe I did, but the recording I received ends mid sentence) is that the Sheffield community was one of the first in the country to adopt Modern Hebrew for its synagogue services. I recall my parents attending a very lively meeting about this. It was also one of the first Orthodox communities to offer Bat Mitzvah classes the girls. I think I was one of the first group. A specially written service was held on our graduation (there were about nine of us) on a Sunday afternoon in Wilson Road Shull, followed by a sedate afternoon tea! (Unlike the big parties often held these days.)
When the recording of my testimony suddenly stops I was talking about anti-Semitism, or rather the absence of it in my own experience growing up. The point of my story about not going into Christian assembly because my parents wouldn’t let me, was that each child in the school was asked to take a turn to give a reading, and when my parents didn’t want me to play Mary in the school nativity, the headmistress sent them a letter asking if I could read out the 23rd Psalm, as they really wanted to include me. (Which I duly did.) I was the only Jewish girl in the school and I think that sums up the thoughtfulness with which the school treated me.
Listening to the other testimonies has been fascinating, like watching a series of snapshots, each enriching in different ways. There are several testimonies from people older than me, whose memories are different from mine, other testimonies re-enforce my own memories in perhaps different ways. None of us can foresee the future, but it would be a tragedy if we lost sight of the past and it is so important to remember the numerous, small, vibrant Jewish communities like Sheffield that have existed in the UK. I think it is wonderful that the History Department of Sheffield University is making this oral history. I must add that the two students who came to interview me were delightful – intelligent, interested and engaged – and I enjoyed the time reminiscing. I am glad the interviews will be archived and available for future generations, and I was very pleased to take part.
Interviewers: William Morley, Johnny Davies and Molly Hayde