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Jewish community share memories from 1940s and 1950s

Mathilda Applebaum remembers working in the gardens of a Christian school

By Becca Bryers
BBC Leicester

During World War II the Jewish community in Leicester grew with an influx of refugees from Central Europe and evacuees from London.

The new groups soon outnumbered the existing congregation, resulting in both tensions and a much stronger sense of Jewish identity.

Seventy voices from the community have now joined together to share memories of 1940s and 1950s Leicester.

BBC Leicester spoke to some of the women involved in the project.

Rosa Lebens

Rosa Lebens moved to Leicester in 1946 to join her dentist husband's family in Leicester.

"My mother thought he was quite up the pole not to want to stay in London, she couldn't understand anyone not wanting to be in London."

Rosa Lebens in uniform
Londoner Rosa Lebens settled in Leicester with her family in 1946

She says World War II changed everything, so although Leicester was a change of culture, London was not the same place either; "life was different".

On arriving in Leicester, Rosa immediately became involved in the Jewish community, joining a women's Zionist group of which she is still a member.

It was not only her Jewish neighbours that welcomed the family into Leicester life; Rosa has always been involved with the wider city community and has sat on a number of non-Jewish committees as well.

"You have to join in, you're part of the town you live in, the city you live in and you've got to take part."

Rosa has always found it difficult to buy appropriate food in Leicester. When she first arrived she remembers visiting a Jewish shop, but now their are no such delicatessens. Instead she is forced to order in advance from Birmingham.

"You can't suddenly run out of something that you need for dinner tomorrow night; that is frustrating.

"I think in all the provincial towns now it's the same because the cities are dwindling, the congregations - like here we're losing people all the time."

Despite this annoyance, Rosa is very happy that she settled in Leicester and is part of the community here.

"It's an outstanding congregation. It's one big family. People gather round you at sad times and in joyful times. People are here for you and I think it's a wonderful place."

Katherine May

Katherine May was a Londoner who followed members of her mother's family when they moved their gown manufacturing business to Leicester.

She met her husband, a Leicester lad, at the end of the war after he fell in love with a photograph of her.

Wedding rings

"He was in the army, he was abroad, and he was my cousin's best friend.

"When he came home, on the mantelpiece at my aunt's house she'd got a photograph of me and he fell in love with the photograph. Really, this is the honest truth.

"And he couldn't wait to meet me, and he never waited, and we were married about 18 months later."

The strong base of family in the city meant that Katherine felt immediately at home.

"That's something about Jewish communities, they really are very welcoming.

"Having family here they'd already made goodness knows how many friends; in fact, my father-in-law was president of the synagogue at one stage."

She has been heavily involved in a number of social activities, and now shares with her husband as many non-Jewish friends as Jewish.

A stint as chairman of WIZO, a women's Zionist organisation, never caused any tensions for her in the wider city community, "You don't walk around and say I support Israel or anything like that."

Katherine's husband became heavily involved with the University of Leicester's medical school in the 1980s, and the couple now have a lecture theatre dedicated to them.

Stella Louis

Stella Louis moved to Leicester as a nine-year-old in 1937, following her father who settled in the city for work.

"The Jewish community was part of my life, we had all the religious festivals and I went to the synagogue mostly on a Saturday morning when I was young, but my social life was a mixture."

Stella and Geoffrey Louis on their wedding day in 1950

She fondly remembers picnics, country rambles and visiting the city's many cinemas.

Stella also became heavily involved in the Jewish youth group, Maccabi, which was based in a house close to the synagogue.

Later in life she was twice the club chairperson and, like many club members, met her husband there.

"We actually gradually began to spend time together because nobody wanted to work in the kitchen and we used to end up making the tea in the kitchen, clearing up afterward and washing up, and then he brought me home.

"A lot of people met each other through the Maccabi club. There were a lot of matches, because we were thrown together."

She believes it was important that she married a Jewish man and is happy that her children followed the same path.

"I am a firm believer that couples that are brought up with the same sort of values in life, are more likely to be happy together and stay together. They have that bond that holds them together, that's how I feel."

When Stella's family first arrived they found a small Jewish community of around 60 families, but this quickly grew during World War II as people fled the bombing in London.

"Then gradually after the war some people stayed, some people left, and now the children all go away to university they don't stay. People sort of worked in Leicester or went into family shops or businesses, but now they don't."

Stella has four children, none of whom have stayed in Leicester. She now worries about the Jewish future in the city, "It is a dying community. We're struggling now."

Jewish Voices

'Jewish Voices' is a project that has collected together the memories of 70 people who were members of Leicester's Jewish community in the 1940s and 1950s.

Miriam Halahmy, Rosalind Adam, Rosa Lebens
Memories workshop: Miriam Halahmy, Rosalind Adam, Rosa Lebens

The contributions of thoughts and photographs have been transformed into a book and exhibition, with help from Writing School Leicester and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Rosalind Adam is the lead facilitator of the book, which took a year to complete.

"My mum was one of the ones who came during the war from the East end of London, so she was an evacuee and my dad.

"I didn't think there was anything that I didn't know, but I learnt a lot about the trauma and the times during the war, and it was fascinating."

You can see the 'Jewish Voices' exhibition and pick up a copy of the book, in BBC Leicester's Open Centre, 9 St. Nicholas Place, until Thursday 17 December 2009.

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