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Lives Behind the Stones – Preserving the Past for the Future (A Heritage Lottery Funded Project)
Guest blog post by Rosalind Adam.
Rosalind Adam is a writer and workshop leader with a particular interest in therapeutic writing. She has a history degree and was a teacher for many years. Her publications include: A Children’s History of Leicester, Hometown World Publishers (May 2011) and The Children’s Book of Richard III, The Reading Shop Oadby (July 2014). She has managed two Heritage Lottery funded projects: “Jewish Voices – Memories of Leicester in the 1940s and 50s”, 2008/9 (link for website) and “The Lives Behind the Stones”, 2013/14 (link for website). Rosalind can be contacted via her blog at http://rosalindadam.blogspot.co.uk
The story of our year’s work on ‘The Lives Behind the Stones’ clearly illustrates how exciting this Heritage Lottery funded project has been. It started out as a plan to catalogue Leicester’s Orthodox Jewish cemetery and turned into a major study of the cemetery, including the creation of a comprehensive website providing full search facilities and many researched stories about members of the community and the history of its growth. The description of the work undertaken during this project is easily written here, but each task represents days, weeks and even months of tortuous researching, checking and rechecking.
With a team of six, plus 37 volunteers, the work has been constant and varied. It began with the realization that there was no correct list of burials at the site, especially those from the early 20th century. The first burial took place in 1902 but most of the families were immigrants, many coming from areas in and around the Pale of Settlement. They would have been Yiddish speakers and this is reflected in the inaccuracies encountered in the handwritten records at the city’s cemeteries office. The workers at the Corporation of Leicester no doubt struggled to understand the broken English of the immigrant families.
The most useful next step was to photograph each headstone and use the information on the headstone as the accurate provider of data but this was hampered by the fact that there were many unmarked graves. Part of the project plan was to fix small plaques onto each unmarked plot and so, to verify the details about each of these plots, it was necessary to research using the limited information available from the written records. This alone took many months but we now have, as far as can be verified, accurate records for each of the almost 1,000 plots at the cemetery.
As with many old graveyards, the early section of Leicester’s Orthodox cemetery had fallen into disrepair. This had been the main impetus for us to carry out the project. We couldn’t allow the stones, and indeed the lives behind those stones, to be lost forever. It has not been possible to repair each stone but, as well as recording all the inscriptions, we have been able to make the cemetery more easily navigable. Row markers have been replaced. Broken kerbstones and other trip hazards have been cleared away. There are now three large information boards at the site; one is a map of all the sections and the other two contain the plot locations of every grave in the cemetery.
Recording all the basic data onto a database in order to inform the search facility on our website was one of the biggest challenges, not only because of the sheer volume of potential data available, but also because everything had to be researched and verified. Some records contain more data than others but all records now have at least some basic information programmed in so that the website is available for genealogical research. The website is still being added to as and when additional data becomes available and new burials will be recorded.
While the website manager was responsible for creating the website and database, it was my job, as project coordinator, to design the pages and produce the text. The most rewarding task for me was to write up the in-depth stories. We have seventeen stories so far and hope to add to this list over time. The stories have been researched by volunteers working alongside members of the project team. The local records office provided much needed training and support as many of the volunteers were unfamiliar with family research or using record office facilities.
Delving into the lives of families over the last century and recording their contributions to the city and community, has been a fascination and a privilege for me. Some arrived in Leicester at the end of complicated and dangerous journeys in their struggle to avoid antisemitic persecutions and we have been able to illustrate their travels with photographs kindly donated by their descendants. Some were inventors and, thanks to the records kept at the National Archives, we have been able to reproduce sections from their original patent applications. Each life had a contribution to make. We have written about active members of the synagogue, about tailors, market traders, in fact a complete cross-section of society covering over a hundred years of life and death in Leicester’s Jewish community.
The website includes additional material. There are suggestions for ways in which Key Stage 2 teachers could use the vast amount of data which is available there. We have explained how the project was carried out during the year illustrated with photographs where possible. We have written about the cemetery’s history but, most importantly, we now have a complete and searchable record of all the people buried at Leicester’s Orthodox cemetery. This is to be a permanent online facility. We hope that it will also be used as a template for other communities who are concerned about preserving their past for the future.
The website can be found at http://jewish-gilroes.org.uk
Oral testimony can provide history with a more human face by giving neglected voices an important role in the narrative construction. For the greater part histories have been crafted using the types of documentary evidence that were created by the accepted social, cultural and political elites. Oral history projects can provide an essential counter-balance to these existing skewed narratives. The Rainbow Jews Oral History Project – which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, hosted by Liberal Judaism, and managed by Surat Knan – is one such enterprise.
The Rainbow Jews Project is important in a number of key respects. I will focus here on just two that most closely tie in with my personal research interests. One of my key research interests is Anglo-Jewish history. As Geoffrey Alderman, Anglo-Jewish historian and commentator for the Jewish Chronicle, has noted in his introduction to New Directions in Anglo-Jewish History (an excellent volume of essays by new scholars in the field): “The past two decades have witnessed a remarkable renaissance in the academic study of the history of the Jews in Great Britain and of their impact upon British history” . Commenting on New Directions in Anglo-Jewish History, David Cesarani, Research Professor in History at Royal Holloway College, refers to “the advance guard of the second wave of scholarly research into the Jewish experience in Britain.” Also commenting on New Directions, Tony Kushner, Professor of the History of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton (and director of the Parkes Institute), similarly refers to “the coming of age of the study of Anglo-Jewry, a subject matter until recently sadly ignored in British as well as Jewish historiography” . And yet, whilst broadening the field of Anglo-Jewish history beyond the “sanitised narrative” of a not so “homogenous community,” none of the essays in the volume – or in any other academic study that I am aware of – addresses the historiography of British LGBT Jews and their impact upon British and Jewish history . Fortunately, the Rainbow Jews Project will provide a partial remedy to this lacuna.
My other key research interest is aimed at understanding how stereotypes, caricatures and myths about certain groups of people have been constructed and used to marginalise and vilify. To date I have focused on the history of anti-Jewish and anti-Masonic stereotypes and myths (for example, the myth of the so-called Jewish-Freemason conspiracy). I believe such studies are important. However, whilst there are studies of anti-Jewish, anti-Masonic, anti-Romani and anti-LGBT prejudices, as far as I am aware very little has been written about how LGBT Jews have been portrayed. The oral testimony collected as part of the Rainbow Jews project can help address this lacuna as the interviewees discuss their perceptions, memories and life experiences. Sadly, in some cases the remembered prejudices were from other Jews.
Whilst I am not a part of Liberal Judaism or the LGBT community, I feel privileged to have been given an opportunity to participate in this project by helping, as one of several volunteers, to transcribe and summarise some of the collected interviews (link to RJ life stories). These will be incorporated into the Rainbow Jews Archive which will record all aspects of LGBT Jewish history from the 1950s to the present (including interviews, photographs, letters, digital materials, diaries, memorabilia items, and other forms of material culture). The Rainbow Jews Exhibition will be launched on the 6th February 2014, accompanied by a film premier, at the LSE Atrium Gallery. For more information about the exhibition launch and events, see http://www.rainbowjews.com/rainbow-exhibition-launch/ & https://www.facebook.com/RainbowJews
As Professor Kushner has rightly observed about Anglo-Jewish LGBT history, “there is still a rich inner history to be discovered and also a wider history of the intersection of sexuality, ‘race’ and religion that would be exposed if such a history was constructed” . For this and other reasons, the Rainbow Jews project is important. For information about getting involved in the Rainbow Jews project, see http://www.rainbowjews.com/get-involved/
Notes for Unexplored Directions in Anglo-Jewish History: The Rainbow Jews Project
 Geoffrey Alderman, “Introduction,” New Directions in Anglo-Jewish History (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010), vii. For a review of this volume, see Simon Mayers, review of New Directions in Anglo-Jewish History by Geoffrey Alderman (ed.), Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 12, no. 3 (2013) [link].
 Comments on New Directions in Anglo-Jewish History by David Cesarani and Tony Kushner, back cover of Geoffrey Alderman, ed., New Directions in Anglo-Jewish History (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010).
 Tony Kushner, “Towards a Gay Anglo-Jewish History?”, notes for paper delivered at the LGBT History Workshop (University of Southampton, February 2013). My thanks to Professor Kushner for providing me with these notes and giving me permission to cite them.
G. K. Chesterton and the Anglo-Jewish Newspapers (the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish World and Jewish Guardian): 1918-1921
One argument that is often advanced against the claim that G. K. Chesterton was antisemitic is that some Jews have defended him from the charge. This is true. Michael Coren, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, is just one recent example. No doubt there were other Jewish fans of Chesterton then as there are now. Laurence Solomon, one of Chesterton’s friends, no doubt defended him from the charge. It would be interesting to know how he perceived and reacted to Chesterton’s caricatures and stereotypes. As Richard Ingrams recently asked in the Tablet, did Chesterton really believe that his Jewish friends would be okay with being “forced to wear an Arab-style headdress in public” and being forced to “live in a ghetto?”  Did these ideas irritate his Jewish friends Did they simply ignore them? Did they find them amusing? In most cases there is no way to know. The author Gladys Bronwyn Stern, another Jewish convert to Catholicism, regarded Chesterton as a saint. As early as the 1950s she wrote that she would “offer no apology for the habit which has gradually stolen in on me, of regarding two close friends whom I have never met, G. K. Chesterton and Baron von Hügel, as undoubtedly saints” .
However, the fact that some Jews have defended Chesterton as a saint, though true, is a questionable defence. As Joseph Pearce, one of Chesterton’s most fervent defenders, has noted, “it is true that the adage ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ is not, in itself, an adequate defence against the charge of anti-Semitism” . Whilst some Jews have defended Chesterton, a number of his Anglo-Jewish contemporaries regarded him as an antisemite. The Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill has been cited in Chesterton’s defence on a number of occasions. It is often claimed that they were close friends. It took some digging but I did in fact find a couple of letters that suggest that prior to 1916 some sort of amicable relationship may have existed between the two authors. However, from 1916 onwards, Zangwill argued that Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton were antisemitic on a number of occasions. For more on this, see the claim that Chesterton and the Anglo Jewish author Israel Zangwill were friends.
The three prominent Anglo-Jewish newspapers during Chesterton’s lifetime, the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish World and Jewish Guardian, were all critical of Chesterton’s antisemitic discourse. In June 1918, the Jewish Chronicle criticised G. K. Chesterton for his accusation that the Jews carelessly trampled people underfoot as they rushed to the tube stations during air raids. The paper stated that “we cannot congratulate Mr. G. K. Chesterton on the reply he makes to the Jewish World on the questions that journal addressed to him. Mr. Chesterton’s paper, the New Witness, referring to the last air raid, asserted that while the attack was dealt with in a highly satisfactory way ‘the conduct of Jews of all classes during these raids continues deplorable in the extreme.’” The Jewish Chronicle observed that based on a “hotch-potch” of so-called evidence from “a lady sub-editor [i.e. Ada Chesterton], her maid, and unknown chatterers at Euston, Jews of all classes … are accused of deplorable cowardice and bad conduct in the extreme.” It stated that this was “a cruel and reckless libel upon a Community which has sent its sons by the thousand to the Front, and is every day called upon to suffer new pangs and fresh bereavements.” The Jewish Chronicle reported that Mr. Chesterton argued that it was more important to understand the cause of these Jewish rushes than to deny “so vast a popular impression as that of the different attitude of Jews and Gentiles towards the War.” “The spectacle of Mr. G. K. Chesterton bidding us bow down before a ‘vast popular impression,’” was, the paper concluded, “deliciously funny” . When quizzed by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle as to whether he himself had witnessed Jews cowering in tube stations, Chesterton admitted that he had not personally witnessed this, but he argued that it was a matter of common knowledge. He stated that “the problem of aliens in air-raids is a thing that everybody knows.” He also argued that he could not be expected to go looking “for Jews in the Tubes, instead of going about my business above ground.” He concluded be stating that: “if my London affairs had led me, as well as my colleagues, into the Tubes during an air-raid, I suppose I should have seen what they saw; and the editor [of the Jewish Chronicle] would have refused my testimony as he refused theirs.” .
Referring to “Mr. G. K. Chesterton” in an article on 11 October 1918, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle concluded that: “The argument against active self-defence, the surest of which, is counter-attack, is the well-known one – suppose our counter-attack fails? But that is, in essence, cowardice. This way lies disintegration and defeat. This way lies biting the dust of our eternal heritage. It were far better to fail in a counter-attack against the enemies of our people; it were far better to fail in active self-defence than not to try. It were far better to fall than to allow the ruthless, venomous Chestertons and Bellocs et hoc genus to trample upon our prostrate bodies with their brutal, heavy-footed, relentless anti-Semitism. Hit back! Hit back! Hit back! is the lesson for us, to be learnt by us from the ages through which we have lived” .
The Jewish World also criticised G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. For example, a series of articles from 23 June through to 22 September 1920, criticised Chesterton for suggesting that the Anglo-Jewish newspapers published the honour rolls of German-Jewish soldiers killed in the war, with the added twist being that Chesterton claimed that this was by no means unreasonable as Jewry constituted a separate and distinct nation . “Mr. Chesterton,” the Jewish World concluded, “now pretends that he does not see why we are so anxious to repudiate his allegation. That is really touching. He starts out to show that English Jews are not loyal to this country though they are its citizens, and then expresses surprise that we desired to repel the insinuation by showing that the proof he relies upon is false” .
For more examples from the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish World, I would recommend an article by Dean Rapp, “the Jewish Response to G. K. Chesterton’s Antisemitism, 1911-33,” published in Patterns of Prejudice .
Chesterton’s The New Jerusalem, published in 1920, argued that Jews could never be proper Englishmen. Chesterton suggested that Zionism was a good idea and that Jews who choose to remain in England rather than travel to Palestine should be given a “special position best described as privilege; some sort of self-governing enclave with special laws and exemptions.” They should also, he suggested, be obliged to go about swathed in the robes of an Arab . The Jewish Guardian responded by stating that Chesterton had contrived to “write a really stupid book.” The paper suggested that Chesterton would probably “account it a sign of inherited financial preoccupation if one poor Jewish bookman remarks that 12s. 6d. is a high price to exact for 300 empty pages” . On 11 November 1921, the Jewish Guardian reported a lecture by Chesterton to a Jewish organisation called the “Ghetto Circle.” The paper suggested that Chesterton proposed to discuss “national traditions in Europe,” whilst the Ghetto Circle “no doubt would discuss whether he was an anti-Semite.” The Jewish Guardian concluded that this “seemed a very fair division of labour” .
In conclusion, the fact that some Jews have defended Chesterton as a saint does not prove that he was not an antisemite; and in fairness, the fact that some Jews have argued that he was an antisemite does not by itself prove that he was. The case must be decided on the basis of the evidence (i.e. what he wrote as a journalist and author) and not the claim that some Jews have defended him, or the myth that the Wiener Library defends him.
Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Anglo-Jewish Newspapers
1. Richard Ingrams, “More sinner than saint,” Tablet, 12 October 2013, 9.
2. G. B. Stern, The way it worked out (London: Catholic Book Club, ), 106. See also G. B. Stern, All in Good Time (London: Sheed and Ward, ), 63.
3. Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), 448.
4. “A Reckless Charge,” Jewish Chronicle, 14 June 1918, 4.
5. G. K. Chesterton, At the Sign of the World’s End, New Witness, 21 June 1918, 148.
6. Leopold Greenberg [Mentor, pseud.], “Hit Back! Hit Back! Hit Back!,” In the Communal Armchair, Jewish Chronicle, 11 October 1918, 7.
7. See Jewish World: “Englishman and Jew” and “An Astounding Statement,” 23 June 1920, 3-4; “Mr. Belloc and the ‘Jewish World,’” 14 July 1920, 2-3; “Now then, Mr. Chesterton!,” 21 July 1920, 3; “Our Challenge to the ‘New Witness,” 28 July 1920, 3; “The Witness,” 18 August 1920, 3; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 25 August 1920, 2; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 1 September 1920, 2; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 8 September 1920, 8-9; “Mr. Chesterton’s ‘Roll,’” 22 September 1920, 2.
8. “Why?,” Around the World, Jewish World, 22 September 1920, 2.
9. Dean Rapp, “The Jewish Response to G. K. Chesterton’s Antisemitism, 1911-33,” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 24, nos. 2-4, 1990.
10. G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, ), 227, 248.
11. “‘G.K.C.’ in Jerusalem,” Jewish Guardian, 3 December 1920, 7.
12. “Mr. G. K. Chesterton at the Ghetto Circle,” Jewish Guardian, 11 November 1921, 4.