Oct 2009 Journal
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The first AJR local groups (Part I)*
The local groups on whose activities we regularly report are one of the jewels in the AJR’s crown. The first of the existing groups was that in Leeds, followed by that in South London, under the genial guidance of the late Ken Ambrose. In the 1990s the groups spread nationwide, thanks to the devoted efforts of the indefatigable Myrna Glass and her counterpart in the North, Susanne Green. They now number over 40.
But the AJR had flourishing local groups as far back as the 1940s, though these are now largely forgotten, to the extent that it is difficult to build up an accurate picture of their activities and membership. In January 1946, AJR Information listed 27 AJR local branches. These were mostly located in sizeable urban centres like Birmingham, Bradford, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Stoke and the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, where refugee academics congregated and which had been centres of wartime evacuation.
Groups were also established in the agreeable resort towns of Bath, Cheltenham and Harrogate, in Bedford, Epsom, Farnham, Guildford, Letchworth and Reading, all within easy reach of London, and in a scattering of places where refugees had settled for personal reasons or to set up businesses, Bishop Auckland, Blackburn, Cirencester, Northampton and Shrewsbury (Corsets Silhouette Ltd, the major manufacturer of women’s undergarments run by Hans Blumenau, was then located in Shrewsbury).
But the coverage was patchy: Edinburgh and Cardiff were not represented and there was not a single group in Wales or the South-West, until the Bath group was extended to cover Bristol and the South-West in April 1946. The group in Epsom probably owed its existence to Rabbi Dr Holzer, who settled locally. Rabbis provided leadership and a focal point, but they were prone to move, leaving the group rudderless; Holzer returned to Germany in 1951. The chairman and treasurer of the Newcastle group were both connected with firms set up by refugees in the North-East, one of the ‘special areas’ designated before the war as eligible for government aid; a number of refugee enterprises took root in the Team Valley industrial estate in Gateshead.
The large and active AJR group in Glasgow occupied a special place among the local organisations. It had been founded shortly before the AJR itself, in late 1940, and could therefore consider itself to that extent an autonomous group equal in status to the London-based association, to which it had affiliated. The Glasgow Society for Jewish Refugees, as it was known, arranged a wide variety of events, acted as a forum for bringing the refugee community together and, with its associate organisation, the Mutual Refugee Aid Society, provided support and assistance for lonely and needy refugees.
Whereas most local groups were dependent on the AJR in London – ‘HQ’, as it liked to style itself, as opposed to ‘the provinces’ - Glasgow, with its substantial refugee population, was able to mount its activities independently. In January 1946, AJR Information reported that speakers sent from London would address meetings in Nottingham, Cambridge and Oxford, but that Glasgow would hold three locally organised events: a Skat tournament, a dance at the Jewish Institute, and a talk on a visit to Holland. The Glasgow group organised its own communal life and contributed significantly to Jewish life in the city.
When a function was held in 1950 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the group, it attracted a remarkable level of support and was attended by no less than 135 people. In his address, Ernst Levy, the Hon. President, paid tribute to his co-founders, Dr H. Hirsekorn (Hirst) and Dr Ehrlich. The Chairman, Dr Leo Loewensohn, recalled the Society’s past achievements and the continuing need for a group ‘where people who shared a common background, fate and hopes’ might meet. In July 1955, Loewensohn reported that the group had a membership of 60-70, was active in the cultural and social fields, held fortnightly meetings with lectures, arranged functions on the Jewish festivals and played an active part in the affairs of Glasgow’s Jewish community.
The standing of the AJR Glasgow group was reflected in the tributes paid to its officers on occasions like their birthdays. In June 1953, AJR Information published an announcement of the 75th birthday of Ernst Levy; in July 1956, it published a tribute by Loewensohn to Curt Rosenberg, the Hon. Treasurer, on his 80th birthday; and, in November 1956, it reported that members of the Society had honoured its Hon. Secretary, Herbert Levy, on his 70th birthday, for his work for it and for the Mutual Refugee Aid Society, whose founder and Hon. President he had been. But the passing of time thinned out the ranks of the founding generation. Already in 1948 Rabbi Curtis E. Cassell had left for London, to serve as minister at West London Synagogue; and in October 1956, the journal reported that Max Doctor, a leading member of the Society and listed as its Hon. Treasurer in 1946, had died in a road accident aged 77.
Herbert Levy left in 1959 for Israel, where he died shortly afterwards. AJR Information of October 1959 contained obituaries for Levy and for Leo Loewensohn, who had been the Society’s chairman for 13 years. Else Rosenberg, Curt Rosenberg’s wife, who had been a member of the council of the Society and President of the Mutual Refugee Aid Society, had died a few months earlier. Finally, Ernst Levy died in 1961, aged 83. In 1962, the Society elected a new committee, with B. N. Bergmann as chairman. Its officers were, compared to the founding generation, relatively unknown; the exception was the historian Werner Mosse, but he left Glasgow for Norwich in 1964, to take up a Chair at the University of East Anglia.
Manchester, which had a Jewish population of over 30,000 in 1950, was home to another thriving AJR group; nearly 200 people attended its General Meeting in March 1946. A feature unique to Manchester was the setting up of the Morris Feinmann Homes, which provided accommodation for elderly and lonely refugees well before similar homes were established in London. The Homes were named after Morris Feinmann, Chairman of the Manchester Jewish Refugees Committee, who had died in North Africa in 1944, on a mission to provide relief for liberated Jews.
An article on the Homes in AJR Information of August 1955, aptly entitled ‘A Focus of Manchester’s AJR’, stated that they were the first venture of their kind in Britain, an achievement all the greater because it had been accomplished by the ‘comparatively small’ refugee community in the city – a revealing comment, since Manchester and Glasgow held the largest concentrations of refugees outside London. The first house, in Amherst Road, had been bought in 1947 and opened in 1948. The second house was given to the trust that administered the Homes through the generosity of Berthold Bochenek, then Chairman of Manchester AJR. It was opened at a ceremony on 15 July 1951, at which Bochenek and L. K. Sonneborn, the Vice-Chairman, spoke; Rabbi Felix Carlebach of South Manchester Synagogue conducted a short service. ‘The Manchester Group deserves every praise for having built up a home where people of our specific background may live in a congenial happy atmosphere’, wrote AJR Information.
But the AJR group in Manchester declined during the 1960s. When Werner Rosenstock, General Secretary of the AJR and Editor of AJR Information, travelled to Manchester in April 1962 to address a gathering of AJR members at Morris Feinmann House, the journal reported that an ‘unexpectedly large number’ of them had come to hear him speak, a comment that reflected less on Rosenstock’s popularity than on the diminishing size of the audiences expected at the group’s meetings. After Bochenek’s death in 1951, the leadership of the Manchester group still included such outstanding figures as Sonneborn, who had been listed as chairman in 1946, Rudolf Friedlaender, a GP in Didsbury who had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the war and then acted as Senior Medical Officer at Morris Feinmann House, and F. H. Kroch, founder of Lankro Chemicals Ltd of Eccles.
The transition from the founding generation was as evident in Manchester as it had been in Glasgow. On 7 December 1961, a farewell dinner was held in honour of Gertrude Blumenbach, the matron of Morris Feinmann House, who was retiring after 13 years of service. She had overseen the moving of 26 residents from the original ‘austerity’ home to new premises in Spath Road in December 1959; AJR Information reported that she had successfully merged those residents with some 20 new arrivals ‘into one large family’. Gertrude Blumenbach herself became a resident at Morris Feinmann House, thus symbolising the passing of the baton to the next generation. As the refugees became increasingly well settled in Britain, they needed the support of the local groups less.
*An article on the smaller AJR groups in other towns and cities will follow in next month’s issue.
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