Treforest Trading Estate
Treforest Trading Estate, later known as the Treforest Industrial Estate, was a Special Area set up as part of the Special Areas Act of 1934. The act targeted areas of high unemployment, such as South Wales, Tyneside and Scotland, offering incentives for businesses to establish themselves there. British businessmen were largely uninterested in these areas, but when the Nazis began seizing Jewish businesses in 1938, several Jewish refugees took advantage of easily-acquired residence permits and significantly-reduced rents to start factories. Between April 1935 and July 1938, 187 refugee businesses were founded in Britain, but by August 1939, this had expanded to almost 500, of which more than 300 were located in Special Areas.
By May 1940, 55 firms started by Jewish refugees were operating out of Treforest, near Pontypridd, employing around 1,800 people. They helped reduce reliance on imports, in some cases establishing new technologies in Britain. Some factories, such as Aero Zipp Fasteners, a zip-manufacturing business established by Berlin-born businessman Joachim Koppel, were requisitioned to aid the war effort. This factory created aircraft components for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, while Austrian Jew Otto Brill’s Livia Leather Goods Ltd produced leather seat covers for Royal Air Force aeroplanes.
Desider (Des) Golten’s family moved to Wales from Czechoslovakia (they were initially from Žilina) in 1939. His father had a manufacturing business in Prague, and was able to move most of his immediate family with him when he re-established the factory in Treforest. Six of them lived in the same house in Whitchurch, Cardiff, with only one bed to share between them.
He remembers that initially, “it was dreadful, because when we came over, we came into a different country, we didn’t speak the language, we had no idea how we were going to manage…and mother particularly was…unhappy for about a year or so till she got used to it…it was a great culture shock”
After the war, Des worked in the factory alongside four of his relatives. Tragically, his grandmother, and an aunt, uncle and cousin were left behind, taken to Auschwitz, and murdered by the Nazis.
In this interview, recorded by a member of his family in October 2010, Des recounts the journey from Prague to Britain in 1939.
Kindertransportee Harry Weinberger worked at his uncle’s factory in Treforest from 1941-44. He worked there for 10 hours a day, with only half an hour for lunch, and went to the cinema or for long walks in the hills during his spare time. He helped his landlord’s son with his homework – a condition of his board, although he was also treated at the local pub. The factory made mortars for the army, which came in handy for Harry during his subsequent military training: “when we were asked to dismantle and reassemble the mortars, I could do that. I never told them why, because I made these things, and they thought I was a genius because I could do this without being instructed how to do it.”
Billi Holden’s family moved from Bavaria to Treforest in May 1939, after her father received permission to set up a plastics factory. She remembers her parents’ decision to come to Wales as fairly arbitrary: “They got a map out and they sort of…There was Belfast, Liverpool I think, County Durham, Glasgow [the other Special Areas]… Well, anyway, they measured it and it seemed to be the straight run to London so that’s what happened.”
Billi and her sister went to school locally in Cardiff. Her sister was older, and had to learn Welsh before she could learn English, since none of the rest of the family knew any English. Billi soon learned how to excuse herself from her kindergarten, and used this opportunity to wander home! Her father eventually learned English as well, and was once asked where he was from. When he replied “Wales” – the response was “I didn’t think they spoke like that.”
In this interview, recorded by the Jewish History Association of South Wales in 2018, George discusses Treforest (available at People’s Collection Wales):
Paul Schoenmann was an Austrian businessman who owned a cigarette paper factory in Vienna. Following the Anschluss in 1938, the factory was confiscated and his passport declared invalid. He managed to flee with his family in April 1939, although he was only permitted to leave with the equivalent of £5. He set up the General Paper and Box Manufacturing Co Ltd with four other directors at Treforest and produced Rizla cigarette papers. George, Paul’s son, remembers that “Making the papers and small boxes was very labour intensive – a sea of girls packing booklets by hand – and eventually the company employed around 300 people which was very welcome in the depressed Valleys.”
Paul even helped his brother-in-law, Erich Oppenheimer, to be released from internment when he recommended him for a job at an optical goods company at Treforest. Erich’s two daughters had arrived on the Kindertransport, and he and his wife had also managed to escape to Britain, before he was arrested and taken to the Isle of Man. Erich, his wife and daughters moved to Cardiff, and he later joined the Home Guard.
The Schoenmann factory was bought out by Rizla in 1948 and Paul was let go four years later, but formed a new company making bedroom and kitchen furniture.
Gaby Koppel’s father, Henry (originally Heinrich Pinkus) was chief engineer at Aero Zipp after the war, and she lived alongside several refugee industrialists in Cardiff as a child in the 1950s and 1960s. She remembers the tradition that several of them would meet with her father for coffee on Sundays, after she and her brother had come home from cheder:
“the idea was, sort of, business chat, really. The men all sat in the front room, and you got…you know, they got out the best china and made some very strong black coffee, and it really…the atmosphere was dense with this sort of cigar smoke, it was like this real bug in there, even on a sort of summer’s day, they might have the curtains closed and they’d be in there chatting and, I don’t know, doing…just chatting”
Approximately 1,000 firms were established by refugees in Britain from the 1930s to the late 1940s. These businesses employed 250,000 people, significantly greater than the numbers of refugees who came to the country. According to the Jewish Chronicle in 1963, most businesses started by refugees at Treforest before the war remained in the area in the decades afterwards.
Gerhard Hirschfeld (ed.), Exile in Great Britain: Refugees from Hitler’s Germany (Leamington Spa: Berg, 1984)
Colin Holmes, John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871-1971 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988)
Cai Parry-Jones, The Jews of Wales: A History (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017)
George Schoenmann, ‘End of an era for Rizla factory’, Wales Online, 2 January 2006 (https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/end-era-rizla-factory-2356398)