Lesbia Smith was my great-aunt. She was born and died over a hundred years ago in West Belfast in a street that you can no longer identify on a map, having long ago succumbed to urban planning. Her home for the short seven weeks she was on this earth was ripped down and replaced by a modern estate whose gable ends now display homage to the Unionist cause. Her own Jewish community situated on the Crumlin Road had long disappeared by then. It was the other side of Belfast’s peace wall, just off the Catholic Nationalist Fall Road that I came to know of her existence near murals that pay homage to another narrative, another version of history and another people.
Indeed, Belfast is a place where complex narratives are weaved into a city where mistrust and animosity still exist between the two main communities: it is a world where flags are flown and murals painted that demarcate the sectarian divide: one of the most visible elements of that has been the adoption of positions on the Middle East conflict. Palestinian flags fly in the Catholic Nationalist areas and Israeli flags in the Protestant Unionist areas of West Belfast. It has become part of the landscape.
I had arrived in the Falls Road area in the aftermath of an attack by youths on the Jewish section of the Belfast City Cemetery with several graves smashed to pieces. Politicians and religious leaders on from all communities in the city had been quick to condemn the attack.
For me, there was a personal dimension as I knew my great-grandparents were both buried in the city. As it happened their final resting place is in a newer Jewish cemetery but my determination was to go and try and build bridges. I had used social media to reach out the community in the wild hope that I might be able to sit down with young people in the area to see if I as an Irish Jew could meet them and talk to them about the history and heritage of those buried in Belfast. Shortly afterwards, I was contacted by Paul Maskey, the MP for Belfast West who invited me to come and meet him and local community representatives.
I was met by Paul and two of his colleagues: Stevie, a local councillor and Tom Hartley. Tom was a former Lord Mayor or, as he likes to say, ‘Mayor’ of Belfast; he was only the second person to take up that position from Sinn Fein, the first was Paul’s brother.
The group stood with me outside the Jewish cemetery. I could not enter as a Cohen, a member of the Jewish hereditary priesthood, so they pointed to various things through the gates, which was just as well as we later discovered the gates were welded shut following the attack.
Belfast City cemetery has different sections: Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Sometime in the nineteenth century they built an underground wall between the Catholic and Protestant sections – what apparently is true in life is true in death!!! The Jewish cemetery has a wall around it above ground and is on the outskirts of the cemetery.
Tom turned out to be a local historian and was our guide. He started reading things from his book on the cemetery. He pointed out the ‘Tahara’ house and the stone lintel where the words ‘Beth Olam’ are inscribed in Hebrew. It was his perfect Hebrew pronunciation that struck me and an intimacy with our rituals.
He pointed out the Jaffe memorial and could not resist telling me that he was also a Mayor: ‘He was a Unionist’.
We started to speak candidly about the attack on the graves. All three told me how disgusted they were as were the people living around the cemetery. Drink and other forms of intoxication came into the equation. We spoke about antisemitism and politics. There had been other targets in the cemetery including a World War I memorial.
Stevie and Tom told me that the cemetery has a Lottery Grant to make this cemetery into a heritage site. All agreed that if young people in the area engaged with the project and felt ownership of it they were less likely to harm it. Working on a similar project in London at the United Synagogue I offered to help them with resources on Jewish heritage and to come back to the Falls area.
We spoke finally about my own family. I told them that my great-grandparents the Smiths were buried in the newer cemetery but on reflection there may have been the burial of a child in around 1910.
Tom had to leave early. Two minutes after he left he phoned me having found something in his book: the recorded death of Lesbia Smith 1910. 7 weeks old. At the time the Smiths of Belfast were not wealthy enough to buy a grave for her and she was buried in the poor section of the high walled cemetery in an unmarked grave. Tom says in his book the Jewish section feels sad somehow.
Sure Smith is a common name so I downloaded Tom’s book and it turns out Lesbia’s address is the same as that recorded a year later in the census return from my great-grandparents.
I have since learnt she died of infant malnutrition. She starved to death, born in what records show to be an exceptionally cold month. Her death is related to poverty. She lived and died 100 metres from a hospital in an era before free medicine.
A daughter of persecuted migrants, born into poverty in the slums of Belfast, into the cold and dying of starvation. Her parents could only bury her in the public section of the Jewish cemetery. The City would not allow those buried there to have grave stone.
It was perhaps ironic that as we stood by this troubled cemetery: a future rabbi, a former Republican prisoner, a local MP and a Councillor remembered for a moment the death of a Belfast child. We are now planning ways in which we can ensure her memory and those of the 200 or so Jews buried around her acts as a catalyst for better understanding and that her last resting peace is maintained for many years to come…