Voices Through Time - Project update March 2022
Make Do, Mend…and Lend
The wedding of Irene Cooperstein to Cyril Silver at Cathedral Road Synagogue in October 1944.
Image courtesy of Irene Silver (née Cooperstein)
During January and February, it has been my privilege to interview members of the Cardiff and Swansea Jewish community about their experiences and memories of the Second World War.
Between just three interviewees they had a combined age of 289 years. The stories shared help us to build a picture of the Jewish communities in south Wales when it was thriving. The synagogues were full and there were kosher butchers and bakeries in our Welsh cities; however, these stories are not just relevant to those who wish to research the Welsh-Jewish community. Our ‘Voices Through Time’ oral history project also provides valuable historical information about the wider community and society at this time, all through first hand eyewitness testimony.
To my three interviewees, the memories of their wartime experiences were still very clear, and they shared some of the stories which have stayed with them for over 70 years.
I have heard about the dangers of working in an ammunition factory in Bridgend, and the challenges of driving an ambulance over the Welsh mountains during the blackouts – especially when you are not tall enough to reach the pedals and reverse at the same time!
I learned that a stamp collection was important enough to a little boy that he climbed over the rubble of his bombed-out school in Cardiff to retrieve it from his desk.
Due to rationing, many households began to grow their own food in their gardens, and some even kept chickens and beehives to supplement their war time rations. A young boy who arrived in Swansea from the Kindertransport describes how his foster family kept bees, and these bees had their own allocated sugar rations from the government. He would be responsible for collecting the sugar for the bees and the chicken feed, but he also had the less favourable job of collecting horse manure from the street for the vegetable patches. Another lady described her mortification that her mother became so invested in growing vegetables that she also filled her front garden with brussels sprouts and cabbages. As a teenage girl she found this extremely embarrassing when all the neighbours still maintained their flower beds at the front of the house.
Even though kosher meat was readily available through the kosher butchers, fish was a very important part of the Jewish diet. I had not considered that the price of fish had sharply risen because of the danger to life it presented to fishermen heading out into wartime waters. This stretched family finances even further in lean times.
However, one of my favourite war time stories was about a wedding dress. When you were married during the war years, you were allocated an extra seven clothing ration tokens to buy a dress or a suit. Many people made their own dresses, but a young bride to be named Irene Cooperstein was overjoyed to find a beautiful plain satin dress on sale in the window of a Cardiff department store. It was made before the war because wedding dresses were now considered a luxury item and new ones were not being manufactured. The dress was so plain and utilitarian she bought decorative braiding and spent hours sewing it around the collar, hem and cuffs. She married her husband in Cathedral Road Synagogue in 1944, but this was not the end of the story for her dress – she recalls lending her dress to at least two other brides to wear on their special day.
These stories emphasise a time where frugality met generosity, and communities pulled together across religious and social boundaries to make sure everyone came through it together.
If you, or anyone you know, would like to share their memories of living in south Wales, please get in touch with me at Laura.Henley.Harrison@JHASW.org.uk
Written by Laura Henley Harrison, JHASW/CHIDC Oral History Officer and Events Coordinator.
Voices Through Time - Project update October 2021
Communities Linked by Tragedy – Remembering Aberfan
21 October 2021 marks the 55th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster when coal tip number seven collapsed catastrophically, killing 144 people in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan in Merthyr Tydfil. Pantglas Junior School was directly in the path of the deluge, and out of the 144 lives lost that day, 116 of them were children. Among the rubble they found a small clock which had stopped at exactly 9.13am, and last week our valley communities held a minute’s silence to remember those who lost their lives 55 years ago.
One of our recent oral history interviews brought my thoughts back to Aberfan again this month and highlighted how during times of great tragedy our communities pull closer together. In the days following the disaster, emergency services and volunteers from across south Wales worked around the clock to locate survivors.
Among the volunteers was Ellis Pruchnie, who was Company Director of Pearl Paints which was based at Treforest Industrial Estate. He was also the chairman of AJEX (The Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women). Ellis’s son Michael was recently interviewed by the Jewish History Association of South Wales, and he recounts a childhood memory of his father returning home from Aberfan after trying to locate survivors:
“The Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women was a very close-knit group obviously of ex-military people. It was a way in which they kept together and devoted a lot of time and energy not just to the [Jewish] community, but also to different groups outside Judaism.
In fact, in 1966 during the Aberfan disaster, my father took up ten ex-servicemen to Aberfan and they worked there for two days. They weren’t asked, they just went and did it, and this was the nature of the group…that disaster affected all ten of the men, most of whom had been in the Second World War or other fighting scenarios and I certainly remember my father and one of the others coming to our house, stripping off… all their clothes were rotten from all the digging and both men were just in tears because they didn’t save anybody.”
Ellis Pruchnie (seated) and his son Michael Pruchnie. The photograph was taken in the office of Pearl Paints in Treforest in 1989.
Image courtesy of Michael Pruchnie.
Oral history projects build up a picture of our past in layers. We see historical events through local eyes, and these stories can only be told for a finite amount of time.
To emphasise the importance of capturing stories before they vanish, we should remember Benjamin Hamilton, a prominent member of the Merthyr Jewish Community at the time of the Aberfan disaster. He was the Honorary Secretary of the Merthyr Hebrew Congregation, a well-respected local solicitor, and the coroner in charge of the Aberfan inquest. He had to visit the site of the school and determine the cause of death for all the victims, which was cited on the death certificates as asphyxia and multiple injuries. As he continued reading through the names, the father of one of the children disagreed with his findings, stating “No, Sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board”.
This information is well documented by the press who were present at the meetings, but this would not describe Benjamin’s personal feelings about what he experienced, and how he had to reconcile his work as a coroner with the overwhelming grief and anger of the local community. Benjamin Hamilton died in April 1979, and his memories of this event would have been lost forever if he had not been interviewed in an oral history project by David Jacobs in 1977. His words are now held in the archives of St Fagans National Museum of History and give us his very personal insight into a very public tragedy. Our project proudly builds on the work of those historians who came before us.
We must always remember that recording oral history is an ongoing endeavour. As history unfolds around us, we never know when we might capture an important fragment of the past. Over the next year, I will share a new story every month which has been uncovered during our current oral history project. I look forward to looking back together.
Written by Laura Henley Harrison, JHASW/CHIDC OH Officer and Events Coordinator.