Merthyr Tydfil - South Wales
Marcus Roberts


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A cemetery was consecrated a few years later at Cefn-Coed and was extended in 1935. As there were only 3 Jewish cemeteries in South Wales, mourners often had to walk large distances behind the hearse, if they were coming from other communities without a cemetery. There were around 400 Jews in Merthyr who spoke a variety of languages, including, English, Welsh, Russian, Lithuanian and Yiddish. Some (mostly the women) became fluent Welsh speakers, There was a Jewish population in both the town of Merthyr itself - mostly a mercantile class of shop-keepers, clothiers, jewelers, watch-makers and pawn-brokers, but also a large community of (Russian) Jewish labourers working at the iron-works at Dowlais. This community expanded so much that there was for a period a temporary synagogue in the room under the Odd Fellows Hall, from 1905-10. This building is no longer extant.

An elderly former member of the community related to me that her family had come from Eastern Europe, as they has heard on the Jewish grape-vine that there was work to be had in Merthyr and came post-haste. Her family included jewelers and made good money by making trinkets to sell to the sailors in Cardiff, as they, 'had 'fancy women' in every port and needed gifts to please them'. She said that the men tended to be Yiddish speaking and focused themselves on study and life around the synagogue, whereas the women would work the markets and thus picked up both English and Welsh and made the links into the local community. The links between the host community and the Jewish community went both ways, as many of the girls in the Valleys sought to go into service in Jewish homes, with the ambition that they would then be able to go and work in London, for other Jews and come back boasting that they 'know about Pesach'. Interestingly, a tradition grew up where the Jews in the Valleys would give their non-Jewish neighbours Matzahs over Pesach, who would be happy to accept them. This tradition continued into the 1970s.

The Merthyr Jews certainly integrated into the town life over time, not least because their children were enrolled into the local state schools and some of the mostly Russian immigrants sought and obtained Naturalisation at the turn of the 20th century. It is also evidenced by Herman Gittlesohn becoming the Master of the Loyal Cambrian Lodge in the 19th century. Membership of Masonic orders was an important means of social progression for Jews in the commercial community. The community also developed its own institutions and structures, with a literary & Social Society, a Naturalisation Society, and a branch of the Chovovei Zion (c. 1896). There was also later on, even a Dowlais Jewish Cricket Team.

There were in excess of a 100 Jewish workmen at the rail bank, in Dowlais at the iron-works, with many working for Messrs. Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds. Many had come from Russia and Eastern Europe with the great Jewish immigration having heard that work was available. It related that this grouping of eastern European Jews included a group of Hassidic coal miners in Merthyr, who had their own Rebbe, though they did not stay long in Merthyr.

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