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My Father's Jewish 'Church' in WWII Montgomeryshire

My father, Harry Gilbert, was in the "rag trade" with a factory in City Road in London. Most of his employees were young women from around that area. His pre-war output was directed at the mass market dress trade. Before the war began he realised that in the event of civilian bombing many of these girls would find it difficult to continue working in London. He purchased an old woollen mill in Newtown in Montgomeryshire (Mid Wales), an area now called Powys. My father's factory was situated by the canal which ran through the town and which I believe was connected to the Regents Canal. The building was originally a woollen mill, relying on the canal for transport. Newtown lies in the valley of the River Severn and we lived in a house high up on one of the hills forming the valley.

He and my mother planned and built a large dormitory area adjacent to the mill providing comfortable accommodation for 30 or 40 women. At the same time the family moved from London to a house on the other side of the narrow valley through which ran the River Severn.
Due to war-time requirements the production of the factory soon turned to the manufacture of Army uniforms and later, when the invasion of France was being planned, to the production of basic womens' wear to be distributed to needy French civilians as the army advanced.

There was a large training camp for artillery gunners on the other side of the town. My father contacted the Colonel to find out if there were any Jewish soldiers among the trainees and offered to make our home available to them on Sunday mornings while the rest of the camp was attending church parade. A notice was placed on the regimental notice board as follows:

. . . . . with address and time etc.

I was 12 years old at the time and delighted to be called upon to pass around the tea to the young men who came to our house. Sometimes there were 15 or 20 of them, sometimes only one or two. Many of these boys, for that is what they were, had never been away before and missed home and Jewish tradition. My mother contacted the Jewish Chaplain for the area and was put in touch with Captain Leslie Edgar, the Rabbi from the Liberal Synagogue in St John's Wood Road, who had become a serving officer. He provided prayer books and came to visit on many occasions.

What happened to those boys? One or two remain from my 12-year old mind -- the twins, blue-eyes and curly black hair as David surely had, or the tall blond incomprehensible Geordie -- where are they now and how many came home?

By the time I was 16 the war was coming to an end and the training camp no longer there. In the meantime it was fashionable among the Jewish intelligentsia of the time to be involved with the Communist Party - as an antidote to anti-Semitism. Naturally I aspired to join - my father would not let me actually join - and of course I was an atheist... However, vivid memories of those Sunday mornings remain and helped to make me into the tribal Jew that I am now.

As a result of the contact with the regiment my mother was invited to become Welfare Officer for the female branch - the ATS - covering all of North and Mid-Wales. There were one or two very large training camps in the area and to facilitate her access to these it was necessary for her to join the ATS. She became a uniformed Captain (part time!) -- Sam Brown belt and 3 pips on her shoulders, I was most impressed. She also became involved assisting local girls in dealing with unwanted pregnancies arising from the presence of the Royal Artillery training camp!!

An interesting advantage of living in that rugged area of mid-Wales was that even when rationing was at its height and certain foods completely unavailable, people were allowed to buy these foods without restriction if they had been produced locally. It had been found that the cost of transport across the border or to South Wales meant that local farmers were selling them on the flourishing black market. Common sense prevailed and locally grown meat and dairy products were not rationed. An interesting outcome of this situation arose when Captain Leslie Edgar came to lunch. My mother had purchased some lamb chops for our meal but my father pointed out that these were not kosher so with great difficulty she obtained some fish which was served only to him. It turned out that lamb chops were one of his favourite foods and being the Rabbi for a Liberal shool (Synagogue) he would much have preferred to eat the same meal as we did. Always a charming gentleman we only learned this at a later date!

My local school, the Newtown County Secondary School, was in fact two schools divided by a huge heavy curtain across the joining archway. On the left were the boys and the girls occupied the right hand part of the building. You can imagine the amount of curtain twitching that went on at break times.
It had been arranged that I would not attend morning prayers but stand outside the hall and join my class when prayers were finished. Teenage memory is an absorbent sponge and to this day I can remember many of the hymns; I took them in without an atom of understanding but enjoyed the situation of being the only girl in the school who was different.

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