Harry Towb (1925-2009) was a very popular Irish Jewish actor born in Belfast, Northern Ireland who, in 1983, wrote and narrated a BBC2 documentary about the history of his Belfast Jewish community. He tells us about the early German Jewish settlers in Belfast, the Jaffe family, whose patriarch, Daniel Jaffe, founded the first synagogue in Northern Ireland. His son, Otto, was Lord Mayor of Belfast, but due to hostilities against Germans around the time of World War I, the family, despite being Jewish, was made to feel unwelcome and left.
The second wave of immigrants toward the end of the 19th century which included Towb’s grandfather came from Russia and areas of Eastern Europe, most particularly Lithuania and Latvia. Towb says that many assumed they were buying tickets to America but had been conned and landed in Hull. Those who settled in Limerick encountered entrenched anti-Semitism there, so moved up to Belfast where they felt welcome.
A Belfaster, Barney Hurwitz, along with other Belfast Jews, responding to the impending disasters in Europe in the late 1930’s, founded the Belfast Refugee Aid Committee to help Jews in Europe come to Belfast where Millisle Farm became the site of a Jewish refugee agricultural community. The goal was to train its residents to live a communal kibbutz-like life so that they could work in agriculture in Palestine. Most of the residents did immigrate, bringing their skills with them to the new-found state of Israel.
Belfast Jews were prominent citizens throughout the middle nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Towb discusses their contributions to the arts as well as commerce. His last interview is with Belfast-born Chaim Herzog, former president of Israel. They have an interesting discussion about the similarities (and differences) between Ireland’s troubles and modern day Israel’s and what it was like for Herzog to have lived through conflict in both places.
Throughout this 50-minute documentary, Towb draws from his own life and conducts interviews with Belfast Jews who are still part of a community, but whose numbers are diminishing as the younger generations move for opportunities elsewhere.
To watch the History of the Jews of Belfast, with Harry Towb as narrator, click on the following you tube videos. All four add up to less than an hour.
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
To read a detailed article about the history of the Belfast Jewish Community which was originally published in Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, click here.
Harry Towb – Harris’ grandson
Otto Jaffe – Daniel’s son
Mark Jaffe – Otto’s son
Max Miller – Harry Miller’s cousin
Harold and Regina Ross
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Various locations in Israel