01 December 2023

A search for Jewish life
in war-time Bletchley,
away from the secrets
of Bletchley Park

The bandstand in the centre of Bletchley … but where was Bletchley Hebrew Congregation located in the 1940s? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Bletchley is part of the new city of Milton Keynes, and the town is best known for Bletchley Park, the headquarters during World War II of the codebreakers who broke the German Enigma code.

Bletchley Park had been the home of Sir Herbert Samuel Leon (1850-1926), Liberal MP for Buckingham (1891 1895), who bought the Bletchley Park estate in 1883 and built the Bletchley Park mansion. The family kept the estate until 1938.

Bletchley Park was the headquarters of GC&CS, the codebreakers, during World War II. Hugh Sebag Montefiore, a descendant of Sir Herbert Samuel Leon, is the author of Enigma: The Battle for the Code, the story of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

Many Jewish men and women were among the codebreakers, and the author and historian Martin Sugarman, in World War II: Jewish Personnel at Bletchley Park, has identified 250 Jewish personnel at Bletchley Park, many of them key codebreakers.

They included Ruth Sebag-Montefiore (1916-2015), a great niece of Sir Herbert Samuel Leon. She became the matriarch of the Sebag-Montefiore family, and in her memoirs, A Family Patchwork: Five Generations of an Anglo-Jewish Family, she recalled her time at Bletchley Park and her family’s links with the estate.

However, during my visits to Bletchley in recent weeks, I went in search of the lives and stories of ordinary Jews who had lived in Bletchley over the years, and tried to find where they had worshipped, lived and gone to school.

Notable Jews who lived in Bletchley in the past include the comedian Joe Dindol (1920-2008). He was born in East End, but grew up in Bletchley, where his father, Angel, ran a small drapery shop. Growing up in a non-Jewish environment, at least until the war-time evacuation, he, his sister and their two brothers were sent to cheder in Northampton, where he was bar mitzvah. His parents were founder members of the synagogues in Northampton and Luton.

Bletchley Hebrew Congregation was founded in Bletchley during World War II, one of two Jewish congregations formed in the Milton Keynes area at the time. The Wolverton United Synagogue Membership Group, sometimes known as the Haversham Jewish Community, met in New Bradwell and Haversham.

Bletchley Hebrew Congregation was organised among the strictly orthodox evacuees, and was a strictly orthodox congregation. It was one of very few evacuee congregations affiliated to the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, an umbrella organisation of Haredi or ultra-Orthodox congregations, mainly in London. It was founded by Rabbi Victor Schonfeld (1880-1930) in 1926 with a stated mission ‘to protect traditional Judaism’.

Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld (1912-1984), Presiding Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, was the guest of honour at a gathering in July 1941 to mark the new congregation’s affiliation with the UOHC.

During those war-time years, the Beth Jacobs schools began classes at Bletchley in 1940 and at other centres for evacuated pupils. Jewish evacuee children came from Edlesbrough, Dunstable and Winslow to attend Hebrew classes in Bletchley.

There was an open clash in June 1941 between the strictly Orthodox Keren HaTorah organisation, directed by Rabbi Gellas, and the Joint Emergency Committee under the authority of the Chief Rabbi, over which organisation was responsible for the Hebrew classes at Bletchley. Rabbi Shlomo Baumgarten and Mrs Annie Wachsmann were the teachers in the classes. Later, Rabbi Baumgarten was one of the rabbis who joined British troops in Germany in April 1945 liberating the concentration camp in Bergen Belsen.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Chayim Weingarten (1883-1970) set up a yeshiva in Bletchley in 1941. He was born in Janov, probably the village of Yaniv in Ukraine that was abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He founded a yeshiva in Wishnovitz, now Vyshnivchyk in Ukraine. He then became rabbi to the Orthodox community of Liege, Belgium.

He came to England in 1939 and established a small yeshiva, which he moved to Bletchley in 1941. At the end of the war, the yeshiva moved to premises near Staines and Egham and became known as the Staines Jewish Theological College or the Staines yeshiva. Later it was known as the Law of Life College and Synagogue, Slough, Slough Hebrew Congregation, or simply the Jewish Theological College.

Bletchley Hebrew Congregation had an address at 9-11 High Road, Bletchley throughout World War II, but it seems to have used schools and church halls for major events. The congregation was served until 1946 by Rabbi Jacob Teitlebaum. Shortly after the end of World War II, the congregation closed ca 1946. Rabbi Teitlebaum became President of Zeire Agudas in the United Kingdom, the youth wing of the Aguda Israel movement.

As for the yeshiva set up in Bletchley by Rabbi Chayim Weingarten, it continued in Slough until 1953. With ill health, he felt obliged to close the yeshiva and established a beth haMidrash or small synagogue at his home in Stamford Hill, north London. He died in 1970.

Since the 1960s, the shops in the heart of Bletchley have been refurbished and rebuilt and the streets have been realigned and renamed, so in my recent visits I found it difficult to identify the address at 9-11 High Road where Bletchley Hebrew Congregation was located in those war-time years, or any indication of the short-lived Bletchley Yeshiva.

However, apart from Bletchley Park, Jewish memories survive in Bletchley, where the names of Leon Avenue, the Leon Recreational Grounds Park, the Sir Herbert Leon Academy, the Leon Leisure Centre all honour of the town’s great Jewish benefactor.

Shabbat Shalom

Autumn turns to winter in the Leon Recreational Grounds Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (27) 1 December 2023

The East Window by Hugh Easton in the Church of Christ the Saviour, Ealing, depicts Christ the King … Christ the King is the feast of title of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England. This week began with the Feast of Christ the King and the Sunday next before Advent (26 November 2023).

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (1 December) recalls the life of Charles de Foucauld (1916), Hermit in the Sahara.

I was supposed to be in Dublin this morning, following the launch last night in the Royal Irish Academy of Christmas and the Irish, edited by my friend and colleague Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth. This new book includes three essays by me on the Christmas theme.

Sadly, I missed my flight from Luton yesterday, and I am also missing the launch this evening of the 2023 edition of the Old Limerick Journal later this evening in Dooradoyle Branch Library, Limerick. It includes my paper, ‘The Sephardic family roots and heritage of John Desmond Bernal, Limerick scientist’, with nine of my photographs from C√≥rdoba, Limerick, London and Venice.

Instead of catching a flight back to Luton later today, I am in Stony Stratford, where I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning before the day begins.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting on Christ the King, as seen in churches and cathedrals I know or I have visited. My reflections are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on Christ the King;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Church of Christ the Saviour … on a prominent position on Ealing Broadway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Christ the Saviour, Ealing:

The Church of Christ the Saviour is the Church of England parish church of Ealing Broadway. Father Richard Collins is the Vicar and the church has long stood in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. The Mass is celebrated at least daily, and the round of daily prayer is at the heart of the life of the church.

The church stands in a prominent position on Ealing Broadway and attracts many visitors, is open every day, and is place of prayer and solitude for many. It is open to all, welcomes all, and has an exciting, varied, and challenging ministry rooted in the local community.

Although Ealing was an ancient village, it quickly became a popular suburb following the arrival of the railways and easy access into central London. It had leafy avenues of large houses and was known as the ‘Queen of the Suburbs’.

The new parish of Christ Church was carved out of the ancient parish of Saint Mary’s. The new church was designed by the architect Sir Gilbert Scott. The total cost was met by Miss Rosa Lewis, daughter of a Liverpool merchant who had moved to Ealing.

The church was consecrated by the Bishop of London, Charles James Blomfield, on 30 June 1852 with the dedication of Christ Church, Ealing.

The church was designed by the architect Sir Gilbert Scott, and was paid for by Rosa Lewis, the daughter of a Liverpool merchant who had moved to Ealing.

The church was considerably embellished by the architect George Frederick Bodley in 1902. The cost was borne by Miss Trumper. A new sacristy was built and attached to the church by a ‘cloister’ passage, the organ was rebuilt under the west tower arch, the rood screen, the chapel screens, and the statues of Saint James, Saint Paul and King David were also added. The murals and the decoration of the roof were also done. There is a ring of eight bells.

A daughter church, Saint Saviour’s, was designed by George Fellows-Pynne and built in 1885. It became the parish church of a new parish carved out of Christ Church in 1916. Father Buckell, who had been a curate in the parish since his ordination in 1897, became the first vicar. The clergy house in the grove, also designed by George Fellows-Prynne, became the residence of the new vicar and the parish clergy.

Saint Saviour’s had an enormous following and was a very active parish. The church stood within the boundary of Saint Saviour’s School, now Christ the Saviour School at the Grove site. Streets of small terrace houses stood on the site of the present shopping centre.

When Saint Saviour’s was destroyed by incendiary bombs during World War II, a temporary church, ‘Little Saint Saviour’s,’ was set up in the parish hall in 1940.

A bomb exploded on the other side of Ealing Broadway and the blast blew out most of the glass of Christ Church and damaged the roof. The windows were restored with clear glass, though a few fragments of the old windows remain.

It was decided in 1951 not to rebuild Saint Saviour’s and to unite the two parishes with a new dedication of ‘Christ the Saviour’. Christ Church became ‘Christ the Saviour’ and the clergy house became the parsonage house, with Father Aglionby, Vicar of St Saviour’s became incumbent of the new parish.

‘Christ The King’ became the church’s feast of title, which the church celebrates to this day.

The church is a Grade II listed building and is on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register.

One of the most impressive windows in the church today is the East Window depicting Christ the King (1952) by the stained-glass artist Hugh Ray Easton (1906-1965). Easton depicts Christ the King in a similar way in stained-glass windows in other churches, including Saint Dunstan’s Church, Stepney (1949), and Holy Trinity Church, Coventry (1955).

Easton was born in London on 26 November 1906. He studied in France and worked for the firm of Blacking in Surrey before setting up his studio in Cambridge. During World War II, he served at the Ministry of Information as a commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

After World War II, Easton and his associates worked on many windows for churches and other institutions. Most of his windows were made in Harpenden at the studio of Robert Hendra and Geoffrey Harper.

His designs include the memorial window in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Many of his windows contain his ‘weathervane’ signature. He died in London on 15 August 1965.

As I think of the time I spent studying Latin, Liturgy and Patristics in Ealing Abbey back in 2012, I find myself recalling the opening words of Betjeman’s poem written in 1961:

Return, return to Ealing,
Worn poet of the farm!
Regain your boyhood feeling
Of uninvaded calm!
For there the leafy avenues
Of lime and chestnut mix’d
Do widely wind, by art designed,
The costly houses ’twixt.

The Church of Christ the Saviour, Ealing, is open daily from 9 am to 4 pm (November to March) and 9 am to 5 pm (April to October). Mass times are: Sundays, 8 am Said Mass, 10:30 am Solemn Mass, 5:30 pm Said Mass; Monday to Saturday, 12:30 pm Mass.

Inside the Church of Christ the Saviour, Ealing, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 21: 29-33 (NRSVA):

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’

Inside the Church of Christ the Saviour, Ealing, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 1 December 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Preventing Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (1 December 2023, World AIDS Day) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for those who live with stigma and discrimination. May we work to raise awareness of prejudice and be bold in our challenge of discrimination.

Christ in Majesty depicted in the west arch in the Church of Christ the Saviour, Ealing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This Post Communion Prayer may be used as the Collect at Morning and Evening Prayer during this week.

Additional Collect

God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.

Yesterday’s Reflection (a window in Saint Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted)

Continued Tomorrow (images in four cathedrals)

The Mass is celebrated every day in the Church of Christ the Saviour, Ealing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘Return, return to Ealing, / Worn poet of the farm!’ … the ‘leafy avenues’ of John Betjeman’s Ealing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)