Friday, 8 January 2021

Progressive Jewish cemetery
in Rathfarnham looks out
over Dublin city and bay

The Progressive Jewish community’s cemetery on Oldcourt Road, Rathfarnham, overlooks Dublin Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

While I was in Dublin last week for medical check-ups, I visited the Woodtown Progressive Jewish Cemetery on Oldcourt Road, Rathfarnham, which is just a 2.5 km walk from my home.

Woodtown Cemetery is tucked away on a bend in the road on the Gunny Hill leading up to Killakee, just beyond the former Augustinian retreat centre at Orlagh. It is small and secluded, secure, untouched and often unnoticed in this quiet bend on the road. The framing of thick trees surrounding the cemetery seems to shelter the headstones.

The large gates and surrounding trees give no hint of the beautiful and sometimes dramatic views found inside the cemetery, stretching across the city below, across Dublin Bay and out to Howth Head.

Larry Elyan and Moe Spain were the prime movers in founding the Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue in 1946. Other founding figures included Victor Enoch, George Morris, David Finkle, Hans Borchardt, Henry Lowe, Charlie Gold, Rudi and Marianne Neuman, Ernst Scheyer, and Abraham Jacob (Con) Leventhal (1896-1979), Lecturer in French at TCD and a friend of Samuel Beckett, who interviewed James Joyce in Paris on the day of the publication of Ulysses.

Meetings were first held in a Quaker Meeting House, and the synagogue opened at 7 Leicester Avenue, Rathgar, in 1948.

Rabbi Rudolph Brasch (1912-2004), the first minister of the congregation, was born in Berlin in 1912 and fled to London in 1938. He was elected a rabbi of the North London Synagogue in 1944. Rabbi Brasch’s successor in 1948-1951 was Rabbi Jakob Jankel Kokotek (1911-1979), who was born in Bedzin, Poland, and raised in Germany. He had been a rabbi in a town in Silesia from 1934 and was forced into exile after November 1938, arriving in England as a refugee.

Bernard Spiro, a leading figure in establishing the Progressive Jewish Cemetery at Woodtown, died in 1951, before it opened in 1952 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Bernard Spiro was a leading figure in establishing the Progressive Jewish Cemetery at Woodtown. He died in 1951, before it opened in 1952, the year I was born. The beginnings of this cemetery can be traced to a court action taken by Larry Elyan against the Orthodox burial society that was refusing to allow the burial of members of the Progressive Jewish community in the Jewish cemetery in Dolphin’s Barn. Indeed, some Orthodox Jews did not recognise some of members of the Progressive community as proper Jews at all.

In the event, the Progressive Jewish Community opened its own cemetery in the foothills of the Dublin mountains in 1952. The only building in the cemetery, the Prayer House, is a small square building. On one of the outside walls of the Prayer House, a simple plaque reads ‘In Memory of Victims of the Holocaust.’

It is not surprising, then, that many people buried here escaped the Holocaust. Dr Marianne Neuman (1913-2008) of Rathmines, was born Marianne Heilfron in Berlin in 1913, the daughter of Curt Solomon Heilfron. During her medical studies in Berlin in the 1930s, it became not only difficult but dangerous to continue living in Germany as a Jew. She left in August 1936 and later arrived in London, where she married another German doctor, Dr Rudi Neuman.

Rudi travelled to Edinburgh to pass his British medical exams, with the hope of settling in Ireland. They found a large house on Upper Rathmines Road, in which they lived and practised. Both were active and committed founder members of the Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation.

Dr Rudi Neuman died suddenly in the synagogue at the end of the Yom Kippur service in October 1965. Dr Marianne Neuman chaired the board of management of the Dublin Jewish Burial Society for many years, and was elected honorary life president on her 80th birthday in 1993.

She was a leading figure in the St John Ambulance Brigade continued to attend the RDS horse show in Dublin in her uniform into her 90s. In 2005, just days before her 92nd birthday, she was invested as a Dame of the Order of St John. She died at the age of 94 on 17 March 2008 and was buried in Woodtown. Four members of the Heilfron family who were murdered in Minsk in 1941 during the Holocaust are remembered by Stolpersteine or stumbing stones at Friedelstrasse 49 in Berlin.

Dr Ernst Scheyer (1890-1958) was born in Oppeln in Upper Silesia in 1890, was decorated for his bravery in the Germany army in World War I, and later earned a PhD in Breslau (Wroclaw). Later, he was a practising lawyer and a respected member of the Jewish community in Liegnitz, Silesia. He married Marie Margareta (Mieze) Epstein, who was five years younger than him and was born in Breslau.

He was rounded up after Krtistallnacht, and spent almost a month in Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp near Berlin. He arrived in Dublin on 14 January 1939, and the Scheyer family made their home at 67 Kenilworth Square. He later taught German at Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, and in Trinity College Dublin. When he died in 1958, he was buried in Woodtown.

Their daughter Renate married another refugee, Robert Weil (1924-1989), in 1948. It was the first wedding in the newly-established Progressive Jewish Synagogue. Robert Weil had arrived in Ireland in 1939 as a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. He went to school at Newtown in Waterford, studied at TCD, and became a teacher of modern languages, especially German, in Belfast.

In her biography, Renate Weil recalls that both sides of her family had been non-Orthodox Jews for generations but remained Jewish. ‘Our family proved that assimilation did not mean the loss of Judaism. We were German Jews and proud of it.’

Hans Borchardt was the son of a Jewish dentist in Berlin Charlottenburg. He was working with a business specialising in surgical and dental instruments when it was ‘Aryanised’ in 1934. He fled to England in September 1934, became a British citizen, and was an agent for a firm importing gloves from Ireland when he chose to make his home in Ireland in 1939.

Two headstones opposite each other tell the tragic story of Jeremy and Bertrand (‘Randy’) White, who died in a car crash in Ethiopia on 12 May 1975 at the age of 29 and 30.

Donal Lionel Seligman (1928-2015) and his wife Barbara (née Levine) were barristers and she was a renowned international bridge player.

Joan Finkel (1932-2017), born Rhoda Joan Morris, was the daughter of George R Morris and Julia (Spiro). For most of her adult life, Joan was deeply involved in the Progressive Jewish Synagogue in Rathgar. At different times, she held all the offices and represented the congregation at international meetings of Progressive Judaism. She was also involved in the inter-faith fellowship in Rathgar.

John and Joan Finkel lived in the Rathdown area of Terenure until they moved to Wales in 2016. Their daughter-in-law is Rabbi Monique Mayer of the Bristol and West Progressive Jewish Congregation.

The entrance gates at the cemetery were erected in memory of Richard Hitchman, who died in 1953 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Other founding members of the Progressive community buried in Woodtown include: Charles George Boas (1881-1955), Johanna Boas, Annerose and Ottilie Heitler, Else and Emile Hirsch, Irma, Fritz, Richard and Paul Hitchman, and Fred and Stefka Schmolka.

Here too is the grave of the artist Estella Frances Solomons (1882-1968), wife of Dr James Sullivan Starkey (1879-1958). She was the daughter of the poet Rosa Jane Jacobs (1843-1926) and Maurice Solomons (1832-1922), whose optician’s practice at 19 Nassau Street, Dublin, is mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses. Her brother Bethel Solomons (1885-1965), Master of the Rotunda Hospital and an Irish international rugby player, is mentioned by Joyce in Finnegans Wake, and was a founding member and the first president of the Progressive Synagogue.

Estelle married the poet and publisher Seumas O’Sullivan, real name James Sullivan Starkey. Her parents opposed the relationship because O’Sullivan was not Jewish, and they married in 1929 after her parents had died.

Jacqueline Solomon, a founder member of the synagogue in Rathgar, celebrated her bat mitzvah in 2008 at the age of 82, when the service was led by Rabbi Charles Middleburgh. Jacqueline Helena (née Coplin Cowan) Solomon, formerly Wine, died on 2 January 2020 in her 94th year and was buried in Woodtown Cemetery.

The Dublin Progressive Jewish Synagogue on Leicester Avenue, Rathgar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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