VOLUNTEER SPOTLIGHT: Christina Hilsenrath
Christina Hilsenrath is chair of the Friends of the Bath Jewish Burial Ground, a small group of committed volunteers, who are responsible for the restoration and maintenance of Bath’s historic Jewish burial ground. Christina’s mother came to England on the Kindertransport from Berlin in 1939. Researching her family history led to a broader interest in Jewish history. She discovered that Bath, a City know for its Spa and Georgian history, once had a small active Jewish community and an historic Jewish burial ground. Hidden behind high stone walls in Combe Down, few residents and visitors to the City know of its existence. It was established in 1812 when four members of the local community leased a small plot of land from one of the local quarry owners. The first headstone, for Sarah Moses is dated 1812 and the last for Solomon Kesseff 1921, though oral history is that the last burial, of a very long standing member of the Jewish community, was 1941.
The burial ground is now the only physical site of Bath’s Jewish Community. During the twentieth century the Jewish community was too small to pay for its maintenance and repairs. But in the early 2000s it was saved from dereliction by members of the Jewish community and a local heritage group. The Friends now have a very active conservation and restoration programme. Over the last 18 months they have raised sufficient funds from local and national bodies as well as individual donations to repair one of the rare chest tombs that was in danger of collapse, repair the most fragile headstones, restore the gates to improve security, and improve the physical access so more people can visit. They are currently trying to raise sufficient funds to restore the on-site cottage to create a small visitor centre to tell the story of Bath’s Jewish community and bring to life the hidden diversity of the City.
Christina has also been researching the history of the burial ground and the lives of the people buried there. Her research has revealed the hidden story of a community active in the professions and commerce of the City but also tragic stories of early deaths, suicides and violence. These include Maria Michael who was one of the first women in England to petition for divorce in 1861 after long years of suffering her husband’s “beating, striking, throwing plates and knives and threatening to kill her”. And the sad story of Eva Jablonski, who was in Bath during the First World War but threw herself from an upper window of her lodging house after a policeman asked her about her registration papers.
The Burial Ground is always open for private visits and will also be open to the public on Sunday 2 May from 11am to 4pm. A printed guide and smart phone app will help visitors read the inscriptions and give information about the people buried there together with the history of the burial ground. If you are unable to visit on 2 May but would like to visit at another time, please email Christina a fobjbg.gmail.com. If you would like to support the Friends restoration and research, please visit http://bathjewishburialground.org