in the garden


Dec 2000 Journal

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Art notes

Nineteen Princelet Street resonates with memory. Next door is the house where Spitalfields’ first woman mayor, Miriam Moses, was born. Bits of mosaic lino, still clinging to the dusty floorboards beneath a coloured glass roof, tell the history of the nineteenth century synagogue, built there when Jews fled to Britain from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. The Huguenots, who invented the word refugie occupied this house, which was built in 1719; the Irish, escaping the potato famine, the West Indians, Iranians, Iraqis, Somalis, Afghans, Kurds, Chinese, Bangladeshis, all brought an individual atmosphere to London’s changing East End. Spitalfields, named after the twelfth century Priory of St Mary Spital, whispers with the ghosts of refugees, but it takes children to breathe life into it again.

And that is exactly what happened this autumn, when Friends of the Spitalfields Centre invited local schoolchildren to project themselves into the lives of new immigrants through art, poetry, drapery, letters, anything in fact which evokes the anguish and excitement of reinventing oneself in a new place. The suitcase is the theme of the exhibition and it becomes a Pandora’s Box of memory. Spools of coloured threads from the Jewish sweatshops, pastel labels on which children write what they would take with them from home in one bag. A teddy bear, writes one, my family, writes another; hope, faith, Shabbos candles, my rosary. Britain has been a melting pot since the Norman invasion of 1066. But you tend not to think of Celts, Danes and Norsemen in the same breath as Jews, Caribbeans and Asians. Britons certainly didn’t during the Great Fire of London in 1666, when they blamed it all on the foreigners.

The participating schoolchildren learn that the Huguenots escaping persecution from the ruling French Catholics in the seventeenth century, were silversmiths, clockmakers, silk weavers and merchants and that the house was rented by Peter Abraham Ogier who brought up his family here. They filled their suitcase with paper boats, wistful diaries and letters home, recalling French hills and school friends never to be seen again, but also the anticipation of a better life. As a poignant hint of eternal change, this front room with its synagogue was occupied 100 years ago by the Ogier children, then by Jewish barmitzvah boys. Today Bangladeshi women come here to learn English.

In 1869 the lease on the house and garden was bought by Polish Jews who raised money to build a synagogue. The Rothschilds, Montagus and Mocattas were the long- established families who helped them put down roots. Local schoolchildren, including many from immigrant families, were filmed on a video recording Jewish history. The presenter is a young Asian girl. Later the children are shown lustily singing Hinei m’a tov u manai’im, and the following parable of a wise man’s response to antisemitism is told by the group. The man offers ten roubles to anyone who calls him derogatively a Jew. Eventually he can only offer one rouble for his assailants, who then get the message.

Their suitcase is filled with threads, spools and needles of the rag trade. This was a time when the only escape for Jews from grinding poverty was boxing or show business. And the text on the wall tells us how English neighbours learned Yiddish to communicate as the words nosh and schlepp entered the English vocabulary. In the basement of the house, excavated in 1869, some of the earliest meetings of the Anti-Fascist movement were held.

In 1952 Britain looked to the Caribbean to help rebuild the shattered, war-torn country and advertisements were posted throughout the West Indies to attract people to start a new life here. A powerful picture is evoked of a colourful, exotic past abandoned for the hope of sanctuary in a cold country whose streets, it was thought, were paved with gold.

The Spitalfields Centre has a vision: to launch a museum – or celebration of immigrant life, in the words of spokesman Philip Black – and to produce more educational material to promote racial harmony. The children who created this exhibition have certainly got the message.

Gloria Tessler

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