Looking to the past, present and future

A prominent couple of the North’s Jewish community speak to Martin O’Brien

Almost 400 people filled the Grand Hall of Belfast City Hall last week for Northern Ireland’s   Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration but for one of those present, Shoshanna Appleton, the event was even more poignant than for anyone else.   

Everyone was of course remembering the six million Jews who were exterminated in the Holocaust and those in other genocides since in places such as Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. And wishing that lessons are learnt and fervently hoping that such catastrophes never happen again.  

Alone among the eclectic gathering representing different strands of the community here, including many members of the  dwindling Jewish congregation, Shoshanna must first and foremost have been remembering and praying for some of her closest relatives, including her four grandparents, who were  actually among those six million Jews wiped out in the Holocaust.

Other victims of Hitler’s genocide were also remembered including Roma gypsies, homosexuals and persons with disabilities.   

A few days earlier Shoshanna and her husband Ronnie, two of the most senior members of Belfast’s Hebrew congregation sat down with me over a convivial lunch in their home near Bangor, about 10 miles from Belfast.

Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, held each year here under the auspices of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, one was inviting them to reflect on a number of matters: Their improbable love affair which once brightened a drab news agenda in Belfast; more seriously the rapidly diminishing Jewish community in Northern Ireland; their distinguished service not just to that community but to society generally here over more than 50 years and the contrasting peace processes in Ireland and the Middle East.  

But first I had to ask Mrs Appleton about what had happened her family in the Holocaust.

She said: “I still have the letter my grandmother, Rosalia Cohen, wrote to my mother in Jerusalem from Vienna in late 1938. It said ‘please get us out of here because they are coming to get us. At best we’ll be put into hard labour, at worst it doesn’t bear thinking about.’

“My grandmother finished the letter by saying we already think it‘s too late.”

Shoshanna, who was born in Jerusalem of parents who fled persecution to Israel as chalutzim or pioneering settlers from Poland and Vienna respectively, said her parents “moved Heaven and Earth” to get them money and passports to escape but it was too late.

They never heard from her grandparents again.

Shoshanna has told the story numerous times and relating it evidently still hurts. But it must be told and it is appropriately distressing to hear.

“All I have left of my lost family is this letter,” she says.

Her paternal grandparents and their family also were among the millions who perished in unthinkable circumstances.

Ronnie Appleton, QC (86) was president of Belfast’s Hebrew congregation for a quarter of a century until 2008 and a mark of the esteem he enjoys there is his appointment since then as co-president.

“They refuse to retire me,” he smiles before reverting more sombrely to the stark reality that  the  congregation has fallen from around 1,500 when he married Shoshanna in the early Sixties into a state of apparent terminal decline to just 80 souls today, more than half of whom are over 70 and many well over 80 and some over 90. 

He says only 30 to 35 are able to attend services each Saturday and only two or three children, including one of his grandchildren are in the cheder (equivalent to Sunday school) where there were once up to 150 children.

“It is very sad. We have a past, we have sort of a present but we have no future. One day Belfast will be the same as Cork where there are eight Jews left.”

Mr Appleton puts the sharp decline down to two factors, “not just the Troubles but also the real difficulty of finding other Jews to marry and establish a home”.

As a result Belfast Jews have been steadily departing for places such as Manchester where there is a more healthy Jewish population.

Both he and his wife are sceptical about the 335 figure given for Jews in the 2011 Northern Ireland Census. “We haven’t seen a figure like that for a long time. There are wannabes but why they want to be wannabes I don’t know!” says Ronnie.

Ronnie and Shoshanna have five children with families of their own, three boys in London, a daughter in Israel “replacing me as it were”, says Shoshanna, and another daughter who lives near them.

The spiritual leader of the Belfast Jewish community is Rabbi David Singer and Ronnie says there are already plans in place for the development of a museum at the synagogue on Somerton Road in north Belfast to ensure that the community’s story is preserved for posterity.

Part of that story is that Chaim Herzog, sixth President of Israel was born nearby in Cliftonpark Avenue and that Sir Otto Jaffe, a Jewish linen merchant was twice Lord Mayor of Belfast around the beginning of the 20th Century.

Mr Appleton was born in Belfast of parents who met in Glasgow in 1926. His father’s family and his mother’s family had escaped pogroms in Lithuania and Ukraine respectively in the 1870s.

A “struggling young barrister” he met Shoshanna,  a 19 year old bi-lingual secretary on his first summer holiday, just  one week in Israel, in August 1962.

It was love at first sight and a classic whirlwind romance. “But you did not tell me you were 34 to my 19,” Shoshanna reminds him with a twinkle in her eye.  

He returned at Christmas, popped the question, they got engaged and were married in Tel Aviv on April 2, 1963.

Shoshanna recalls Belfast was so quiet on every front that their wedding made headline news and that a Belfast Telegraph news poster bearing the words ‘BELFAST BARRISTER FINDS BRIDE IN ISRAEL’ was seized from outside the newspaper’s offices on Royal Avenue and put up in the Bar Library. 

Ronnie became one of Northern Ireland’s most successful barristers and was appointed senior Crown prosecutor in the Diplock non-jury courts in 1974 requiring 24/7 police protection until he retired 25 years later. During the Troubles five judges were assassinated and there were numerous attempts to murder others.  

“We were all in danger but I thought it would be for a few years. No one expected the Troubles to last so long.”

He expresses satisfaction that “the bombs and guns have been silenced” but is dismayed at the inter-communal hatred in the North “particularly at street level which will take generations to resolve”.

He insists that the political leaders “have got to look forward and look beyond their followers and lead them to a brighter future.”

He became involved in many charitable ventures including being founder of the Northern Ireland Lawyers Pro Bono Unit and chairman of the Belfast Thanksgiving Square project.

Ronnie is more optimistic than his wife about the prospects for peace in the Middle East pointing out that negotiators “nearly got there several times”

Shoshanna who as a four-year-old remembers her family fleeing their home in east Jerusalem for Jaffa during the Arab Israeli War at the time of Israel’s creation in 1948 is deeply pessimistic.

“I hope I am wrong but I don’t think I can ever see peace there.”

Shoshanna is the founder co-chair of the Council for Christians and Jews in Northern Ireland and with her husband has been an active member of the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum for many years stressing their satisfaction with the good relations they have enjoyed with Mulsim leaders such as Dr Mamoun Mobayed.

They were deeply struck  by Blessed Pope John Paul II’s prayers at the Western Wall in 2000 and remark with approval on his 1986 statement that the Jews “are our elder brothers” pointing out it is a phrase they have heard often from their friend Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR.

They look forward with a sense of excitement to Pope Francis’ visit to Israel in May.

The Appletons are a couple who have enriched this society and the diminishing Jewish population leaves us all the poorer.