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The Only Jews In The Village

A young Diane with her brother Gerald at Weston-Super-Mare.

Yes, we were the only Jewish family in this small village in South Wales.  Llanhilleth was a mining village of about 2,000 people about 30 miles from Cardiff where my grandfather opened a general drapers shop before I was born, which my parents took over after he died.

Although there was no shul anywhere around and absolutely no facilities foodwise, we kept strictly kosher and led a very Jewish life.  My brother and I went to Newport every Sunday to attend cheder.  It involved an early morning journey by bus along the narrow valley roads, passing one small mining village after another, arriving in Newport in time for the lessons to begin. This was the only contact we had with Jewish friends. After 3 hours of lessons and a nice chat, the same return journey of about 14 miles was undertaken and we were more than ready for our very late Sunday lunch upon arrival at home.

Kosher meat was sometimes sent from London by train, often not arriving at all or having to be thrown out as it had gone off during the journey.  However, we were much luckier with chicken for Friday night dinner.  My brother would collect the live chicken and bring it home by bus, and I have colourful memories of a squawking chicken running around our back yard.  The area shochet would come on a Thursday to kill the poor fowl.  I remember my mother disappearing into a garden shed draped in an overall and scarf to protect her hair in order to pluck, ‘disembowel’ and kosher the bird in readiness for our dinner table.

My grandma lived with us after my grandfather died and it was her job to make the cholahs.  Again, I have a vivid memory of two cholahs standing on the floor in front of the kitchen fire every Thursday morning waiting to rise before being baked.  We had a very grand Friday night dinner followed by enough left over for Shabbat lunch.

Pesach was a particularly difficult time for my mum, but in spite of the lack of facilities we still managed.  My mum would go to Cardiff to buy our food for the week, but it was the kids’ job to collect the milk.  My brother and I would climb the mountain every day with our ‘Pesadicah’ bucket to visit the local dairy farm and we would watch the cow being milked. As a special treat the farmer would often let me attempt the milking. The milk went directly into our bucket and we would trudge back down the mountain hoping we didn’t spill most of it before reaching home. I remember my brother tripping on one occasion, spilling the whole bucket and having to make a repeat journey to get more.

For the major Yomtovim we moved en-mass to Newport and stayed with my aunt and uncle so that we could attend services, as this was the nearest shul to our home.  This was always a big treat for me as I could spend time with the friends I had made at my weekly cheder visit.

For a long time a story circulated around the family that during the depression in the late 20’s when the coal pits were closed and there was no other form of income for most of the men, my grandfather could not bear to see the children walking around with torn shoes. We were told that he would often take them into the shop, sit them on the counter and put a pair of plimsolls on their feet. One often wondered whether these family stories from the past were exaggerated, but an amazing coincidence occurred almost 80 years and 4 generations later.

My son, Peter, had a holiday job working for El Al at Heathrow Airport.  On one occasion he checked in a group of nuns who were on a pilgrimage to Israel.  He recognised their very strong Welsh accents and asked them where they lived.  Imagine the surprise of both parties when they said they lived in Llanhilleth.  Peter explained that his great-grandfather had had a clothes shop in the village, at which point one of the nuns became very excited and told the following story:

“When I was 5 or 6 during the great depression, your great-grandfather took me into his shop and gave me new shoes.  My mother returned them the following day saying that she was unable to pay for them.  Your great-grandfather told her it was more important for me to wear a decent pair of shoes and she could pay for them when my father was back in work.  Although I was so young, his kindness has stayed with me all these years. It showed us all just how kind Jews can be to others”.  In Peter’s own words “Well that was it.  We all started to cry.  It was amazing to hear the story for real”.

We left Llanhilleth when I was nine and moved permanently to Newport where it was much easier to lead a Jewish life.  Although there was only a small Jewish community, compared to Llanhilleth it was huge. There were only two other Jewish girls in my school, both of my age and we were all in the same class.  It was a novelty for me not to be the only Jewish girl in the school.

Diane Marcus

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