Next week marks Holocaust Memorial Day. This will also be a day to remember the events of 1190 when York’s Jewish community perished at the hands of a mob. MATT CLARK meets the history professor who will tell the story.

HELEN Weinstein lays a pebble on the commemorative plaque at Clifford’s Tower. It’s a Jewish tradition called Pesikta Zutra and a mark of respect for the dead, meaning, “I was here, I have not forgotten”.

A man looks on. “Oh God,” he says to his wife in disbelief. “We’ve been doing this to the Jews for hundreds of years”

On January 27, Holocaust Memorial Day will remind the world of another atrocity towards Jewish people, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp.

It will be a day when children will find it impossible to believe that 70 years ago, the nation which built their father’s BMW engineered the slaughter of millions to cleanse Europe of people they believed to be racially inferior.

This is also a time to acknowledge a dark day in York’s history; the city’s own holocaust, when 150 Jews were murdered in cold blood or forced to kill themselves at Clifford’s Tower. And Helen Weinstein, public history professor at the University of York, will conduct the York Jewish History Trail to tell the story.

In the 12th century, the church forbade Christians from money lending. The state also prevented Jews from most occupations, but did allow them to lend money and charge interest.

So they became financiers to the crown and amassed fortunes, which caused resentment. Matters came to a head with anti-Semitic riots across the country following Richard I’s Coronation in 1189 when hatred against Jews was fuelled by the King preparing to join the Crusades.

The following year, a York mob attacked the city’s Jews.

“The Jewish community were under the King’s protection and fled to the safety of the royal castle, now known as Clifford’s Tower,” says Helen.

“Unfortunately the royal constable arrived too late, the sheriff was out of town and a York mob laid siege to the wooden castle keep where the Jews were sheltering.”

Rabbi Yomtob of Joigny suggested they take their own lives because of the threat of being burnt alive by the mob. Nearly all of York’s Jewish community perished that day, some by suicide and others from fire and violence at the hands of citizens.

Since then York has had a terrible reputation in the Jewish community. Or has it?

Helen says anti-Semitism was widespread in medieval Europe. There were decrees forcing Jews to wear a badge, identifying who they were; separate and different from their Christian neighbours, and the massacre at Clifford’s Tower was far from an isolated act.

“The massacre in York is fuelled by prejudice and it is important to know who chronicled the event and why,” says Helen. “Now experts, led by Sarah Rees-Jones at the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies, have gone through all the narratives of the time and we have a much better idea of the impact of this event.”

York’s Jewish History Trail is designed to tell us and should also dispel a few uncomfortable myths, such as the one about Cherem, a Jewish curse on the city. This is attributed to the massacre of 1190 and is said to decree that Jews cannot eat or spend the night in York.

The trail is also designed to highlight things we walk past every day without knowing they are there, such as synagogues or covered burial grounds.

From the Bar Walls, Helen points to Sainsbury’s car park. Underneath lies what is reputedly Europe’s largest medieval Jewish cemetery.

“It was extended to a larger plot 40 years after 1190 and that firmly scotches the rumour that Jews wouldn’t live in York after the massacre.”

In fact more evidence from property documents has come to light and it shows York had a substantial Jewish community in the early 13th century.

One deed describes Jubbergate as Jewe Bretgate and Coney Street had a concentration of properties owned by Jews, including a synagogue where Next now stands.

“What’s really very interesting is that by the time we get to the 13th century we can see York’s Jewish community not only re-establishing itself, but growing much stronger, much more lively. And it is playing a really important role in the life of the city.”

One reason is the King and nobility still needed their money lenders and the church continued to outlaw the practice. So by making Jews his direct subjects and giving them Royal protection, the king had ready access to their entire wealth.

That all came to an abrupt end in 1290 when Edward I expelled the entire Jewish population. Their property was seized by the crown and all outstanding debts were made payable to the king.

That, says Helen, could provide a less mysterious explanation for the small Jewish community in more recent times. Between the expulsion and the major Jewish immigration to England in the nineteenth century, Britain’s social and economic landscape had changed radically.

“York was no longer the important political and economic centre it once was and that, rather than the massacre or the idea of a Cherem, probably had more influence on later Jewish settlement.

“There really wasn’t any incentive for them to live in York.”

Holocaust Memorial Day will signify more to Helen than remembering the events at Clifford’s Tower. She is Jewish, with a German name adopted by her great grandfather when he fled to New York following 19th century anti-Semitic persecution in Lithuania.

“As a child the Holocaust was hard to get my head around. One of my aunts is Hungarian and she was the only survivor of her family, all of her siblings were killed and she escaped through Hamburg to New York.”

Helen says she finds it difficult to acknowledge past and present hatred against Jewish people.

“When you have a very difficult past you just hope you can do something in your life to help people understand the relationship between the present and the past, not so much to come to terms with the past but understand why knowing about the past matters.”

That led her into journalism, broadcasting and now academia, although not of the ivory tower variety. Now she is instilling the same “get out there” ethos in her students.

Helen’s institute studies how the public participate with the past and, for her, the trail is an example of getting the next generation of academics to translate their work; rather than their research being only a private activity, instead making it useful and useable in the public realm.

“York has an uncomfortable past; one that people in the city find difficult to acknowledge with ease.

“It can be very hard to think about terrible things that happened on our doorstep and much easier if it happens far away, overseas, elsewhere.

“That is where the trail comes in.”

fact file

• Professor Helen Weinstein is the director of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP). She will lead the York Jewish History Trail with York City Archaeologist John Oxley and IPUP student interns to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 between 2pm-3.30pm. Meet at steps of Yorkshire Museum. The event is free and no booking is required.

You can find the map leaflet and more information about the York Jewish History Trail at

• The free downloadable podcast produced by Helen and her team and narrated by the City Archaeologist, John Oxley, is available at

Also free illustrated leaflet and audio on youtube at

The Nazi Holocaust

ADOLF Hitler’s Nazi party believed Germans were racially superior and that Jews, Gipsies and the handicapped presented a biological threat to the purity of the German Aryan race.

At first the Nazis tried to drive them out of the country, but when they invaded Poland, in 1939, Jews were segregated in sealed off ghettoes.

Then came the Final Solution, an attempt to rid Europe of ‘inferior humans’. The first mass killings of Jews began 70 years ago by using Zyklon-B gas at Auschwitz.

The camp was the largest in German-occupied Europe and went on to record the highest daily number of people gassed and burned at just over 9,000.

The extermination was eventually carried out in 39 camps, but the most deaths occurred at Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau.

Nobody knows for sure, but an estimated 11,000,000 people were killed during the Holocaust. Half were Jews.

The Final Solution started in 1933 when the Nazis targeted anyone descended from non-Aryan, parents or grandparents. Gipsies, the handicapped and Poles were also targeted for racial and ethnic reasons, but Jews were the main targets.

The Nuremberg Race Laws against Jews were decreed in 1935, forcing Jews to register their assets and apply for identity cards. In 1939, Jewish medical professionals were forbidden to practice.

By the end of the war, two thirds of European Jews had been murdered. And even while they waited for their inevitable death, life was intolerable. German doctors carried out experiments in the camps, and the most notorious was Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, whose task was to carry out experiments at Auschwitz to discover how twins were produced genetically and then to artificially create a master race fit for the Third Reich.

Rampant anti-Semitism incited many in occupied countries to collaborate with the Nazis in the genocide. However, Denmark saved most of its Jews in a night-time rescue operation in 1943 when they were ferried to safety in neutral Sweden.

The United States and Great Britain received press reports in the 1930s about the persecution of Jews and by 1942 they had confirmed reports about the Final Solution.

However, influenced by anti-Semitism and fear of a massive influx of refugees, neither country attempted to help.

Eventually, mounting pressure forced the United States to undertake limited rescue efforts in 1944.

In York, the Refugee Committee helped to host Jews fleeing persecution, many settling to make the city their home.

Archbishop Garbett was one of the first to speak out against the Nazis’ persecution, calling the massacre of Jews in Poland “the greatest crime in history”.

Holocaust Memorial Day in York

In York, Holocaust Memorial Day will be marked by a series of lectures and films, while the University of York, will hold a photographic exhibition called Posterity for Posterity which is drawn from survivors of the Holocaust living in Great Britain today, in the Ron Cooke Hub Gallery from January 21 to February 3.

A Public Secret: a public discussion led by Professor Robert Eaglestone, Director of the Holocaust Research Centre, Royal Holloway College, will be held at 5.30pm on January 23 at the Ron Cooke Hub Lecture Theatre.

Remembering the Past: Protecting the Future will take place at 7pm on January 30. This moving and challenging evening draws on the personal family history of Dr Jane Grenville, whose father escaped as a child from Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport.

Throughout the day, local schools will be visiting the Portraits exhibition to take part in workshops linked to the themes of Holocaust Memorial Day and to meet two local Holocaust survivors.

City of York Council has paid for all costs related to the Portraits exhibition and the schools programme and is making a contribution towards catering costs.

Other events will be held at York St John’s University, City Screen and the New School House Gallery.