24 May 2019
Missing the synagogue
in Derry … by six years
During my three days in Derry last week at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, I went in search of the story of the city’s Jewish community.
However, I found that Derry’s only synagogue closed over 70 years ago, and over lunch one afternoon one of the ecumenical guests at the synod told me how the building finally collapsed six years ago in 2013.
There is little evidence of a Jewish community in Derry today, and one would have to be well over 70 to remember the synagogue or to recall the Jewish community in the city.
The Jewish community in Derry arrived in two separate waves of migration. The first Jews arrived at the very end of the 19th century following their expulsion from the Czarist empire, mainly from Lithuania. Many of them did not come directly to Derry but came through other cities such as Glasgow and Manchester, arriving in Derry in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Robinson, Edstein, Wellshy, Spain, Fieldman, Fredlander, Gordon and Danker families were among the first Jewish families to arrive in Derry.
Many were tailors, picture-framers and peddlers by trade. selling goods from door to door or working as small shopkeepers.
The Fredlander family, for example, came from Russia and spent some time in Glasgow before moving to Derry. Later, Michael Fredlander was a horse breeder who owned a stud farm in Eglinton and sold horses to the US.
The Gordon family once had a picture-framing business at Newmarket Street and Nat Gordon had an Art Shop at the Diamond. As a Jewish family name, Gordon is said to be derived from the city of Grodno in Belarus.
Most of these Jewish families in Derry lived in the same area around Bishop Street, Abercorn Road and the Fountain.
The first synagogue in Derry was at 18 Abercorn Road from about 1894, but by 1901 the synagogue had moved to a house at the top of Lower Fountain Street. The synagogue then moved to No 4 Kennedy Place, off Hawkin Street in the Fountain Estate, in 1929.
A second and smaller wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in Derry immediately before World War II. Many of these people had fled Austria to escape persecution by the Nazis.
Dr Thomas Finnegan, then Professor of Classics and President of Magee University College, and Alec Halliday, who ran a commercial college in Derry, were responsible for bringing these people to Derry. They included Madame Beck, the milliner, and Louis Schenkel whose collection of almost 1,000 cacti is now in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens.
One of the Austrian Jews who fled the Anschluss was Ludwig Schenkel who set up a business in Foyle Street making umbrellas and carrier bags. Ludwig Schenkel, who was also a well-known photographer, married an Austrian woman who was also a refugee, and they had a holiday home in Clonmany.
As the Jewish community in Derry became smaller and smaller, the synagogue was finally forced to close in 1948, and the Torah scroll was moved to Israel.
The building at Kennedy Place in the Fountain Estate later became the local offices of the Ulster Unionist Party.
The top two storeys of the three-storey terrace building collapsed suddenly at lunchtime on 18 April 2013. Rubble crashed onto a car parked outside the building, completely crushing the vehicle, but no-one was injured in the incident.
Local residents said the building had been derelict for over 12 years and had been earmarked for demolition. It is believed the building was then owned by a housing association and that it was due to have been re-painted as part of a spruce-up operation targeting derelict buildings in the Fountain Estate.
The building was only three or four minutes walk from Saint Columb’s Cathedral, but I had missed seeing it by six years.