In celebrating the history of the diverse, dynamic city of Manchester, it is impossible to ignore the impact of Manchester’s Jewish community in shaping the city that exists today.
The history of the Jewish community in Manchester can be traced back to the 1780s, when a man named Jacob Nathan became the first known Jewish resident in the city. At this time, there were no synagogues in Manchester, but since the 1740s, groups of Jewish people who were travelling through the city would all come together to pray in a mysteriously named Synagogue Alley which appeared on a map of Manchester in 1741. In 1796, the first permanent synagogue in the city was opened inside a warehouse on Garden Street within the city centre.
The number of synagogues across the city grew simultaneously with the Jewish population in Manchester, which was rapidly increasing because of Manchester’s great promise of economic opportunity. Thanks to the industrial revolution, the city’s cotton, linen and woollen industries were flourishing, attracting, amongst others, Jewish migrants from Syria, Libya and Egypt who worked in these industries. These Jewish migrants were amongst the 110,000 residents of Manchester by 1800, a huge increase from a mere 15,000 in the 1740s. By the end of the 18th Century, Manchester’s population included a community of Jewish salesmen and shopkeepers who had settled and established businesses across Manchester, which were originally based in the city centre, before gravitating north towards Cheetham Hill and elsewhere in the city. One of these businesses was the first kosher restaurant in Manchester, opened in 1819 as the first community hub for Jewish Mancunians. Another business was established by Michael Marks, a Jewish migrant who lived in Cheetham Hill with his family. After opening the first penny bazaar in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market, it was in Manchester where he and Thomas Spencer opened the first Marks and Spencer store, on Cheetham Hill Road in 1894.
Unfortunately, economic opportunity was not the only reason why Jewish migrants made Manchester their home. Throughout the 19th Century, Jewish people escaped antisemitic persecution and a lack of opportunity across Europe. Some arrived in Manchester after escaping from harrowing pogroms, the term for an organised massacre of a particular ethnic group. Others came from rescue operations such as the Kindertransport, the scheme which facilitated the arrival of 10,000 Jewish children to Britain fleeing from Nazi Germany. Similarly, Jewish migrants arrived on refugee visas, although these were given out by the British government very cautiously after the First World War, keen only to welcome the “right” kind of refugee: doctors or scientists, or people who were able to fill a gap in the job market. Consequently, the largest group of refugees were women who travelled to Britain on domestic service visas, filling long-standing empty roles in Britain.
One of these Jewish migrants was a young woman named Helga Seligman-Ferara, born in Hamburg in 1820. Her father, Ralph, was descended from famous rabbis and advisors to the king, dating back to the 13th Century, and was the director of the Brahms Conservatorium. This position meant that the family held great societal status, which permitted Helga to attend private school and grow up surrounded by artists, dreaming of becoming a musician herself. However, as the 1930s progressed and the situation worsened for German Jews, Ralph lost his job and Helga had to enrol in a Jewish school. On Kristallnacht, 9th November 1938, the night where more than 1,400 synagogues in Germany and Austria were burned and around 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, the SS came for Ralph. Fortunately, he was able to hide and, shortly after, flee to America, but Helga was left in Hamburg, aged 17. At this age, she was too old for the Kindertransport system, but still too young to travel out of Germany on a domestic service visa. On her 18th birthday, her visa was approved, and she travelled to Britain to work in the homes of several Jewish families, throughout which she experienced maltreatment and a lack of empathy. One family did not allow Helga to eat the same food as them and insisted that she completed her domestic work one-handed when her other hand had become dangerously infected. Another family banned her from joining them in the bomb shelter because the wife was convinced that her husband had taken a liking to Helga. Having had such horrible experiences working as live-in help, Helga managed to escape this occupation, marrying another refugee, Kurt Gorney in 1943. Here in Manchester, the couple established a kosher soap company; the Gorney Soap Company.
A bar of Helga and Kurt’s kosher soap can be seen on display at the Manchester Jewish Museum in Cheetham Hill, alongside many other incredible stories about Jewish Mancunians. The Museum stands alongside the stunning former Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, which visitors can explore and which is the oldest surviving synagogue in Manchester, officially opened in 1874 for the city’s Sephardi community. Through the enveloping stories of Jewish people who all made Manchester their home, such as that of Helga and Kurt Gorney, the Manchester Jewish Museum celebrates togetherness and community, connecting visitors to the Jewish stories which are interwoven into the fabric of this city. These stories illuminate the fascinating history of Manchester’s Jewish community, one of huge influence in the city’s present, illustrating the welcoming nature and vibrant cultural identity of Manchester, the city we know and love.