Filmmaker Simon Glass has taken a deeply personal journey to trace his family’s history for a new documentary about Leeds’s Jewish population. Chris Burn reports.
“Wherever you go in the world, you are always proud to tell anybody that you are from Yorkshire, whereas being Jewish, it depends on whereabouts you go but it can be taken in different ways,” explains Leeds filmmaker Simon Glass in his new BBC documentary. “It wouldn’t be the first piece of information I would offer up whereas you won’t ask a Yorkshireman where he is from because he would have already told you in the first sentence.”
That stark contrast between his two public faces is one of the key themes in the 32-year-old’s personal, humorous, thought-provoking and moving documentary A Very British History: The Jews of Leeds, which is airing on BBC One this evening.
Glass explores the fascinating story of how Leeds became home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the country – and the challenges and opposition they faced along the way – through examining his own family history. He tells the story of how his great-grandmother Rebecca Miller came to the city in the early 20th Century from her home in a small village in what is now part of Belarus and becomes the first member of his family to travel back there in more than a century to find out what happened during the Holocaust to the relatives she left behind.
Rebecca was among the thousands of Jews who migrated from Russia and Eastern Europe to Yorkshire at the turn of the 20th Century to escape persecution, pogroms and poverty.
Many settled in Leeds after arriving by boat to Hull and Grimsby, often going to work in the city’s burgeoning tailoring industry. Among those to make new lives in the city was Polish-born Michael Marks, who went to become the co-founder of Marks & Spencer.
“Because of what the Jewish community was going through at the time, many went across to America. But those who couldn’t afford that moved here,” Glass tells The Yorkshire Post. “They came over, worked hard and made a life for themselves and a better life for their families. Leeds became a word associated as a place of hope, just like America.”
But despite conditions being better than in their home nations, the welcome for Jewish immigrants was very far from universal. In 1905, the Government introduced the Aliens Act – a piece of legislation aimed at restricting immigration that was supposedly an attempt to prevent criminals entering the country but quickly developed into an anti-Jewish law.
Rebecca came to England in 1907 at the age of 18, following in the footsteps of her two older brothers who had already moved to the city.
Glass says: “Rebecca had to register with the local police as an ‘alien’. The Aliens Act of 1905 was the first time when Britain tried to limit immigration coming in. But the word alien was a codeword for Jewish. It is no different to today when you see the reaction across Europe and the world to immigrants coming to a different place. Some people’s reaction is that they are here taking our jobs and everything like that. It was no different for the Jewish community back then.”
At the outbreak of war in 1914, non-British nationals were ineligible to join the military. While hundreds of second-generations Jews living in Leeds and born in Yorkshire did sign up to fight, accusations of draft-dodging were made against those who did not or were unable to sign up.
Jewish loyalty was questioned throughout the war and Yiddish-speaking Jews were suspected by some of being spies. In 1917, a mob of 3,000 people attacked Jewish people living in a poor area of Leeds called the Leylands, where many of the immigrants had settled.
Over the years, the Jewish community prospered, with thousands making their living in the tailoring industry for companies such as Burton Menswear.
The Leylands was largely demolished in the late 1930s as part of a slum clearance programme as the Jewish community made their homes in other parts of the city. But the documentary tells the story of what became known as ‘The Battle of Holbeck Moor’ in September 1936 when around 1,000 ‘Blackshirts’ attended a rally by the notorious British Union of Fascists leader Sir Oswald Mosley in Leeds.
The night before the march, swastikas and Anti-Semitic slogans were daubed onto Jewish-owned shops but on the day, the fascists were greeted by around 30,000 protesters – many of them local Jewish residents. The protesters threw stones at the Blackshirts, injuring 40 and hitting Mosley with one.
While Leeds repudiated fascism, the Jews who had stayed in mainland Europe – including Glass’s family – were much less fortunate. Rebecca died before Glass was born but he still has family video of her, albeit with no sound. He says he had always wanted to learn more about her story.
“We knew she kept in touch with her family until the Holocaust. Nobody came after that and she never went back,” Glass explains.
“Around the time of the Holocaust, letters stopped coming from the village. My great-grandmother thought ‘that was probably it’. But nobody knew for sure what had happened.”
The film shows Glass managing to track down where the rest of her family who did not come to Britain lived by visiting the state archives in Lithuania.
Their village still stands to this day and is now in Belarus. It once had a majority Jewish population but as Glass learns when he goes to visit, this was changed forever when the Nazis arrived in May 1942.
“We went to Lithuania as back then the borders were very different. All I had was the name of the village – ‘Vashilishok’,” he explains. “I had the name of the town, I knew there were four brothers that lived in this town and my great-grandmother was the daughter of one the brothers, whose name was Miller. In the state archives, they found the results of the village. There are still people living there but not a single Jew.”
In emotional scenes at the end of the documentary, including an interview with a surviving and now elderly eye-witness, the film shows Glass learning exactly what happened to his relatives and the rest of the village’s Jewish community when the Nazis arrived.
He says: “I’m the first person in my family to go back since my great-grandmother left in 1907, 111 years ago. My own grandmother was born and lived in that time. My mother has never been back there.
“There was a Jewish community there and there isn’t one there anymore.
“As a Jewish person, I had been to Eastern Europe and seen places of mass execution which is incredibly sad but when it is related to your own family, it is a lot more personal.”
As well as the tragedy of the Holocaust, the film also touches on what Jewish culture has contributed to Leeds, with Glass visiting a Jewish deli and trying his hand at sewing as he visits the city’s last remaining Jewish tailors.
All of Glass’s family worked in the industry, which at its height employed around one in three of Leeds’s 30,000 Jews.
While the Jewish population of Leeds has fallen in number in recent years – thanks in part to the decline of the textile industry – their positive influence in shaping the modern-day city remains undimmed.
As one of Glass’s relatives says at the start of the documentary in describing ‘Passover for Dummies’; “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”
A Very British History – The Jews of Leeds will be shown on BBC One Yorkshire and Lincolnshire tonight at 10.45pm.