Nobody Visits Synagogue Now -- Vibrant Jewish Community In Irish City Of Cork Has Dwindled Away

CORK, Ireland - They were confused and frightened children, dropped on Cork's rocky shore in 1882, knowing no one, speaking a strange tongue and following unheard-of customs.

At least a dozen Jewish children from Lithuania were on their way to the United States. They were put ashore, possibly to make room for Irish people bound for the New World, and told, ``New York is just the next parish over.''

They became the nucleus of a Jewish community that numbered more than 400 at its height in the late 1930s.

Now there are nine Jews left in this city of 160,000. Frederick Rosehill, 63, goes down to the little synagogue in the heart of the city every Saturday and opens the doors for worshipers.

No one ever comes.

``Sometimes the loneliness of it, the memories of when the benches were full, makes me so sad that I can't even pray,'' he said.

Rosehill looks around at the 15 empty benches in the small, empty room, and he weeps.

``I'm afraid that when I'm gone, there will be nobody to take care of the synagogue. But soon we will all be gone. There won't be a Jew left in Cork.''

If history is any guide, some Irish person will take care of the synagogue. From the day the frightened children landed here, Cork has shown its concern for the Jews in its midst. It has named a 100-square-foot plot of greenery in the old Jewish neighborhood Shalom Park. It has arranged for perpetual care for the small Jewish cemetery overlooking the River Lee. And in 1977, it elected Gerald Goldberg to be its lord mayor.

Goldberg explains the affinity of the Irish and the Jews as partly due to a shared history of being dispossessed. And more: ``Like us, the Irish are an emotional people, an artistic people and a people with a fighting spirit.''

Nobody ever doubted the fighting spirit of Gerald Goldberg, who at 78 is maybe the oldest practicing trial lawyer in Ireland.

He is a writer, scholar and historian, honorary member of the James Joyce Society and contributor to Bernard Shillman's ``A Short History of the Jews in Ireland.''

``Nearly all the Jews in Ireland now are Lithuanian Jews,'' Goldberg said, ``and nearly all of them came here in the late 19th century. Lithuania had come under Russian control, and the czar had decided that all Jewish boys should be conscripted into the Army at the age of 12 for a period of 30 years. This, in effect, meant they were taken away and never seen again.''

``The people of the village of Ackmehan, now called Ackmeme, arranged for children threatened with conscription to take a ship for America.''

Other Lithuanian Jews also left around the same time for the United States, England and Dublin, but it is believed that the only Lithuanian Jews to come to Cork were the children put ashore there in 1882.

There is little record of Jews on this island before that time. Shillman, in an article written in 1958 for the Irish-Jewish Yearbook, notes that the first record of Jews in Ireland appears in the Annals of Innesfallon, written in 1062:

``Five Jews came to Ireland from over the sea, bringing gifts . . . but they were expelled again over the sea.''

Shillman points out that there were only about a dozen families of British-born Jews in Dublin when the influx of Lithuanian Jews began in the early 1880s.

The number of Jews in the Irish capital rose to about 5,000 by 1957. Those who went to that city were treated as well as the new arrivals in Cork. In fact, when the Jews of Dublin undertook to build a synagogue in 1892, two major newspapers urged their readers to contribute.

Those who came to Cork, Goldberg said, survived mainly as peddlers. But they did anything they could to get by. They stayed together, and they preserved their traditions.

In his autobiography, not yet published, Goldberg writes about learning to sing ``republican rebel songs'' on the street and English patriotic songs in his Protestant elementary school. (His secondary school was a Roman Catholic institution.)

``I'm very proud to be a Jew and very proud to be an Irishman and a Corkman,'' Goldberg said. ``I'm the product of two great traditions. The Irish have a folklore that stretches back almost as far as that of the Jews.''

Looking back on their early years in Cork, Goldberg and Rosehill say they never imagined that the Jewish community that seemed so vital in their childhood would become almost nonexistent in their lifetime.

The number of Jews in Cork began to decline in the 1940s. By 1945, the number of families was down, from a peak of 100, to 60. By 1964, there were 25 families comprising only 75 people.

The last Jewish marriage ceremony in Cork was in 1955.

The remaining Jews in Cork are Rosehill and his wife, Patricia (their three children have emigrated); Goldberg and his wife, Sheila (their four children have emigrated); Rosehill's sister, Sylvia, and her son, Eric, and retired investment broker Henry Cohen, his wife and son.

``At Passover and Yom Kippur, we can't have a service unless we have 10 males over the age of 13,'' Rosehill says. ``So we bring people here from Dublin. Sometimes we have to pay them to come. Can you imagine? Paying people to come and worship with you?''

He looks around again at the empty benches and then leaves the little synagogue, padlocking the door behind him. He will open it again on the next Saturday ``in case anyone wants to come here to pray.''

But he knows no one will.