Tuesday, December 18

A Christmas Tale: The Ghosts In My House

In my medieval thriller The Fifth Knight, there’s a plot development that relies on a minor character. That character is a Jewish moneylender in the North Yorkshire town of Knaresborough. 

Knaresborough Castle
© E.M. Powell

Knaresborough is where the historical record tells us that the knights fled after murdering the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. I knew that there was a thriving Jewish community in the medieval city  of nearby York, but in the course of my research, I was pleased to find evidence of a (much smaller) community in Knaresborough. The town’s Civic Society have even erected a plaque near the site of the 13th century synagogue.

© E.M. Powell

Giving my minor Jewish character the occupation of moneylender was deliberate (as it was necessary to the plot) and not stereotypical in the context of the time period. There was substantial economic growth in the 12th and 13th centuries. The literate, educated Jewish communities that had previously been heavily reliant on trade began to be excluded from mainstream commerce. Many shifted to money lending as an alternative. Under the law of the Christian church, loaning money for profit was forbidden. But it was not forbidden under Judaic law. Crucially, money was transportable, as these centuries also saw repeated mass expulsions of Jews across Europe.

King David playing the harp, Germany c 1375
In 1290, King Edward I ordered the expulsion of all Jews from England, confiscating (of course) all their wealth into the bargain. It would be another 350 years before Jews were re-admitted and before communities began to re-establish themselves. In my adopted home city of Manchester, settlement began in 1780 and had grown steadily ever since, with the largest Jewish population in the UK outside London. The house we live in was built nearly a hundred years ago, but we are the first non-Jewish family to live in it.

So it was without surprise that I answered a knock at our front door one day to see an unknown middle-aged man and woman standing there. We hadn’t owned our house long at the time, and people called to ask about previous occupants. (Representatives from the synagogues also called frequently, until I clocked that I been air-headed enough to leave the mezuzah on the front door post. I returned it to them with profuse apologies).

The beginning of the account of the five rabbis at Benei Braq.
The five rabbis are in the windows of a building;
their pupils are knocking on the door. Spain, N. E., Catalonia (Barcelona) c. 1340

But my latest visitors asked me some strange questions. ‘How old was our house?’, ‘When was it built?’, ‘Did I know the names of people who’d lived there before?’ I must have looked suitably bewildered, until the woman said, ‘I’m terribly sorry to bother you with all this. But you see, I was adopted, and my mother was a maid in this house.’ They were invited right in and the woman (whom I will call Alison) told me her story.

Her mother, Elizabeth, was a maid living with and working for, the Jewish family who owned our house at the time. Elizabeth was an Irish Catholic (same as me).

But Elizabeth got pregnant. Age forty, to an itinerant Irish labourer, who disappeared with all haste. This was 1947, where there was only one option for Elizabeth, pregnant and unmarried, according to the Catholic system of the time. When her baby was due, she was sent to a local convent to have it. Baby Alison arrived and Elizabeth had her precious daughter for a week. Then she was called to the parlour by one of the nuns, where a strange family waited. Heartbreakingly, Elizabeth had to hand her baby over to them immediately, knowing she’d never see her, hold her, touch her, kiss her -ever again.

 Alison had a very happy life. Her adoptive family were loving and very comfortably off and she wanted for nothing. She married happily, but often wondered about her real mother. When she turned fifty, she decided to do something about it. A long, long search led her to rural Ireland. Elizabeth would have been in her nineties by then, so Alison figured she wouldn’t be alive. But she was. The search had almost dried up, but a chance encounter at a hospital, with someone else sharing Elizabeth’s surname, led Alison to her.

Elizabeth was alive, with eight siblings: uncles and aunts for Alison and a raft of cousins. And not one of them knew of Alison’s existence. Elizabeth had kept her heartbroken silence for over fifty years. She told Alison that having her taken from her arms was the worst moment of her life, and that she thought of her every day, wondering if she was all right. She also told Alison all about the Jewish family in Manchester. How they had been so kind when she confessed to her pregnancy, how they had kept her job open for her. She returned to live with them for many years after, until she returned to Ireland as an elderly woman. This was not a typical reaction in the world of the time. Uneducated Irish maids were two a  penny. An illegitimate pregnancy was usually grounds for instant, unreferenced dismissal. And this was 1947, where the devastating horror of the Holocaust was still a living nightmare for Jewish families and communities everywhere. Yet they showed her absolute compassion and understanding and did the best they could for her.

Some of the Temple implements with the menorah in the centre.
Spain, N. E. (Catalonia), c 1375

Elizabeth died soon after being reunited with her daughter.

What could I do, except show Alison round our house. Many adaptations have been made since the time her mother lived there. The original back door to the kitchen has been bricked up, but this was where Elizabeth would have gone in and out, answering to tradesmen and delivery boys. Some of the original windows were still there. Alison put a hand to one, and said: ‘My mother would have cleaned these when she was carrying me.’ We went upstairs to the small front bedroom, which we guessed would have been Elizabeth’s, now our baby daughter’s. On a shelf was a little statue of Our Lady, given to us by a family friend.

 Shortly after her visit, Alison sent me a lovely thank you note and a copy of a beautiful photograph. Her and Elizabeth, both smiling with an absolute, undiluted joy. As ghosts go, I’m very happy to share with Elizabeth - and her Jewish protectors.

Nativity with Snow
France,  c 1410-1430    

Nollaig Shona Dhaoibh
! (which means Happy Christmas to You All- in Irish).

Unless otherwise indicated, all images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/welcome.htm


  1. What a wonderful story ... all the right ingredients of suspense, love, trauma and turmoil. Just right for the season :)

  2. What a fascinating story. It's given me an insight into two cultures and their history.

  3. What a touching tale! Learnt what a mezuzah is, too!


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