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Rabbi Chaim Leib Heilpern

Minister of the Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation
during World War II


David Romney



My uncle, Chaim Leib Heilpern, was rabbi of the Bournemouth (Orthodox) Hebrew Congregation before and during the war and shortly thereafter. He came from rabbinical dynasty. His father was Shmuel Pesach Halperin one of the first rabbis in Gateshead, known to religious Jews the world over for its famous Yeshivah, Bournemouth is a seaside resort on the south coast of England not far from Southampton and the Isle of Wight. This is the place where I grew up. When my uncle was the rabbi there, there was a thriving Jewish community and about a dozen Jewish hotels which were filled to capacity during the summer and during the Jewish Festivals. My uncle was well liked. He was both an orator and a cantor and he had had pleasant way of interacting with people. In other words, he was a real mensh! Below is picture taken after the war, of my uncle, flanked by my brother, Monty (now deceased) and me.

 David Romney, his Uncle Chaim, and his brother Monty

David Romney, his Uncle Chaim, and his brother Monty

After the war, he travelled a lot. I remember that he visited the States, Australia, and Cyprus and Palestine (as it then was). He was an ardent Zionist and was sent by Rabbi Herz, the Chief Rabbi of British Jewry, to Cyprus in 1947 to investigate the plight of Jewish refugees, Holocaust victims hoping to reach Palestine by boat but who had been stopped and interned in camps in Cyprus by the British Government. A number of articles were written in the Palestine Post (now the Jerusalem Post) about his exploits in Cyprus. See below for an example of one of these articles.

Palestine Post, May 14, 1947

From the States he sent Monty and me a letter in the form of a small gramophone record. He said that when he had arrived in Palestine, “large crowds were waiting for him at the station” but I suspect that they were just waiting for the train. He also urged us to “work hard at our studies” and concluded by singing the Hatikvah. In case you’re wondering, there was no piano accompaniment. I wish I had kept that record! He was very active in his time and made an important contribution to Jewish society. During the War he showed exceptional hospitality to American Jewish servicemen who were stationed in Bournemouth. Consequently, in 1946 he received certificate for meritorious service from the National Jewish Welfare Board when Walter Rothschild was Chairman of the Army and Navy Committee. Not many years ago, while attending a conference in New Orleans, I bumped into one of the ex-servicemen who had attended that Seder and who was forever grateful for the invitation.

 American GIs attending Sedar in Bournemouth during WWII

American GIs attending Seder in Bournemouth during WWII

After the War he emigrated to the US. Perhaps he had a row with the congregation about all his travel absences. Unfortunately, his wife, my mother’s sister, refused to accompany him, though she did pay him a visit in 1950 when I believe he had a post somewhere in North Carolina. From 1956-57 I know for sure that he had a job at the Tifereth Israel Temple in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. He came back to Bournemouth briefly in 1957 to attend my grandmother’s (his mother-in-law’s) funeral and then returned to the States to take up an appointment for one year as the first rabbi of the conservative congregation in Palo Alto, California, I have been trying on and off for years to track him down, only to discover that he died at the end of August, 1974 at age 73 and is buried in the Home of Peace Cemetery in San Diego. However, nobody down there seems to remember him. It is very strange. I am wondering where he was and what he did from 1958 until his death. It distresses me to think that nobody in San Diego remembers him. The last 16 years of his life are a complete blank. I suspect that he died impoverished and alone.

© David Romney
September 25, 2003

David Romney is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Calgary.  He and his wife, Claude, have lived in Calgary since 1980.


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