GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE
Scottish Jewish Archives Centre Director Harvey Kaplan talks to Jon Bauckham about a document which reveals the story of a Jewish immigrant in Glasgow during the First World War
From the Huguenots to the Caribbean migrants on board Empire Windrush, thousands of people throughout history have arrived in Britain to embark on new lives. However, sometimes perceptions of ‘otherness’ when faced with immigrant populations has led to suspicion and outright hostility – particularly during the First World War.
This month, Harvey Kaplan from the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre tells us about the plight of Glasgow’s Jewish community during the conflict, and shares a fascinating ‘gem’ that can help put these experiences into context.
Which document have you chosen?
I have chosen Elkie Taylor’s Declaration of Nationality certificate from Glasgow in 1916, which is held here at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre.
During the First World War, there may have been about 13,000 Jews in Scotland, many of whom were recent immigrants from the Russian Empire. The majority were not naturalised, yet foreign-born Jews were anxious to show that they were loyal to their adopted country and many served in the forces.
At least 2,000 documents were issued by the newly-formed Glasgow Jewish Representative Council (established in 1914), City of Glasgow Police and the Imperial Russian ViceConsulate in Glasgow to non-naturalised Jews which stated that they were from a friendly country (Russia), rather than enemy Germany or Archive-Austria-Hungary. The Centre has a small collection of these certificates.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
Many Jewish immigrants had surnames that sounded at best foreign and at worst German or Austrian (indeed, the British royal family at that time felt the need to change their name from Saxe- Coburg to Windsor). There was a real fear that a foreign-sounding name or accent could lead to trouble.
The Dundee Courier in 1914 carried the story ‘German Jew Derides British Navy’ about Simon Harris, a Jewish fish merchant in Leven, Fife, who was the subject of a riot on suspicion of having pro- German sympathies, had his shop destroyed and was effectively run out of town.
Elkie is listed on this document as Taylor, but the original family name was Schneider (German and Yiddish for tailor – a common Jewish immigrant occupation). She is shown as living in South Wellington Street in Glasgow’s Gorbals district, where there was a thriving Jewish community at that time, with synagogues, religion schools, welfare and social organisations and kosher butchers, bakers and grocers.
Elkie was born about 1839, so in 1916 was about 76 – old for the time (she lived to be 100) – and matriarch of a large family who had arrived in Scotland about 1904.
Her great grandson Milton Taylor writes: “I remember her as a very old lady who only spoke Yiddish... She always sat in the same corner of the house in Battlefield with a large cane...” In the photograph, she wears the traditional ‘sheitel’ or wig as a pious Orthodox Jewish widow.
Scottish censuses often list Jewish immigrants as having been born in ‘Russia’ or ‘Poland’ and only rarely state a specific city, town or village. For the minority who were naturalised (mostly men), the file in The National Archives will give the exact place of birth. Where immigrant Jews had children born in Scotland, their birth certificates would show the date and place of the parents’ marriage, e.g. Kiev or Warsaw.
Documents such as this Declaration are useful pointers to immigrant origins. We learn that Elkie was born in ‘Zager’ in the province of Kovno. This is the town of Zagare in the then Russian province of Lithuania centred around present-day Kaunas. By the end of the 19th century, almost 5,500 Jews formed 60 per cent of the town’s population. The surviving Jews of Zagare were murdered by the Lithuanians and the Germans in 1941.
Elkie marked the document with a cross and this was witnessed instead of a signature. Although she could not sign her
name in English,g she would have been by no means ‘ illiterate’ and would have been able to read and write in Yiddish and Hebrew, as well as perhaps also knowing some Russian.
Why did you choose this document?
This document tells us much about the life and experience of Jewish immigrants to Scotland. Elkie was typical, but must have made the arduous journey from Lithuania to Scotland at an advanced age in order to be with her children and many grandchildren who were making a new life here.
Many of our archives focus mainly on the experience of men in the community, so it is nice to highlight a female example.
I also like the fact that Elkie’s great grandson has given us the story of his family’s immigration to Scotland and gives us his memory of this lady.
Tell us more about the collections at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre...
Founded in 1987 and based in GarnethillG Sy ynagogue in GlasgowG ( Scotland’s ol ldest), the Scottish Je ewish Archives CentreC aims to do ocument and ill lustrate the religious, or rganisational, social, ec onomic, political, cu ultural and family life off Jews in Scotland sin nce the 18th century.
It provides a res search facility as well as aan educational res ource for the Jewish, and d also the wider com mmunity, in order to hei ghten awareness of the Jewish heritage in Sco otland and to stim mulate study of the hist tory of the Jews in this s country.
TheT Centre collects a wid e range of material, and its large collection inclu udes old synagogue min ute books and regis sters, membership lists, , photographs, oral histo ory recordings, annu ual reports of many comm munal organisations, a libr rary, friendly socie ty regalia, personal paper rs, war medals, ceremonialcerem keys, newspapers, magazines, trophies, plaques, paintings and sculptures.
Future plans include the creation of a Scottish Holocaustera Study Centre as an adjunct of the Archives Centre to maximise access to its fastgrowing collections relating to refugees in Scotland in the 1930s and 1940s.