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 www.hetireland.org.

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.

ENDS

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s