17 February 2023

Erwin Goldwater, the violinist
from Kovno who helped to
found a synagogue in Dublin

Erwin Goldwater, the Dublin violinist, was born in Kovno and was a founding figure in Terenure Synagogue in Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Jewish Arts and Culture Ireland (JACI) is being launched in Cork this weekend (Sunday 19 February 2023), with ‘Kovno to Cork’, a journey in music and words reflecting the immigrant experience from the Irish Jewish immigrants of the 1880s to present-day newcomers.

The programme includes a live interview with the Dublin film director Lenny Abrahamson, in conversation with the Human Rights lawyer Saul Woolfson, who chairs Jewish Arts and Culture Ireland (JACI).

The evening’s programme also includes the premiere of one of Ruti Lachs’s new pieces from the Irish Klezmer Suite, as well as the performance of two other original pieces by her.

Istvan Barnacz from Hungary on the violin and Brian Connor from Belfast on the piano are playing Jewish classical and film music. Simon Lewis, the poet from Carlow, reads from his collection Jewtown (Doire Press, 2016), set in Cork. The Fresh Air Collective, including Edel Sullivan (fiddle), Eileen Healy (guitar), Lucy Tasker (clarinet) and Ruti Lachs (accordion), are playing klezmer and folk music. Dr Vivi Lachs from London, who spoke recently in Milton Keynes Synagogue on Yiddish culture in the East End, is speaking about Yiddish song and story.

Many of the Jewish refugees who arrived in Cork – and in other Irish cities, including Limerick, Belfast and Dublin – in the 1870s and the 1880s were fleeing oppression and pogroms in the Tsarist empire. Those who fled Lithuania were known as Litvaks.

Today, Kovno or Kaunas is the second largest city in Lithuania The shtetls in Kovno they came from were all within 50 km of each other. Many of the Jewish figures in Cork who inspired the poems by Simon Lewis were often known as Akmajianites because they came from the village of Akmajian in Kovno.

The violinist Erwin Goldwater is an interesting example of one of these Jewish Litvaks from Kovno who found success in cultural life in Ireland, and he became a key figure in founding the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure, Dublin.

Erwin Goldwater’s father, Morris Mendel Goldwater, was a son of Rabbi Abraham Goldwasser. He was born Mosek Menachem Goldwasser in Sochotszow or Sochaczew in central Poland on 23 February 1867 – although census returns suggest he was born in 1863. His parents were Abraham or Abram Goldwasser and Zilpa Frankel or Frenkel.

Morris married Machla (Minnie) Binkowsky in February 1885 at Kolo in central Poland, but they soon moved to Kovno, where he worked as art dealer in 1892-1894. Morris and Minnie had a large family of children, born between 1887 and 1904. The first two children – Israel (Erwin) Goldwater, the future violinist and musician, and Abram were born in Kovno. The other children included: Maryjem Zilpa (Mary), Chana Ruchla (Rosie), Jenny, Rebekah, Phillip, Jacob (Jack), Freda and Abraham (Alf).

Morris left Poland with his family when he was about 28, and moved to London by 1894-1895. They lived in Mile End in the East End, and Morris worked as a woollen merchant and an art dealer.

Israel (Erwin) Goldwater was born in Kovno in 1892 (or 1887) and grew up in London. He studied the violin under the Czech violinist Otakar Ševčík (1852-1934), who was based in Prague and Vienna and who taught briefly in London. Erwin was the first violin at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in London, before moving to Dublin in his early 20s to conduct the orchestra at the Carlton Cinema when it opened in Sackville Street (later O’Connell Street) in Dublin in 1916.

No 76 Lower Clanbrassil Street … once the home of Robert Comerford and later Goldwater’s shop (Photograph courtesy Manus O’Riordan)

Erwin arrived in Dublin shortly before the Easter Rising, perhaps with the assistance of cousins among other Goldwater families living in Dublin. He was undaunted by the changing political climate; he remained in Ireland, carved out a successful career, and became a leading figure in the Jewish community in Ireland.

Cinemas were a booming business in Dublin at the time, and they often provided the principal opportunity for people to hear live, classical music. The Carlton Cinema, for example, introduced the concert soloist as a permanent feature.

The Irish Times described Erwin Goldwater’s debut at the Carlton on Saint Patrick’s Day 1916 as a ‘new departure in connection with cinema entertainments [that] takes the form of a violin recital by Mr E Goldwater, a pupil of Sevcik, and formerly first violin at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Mr Goldwater will conduct the orchestra at the Carlton.’

Goldwater’s appointment at the Carlton undermined a long-standing claim by the Bohemian Cinema in Phibsborough that it had Dublin’s largest and best picture-house orchestra. A month later, however, the Bohemian engaged Clyde Twelvetrees – concert cellist and professor of the Royal Irish Academy of Music – to play as part of its daily programme. Not to be outdone, the Pillar Picture House engaged, Joseph Schofield in April 1916. A month later, the Bohemian contracted a second soloist, the violinist Achille Simonetti.

Surviving programmes from Erwin Goldwater’s times at the Carlton in the late 1910s show how as a soloist he added a further musical layer to the cinema bill at Dublin’s most prestigious picture houses. The programme for the week of 10-17 December 1917 – when the feature was Maslova (Tiber, 1917), an Italian adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Resurrection – features the films and music played and shows how the musicians changed during the day.

Erwin Goldwater’s musical selections for Maslova were printed opposite the film programme. He also played a violin solo, which that week was Henryk Wieniawski’s Légende.

In one day in that decade at the Carlton and Dublin’s other prestige ‘picture houses’, a cinema-goer could experience music played in turns by a solo pianist, a trio, a larger orchestra and a concert soloist. The advent of the cinema offered people quality music in a readily accessible form.

Erwin Goldwater stayed on in Dublin after the War of Independence and the Civil War, and he married Marie Fine, daughter of Simon Fine, in Dolphin’s Barn Synagogue on 2 July 1933. He was 39 and she was 19, and they both gave their address as 398 Harold’s Cross Road. WB Yeats had part of his childhood on the same row of houses at No 418, and at the time my grandmother was living around the corner in Ashdale Park.

The wedding was conducted by the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Dr Isaac Herzog (1888-1959), whose wife Sarah Hillman (1898-1979) was also born in Kovno. The wedding reception was held in the Winter Gardens at the Theatre Royal.

Erwin Goldwater may have been helped in moving to Dublin by other members of the Goldwater family. Goldwater’s butcher shop was at 76 Lower Clanbrassil Street in Dublin’s Little Jerusalem from the 1930sIt had been the home my grandfather’s first cousin, Robert Comerford (1855-1925), when he died there on 1 May 1925. Janie and Isaac Goldwater ran Goldwater’s shop at No 76 from the 1930s until it finally closed in 1977.

Meanwhile, Morris Goldwater applied for naturalisation in London in 1923. In his application, he states he had one sister last heard of in Poland, but it was not known if she was still alive.’ It is not known whether he had other siblings. In a letter dated 25 June 1923 he expresses his wishes ‘to go to Poland to see my relatives.’

Some time after his naturalisation, Morris Goldwater moved from the East End to live with his son Erwin and daughter-in-law in Dublin. He died at their home on Highfield Road, Rathgar, on 31 January 1942.

In the post-war years, Erwin Goldwater was an eminent member of the Jewish community in Dublin. In 1945-1949, he was President of Rathmines Hebrew Congregation, which had its synagogue at 52 Grosvenor Road, Rathgar.

He donated to the publication of the book Degel Yosef by Rabbi Zalman Yosef ben Yitzchok Aloni, published in Dublin in 1949 in memory of his parents.

Erwin Goldwater and Woulfe Freedman bought the site for the new synagogue in Terenure, then known as Leoville at 32a Rathfarnham Road, and opposite the then Classic Cinema. They paid £1,490 for the site and donated the site to the congregation.

I have often jested that I was born beside a synagogue and across the road from a cinema. With his background in cinema music, Erwin Goldwater must have relished the humour within the Jewish community in Dublin that referred to the new synagogue opposite the Classic Cinema as the ‘cinema-gogue.’

The new synagogue designed by Wilfrid Cantwell was built in 1952-1953 and was dedicated on 30 August 1953. Erwin Goldwater was chair of Terenure Hebrew Congregation from 1949. He was 67 when he died on 21 May 1959 at 42 Cowper Road, Rathmines.

One of Erwin’s younger brothers, Jacob (Jack) Goldwater, also moved to Dublin. Jack Goldwater was born in Mile End in April 1899, and married Rachel Goldfoot. He died in Dublin in 1966.

Shabbat Shalom

Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Dublin … Erwin Goldwater was instrumental in buying the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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