Recalling Cork's lost Jewish community

They once had over 400 families and even two local soccer teams but the decline of Cork’s native orthodox Jewish community does not mean it will be forgotten forever.

Louis Marcus, a filmmaker who opened the exhibition, and Claire Rosehill, trustee of Cork Hebrew Congregation. Pictures: Denis Minihane

A little over a century since the first Jewish immigrants arrived on Leeside, an exhibition telling their story has been made a permanent fixture at Cork Public Museum.

It features photos of the Hebrew congregation and items from the closed-down synagogue, but also the stories of the tradesmen, those who opened businesses in Cork, and the ‘vickle-men’ who knocked on local families’ doors once a week selling their wares.

Claire Rosehill recalled at the exhibition’s opening that the closure of the synagogue early last year broke the heart of her father, Fred Rosehill. The man who had kept the flame alive over recent decades, and ensured the synagogue stayed open as long as it did, passed away in late 2016.

As explained by award-winning filmmaker and Cork Jewish community member Louis Marcus, the decline began in the 1950s, shortly before he left the city. Growing up close to Fitzgerald Park where the museum now houses the exhibition, he left for college and a new life elsewhere.

“It was difficult to get a quorum of 10 men for services, there were hardly any children and no teachers. This happened because of the economic stagnation of Ireland in the 1950s,” he said.

While the sad decline was the reason for the exhibition, it still manages to celebrate what Cork City Lord Mayor Des Cahill said was the Jewish community’s valuable contribution to the city.

“I was absolutely blown away by the magnificent artefacts on view. This is a jewel in the crown of the preservation of the heritage of the city,” he said.

That Jewish heritage in Cork all spawned from the arrival of emigrants here from eastern Europe, although anecdotes on why they chose Cork vary widely.

Some say they misheard the announcement and thought they had already landed in New York, when the ships that carried them had pulled into Cork Harbour.

Other accounts suggest the families did not have enough to pay their way across the Atlantic, as they fled persecution by the Russian Tsar. And yet others think sea-sickness was the simple explanation for the journey being cut short.

Whatever the reasons, they settled in an area near the city’s south docks which became known, without any negative connotations, as Jewtown.

“The new immigrants found that, much to their surprise, the citizens of this unknown Catholic country on the edge of Europe welcomed them with, mostly, open arms,” said Ms Rosehill.

Her grandfather Harry arrived in Cork around 1906 with his younger sister May, when they were just 12 and 9, respectively. Their own father returned to Russia, perhaps to save other family members, leaving them in the care of their uncle Ernest, but was not heard from again and his fate is unknown.

Ernest had been a boy solider in the Tsar’s army, but absconded in the face of anti-Jewish decrees and arrived here at the turn of the 20th century. He became a piano tuner before opening his own music shop, where young Harry would later work.

Harry’s son, and Claire’s father, Fred Rosehill, studied medicine like many of the city’s Jewish communities but abandoned that path to stay and work for his father’s business. He later ran a toy store and set up a picture-framing shop.

While he decided to stay firmly rooted in Cork, many others’ career paths brought them overseas, with older generations often following them.

The decline of the local Jewish community may have been accelerated by the difficulty in finding a Jewish partner.

Ms Rosehill thanked Cork Public Museum’s acting curator, Dan Breen, for embracing the opportunity to accept items from the synagogue when she approached him with the exhibition idea last year.

The pictures, artefacts, and stories were assembled in the museum by West Cork company Heritage Works, which specialises in helping communities tell others about their history and heritage.

Not all items from the Cork synagogue are on display, as explained by Dublin Rabbi Zalman Lent who supported Fred Rosehill and the Jewish community for many years by helping to arrange enough men to be present for prayer.

A light from the closed-down synagogue now hangs in front of the Ark in his synagogue in Dublin, a light that never goes out.

“It’s called the Eternal Flame, and that’s what this museum is. In Dublin, Cork’s Eternal Flame hangs in the synagogue, and in Cork, the museum is that eternal light,” he said.

The Tsar, the Rosehills, & the Music Shop is on permanent exhibition at Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald Park



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