24 February 2023

Heneage Street Synagogue:
a forgotten East End link with
Ukraine and a massacre

The Spital Square Poltava Synagogue was at 2 Heneage Street in the East End from about 1935 until 1972 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my recent walks around the East End, I visited a number of synagogues and former synagogues, and plan to write about them in the coming days and weeks.

In the past I have written about a number of synagogues and Jewish sites in London, particularly in the East End, including the site in Old Jewry of the Great Synagogue; the site of a mediaeval synagogue at Threadneedle Street; Bevis Marks Synagogue; the former Creechurch Lane Synagogue; the former Great Synagogue, Duke’s Lane; Kehillas Ya’akov, Commercial Road, Stepney; the former Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, Whitechapel; the former Brick Lane Synagogue; Sandy’s Row Synagogue; and Princelet Street Synagogue.

By the early 1890s, there were shuls (synagogues), chevrot (benevolent societies) and steiblech (informal places of worship) all over the Spitalfields, Whitechapel and Saint George’s area.

There are records of shuls in Artillery Lane, Brick Lane, Commercial Road, Duke’s Place, Fashion Street, Fieldgate Street, Goulston Street, Gun Street, Hanbury Street, Heneage Street, New Court, Old Castle Street, Old Montague Street, Pelham Street, Princelet Street, Sandy’s Row, Spital Square, Spitalfields, Union Street and White’s Row. The Etz Chaim Yeshiva or ‘Tree of Life’ Rabbinical Seminary was in Thrawl Street, off Brick Lane.

Among the chevrot, the Chevra Mikra was at 46 New Court, Fashion Street in the 1890s, while the delightfully named the ‘Society for Chanting Psalms and Visiting the Sick ‘was at 113 Old Castle Street. Another chevra had the intriguing name of the ‘Society for Giving Alms to the Poor to Avoid an Evil Death.’

By the early 20th century, the East End was a pulsating centre of Jewish life with a Jewish population of about 250,000 people and about 150 synagogues. Most of these people were Yiddish-speaking first-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, unlike other, longer-established Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Britain, which had come in earlier generations from the Low Countries.

Spital Square barely exists today but was once home to the Spital Square Synagogue, founded in 1858 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

During my recent walks around the East End, I have visited a number of synagogues and former synagogues, and plan to write about them in the coming days and weeks.

The Spital Square Poltava Synagogue was at 2 Heneage Street in the East End from about 1935, when it moved there from Spital Square, until it closed in 1972.

Heneage Street runs east about 500 ft from Brick Lane to Spelman Street, and at one time the street extended another 150 ft beyond Spelman Street. It runs parallel, to the south, to Chicksand Street, and, to the north to the eastern section of Princelet Street, previously known as Booth Street.

The synagogue was at Numbers 2 and 2a, on the south side of Heneage Street. Before moving to Heneage Square, the synagogue was formed in the 1920s through the merger of two older congregations: Spital Square Synagogue and Poltava Synagogue.

Spital Square Synagogue, formerly the German Synagogue on New Broad Street or Old Broad Street, was founded in 1858, and included a benefit society known as Hevra Bikur Cholim.

The Spital Square Synagogue hosted the meeting in 1887 at which the Federation of Synagogues was formed, initially known as the Federation of Minor Synagogues.

The Poltava Synagogue was founded by 1915 at 50½ Hanbury Street, later the address from the late 1920s of the Glory of Israel and Sons of Klatsk Synagogue.

The Poltava Synagogue took its name from Poltava, a city on the Vorskla River in central Ukraine. It is the capital city of Poltava province and the surrounding district, and has a population of almost 280,000.

After they merged, the newly-formed congregation moved to Heneage Street. In time, it merged with Ezras Chaim Synagogue to form Ezras Chaim, Ain Yacov and Poltava Synagogue. After World War II, as the Jewish population moved out of the East End and synagogues began to close, it incorporated some of these smaller synagogues, including the Artillery Lane Synagogue in the 1950s.

Eventually, the Poltava Synagogue on Heneage Street closed too in 1972, and amalgamated with Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue. Some of the former members and their families may still be affiliated for burial rights to the West End Great Synagogue.

The last regular service at Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue was held on 22 September 2007. However, the synagogue reopened for services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2008 and, for a while, other services were held from time to time. By 2014, the synagogue closed its doors for good, and in March 2015 the synagogue building was sold to the East London Mosque.

Today is the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In recent months, Poltava been overwhelmed by an influx of internally displaced people. During the Seven Years War, the decisive battle of the armies of Peter the Great of Russia and Charles XII of Sweden took place near Poltava in 1709.

Poltava has a place in literary history as the birthplace of the writer Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-1852). Famous Jews born in Poltava include Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (1884-1963), historian and longest-serving President of Israel (1952-1963), the radical American journalist Philip Jaffe (1895-1980), and Alina Treiger, the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in Germany after World War II.

On this Friday evening, I also think of how the name of the Poltava Synagogue recalls an ignominious event in the history of Ukraine. At the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish community accounted for 10 per cent of the city’s population. When the Nazis occupied the city, the Jews of Poltava were imprisoned in a ghetto and were then murdered in mass executions and buried in mass graves.

The former Poltava Synagogue on Heneage Street remains an eye-catching building and still looks rather special. It has been converted into flats and stands across the street from the Pride of Spitalfields pub.

Shabbat Shalom

The former Poltava Synagogue on Heneage Street remains a striking building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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