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Jewish cemetery's custodians appeal for descendents to help preserve plot

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 03, 2013

  • Perfectly-preserved headstones in Penzance's Jewish cemetery and, top, custodian Keith Pearce PICTURE: PHIL MONCKTON

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The custodians of a precious part of Cornwall's religious heritage are hoping the descendants of families buried in a hidden graveyard will help them repair the plot.

The well-preserved headstones of Penzance's Jewish Cemetery are a reminder of at time when the town had a flourishing Jewish community.

As well as graves dating back more than 250 years, the site includes a partially preserved Bet Tohorah, or cleansing house.

Concealed in a maze of terraces and lanes, the cemetery is protected by high granite walls, with the result that many people who have lived in Penzance all their lives remain unaware of its existence.

Leslie Lipert, treasurer of Kehillat Kernow, the Jewish Community of Cornwall, explained that as with any heritage site, running repairs were necessary. he is now hoping to raise sufficient funds to restore its preimeter walls.

Said to be the finest example of a Georgian Jewish cemetery outside London, it was first used in the 1740s, with the enclosure walls being added a century later.

"The families who are buried here reveal a remarkable and interesting history," said Mr Lipert. "Many descendants of these families, now scattered throughout the UK and abroad, are becoming interested in their Cornish roots. Those people who are organising the fund-raising and awareness of the cemetery through the Friends of Penzance Jewish Cemetery are anxious to make contact with these descendants.

"The lives of those Jewish families had a major impact on the commercial, religious and economic life of Penzance. Its miraculous survival is due to the far-sightedness of the Jewish congregation, who in 1844 bought the freehold to the whole site and in 1845 began to completely enclose it. It is these walls which now need restoration work to ensure this now 'closed' burial ground is preserved."

Records indicate Jewish families began moving to Penzance from the early 1700s, with many families emigrating from Germany and Holland. Numbering some 30 families, they contributed to economic, social and religious life in the town. There were merchants of all kinds and store owners selling wine, spirits, clothing, jewellery, household goods, furniture and watches. Others were scholars, peddlers, rabbis, pawnbrokers and coppersmiths. Many were poor but most were highly industrious and it is well-documented that they were involved in charitable community work.

Among the names represented in the cemetery are Woolf, Hart, Oppenheim, Simmons, Levin, Bischofswerder, Levy, Selig, Jacob, Greenberg, Ezekiel, Joseph, Moses, Zalman, Teacher, Barnet and Salzmann.

The cemetery's historical importance has been recognised by the Royal Institution of Cornwall and the Cornwall Archaeological Society and nationally by the Jewish Historical Society of England, the Jewish Mepmorial Council, the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments and the Council for British Archaeology.

For the past 17 years, the Grade 2 listed plot has been looked after by Penzance resident, Keith Pearce, who took over as custodian from Godfrey Simmons, a descendant of a former minister at Penzance synagogue. It is maintained by the town clerk's office and is also under the supervision of Penlee House Museum and Gallery.

Mr Pearce originally agreed to help on a temporary basis, but has since become an expert on Jewish heritage. He co-wrote The Lost Jews of Cornwall with Helen Fry in 2000, while The Jews of Cornwall: A History is to be published by Halsgrove in 2014.

Penzance's Jews began to drift away from the town to other parts of Britain and abroad as Cornwall's economy began to shrink towards the end of the 19th century.

By the outbreak of the First World War, the last of the settlers had moved on.

Anyone wishing to contribute to the fundraising or who thinks they might have family links to the cemetery can contact Leslie Lipert at leslielipert@rocketmail.com

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