A new digital resource allowing users to explore former sites of Jewish memory in East London went online this week. On it you will find audio interviews, photographs, and essays about more than 70 sites (we hope to include more in future) that consistently appear in people’s recollections of Jewish East London.
The memory map aims to create a lasting document of both the history and memory traces of the Jewish East End, and attempts to bring the stories and memories of this rapidly vanishing landscape to new audiences. The project is a collaboration between myself, Dr Duncan Hay, Professor Laura Vaughan, and Peter Guillery, from across four different research units based at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL): the Faculty for the Built Environment, the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, the Space Syntax Laboratory, and the Survey of London.
Without an expert guide it is almost impossible to get any sense of the vibrant Jewish past of East London. I became fascinated with this history after moving to the area in the 1990s, tracing the footsteps of my paternal grandparents Gedaliah and Malka Lichtenstein, who were Polish Jewish migrants who met and married in the Jewish East End in the 1920s. They were part of a later wave of Jewish refugees who settled in the area, after the East End had already become its own distinct Jewish quarter during the 1880s as tens of thousands of new arrivals came to London fleeing the pogroms and persecution in Russia and the Pale of Settlement. By 1900, over 95% of the population of Wentworth Street (the home of the world-famous Petticoat Lane market) were Jewish immigrants. From the Victorian era to the Second World War the Jewish East End thrived, street signs were written in Yiddish, over 100 synagogues and small steibels were established in the area, alongside a bustling commercial Jewish center with a complex network of self-supporting interconnected Jewish institutions. There was also a vibrant Jewish cultural life in the area with four dedicated Yiddish theatres, multiple Yiddish newspapers and journals, literary groups and societies, cinemas, dance halls and many active political groups including anarchists, Zionists and communists who met on street corners as well as place like the Workers Circle. Many of these disparate groups came together on the 4th October 1936, when Oswald Mosley, leader of the BUF (British Union of Fascists), tried to march his Blackshirts through the streets of East London. Thousands of Jewish migrants were joined by Irish dock workers and other left wing activists who blocked the march during the now legendary Battle of Cable Street.
The Second World War and its aftermath marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish East End. The place was so badly bombed during the war that most people who had been evacuated either did not want to come back or had nowhere to come back to. Whitechapel was filled with bombsites, abandoned buildings with boarded up windows, dusty and ruinous. The Jewish community was leaving in droves. Most that could left the East End, including my own grandparents who moved to Westcliff in Essex, or Whitechapel-on-sea as it was known back then due to the size of the Jewish community.
The glamour of the East End had long gone by the 1950s: the gigantic plush cinemas that could seat over a thousand people, the multiple theatres, Hollywood style photographic studios, European coffee houses and Jewish owned shops started to close down. By the 1960s the little synagogues were closing down. Around the same time a new group of migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh were starting to establish themselves in the area. Former synagogues became clothing workshops. Kosher shops and restaurants started serving halal food. The East End of London was transforming itself once again.
In 1976 the building that had once been a Huguenot Chapel before it became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue (also known as the Machzike Hadath) was sold to the Bangladeshi community and became The Brick Lane Mosque. It holds up to 4,000 worshippers at a time and is now as packed on Ramadan as it once was on Yom Kippur. High on the wall, above the Fournier Street entrance, is the Latin inscription ‘Umbra Sumus’, which translates to ‘We are Shadows.’
Around this time a few individuals started to record the last remnants of the Jewish East End. David Jacobs, the British Jewish historian rescued many artefacts from abandoned synagogues in the area, which later formed the basis of the temporary Museum of the Jewish East End (which opened for a few years in the Sternberg Centre in North London and later merged with collections at the London Jewish Museum). Oral historian Alan Dein began collecting memories of former Jewish East Enders, which also became part of the first museum collection.
I moved to the area in the 1990s, searching for remnants of my own Jewish heritage, which led to books including Rodinskys Room (co-authored with Iain Sinclair, Granta 1999) and On Brick Lane (Penguin, 2008) inspired by the groundbreaking East End studies of Professor Bill Fishman, the first to put the story of Jewish East London on the map. Eventually I too became a tour guide of the Jewish East End. During all the years I spent walking around the place exploring the last remnants of Jewish East London I met many older Jewish residents who sometimes joined me for a walk around the area. They talked with great sadness and an acute sense of nostalgia about the Whitechapel of their youth, ‘The crowded Jewish centre of London’ a place bursting with life: ‘the stink and the wonderful smells’ of the lively markets. They remembered the Russian Vapour Baths where ‘the devout Hasidim with their sidelocks, long black coats and beards would wait to get into the steam baths before Friday night services.’ They described pre-war Whitechapel as one big working Jewish settlement.
When I first moved to the area thirty years ago there were other tangible remnants of former Jewish occupation in the area; the marks of a mezuzah on a doorpost, a faded name written in Yiddish above a boarded up shop, a traffic chocked star of David above a gentleman’s outfitters on the high street. There were even a few Jewish owned businesses and institutions still operating; some down at heel delicatessens, kosher eateries and bakeries, a smattering of functioning synagogues. Today only a few tangible traces remain, such as the facade of the former Jewish Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor, Nos. 17–19 Brune Street. Even the Jewish Memorial showroom in the area has recently closed down. Jewish Whitechapel has become a shadow realm, a theatre of memory invisible to the present-day visitor, impossible to navigate without an expert guide. Today only the faintest whispers of the rich Jewish past in the area remain, most are on the verge of disappearing or have disappeared completely.
This new interactive website brings together many recordings from my substantial archive of audio interviews with former and current Jewish residents of East London many of whom are sadly no longer with us, with testimony from the Sandys Row collection, new and archival photographs, original research produced collaboratively by the team, and essays from the Survey of London.
You can visit the map here: https://jewisheastendmemorymap.org
To start exploring just click on one of the coloured shapes, which have been placed on the location of sites of Jewish significance and colour coded into different themes, and information will automatically pop up about that site including audio clips, archival and contemporary photographs, historical data, excerpts from literature and historical essays.
Subject to further funding, we hope that this map will become a growing resource about the history of the Jewish East End. This project builds on the Survey of London Whitechapel project, with its emphasis on mapping buildings, architectural records, and people’s own contributed recollections and shows how mapping alongside recordings, historical photographs, written testimonies and formal historical records come together to build a richer picture of the past – mirroring the inter disciplinarity of our collaboration.
A Note on the Current Situation
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the team hope that the Memory Map will provide education and entertainment in this challenging time. Please share this resource widely, particularly with those who you think will find solace in the project.
If you have any queries about the project, please contact the team at email@example.com.
Rachel Lichtenstein is a writer, curator, oral historian, artist and Associate Professor in English and History at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her publications include: Estuary: Out from London to the Sea, (Penguin, 2016), Diamond Street (Penguin, 2012), On Brick Lane (Penguin, 2008) Rodinsky’s Room (Granta, 1999 with Iain Sinclair), Keeping Pace: Older Women of the East End (Women’s Library, 2003), A Little Dust Whispered (2002) and Rodinsky’s Whitechapel (Artangel, 1999). Her artwork has been widely exhibited both in the UK and internationally: Whitechapel Gallery, British Library, Barbican Art Gallery, Wood Street Galleries (USA) & The Jerusalem Theatre (Israel). She is a tour guide of the Jewish East End and has worked as archivist and historian at London’s oldest synagogue Sandys Row. For further information: www.rachellichtenstein.com