© Marcus Roberts (2012)


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A Jewish business, the Bedford Loan Co. was set up by Abrahams and Isaacs in 1894. Isaac Abrahams lived in Rutland Road and held services once more at his house. The Abrahams boys all attended Bedford Modern and were all remarkably successful. From 1893-1902, Sir Sidney Abrahams attended and was to be Bedford's first Olympian, and a leading Legal figure. Then Harold Abrahams the famous athlete attended from 1908-13. He is noted as the only British athlete to ever win the Olympic gold medal in 1924 and event captured in the inspirational film "Chariots of Fire". Sir Adolphe Abrahams OBE was also at the school and was later the Dean of Westminster Hospital Medical School.

Other famous Jews from Bedford include the famous rabbi, J.F.Stern of the East London Synagogue was born in Bedford - his grandmother was a Bedford Levy. Herbert Bentwich, the noted Zionist, had connections with the town too. His mother was another Bedford Levy and he spent part of his childhood there.

In 1903 and during the Second World War, temporary congregations were established in Bedford but did not survive, though led, as in other provincial locations to a significant but transient swelling of local Jewish numbers.

One of the most remarkable war-time Jewish associations with Bedford was made, when the top secret, Bletchley Park de-coding center, set up a training school in the town, to solve a particularly difficult problem. At Bletchley Park, the code-breakers had several types of code to crack, including the famous Enigma code, though it was by no means the most difficult. The park was also a hot-bed of linguistic activity as the decoders needed access to linguists fluent in all of the languages of the enemy German, collaborationist and Axis forces, and who could translate the code once it had been deciphered.

It was the Axis forces who provided the greatest linguistic head-ache, as towards the end of the war defeating the Japanese meant beating their codes and translating them. There was a great shortage of competent Japanese specialists and in desperation it was decided that able young scholars gleaned from Oxbridge would have to be taught Japanese from scratch in six months - a feat which some of the high-ups at SOAS thought was impossible.

An Inter-Service Special Intelligence School was set-up in Bedford, at the Gas Company showroom, at Ardour House, in Bedford. Course participants studied Japanese for 6 days a week under the tutelage of Oswald Tuck, a Naval Intelligence officer, from the Great War and a maverick figure in many ways. Many of the students were Jewish, perhaps because some of the recruiters mistakenly thought that Hebrew script required a linguistic decoding similar to Japanese!

In their spare time the students had a social life centered in the local pubs and the enjoyment of the BBC Classical music department which had moved to Bedford. However, this was no picnic - the pressure of the immersion course held at Bedford was so intense, some of the students are said to have committed suicide under the strain.

The story of Michael Loewe is typical. He was an Oxford Jew, who had been reading classics at Magdalen College, Oxford and was recruited to help in the war with Japan. He took the first of the Japanese courses at Ardour House in Bedford, with a group of Oxford undergraduates, starting on 2 February 1942. He trained to be able to break and translate Japanese naval codes as well as to translate intercepted radio traffic. Part of the training even involved being sent to sea with a navy frigate patrol in the North Sea to familiarize themselves with naval life and terminology. After his course he went on to work in Hut 7 and then Block B at Bletchley Park on Japanese naval decodes. At the Japanese surrender, in August 1945, he and the rest of the colleagues in his hut received the Emperor's surrender message, but even though it was not in cipher, they could not translate such formal Japanese!

The exploits and stories of the Jewish cryptanalysts, is researched and recounted by Alex Sugarman, Archivist of the AJEX Jewish Military Museum, Hendon, in his "Breaking the Codes; Jewish personnel at Bletchley Park in WW2," Journal of the Jewish Historical Society of England, (November 2005)

Some Jews live in Bedford in the present day, though there is not an organised Jewish community in Bedford as such, though there is a Bedfordshire Progressive Synagogue. This Liberal congregation traces its history back to 1967 and has gone through several manifestations. Initially it was the 'Beds-Herts Liberal Jewish Synagogue' and then the 'Chiltern Progressive Synagogue' until about 1999. Before 1982 it met in St. Albans and Bedford and subsequently in Luton. Currently the synagogue is based at Luton, but there are regular meetings in Bedford as well.

In 1968 there were 55 Jews in Bedford and in 2004 the population was estimated at 45. I understand that the Abrahams family has maintained their links with Bedford Modern for over a century. Mr. A. Abrahams, the son of Sir Sidney Abrahams, was at the original time of writing a governor at the school, though living in London. His son also attended in the 1960s and at the time of writing his grandson was also boarding at the school.

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