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24 September 2014

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Celebrating Liverpool’s Jewish History

By Lisa Dawson
As Liverpool finishes celebrating Jewish New Year, two history enthusiasts are working on a project to highlight the story of Jewish immigration to Liverpool, and the community’s role in creating the successful city we know today.

Although the majority of Jews arrived in Liverpool around 1900 to escape the Pogroms and persecution in places such as Russia and Poland, the Jewish community in Liverpool stretches way back to the 1700s. One of the most apparent things that Film Maker Micheal Swerdlow and brother in law and historian Arnold Lewis became aware of when they began researching for the project they’ve named ‘Chicken Soup and Scouse’, was the level of acceptance the people of Liverpool had for the new settlers, welcoming them into the city with same Liverpool hospitality that we still see from people in the city today.

The Jewish Community has helped to shape the future of Liverpool, and played a large part in its success building libraries and businesses, taking several of the Lord Mayor positions throughout the years - and even helping to develop Liverpool’s renowned musical heritage with Brian Epstein managing the Beatles amongst others!

We asked Micheal Swerdlow and fellow researcher and co-writer Arnold Lewis about the inspiration for the work, and its importance today:

Michael Swerdlow: “It all started when a friend of mine showed me a brochure from a Jewish fund raising exhibition at St Georges Hall dated 1938, it was just before the war and to think that only a matter of days or months afterwards over in Germany Jewish people were being rounded up and carted away, synagogues being burnt yet in Liverpool the Jewish community had the freedom and security to publicise what they were doing at St Georges Hall!

"We interviewed one man who remembers when the trans-migrants came from Russia ready to go, they would come and do street entertainment..."
Arnold Lewis, Chairman of the Liverpool Jewish Historical Society

“When I started researching it I found that the Jewish community goes much further back than the beginning of the 1900s, there is a misconception that the Jewish people only arrived in Liverpool round about 1900 when there were Pogroms in Russia and Poland and thousands of them decided to emigrate to America. That’s when the majority of Jewish families settled in Liverpool, they had to go through the UK and the boats brought them over, they came through by train to Liverpool with the plan to get on the boat to America and although a lot of them actually did go to America, hundreds of them decided to stay in Liverpool! Because they arrived by train, immediately behind Lime Street Station was the neighbourhood where they decide to settle, in the Brownlow Hill, Coppras Hill, Pembroke Place, Crown Street area.”

Arnold Lewis, Chairman of the Liverpool Jewish Historical Society: “The Jewish Community in Liverpool goes right back to the early 1700s, in fact the earliest Synagogue was a little house in Cumberland and Stanley street round about the 1740 or 1750s. They were a mixture of hawkers and peddlers, but then there came quite established people, they were merchants who came from Hamburg or came from London and who saw great opportunities as Liverpool seaport was expanding and they contributed very extensively to the well being and wealth of Liverpool.”

What made the Jewish Settlers in Liverpool so important to the city?

Michael Swerdlow: “I think it’s because the families that came over were fairly poor, they couldn’t speak English, and the first thing they realised was that they had the opportunity to send their children who were born in Russia, to schools. So this generation became very educated, and they became doctors, lawyers, solicitors, architects, businessmen, and they did very well and they thrived.

There’s something in the makeup of Jewish people that they believe that if the city that they’ve lived in and thrived in has been good to them they want to give something back to that city, so Jewish people gave back by taking part in local politics, for example we’ve had seven Lord Mayor’s from the Jewish community in Liverpool, many benefactors for example the Lewis family which goes back well before the 1900s, they were the founders of the Lewis’ store and are a family that has given back a lot to the city.

Every university student who has studied in Liverpool will know the Harold Cohen library - well that was the Lewis and Cohen family who donated money for institutions to be built. In entertainment - Frankie Vaughan is synonymous with Liverpool and the Jewish community, the Beatles I think will always owe a lot of their success to having a Jewish manager Brian Epstein who was from a Jewish business family in Liverpool.

What type of stories have you been getting from the people you’ve been talking to?

Micheal Swerdlow: “We felt that it was best to interview elderly people, people who were 70, 80 - we’ve even interviewed some 90 year olds, and the very first question we asked people was ‘can you remember your grandparents?’ Because if a 90 year old can remember their grandparents you’re going back quite a long time! We’ve got around 15 hours of interviews from elderly members of the Jewish community giving us their anecdotes of what it was like living in the city before the war, what their grandparents did, why their grandparents came over, how they settled, what they can remember of family life, cultural life, social life and we’ve got some very interesting material from those interviews! Sadly quite a few of the people we’ve interviewed have now died, so it makes their testimonies very important, to have them documented.”

Inside Princes Road Synagogue
Princes Road Synagogue

Arnold Lewis: “We interviewed one man who remembers when the trans-migrants came from Russia ready to go, they weren’t staying in Liverpool so they were put up in lodgings over night near the Oceanic Hotel and places like that by the shipping companies while they had to wait for the ship going off to the States. He recalls going down there when he was a young kid, and they would come and do street entertainment while they were waiting for the ship to take them to America, they would play the accordions which they managed to bring with them, and he used to delight in it and remembers very clearly the atmosphere that they produced during the very little time they spent in Liverpool, just in the two or three days before they were shipped on elsewhere.”

Liverpool opened its arms to the new settlers…

Arnold Lewis: “What’s remarkable is the social acceptance of Jews, there was very little anti-Semitism, in fact John Wesley the Methodist preacher mentioned in his diaries how well the townspeople of Liverpool get on with the Jewish community, although it was only a small community then.

“There was an interesting established community even before the major immigration from the pogroms going back to the 1740s, who had produced some very interesting characters, including the Quack doctor, Dr Samuel Solomon who became exceeding rich from his sale of the very cleverly named tonic called ‘The Balm of Gilead’ with it’s biblical overtones, and there were all sorts of other interesting characters like that.

“Another indication of the social acceptance of Jews in Liverpool is that well before they were allowed to stand for parliament or municipal officers they were accepted to become members of the Athenaeum, a very high cultural society, and that I think is an indication of the city’s cosmopolitan tolerance, that Jewish communities and I’m sure other communities have been more welcome here than other locations you can think of in England and elsewhere.”

Why is learning about the Jewish History going to interest people in Liverpool today?

Arnold Lewis: “I would say in a sense the story of the Jewish Community in Liverpool is a model for other immigrant communities, the willingness of the Jewish community to integrate and still retain their identity in a very acceptable fashion, and contribute back once they have been integrated, is a model for other immigrant communities, because we are now undergoing in this country a major influx of immigrants and there are lessons that can be drawn if people want to draw them, from the experience of the way the Liverpool Jewish communities have re-integrated in Liverpool.”


Once the project has been completed a DVD will be available of the history of Liverpool’s Jewish Community from Libraries and similar channels from around March 2006.

last updated: 14/10/05
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Do you have stories from when your grandparents came to England? Give us you're views:
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sylvia barnard formerly fishgold
my grandfather was an immigrant from Russia who came to Liverpool in the last decade of the 19th century His name was Sprintz and was a hebrew teacher using his basement kitchen in elizabeth street I recall him telling the story of a shabby little boy who begged to learn about his jewish roots because his mother was christian and had not instructed him my grandfather found him to be a keen student and his name was sydney silverman Many years later my brother a london cabbie took him regularly from westminster to his home and in conversation was able to verify that this great man was in fact the shabby boy who had learned from our grandfather and he remembered him fondly, i was born and bought up in liverpool in the twenties and have incredible memories of the warmth of the jewish community of those days I even remember twin boys from my time at school named swerdlow and I believe one was called Peter I'm assuming that you are related and hope your family enjoyed good lives yours sincerely sylvia barnard

alfie swain
Not a story but a question. Are you aware of the Jewish cemetery in the Stalmine Road area near to Walton Hospital, and what is its origin, given that there doesn't appear to be much evidence of a Jewish community in that area ?

I think it's important to appreciate Liverpool's diversity - there are different cultures in this city and it's brillaint that they were welcomed all that time ago.

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