Mile End Road epitomises today’s East End; vibrant, chaotic, diverse, alive. But out of sight and under ground lie thousands of former inhabitants, whose stories — a vital part of London’s history — are fading from sight.
On an average, grey day in 2008, broke and downbeat after being made redundant, I was wandering down Mile End’s Bancroft Road when I stumbled across what appeared to be a large fragment of stone behind tall iron railings. It was a broken headstone — the only one still upright, out of what must originally have been several hundred. The rest were strewn over what seemed to be uneven waste ground, where trees and weeds had sprouted indiscriminately. The detritus of everyday life had made its way in amongst the fragments; bits of carpet, rotten apples, crisp packets, disused and rejected washing machines, cast-off lager cans.
As I got closer to the headstone, I was taken aback to find it was incised with Hebrew script; I realised the waste ground must once have been a Jewish cemetery, now reduced to a forlorn state. And, being Jewish myself, this unexpected discovery was truly shocking. It gave me a sense of kinship to the people who lived there. Shocked by its decayed and damaged state, I wondered how this could have happened?
Bancroft Road is one of many Jewish cemeteries in this little pocket of East London, and — together with the nearby Novo, Velho and Alderney Road cemeteries, all lying just off the Mile End Road — is one of the earliest and oldest Jewish burial grounds in the United Kingdom. (Further afield, but still in East London, there are other cemeteries at Lauriston Road and Brady Street — the latter of which still contains plots reserved for the Rothschild banking family).
The cemeteries also hold the remains of many other interesting individuals. The grave of the grandfather of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is in the Novo, whilst Alderney Road is the final resting place one of England’s most famous rabbis, the eighteenth-century Baal Shem of London. They have have been granted preservation listings, and are still sites of pilgrimage for some of the more devout members of the Jewish community; the grave side of the Baal Shem, for example, always has remnants of yahrzeit candles (candles lit, in Jewish tradition, to mark the anniversary of the dead).
These cemeteries have long been closed, though — in some cases, for over a century. Lying behind walls, locked and chained, some can now only be accessed on request. But they chart the story of the Jews in the East End over hundreds of years — starting in the Middle Ages, and peaking with mass migrations from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. These new arrivals were escaping oppression, and sought to take refuge and start over in Britain. But little did they know what horrors would befall those loved ones they’d left behind; close-knit communities, soon to be ravaged by pogroms and persecutions.
(This original article continues in our Issue Nine)