During the last fortnight, my usually-solitary archival research has been ably and happily assisted by Susannah Fitzgerald. A recent History and Politics graduate at the University of Glasgow, Susannah’s well-conceived dissertation compared the responses of Glasgow and Manchester Jewish communities to the thirties refugee crisis. It has earned her a very well-deserved first class Honours degree. Here are Susannah’s reflections on her all-too-brief time with project, working with the collections of the Mitchell Library and the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre:
Upon beginning my research placement on the Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces project, I found my understanding of the project’s topic matter to be a mix of familiar and foreign, accustomed and unacquainted. Having undertaken my own research into refugees in Glasgow in the 1930s, I had a fairly solid understanding of this subject and Jewish communal life in Glasgow during the first half of the twenty-first century. However, having inhabited Scottish Spaces my whole life, my knowledge of how these were impacted and developed by Jewish Lives was fairly limited out with this narrow focus. My participation in the project has thus allowed me to build on prior knowledge and interests whilst expanding these interests into new areas.
Regarding my own research, this was based on an undergraduate dissertation which examined the responses of the Jewish communities of Glasgow and Manchester to the refugee crisis in the 1930s, prior to the outbreak of war. Therefore, perhaps most interesting in this regard was our research at the Mitchell Library. In flicking through the records for the Lord Provost’s Fund for Refugees and locating refugee children in Garnetbank Primary School’s admission registers and logbooks, my knowledge of the topic was expanded beyond a specifically Jewish focus to seeing how the problem was tackled in tandem with the city’s non-Jewish inhabitants. Moreover, these records documented how refugees began to weave their lives into the fabric of the city, creating new pockets of Jewish life to replace the ones they had lost.
However, much of my research on the project introduced me to new aspects of Jewish life. What was new was not so much an appreciation of the depth and warmth of Jewish communal life in the city as an ability to become more acquainted by those who created it. In particular, this accolade was afforded to Sophie Geneen, the ‘Mother of Glasgow’. In reading about her life and accomplishments, from hosting wounded soldiers in her kosher hotel to co-founding a charity for poor brides, what came through was not only her significance to the Jewish community but to the Gorbals as a whole.
Moreover, the extent of the Dorrith Sim collection provided insight into the way a remarkable individual negotiated her Jewish identity, particularly through the juxtaposition of her family heirlooms and the photo albums of her early childhood in Germany with her own voice recorded in detailed letters and writings as she built her life in Scotland. Most interestingly for me, it linked my established interests to new findings, putting life and experience to the mere names and numbers I had engaged with before.
It is this personal aspect which, for me, makes preserving and digitising history so important. Though many may know the facts, it is the people behind them that make history truly interesting and make archival research such a rewarding experience. To make this experience more accessible and to promote an understanding of the way Jewish communities have both developed within Scotland, and contributed to the development of Scotland, is an important endeavour. It is a task that I am happy to have been able to spend the past two weeks contributing to, in however small a manner.