Uncle died as Simon visited family roots

FAMILY HISTORY: Simon Glass with historian Regina Kopilevich in Vashilishok, Belarus

THERE was a hugely poignant moment when filmmaker Simon Glass was about to leave Belarus.

He had been there to make The Jews of Leeds, which tells the story of thousands of Jews who migrated from Russia to Yorkshire in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Just before Simon left for his trip to Lithuania and Belarus, he visited his great-uncle, Jack Goldberg, the youngest son of Rebecca Miller, who was born in the predominantly Jewish village of Vashilishok.

“Jack was on his death bed, but when I told him I was going to Vashilishok, he opened his eyes and looked at me,” Leeds-raised Simon told me.

“It was a place which had always been known in the family, as in an oral tradition which had been passed down.

“The day I was leaving Belarus, my mum called me to say Jack had died.

“In a way, it seemed like a bit of closure for the trip as, just as I had left the village, Jack decided to pass on once he had discovered one of his relatives was going back to the family’s ancestral village.”

The documentary will be shown regionally on BBC One, in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, on December 10.

It will then be broadcast nationally on BBC Four in January, as part of a series of programmes called A Very British History.

The BBC contacted London-based Simon after seeing his film The Last Tribe, which charts how the Leeds Jewish community progressed from its roots in the Leylands to contribute to the city’s judiciary, culture, medicine, commerce and sport.

“They wanted to look at the Leeds Jewish community from the perspective of a local storyteller,” the 32-year-old said. “It helped that there is also a lot of archival footage of the community, going way back to the 1930s.”

Simon’s maternal great-grandmother, Rebecca Miller, was born in Vashilishok.

Her uncle, a tailor, left the Russian Empire first and was followed by her and her two brothers to Leeds.

In the documentary, Simon also looks at what life was like for his ancestors when they arrived in Leeds more than 100 years ago.

As well as Belarus, his family heritage goes back to Lithuania and Latvia. And he went to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, which was once known as the Jerusalem of the North.

Simon explained: “Growing up in the Moortown area of Leeds, we went to the New Central Vilna Synagogue, so that name, ‘Vilna’, was always imprinted on my brain from being a young kid — but I had no idea what it meant.

“It was like a mythical place where old people came from, so to go back was stepping foot on a land that the community I come from is named after.”

While visiting the archives in Vilnius, he found the records of his great-grandmother, her father and his four brothers, which pinpointed Simon to the village of Vashilishok.

“We met a local woman there who was around when the village was still home to Jews,” he recalled.

“I asked to use the toilet and was pointed to a little outhouse, which had a hole in the ground — it was like something out of the Wild West.

“There is also a memorial to its Jewish community, which is in good condition.”

He said that part of the film’s message was about him wrestling with his own identity.

Simon, who did a DNA test as part of the film, added: “I wanted to discover whether Judaism is a culture, race, religion or ethnicity? Is it something you cannot escape from because it is in your blood?”

The Jews of Leeds, which also features footage shot by Simon’s great-uncle Jack, will have a preview screening on Thursday (7.30pm) at the city’s Northern School of Contemporary Dance, followed by a discussion with Simon.

He recently formed a production company, Neapolitan, with his brother, Jacob.

They make documentaries and short films and one of them, Dogspotting, was shown on Film4.

Simon and Jacob whose mother, Beryl Glass, lives in Leeds, and dad, Stephen Umpleby, lives in Huddersfield, have two more projects in the pipeline, including a web series called The Communists.


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