Jerusalem Post Magazine
26 June, 2003
Listening to the walls, By Ori Golan
Hidden in a side street in east London is a stack of old suitcases. What lies inside them, and why are they attracting thousands of visitors?
What would you pack if you were leaving forever? What could drive you to leave your country, your friends, and your home, never to return? These questions spring to mind when you enter 19 Princelet Street in east London. At the entrance stands a stack of suitcases and personal effects: a yellowed newspaper, a label with a faded address, a postcard, a battered photograph of a man with a child.
The Museum of Immigration and Diversity is not your run-of-the-mill institution. Set between two Georgian buildings, with no big sign drawing attention to it, it is easy to miss. In fact, from the outside, with its drab fa ade and heavy oak doors, you would hardly suppose the place is in use. But to enter the building is to set foot inside a magical place: a refuge where time, memories, and images fuse. The place resonates with history. "Listen to the walls," advise the hand-written signs in a multitude of languages, including Yiddish, Russian, French, Bengali, and Tamil.
The location is ideal: there's no part of London more varied in its demographic history. And there is nothing more typical of the East End than Brick Lane - the main road from which Princelet Street runs. To walk through the narrow winding streets is to walk through history. Waves of immigrants have come and gone in these streets, leaving their mark on every house and alley. It is a human patchwork of faiths, languages, and personal testimonies - each different, each unique, each deeply moving. The museum weaves together tales of persecution, poverty, and oppression. It is a testament to the dreams and aspirations of countless individuals who set out to rebuild their lives while dealing with the realities of exile and exclusion.
The East End served as a sanctuary for thousands of French Huguenots - Protestant members of the Reformed Church who were forced to flee France in the 18th century. They were followed by Catholic Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine, later to be replaced by Bangladeshi and Somali newcomers in flight from the ravages of war.
But few groups have left so profound a mark on this part of London as the Jewish community that arrived in a flood in the late 19th century, driven by persecutions in Europe. The bulk of London's Jewish community has since moved to the north of the capital, but there are still dozens of monuments, plaques, and buildings which bear silent witness to a once-thriving Jewish center here, from the mikve to the Yiddish theater to the Jewish soup kitchen; on some doorposts you can still find a mezuza covered in coats of paint. This is where a number of Jewish personalities made their reputations - and sometimes their fortunes. Author Israel Zangwill and celebrated war poet Isaac Rosenberg lived in this area, as did Miriam Moses, the social worker who became the first woman mayor of the borough of Stepney. At the end of Brick Lane stands the famous Jewish-owned bagel place, open around the clock, peddling bagels filled with cream cheese and smoked salmon.
Nowhere is the unique history of the area better depicted than by the Brick Lane mosque. This building has served religious needs of successive groups of immigrants. Built as a Huguenot Chapel in 1743, at the turn of the 19th century it was briefly used by the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Amongst the Jews before becoming a Methodist Chapel. In 1898 it became a synagogue, and in 1976 the building was converted to its current function as a mosque, serving the Bangladeshi community.
Curiously, the Star of David is still visible on the wall.
The house at 19 Princelet Street was constructed in 1719 by a Huguenot silk merchant and was converted in 1870 into a synagogue, the very first in the area with a separate women's gallery. It was not only built in the image of an Eastern European shtiebl, but a number of items, such as the ark, were actually brought over by Polish and Russian refugees. The 19th-century chandeliers still hang from the ceiling, and the Holy Ark remains intact. Through a glass ceiling, yellow daylight falls on an elegant balcony with paneling that shows the names of past worshipers in gold letters. When you close your eyes, you can almost hear the clamor of children, the chattering of women, and the feverish chorus of praying men. During the day, the shul doubled as a school for young Jewish boys and beneath it, a basement was excavated. It was there that the first meetings of the British anti-fascist movement were held in the 1930s.
This house is also a place of mystery. When the synagogue was still in use, David Rodinsky, a solitary Polish Jewish immigrant, lived in the attic. He was, some claim, a great scholar who spoke many languages and spent a large part of his time studying. In 1969, Rodinsky vanished. His room remained undisturbed for over a decade, until it was finally opened in 1980 and an eclectic collection of his personal belongings were found, including an assortment of notebooks in Sumerian, Arabic, Japanese, Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek, and Russian. The room was just as he had left it.
Who was Rodinsky? A reclusive genius or a miserable pauper? A tzaddik or an ignorant fool? Why did he disappear? These unanswered questions gave rise to a plethora of speculations. They ranged from the plausible to the outlandish. There was even a suggestion that with the help of mystical formulas and kabbalistic know-how, Rodinsky managed to transport himself out of the room without using the door.
A young artist, Rachel Liechtenstein, was one of a number of people captivated by Rodinsky's room and legacy. Along with novelist Iain Sinclair, she researched his fate through countless interviews and meticulous archival research. Rodinsky's Room is the result of their joint research, and unlocks the mystery behind his vanishing. It is a remarkable account, replete with twists of fate and a surprising conclusion.
With Rodinsky long gone and the synagogue in disuse, the house was bought by the Spitalfields Centre. It is run and maintained by a diverse team of patrons, trustees, advisers, and volunteers, and the building is now an educational resource center and home to the "Suitcases and Sanctuary" exhibition, which explores the backgrounds and experiences of immigrants to Britain through the eyes of local children.
When Susie Symes, chairwoman of the Spitalfields Centre, talks about 19 Princelet Street, its history and its present role, you cannot but admire her fiery enthusiasm, her personal involvement, and her commitment to the place. "You have to be passionate about such a project," says Symes. "The place is run by volunteers who give up their time to open it so that everyone can learn from it. We have a rule about our trustees and our patrons on the advisory board: however grand they are, they all have to roll up their sleeves and engage with people, be it selling postcards or welcoming visitors. This is about social inclusion."
The house has attracted a diverse crowd, including graduate students from America, businesspeople, homeless people from the Alcoholic Recovery Centre, and former residents of the area. Its strength is that it is shared by so many communities. Recently, a joint venture of six local primary schools had pupils make an in-depth study of a particular ethnic group that settled in the East End, in an attempt to get them to experience empathy. Working with artists, historians, poets, and actors, they wrote down their thoughts and feelings on immigration. The outcome is an evocative collection of writings, poetry, and drawings, all attempting to tell a story. A video clip of their work shows a group of Asian children recounting a Yiddish folk tale about a shopkeeper and how he deals with anti-Semitism.
"The idea was to put them in the shoes of others," explains Symes. "We looked at different aspects of immigration and different immigrants. The history of Spitalfields is the history of its immigrants: successive waves of peoples who brought new skills, new attitudes, new cultures and new foods - peoples who over the past millennium shaped multicultural Britain for the 21st century."
The irony of the Museum of Immigration and Diversity is that it is rarely open to the public. Special visits are arranged for schools, universities, refugees, and other groups, but it is only open to the general public on a handful of occasions during the year. This is because the building is not safe and needs serious structural work. In fact, the museum is fighting for survival, trying to raise 3 million to safeguard its future.
Symes: "We need more funds in order to welcome all who want to experience this special place. We are fighting to preserve this place, not 'do it up.' We are not going to restore it to a particular style or period. We want it to look almost exactly the same as it is now, only stronger. When that is done, places which are currently out of bounds to the public [like Rodinsky's room] will be accessible again. We will then also be able to open on a regular basis to the general public." Given the current political climate and general animosity displayed toward asylum seekers, a lack of tolerance across the country and a rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, it seems a very fitting time to open this sort of exhibition. Symes nods in agreement. "In general there are now fewer tourists in London, but the support we get from visitors is overwhelming. Our supporters include those who have fled from Burundi, Somalia, and Kosovo. Young, old, rich, poor, they are from all walks of life and of all ethnicities. It is so heartwarming to hear people say, 'It's so important, what you're doing.'"