Monthly Archives: September 2013

Why did Lithuanian Jews come to Ireland when the Irish were going to America?

I am old enough to remember Danker’s antique shop on Clanbrassil Street as I often cycled from my home in Clontarf to my grandparent’s house in Kimmage.  I had little reason to stray into the streets behind it, which along with the South Circular Road and environs formed the hub of Dublin’s Jewish community of which Danker’s was a part.  As I passed through Harold’s Cross and Terenure, I was unknowingly tracing the migration of those Jews to leafier suburbs as they prospered and gentrified.  I had heard of the Briscoes and of course Leopold Bloom (who ‘lived’ in Number 52 Clanbrassil Street) but knew little else of the Jews of Dublin.  Where did they come from?

The number of Jews in Ireland historically was very small indeed: Some traces of Sephardic Jews after their 15th century expulsion from Spain and Portugal, Jews from Holland and of course a number of Anglo-Jews.  Portuguese Jews established the first Synagogue in Dublin in 1660.  Taken together, Jews in Ireland up to the mid-19th century never comprised more than a few hundred.  It was only in the 1880s that the Jewish population in Ireland suddenly began to grow, hitting four digits and eventually about 5,000 by the 1930s on the island as a whole.

The following traces the background to Jewish emigration to Ireland and draws some comparisons and contrasts with Irish emigration in the same period. It is based mainly on Ó Cormac Gráda’s scholarly and charming Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce (Princeton, 2006), a typical little masterpiece of his work that combines hard data, eloquence and the human dimension.  I have also drawn on Chaim Herzog’s biography Living History (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997) and Kirby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles, Ireland and the Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985).  See also Dermot Keogh’s Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and Holocaust Education Trust Ireland here

The influx of Jews – at least an ‘influx’ comparative to the earlier Jewish presence – came mainly from one area in what is today Northern Lithuania.  They were therefore Litvaks as Jews from Lithuania were called.  In fact the shtetls in Kovno province from which they came were all within 50km of each other.  They began arriving in Ireland in the 1870S but only in numbers in the 1880s.  They came mainly to Dublin (by design), Cork (reputedly by accident) and Belfast (because of its industrialization).  But Dublin remained the preferred option, for the Jewish population declined in Cork subsequently and the numbers in Belfast never exceeded those in Dublin despite the disparity in economic opportunity.

Why did they leave Lithuania?  With Ó Gráda’s trademark parsing of the evidence, it is clear that the stories of pogroms and oppression mythologized the decision to emigrate.  The primary motivation was economic, with diminishing opportunities acting as the push and prosperity further west, particularly in America, acting as the pull.

This is not to completely discount persecution as the spark for emigration.  The pogroms in Russia and the Great Famine in Ireland certainly generated an immediate wave of respectively Jewish and Irish emigration.  However, the soaring levels of European migration and emigration in the following decades pointed to much more powerful economic forces at work.  In Ireland’s case, the reshaping of farm ownership brought about by the Famine – single holdings only inheritable by one son – and the failure to create an urbanized industrialized economy (outside of Belfast) meant that only emigration offered prospects of economic betterment.

In the creation of this lore of persecution the Lithuanian Jews had something in common with the Irish.  For the Irish emigrants too mythologized themselves as exiles from British oppression rather than being mere economic migrants.  In another parallel only a fraction, less than 1%, of either group ever returned home.

In contrast, where the Jews did not lament the homeland left behind, the Irish did and created a canon of songs lamenting their plight and longing for the old country.  (The often painful and lonely adjustment psychologically and culturally of the Irish to America is too often unacknowledged in Ireland; but it was in this adjustment that Irish America took shape and defined itself; see Kirby Millar’s Emigrants and Exiles.)

So the Jews like the Irish emigrated for primarily economic reasons, though Jews tended to be married on departure where the vast majority of the Irish were single.  In Lithuania (at the time part of Tsarist Russia), their traditional sources of income as artisans, middlemen, traders, creditors and so on were being squeezed by the coming of the trains with their cargos of cheaper manufactured goods and supplies; by urbanization and the development of retail; and by modern retail banking, facilitated by new communications like telexes which eroded the local Litvak role as creditors.  This combined with a rapidly growing population meant that local opportunities were shrinking just as industrialization and technology was spurring unprecedented prosperity in the West.  For those with some capital and some skills, the chance was not one to miss.

The Jews of Eastern Europe, along with their Irish counterparts, were part of the late 19th century European migration westward, one of the greatest mass movements of people in human history.  Many were drawn by the lure of America and its vast burgeoning markets, its opportunities and its freedom.

The Jews arriving in Western Europe would embrace modernity with gusto; urbanization, retail, mass communication and mass transport, commerce and banking.  This would create not only dynasties like the Rothschilds in France but a whole class of successful professional bourgeoisie throughout western Europe.  Michael Marks, a Polish Jew who arrived virtually penniless in England in the early 1880s, would found Marks and Spencers.  They would not only embrace European science and the arts but lead in the cascade of new thinking in literature, music, painting, physics and psychology.

Simon Schama’s sweeping yet deeply felt narrative of this ‘deal’ – integrate and become a citizen who happens to be Jewish as he summarises it – in episode three of his documentary The Story of the Jews is well worth seeking out.  As he eloquently and passionately describes it, the Jewish attempt at integration into European Society would end up rejected, symbolically in the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s and catastrophically in the Holocaust.  Prescient Jews like Theodore Herzl, in sensing the fell danger of this failed deal, would create Zionism as the last, the only option for the future security of the Jews.

The Litvaks who arrived in Dublin were far removed from the Rothschilds of course.  As Ó Gráda points out, the sheer poverty of urban Ireland at the turn of the century meant that the Litvaks found a ready if modest use for their skills as craftsmen, traders, lenders and middlemen.

Yet economic opportunities were only part of the attraction of Dublin for the new arrivals.  It was said of their like that they were particularly literate and erudite and found Dublin temperamentally appealing.  Many would only transit Dublin but those who stayed were according to one of them “the type that were not very ambitious to make a lot of money, but there was an atmosphere of learning in the place that the more temperate of the emigrants preferred, so though the opportunities for financial success [were] not very great, there was a feeling of ease” (quoted p. 29, Ó Gráda).  This tradition of learning of course meant that within a generation, the Litvaks began a progression to the professions and middle-class status.  In the 1880s 2% were middle-class; 5% by the 1920s 17% and by the 1980s over 70% (Ó Gráda, p. 84).

The Herzog family illustrated the point.  As Belfast-born and Dublin-raised Chaim Herzog recalls in his biography, the social life of the Jewish community in Dublin revolved around the synagogues: Adelaide Road for the Anglo-Jews and Greenville Hall for the Orthodox Eastern Europeans. His maternal side hailed from Kovno and his paternal from Poland; males on both sides were rabbis.  His father Isaac, a renowned scholar and Chief Rabbi of Ireland, would be elected Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1936, a mere year after the family moved there.  Chaim Herzog himself, after a secondary education in Alexandra and Wesley, would go on to have an illustrious career in Israel, eventually becoming its President.

In Ó Gráda’s nice phrase, the Litvak emigration to Ireland was then a “tributary” of the great movement of Eastern European Jews westward, for some to what they called ‘England-Ireland’, for some to Palestine and for many more to Europe and America.  The Jews and the Irish would arrive and settle in the larger cities of the United States, forming dense urban communities.  Both the Irish and the Jews would form powerful political constituencies; the Irish would shape the Democratic Party through their ‘machine politics’ whose roots lay in the Irish slums of Boston, New York and Chicago where clientalism and collaboration were keys to survival and advance.  Jewish entrepreneurial skill and general erudition would see them rapidly advance economically, academically and socially, providing the means for political influence.

The highpoint for the Irish was John F. Kennedy’s election as President but thereafter as the Irish dispersed to the suburbs the famed Irish American political machine would disintegrate and with it direct political influence, though it would be re-animated among Irish American leaders for a time by the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The affinity for Ireland, if not the organization that once characterized it in the late 19th and early 20th century, however remains resilient and enduring in Irish America.  Organized Jewish political influence remains famously strong in the US, animated in great part by the deep desire to support Israel.

Perhaps some of the Jews who left Lithuania sensed the darkening mood as anti-Semitism began to get a foothold in European thought at the end of the 19th century, gathering a fateful pace in the opening decades of the 20th.  For most, the decision to leave was simply a search for a better life.  They could not have known how fortuitous the decision to emigrate would prove to be. Nor could those who stayed behind imagine that extinction awaited them.  Of some 210,000 Lithuanian Jews alive there in 1939, 93% or up to 196,000 would be murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, most of them in a concentrated period of butchery during the second half of 1941.

Thanks to Irish neutrality, the Litvaks in Ireland escaped World War II, though some German bombs fell in their neighbourhood (thanks to the heavy clay of South Dublin, the bombs did little damage).  Had the Nazis made good on their plans to invade Ireland their fate would have been sealed.  In fact, the only Irish born Jew to die in the Shoah was Ettie Steinberg whose mistake was to marry and move to Belgium where she and her family, including her young son, were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz, one day before visas from her family in Dublin for safe passage to Ireland were delivered.




Filed under Holocaust, Ireland, Ireland's Jewish Community, Irish America

A Briefing at UNTSO Headquarters, Jerusalem

18 September 2013

Deputy Head of Mission Julian Clare and I travelled to Jerusalem on 16th September at the invitation of Major General Michael Finn, the new Head of Mission and Chief of staff of the United Nations Treaty Supervision Organization.  Michael hails from Mayo and, aside from his extensive command and staff experience back home, has a lot of overseas experience under his belt: completed three tours in Lebanon with UNIFIL, including a stint as Staff Officer at UNIFIL HQ; commanded the Irish contingent with Kosovo Force, Ireland’s first service with a NATO-led mission; served as Director in the EU Military Staff, Brussels where he headed up the planning and supervision of EU forces to Chad and the Central African Republic.  We met also with Captain Pat O’Connor, Personal Staff Officer for the Chief of Staff.  He has served a year with UNTSO and will likely complete a second (and a bit of a whizz on the internet having won awards for the best Irish Government website!)

Under Major General Finn’s command are UNTSO’s 153 Military Observers plus almost 100 international and over 160 local support staff, drawn from some twenty-five countries.  UNTSO Observers are attached to the UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights and to UNIFIL, as well as maintaining a presence in Sinai.  No UNTSO Observers carry weapons of any kind.  They are generally senior officers who can handle tense situations as well as the more quotidian though ever-complex diplomacy required of their liaison roles with the military services of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

Commander Erik Romby from the Netherlands gave an in-depth briefing on the mandate and regular operations of UNTSO.  It was his last day of duty with UNTSO so we are very grateful for him taking the time to do this.  Like all professional soldiers fully in control of their brief, Erik dissected the task, resources and operation of UNTSO with precision and clarity.  He, Major General Finn and Captain O’Connor fleshed this out with insights and impressions from the varied locations in which UNTSO serves throughout the region.  We were particularly interested in the current situation on the Golan Heights and the immediate vicinity in which Irish troops will deploy with UNDOF at the end of September.

UNTSO is the original UN peacekeeping entity, formed in 1948 to supervise the various armistices that brought an end to the Arab-Israeli War of that year.  It is funded directly by the General Assembly in a biannual vote, reflecting the fact that it was established a mere three years after the UN’s inaugural meeting in San Francisco and one year after the historic General Assembly vote on the partition of Palestine which preceded the Arab-Israeli war.

Given its original mandate and its evolution since then, UNTSO has Liaison Offices in Jerusalem (its HQ), Damascus, Beirut and Ismailia, Egypt.  It has a unique regional role, experience and perspective.  UNTSO’s core task has remained essentially the same since its foundation though how and where it does it has changed in response to the wars and turmoil in the region over the decades.  This has given a tremendous depth of experience to UNTSO as an organization and informed its strong esprit de corps.  That they carry no weapons in this most volatile and armed areas is remarkable.  But combined with their experience it has also helped ensure safe passage through difficult situations including when taken captive on occasion.  Its longevity of service in the region means that it is a known and respected entity by locals and military alike.  The turmoil in so many areas of UNTSO’s operations in recent years has seen again an evolution in UNTSO’s thinking and approach, though its core function remains unchanged.

UNTSO headquarters is the former Government House from British Mandate times.  Built of Jerusalem limestone, its oaty hues turn pale gold in the evening sun.  It has an elegant solidity, its barrack-like construction softened by the arched gateway, sunken gardens and tower which combined with its elevated location gives a 360 degree view of Jerusalem and environs. The function hall has a tall and gorgeously designed Armenian fireplace, a thing of real beauty and a product of the long association between Jerusalem and Armenia: indeed the family of its artisans still lives in the Old City.  Photo portraits of former UNTSO Chiefs of Staff grace one wall of the hall, with two of Lieutenant General William Callaghan, one of our great Irish soldiers and peacekeepers, awarded the Legion d’Honour for his leadership of UNIFIL in the 1980s.

Julian and I were escorted to the top of the building, above the water tank and upwards to the roof of the tower for what is recognized as the best view of Jerusalem.  Major Mark Weiner (USAF), clearly an aficionado of the area and its history, pointed out highlights in a guided finger pointing arc – the King David Hotel, the Dome of the Rock, Gethsemane, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, the clustered housing of East Jerusalem, the grey concrete Lego of the Barrier and behind it the West Bank, beyond a thin glimpse of the Dead Sea and beyond again that of the craggy dusty orange shores of Jordan, then the impressive man-made stump of the Herodion (ruined palace of Herod the Great) and finally toward the noticeably more modern West Jerusalem.

From our vantage point, it was easy to marvel that before us lay the intersection of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, that on this ground walked, talked, thought and socialized the Patriarchs, prophets and holy men that shaped the religious beliefs and imaginations of the Judean, Christian and Islamic worlds.  For believers, depending on their faith, this is the hallowed ground of God’s prophets, his son and minions.  We gazed at the slopes, crowded by history and now by habitation, guided by a company of men trained and uniformed as soldiers yet who are disarmed and tasked with the delicate diplomacy of peace keeping along the fault lines of regional conflict.  In this paradox lies the very heart and ethic of the United Nations and its peacekeeping duties.

We concluded in Major General Finn’s office, sunny in the late afternoon but cooled by the thick limestone walls of the Government Mansion.  General Finn gave a final overview of the strategic landscape in which UNTSO operates and the role of UNDOF on the Golan Heights where Irish soldiers would soon deploy.  We discussed the longevity and range of peacekeeping tasks carried out by the Irish Defence Forces in the region, notably with UNIFIL but also in many other UN operations such as UNTSO and UNDOF.

Irish success in peacekeeping roles is a product of the quality and ethos of our officers and enlisted men.  Without the backup of heavy air or naval support, our troops are conditioned to operate lightly but with state of the art personal equipment, to improvise, to get to know the landscape, people and local culture intimately, to use emotional intelligence and avoid if at all possible recourse to or escalation in the use of force.  There is in our Irish military DNA something of the guerrilla force that fought for Ireland’s independence and then formed the core of the new State’s Defence Forces.  Nor can one discount our colonial heritage and the empathy that engenders in understanding conflict and its wellsprings. (For more information on the Irish Defence Forces overseas missions please see their website

Reflecting on UNTSO, Major General Finn wondered rhetorically; how to measure the cost of conflict avoided? Impossible of course but it is certain that UNTSO has played a key role in keeping the peace and easing tensions through liaison and observation.  Particularly in these tense times UNTSO brings an assurance to all the militaries of the region that armistices and treaties are faithfully honoured.

Certainly there is a price to be paid with some 33 fatalities among serving UNTSO members, amongst them two Irish officers, including fatalities in combat, accident and natural causes.  As we left the Government Mansion, we paused at the Memorial where General Finn spoke about some of the stories behind the names inscribed there, such as the four UNTSO members killed by an Israeli airstrike in the 2006 Lebanon War.  He recalled too the dreadful murder of Commandant Tommy Wickham by a Syrian soldier in Golan in 1967 (see related tweet).  There too is inscribed the name of Count Bernadotte of Sweden, the UN Mediator in the Arab-Israeli War who brokered an early truce and thereby helped create the conditions leading to the establishment of UNTSO.  Coincidentally, Major General Finn was due to speak the following evening (17th September) at a Swedish Commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Count’s assassination in 1948.

On behalf of Julian and myself, I would like to warmly thank Major General Finn and his team for such a valuable and fascinating visit and to wish them every success in their tours of duty.

UNDOF are hosting Ambassadors to a briefing and site visit shortly which will be a very useful occasion bearing in the mind the upcoming deployment of our Irish contingent.  I’ll let you know how that goes.


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