© Marcus Roberts (1995 and 2005)


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The war, when it came, led to a massive, though temporary, swelling of the Jewish population in the town, by several thousands, as both refugees and evacuees poured into the town. Pre-war, the community had amounted to some six families and a few university students. And on High Holy Days, the congregation had only been able to muster 'ten or twenty worshippers'; by 1940, however, congregations were in the hundreds and the community had the services of a rabbi, Dr Weinberg.

The wartime influx meant that there was a rich Jewish social and cultural life in Oxford. One of the well-known community centres set up in this period was in the YMCA building in Walton Street. The community also had a social club in the Forum on the High Street and there were other unofficial Jewish congregations set up in Iffley, Cowley and Headington.

Additional overflow congregations set up around the city for religious festivals were to be found in St James' Hall on Cowley Road as well as a hall in Collins Street (near Eastern Avenue). There was also a kosher meat section in Butterfields and Sons, a butcher's shop in the covered market, and a number of Jewish traders elsewhere in the market, which gave a distinctive Jewish flavour to this famous Oxford landmark.

Initially, for around three months, most of the foreign Jews in Oxford were temporarily interned amidst fears for national security. They were released from 1940, after being graded by a university committee, the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPLS). Class I refugees worked in areas directly of benefit to the war effort, Class II refugees were scholars of 'great distinction' and Class III contained the rest.

Many of these refugees played a vital role in the war effort, among them Ernst Boris Chain, a Berlin Jew and a talented musician, who arrived at Oxford (via Cambridge) in 1935. His worth was somewhat overlooked at first with Hans Krebs of the SPLS rating him as a 'C minus' and stating that he was, 'more of a musician than a scientist and would do better in music than in chemistry.' However, when Chain teamed up with Howard Florey, the pair played a pivotal role in the development of penicillin, thereby saving the lives of countless combatants who would otherwise have died from infected wounds. In 1945, Chain and Florey shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Fleming -- just recognition for one of the greatest of all medical innovations.
Other Jewish residents of wartime Oxford made a more unusual contribution to the war effort, having been recruited to work at the Bletchley Park Government Code and Cipher School, where they helped to decrypt the Enigma code and produce intelligence codenamed 'Ultra'. It seems that government recruiters considered their ability to read Hebrew and Hebrew studies ideal preparation for the task at hand.

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