Sunday, 13 July 2008

Suitcases and Sanctuary

What reasons could drive you to leave your country, your friends and your home, never to return? What would you pack if you were leaving forever? Ori Golan finds out.

At the entrance of 19 Princelet Street in East London stands a single suitcase with personal effects: a yellowed newspaper, a label with a faded address, a postcard, a photograph of a man with a child.

Suitcases and Sanctuary is a most unlikely museum. From the outside, with its drab weather-beaten façade and dusty doors, you would hardly guess the place is in use. But entering the building is setting foot inside a mysterious and magical place: a refuge where time, memories and images fuse to create an incredible sensation. The place resonates with history. ‘Listen to the walls’ instruct the writings in a multitude of languages, including Yiddish, Russian, French Bengali and Tamil.

And the setting couldn’t be more appropriate. There's no part of London more varied in its demographic history than the East End. And there is nothing more typical of the East End than Brick Lane, the main road from which Princelet Street runs. Waves of immigrants have come and gone in this street, seeking sanctuary. Walking through the streets is walking through history; a living testimony to dreams and aspirations contrasted by the trials and tribulations of exile and exclusion. It is a human patchwork of faiths, languages and personal testimonies, each different, each unique, each moving. The house in Princelet Street tells a tale of uprooting, persecution, poverty or business opportunities.

On the Brick Lane mosque, a Star of David indicates that it was once a synagogue. But before that it was a Protestant church, where Jews were paid to listen in on the sermons, in the hope that they would convert. Thousands of French Huguenot moved to this area in the 18th century when they were chased away by the Catholics. They were followed by Irish emigrants escaping famine at home, 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 than the Jewish community who arrived in a flood in the late 19th century, driven by restrictions and persecutions in East Europe. Although the bulk of the Jewish community has since relocated to North London, there are still dozens of monuments, plaques and buildings left behind, vestiges of a thriving Jewish community. The mikveh, the Yiddish theatre or the soup kitchen; on some doorposts you can still find mezuzot, some of which have numerous layers of paint coating them.
Grade II* puts it in the top 4% of listed buildings in the country. Many different periods encapsulated in the building dating back to 1719 when it was first built. Six primary school kids from the most deprived borough in the country, each group looked at a different area of immigration. The idea was to put them in the shoes of others. We looked at different aspects of immigration and different immigrants. Each student wrote down their particular take on immigration.

It survived through poverty, neglect, disuse etc. It is going to be preserved and will be almost exactly the same. We will not make it look like any period. It was the first East End synagogue. And there was a school for boys.

The place is run by volunteers. We have graduates from America, business people, homeless people from the Alcoholic recovery center, former residents of the area.

The biggest difficulty is that it is not owned by one community. It’s strength is that it is shared by so many communities but it is also why it is so difficult to raise funds. They rely on small business support, private donors, donations from the public and has applied for a heritage lottery.

We have a rule about our trusties and our patrons on the advisory board: however grand they are, they all have to roll up their sleeves and engage with people. This is about social inclusion. A lot of the work is with children.

The building is not safe to open all year. To open as much as we do, is only possible due to the dedication of 50 volunteers. The objective is to open on a regular basis. You’ll be able to come with a school group, with your granny, with an education group.

There are now less tourists in London. We now have less tourists generally. But the relationship is still good. It is so heartwarming to hear people say ‘it’s so important what you’re doing’. Occasionally, we get negative comments. Sometimes even Jews don’t like the fact that we’re open to Muslims. Some will come in and then see the place and then change their perception. It’s about personal engagement. Tenament Museum in New York.

Inside 19 Princelet street stood a Victorian synagogue, built as an extension to a Georgian town house once occupied by Huguenot silk weavers. It was the very first synagogue with a separate women’s gallery and during the day doubled as a school for young Jewish boys. Today the upper gallery still remains, as does the holy ark.

This place is also a place of mystery. In the 60s, when the synagogue was still in use, David Rodinsky, an unpaid Polish caretaker, lived in the attic room above the building. He was, some claim, a great scholar who spoke different languages and spent a large part of his time studying. One day, Rodinsky disappeared. His room remained undisturbed for over a decade until it was finally opened in 1980. It was a time warp; everything was just as Rodinsky had left it all those years ago. Who was Rodinsky? Why did he disappear? Where did he end his life? The life and disappearance of Rodinsky gave rise to a multitude of myths, legends and speculations.

According to one lore, there were hundreds of books up there, containing mystical formulas and the scholar managed to transport himself out of the room without ever leaving". Rachel Liechtenstein was one of a number of people captivated by Rodinsky’s room and his legacy. Along with Iain Sinclair, she researched Rodinsky’s fate through countless interviews and meticulous archival research. Rodinsky’s Room is the result of their research, which unravels the mystery behind his vanishing. It is a fascinating account, replete with remarkable twists of fate and a surprising conclusion.

Refugee week in Britain is a week when alls orts of projects engaged by and for refugees to draw attention of refugee life. This museum supports this and other projects to poetry visual arts theatre and to heighten awareness of refugee issues.

The Sandys Row Synagogue is the oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in London still in continuous use. This Dutch place of worship is housed in a Huguenot Chapel, built in 1766 and remodeled in 1870.

Many of the Jewish personalities made their fame (and sometimes fortune) in the East End: author Israel Zangwill, poet and painter Isaac Rosenberg, social worker Miriam Moses who became the first woman mayor of the borough of Stepney and champion boxer Kid Berg has his memorial in Cable Street.

Traveling west from Brick Lane, the Soup Kitchen For the Jewish Poor in Brune Street is not just as a slice of Jewish history, but a stunning façade that has somehow escaped the developer’s wrecking ball.

Poverty and poor housing were central concerns as thousands flooded in to an East End that already had the worst slums in Britain. The Stepney Jewish School lives on as a place of education – a study of the gates reveals the ‘SJS’ monogram worked into the ironwork. While at the other end of life’s journey was the Sephardi Old Peoples Home in Albert Stern House, 253 Mile End Road.

Nowhere is the unique history of the area depicted better than the history of the Brick Lane mosque. This building on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane has served religious needs of successive groups of immigrants. Built as a Huguenot Chapel in 1743, at the turn of the 18th 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. By the middle of the 20th century the Jewish community had mostly moved on and in 1976 the building was converted again, this time into a mosque to serve the Bangladeshi community.

On Sunday 4 May let us remember also this day 25 years ago, when Altab Ali, a young Bengali man, was stabbed to death near Brick Lane. His murder sparked a series of anti-racist demonstrations and counter attacks by racist groups: an exposure of discrimination and deprivation so moving it seems barely credible that our society still struggles, still has the same debates, to make a truly fair and equal society.

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