The “disproportionate” contribution of Northern Ireland’s Jewish community to the war effort during WWII is explored in an exhibition in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter.
The exhibition in the visitor centre at HMS Caroline was launched yesterday and also explores the Province’s role as a sanctuary for Jewish refugees fleeing mainland Europe.
The location is significant as one of the Jewish men featured in the exhibition is Captain Harold Smith, a South African seaman who came to Belfast to captain the HMS Caroline after serving with the Royal Navy during WWII.
He went on to become president of a group called the Belfast Jewish Community, a city councillor, and the first chairman of the Belfast Education and Library Board. He died in 1993 aged 78.
The heritage exhibition had previously been in the Belfast Jewish Community’s synagogue at Somerton Road, but has been reduced slightly for the HMS Caroline exhibition space to focus primarily on Captain Smith due to his links with the ship.
Dennis Coppel, the current president of the Belfast Jewish Community, was a boy when he lived beside Captain Smith on the Antrim Road.
Now 82, he recalled Captain Smith: “He was a man who was very quiet and unassuming. Whatever interests he had he rose to the top in them.”
The exhibition’s curator Dr Sandra Baillie said: “There is a lot of emphasis on the Holocaust and rightly so, but we’re trying to redress the balance whereby Jewish people are not all portrayed as victims.
“There were those who joined the war effort and of course those who lived ordinary lives.”
She added: “The exhibition is from the Second World War to the present day, and is a record of people who have been involved in the forces.
“It’s a great example that you can be Jewish and be loyal to the forces.
“War records show there was a disproportionate number of Jewish people who joined the forces, and that’s true of Northern Ireland.”
While Captain Smith dominates the exhibition, other stories include those of GI bride Olga Caplin, Bobby Black, who served as an artilleryman, and Lionel Chandler, a member of the Royal Air Force.
Some of the exhibition also focuses on Millisle Farm in Co Down which became a base for Jewish refugees during World War II.
As well as artefacts belonging to Captain Smith, it also features mannequins wearing both military and traditional Jewish attire.
Dr Baillie said: “Seeing the tallitot (Jewish shawl) on the uniform is quite stark – that people could retain a distinct Jewish identity yet serve their country.”
• The exhibition runs until September 19 in the visitor centre at HMS Caroline