Mapping our community’s Roots

Jewish culture By Helen Singer 12th Jul 2017

Way back in 2013, some members of the St Albans United Synagogue and St Albans Masorti Synagogue (SAMS) prepared and gave a talk on the ‘History of the Jewish Community in St Albans’ at the Verulamium Museum, and later at SAMS.

At the time, we talked about having a map where we could pinpoint where our own families had come from. We even printed out a map and started sticking dots on but they got a bit piled up and started falling off!

Then when the SAMS Roots project came along last year we realised that we have the tools to do this now, using an interactive website called Historypin. This allows you to create a collection and ‘pin’ photographs and descriptions to the Historypin map, giving the location and date for each photograph.

We were encouraged to use this site by the University of Hertfordshire’s Heritage Hub team who supported the SAMS Roots project.

The SAMS Roots project had Heritage Lottery Funding and allowed us to employ a biographer, our own Caroline Pearce, to interview 12 members of the community about their memories and experiences and what brought them to SAMS.

You can find the transcripts, audio files and summarieshere.In addition, for each SAMS Roots interviewee one photograph was attached to the Historypin SAMS Roots collection. We also had our own display in the SAMS building and a very successful launch in June 2016.

Subsequently, Pauline Symons and I thought it would be fantastic to ask all the adult members of SAMS to send us two photographs of their ‘roots’, together with the stories associated with them, to extend the original Roots project to the whole community and build up a virtual exhibition of all our Roots.

We put together a project plan which was approved by the Trustees. We have also involved our Cheder and the B’nei Mitzvah group. The aims of the project are to:

  • Encourage our young people to find out more about their families’ Roots
  • Involve SAMS members of all ages, allowing us to discover the Roots of our community
  • Provide a showcase for SAMS and aid understanding of our diverse heritage

The project has its ownweb pagewhich links from the Roots page. When you click on the SAMS Roots Tour onHistorypinyou will see a description for each photo and the map will show where the photograph was taken. You can zoom into areas on the map or sort the photos by date using the slider bar.

Pauline and I devised a template and instructions to send all our members. This asked them to send us their photos and descriptions electronically but we were very happy to visit people in their own homes and really felt we got to know our contributors better.

We tested out our template by providing our own photos and stories; we started with a photo of Pauline as a baby in Australia, her grandparents in East London, my mother arriving in England on the Kindertransport and my father’s family in Germany taken with the camera he was given for his Barmitzvah.

We are delighted with the response we have received; at the time of writing we already had 82 pins with over 1600 views, all in just six months.

The stories are weaving an amazing tapestry of our heritage over time and place, with roots in South Africa, Iraq, South America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and various parts of the UK, in particular the East End of London.

It is interesting to see how early some members’ ancestors arrived in England and what occupations they pursued. The stories are so varied and colourful in terms of geography, history and personal anecdotes, from recipes for Borscht to Yiddish theatre, with tales of sorrow and survival as well as tales of joy.

We discovered connections with a famous illusionist, an intrepid South African journalist, a famous agony aunt, the Battle of Cable Street, a bullet given to Vera Lynn and a Schindler’s List survivor.

As well as photographs of people, we have been able to incorporate some fantastic documents such as naturalisation certificates, a 1919 Barmitzvah invitation, a Yiddish betrothal document and a Ketubah. The stories date back to an ancestor who was born in 1703, only fifty years after Cromwell readmitted Jews to England, to more recent times.

We would like to thank our members who were generous with their time and very happy to share some wonderful and extraordinary stories and it has been a great way to bring the community together. Sometimes people said their stories were boring or that they didn’t have any but with some gentle questioning we were thrilled to discover some amazing histories. We have received some lovely feedback on the project with participants telling us how much they enjoyed contributing their own stories and reading those of others.

We held a successful Mapping SAMS Roots Celebration on Sunday 25 June. The website is accompanied by a display in the SAMS building so if you are visiting do please take a look.

We have put together a ‘Mapping our community’s Roots toolkit’ for any communities that would like to create their own collection. Do please get in touch if you would like to map your own community’s roots.

Helen Singer is a member of St Albans Masorti Synagogue. If you want to find out more about the Mapping SAMS Roots project, contact [email protected][email protected]

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