High on a Hill

High up on Hill Street overlooking Glasgow’s valley…

Glasgow skyline composite (2)stands a proper and prominent synagogue, as if telling all concerned, that the Jews of Glasgow are here to stay, and equally deserving of a splendid house of worship to celebrate Shabbat and festivals that can easily compete with a host of surrounding Anglican and Roman churches.

The Garnethill Synagogue is Scotland’s oldest, built between 1879 and 1881 with flourishes of Romanesque Revival on the outside,

shul exterior1

and Byzantine Revival architecture on the inside…

shul lobby (2)

leading to a grand sanctuary…

bimah and ark

once defined by an Orthodox tradition of seating women upstairs, apart from men who prayed downstairs.

Garnethill Synagogue panorama

But that edict has changed at Garnethill Synagogue for a different reason: there’s simply not enough of a remaining congregation to fill the seats. Men and women are now reunited downstairs, but (thank God) still segregated by sitting on opposite sides, gaining entry through separate doors.

Harvey Kaplan delights in telling me the story of Jewish immigration to Scotland.

Harvey

For the past 11 years, Harvey has actively advocated for the past. He leads the charge as the director of the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre, an adjunct to the Garnethill Synagogue, working to make Scottish Jewish heritage relevant to a shrinking Scottish Jewish community that now favors bigger Jewish population centers in Manchester and London.

His vision will soon reach fruition thanks to a grant and remodel to be finished by 2020.

SJAC lobby

I had contacted Harvey earlier in anticipation of my efforts to research of my mother’s journey as a girl through Britain during the Holocaust.

After a tour of the sanctuary, we got down to business. Harvey’s mission to preserve the nation’s Jewish identity became clearer to me as I reflected on my drive to Haddington and Polton earlier in the day.

Before my appointment, I first stopped at Whittingehame House–

Whittingehame House (3)

–one-time residence of Lord Balfour, Prime Minister, statesman,

Whit from the side

and architect of the monumental Balfour Declaration, which granted homesteading rights to Jews in Palestine after Middle Eastern maps were redrawn following WW1.

In the wake of Jewish children seeking refuge in Britain to escape the Nazi scourge, Lord Balfour’s nephew and heir, Viscount Traprain, offered his home and its extensive grounds, surrounded by twisted yew trees,

yew tree.jpg

as a farm school from 1939 to 1941 for teenaged refugees interested in making Aliyah to an Israeli kibbutz in the near future.

Sheep Meadow.jpg

I became aware of the change to the estate when I noticed an online ad (https://www.onthemarket.com/details/3579306) detailing a ground floor, 4-bedroom flat with an asking price of £1,850,000. But still, I had to see it for myself.

sign.jpg

Unfortunately, nobody was home. Perhaps, I should have made an appointment with the realtor.
Whit rear
From Haddington, I traveled to Polton, a community near Lasswade in Midlothian, in search of the Polton Farm School, the successor to Whittingehame Farm School, when Whittingehame closed its doors in September 1941.
The trip became more challenging after Google maps rejected my request, and left me hanging. I drove through several country hamlets looking for a sign (from God), and found the clue I was looking for by the side of the road.
Polton Inn
I spoke to the lassie tending bar at the Polton Inn, who admitted to being a born and bred townie who knew a wee bit of history about the area. As I spun my story, she perked up.
“You absolutely must go next door and speak to the gentleman of the house. Certainly, he would know better than anyone what became of the school, ’cause I know for certain there was a school there back in the day, for I believe the farm you’re speaking of is on the other side of our wall,” she said.
Polton Inn wall
I loved listening to her brogue, and wished I could perfect that lilting tone. “You mean I was that close?” I wondered.
“Will you come back and tell us what he said?” she asked.
If there was any doubt, the gates said it all.
Polton Farm
Unfortunately, the farmer turned me away, informing me that all the property was split up in the 1960s to make room for development. There was nothing more than that.
Harvey didn’t have very much on Polton House either, but he’s optimistic. Somewhere, he surmises, there’s an attic somewhere in Scotland filled with a treasure trove of documents and photographs that’s waiting to be discovered by the descendants of early refugees, immigrants, and freedom seekers who willed a way to make a life for themselves and their families.
And when that should happen (and it does happen), Harvey will be there with his troupe of volunteers to dutifully catalog it all in order to preserve Scotland’s Jewish identity while there is still something left to preserve.
When we parted ways, I returned to the Glasgow overview,
glasgow spires
and I realized that the sky’s the limit.