Article in Libération (French national daily newspaper)
Thursday 14 March 2002, by London correspondent Christophe Boltanski (translated by Philip Black, Dip.Trans.¹)
published alongside a review of the French edition of Rodinsky's Room by Rachel Lichtenstein & Iain Sinclair.
19, Princelet Street
A tour of the synagogue haunted by Rodinsky, which aspires to
become a museum of immigration.
The bell at 19 Princelet Street rings in emptiness. A metal bobbin, the emblem of the Huguenot silk-weavers who inhabited Whitechapel up to the mid 19th Century, stands proud halfway up the front elevation of the building. Latterly some have sought to interpret this skeletal sign as the evocation of a Torah scroll hung like a lantern to shed light on the world.
Today neither the sounds of the weavers nor the chanting of prayers can be heard. Yet a glimpse through the basement window shows glasses drying by a sink in the downstairs kitchen, the building is still in use. In a ground floor window, framed against a dark curtain, a notice explains: "the building cannot be regularly open, because it is too fragile and at risk", followed by a phone number and an internet address. On the next day at the agreed time the front door is opened halfway. A large safe encumbers the shadowy corridor. "It has been there for ages, and it's where we put people who won't give a donation" jokes Philip Black one of the people who cares for the building. There is no entry fee on the dozen or so annual open days to the former synagogue which, for the past twenty years, has been struggling to establish itself as the museum of immigration. "On our last open day we had over 700 visitors" recalls Philip Black with some emotion. The rest of the time the dusty building returns to its slumber. Its carers treat it like a chronic invalid, allowing only occasional visits so as not to overtire it. Some of the building's wounds can be seen on the walls, while in places props like crutches help it to remain upright. A little generosity is needed to restore the patient's health "some two to three million pounds (3 to 4.5 million euros)" says Susie Symes who heads the project.
Originally number 19 belonged to the Ogiers who, like the owners of the houses in the rest of the street, were a French Protestant family driven out from across the Channel by the dragonnades of Louis XIV's militia. A century and a half later, in 1869, the synagogue was built in what had hitherto been the back garden, by a group of Polish Jewish immigrants. Today the remnants of a partition wall are all that separate a Georgian merchant's house, with its panelling and sash windows, from a little piece of Eastern Europe - a survival from a world destroyed.
A dark trace on the floor marks where the bimah, the pulpit from which the words of the Torah were read, once stood. The wooden platform is now stored with the pews in the end room. The entrance to the ladies gallery is roped off with a sign that reads :"Fragile. Please do not lean on the railings." A glass ceiling, stained green, yellow and mauve, casts daylight onto the Ark, intact but empty.
The building's succession of different uses, a testimony to the generations of immigrants who arrived in Whitechapel, make it a mythical place, a place of pilgrimage. But not all those who now come wishing to see inside the building do so because they want to discover this cultural cross section, a slice through time. Some also come in search of a phantom. Although not once mentioned by those who now care for the building, the so called caretaker David Rodinsky, who vanished at the end of the 1960s without anyone noticing, his room left untouched for 10 years, now haunts every nook and cranny.
Before Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair re-established the truth of the man, myths and memories jostled for supremacy. David Rodinsky became the very incarnation of all the legendary figures of Judaic mysticism: a zaddik, the epitome of piety; a dybbuk or wicked spirit; the Wandering Jew; or a golem like the clay bodied giant and defender of the oppressed who took refuge in the attics of the synagogue of Prague.
The building's carers are extremely considerate guides, opening everything, even the most insignificant cupboard, for the visiting journalist: the basement which was used as a meeting room and which may once have welcomed Lenin; the stairwell with its rickety rungs; the room of the real caretaker or shammes, Myer Reback, with its sparse furniture itemised like museum pieces; everything except David Rodinsky's room, that deserted sepulchre which was opened up in 1979 and which is now once more hidden from view.
Susie Symes, the project's Chair, scarcely conceals her concern: "We don't like to make an exception for anyone, nor do we seek to keep anything secret. The building is so fragile, but once the works have been completed everything will be accessible." She hesitates to mention the name of the man who disappeared and takes pains to minimise his importance: "Before it was used as a room, it was a silk weaver's garret. That too is of interest, to those who are fascinated by Huguenot stories. People always want to see whatever is hidden."
The entire building became identified with David Rodinsky to an extent that caused its carers to react against this association. To be alive, the museum is trying to free itself of this strait jacket. The exhibition Suitcases and Sanctuary, which first opened eighteen months ago, is dedicated to all those French, Irish, Jews and more recently Bengalis and Somalis who have ended up in this poverty stricken pocket trapped between the docks and the City. "Our organisation (the Spitalfields Centre) is concerned with immigration in general and strives not to be boxed in to a particular pigeon hole" explains Susie Symes.
It is now more than a year since Rachel Lichtenstein has been able to go into Rodinsky's room. Clearly opposed to the Spitalfields Centre, she does not know whether the pile of papers which summarise his life is still there. At the end of her long quest, what she discovered was not the Wandering Jew but a "being of flesh and blood", a solitary immigrant who died in a psychiatric institution a few days after leaving his little shell in Princelet Street, and who is now buried in an anonymous cemetery to the north of London. "I did not penetrate the secret of the Kaballah, but I did understand something fundamental about Judaism and the tragedy of a burial that takes place without anyone reading Kaddish." Since herself being able to read the prayer for the dead in front of his tomb, the spirit or dybbuk that has obsessed Lichtenstein has been exorcised. The fact that the room is now closed does not trouble her. Rodinsky has not disappeared for a second time, on the contrary he has freed himself from his prison and "this encourages people to visit his grave." The last time she went to Waltham Abbey Cemetery, she found that dozens of pebbles had been placed on his tombstone.
¹ translator's note - because of my knowledge of the Spitalfields Centre, and as a professional translator, I have sought, without in any way intending to change the author's underlying meaning, to correct one or two slight misapprehensions which appear to have crept into Mr Boltanski's text. For instance a strict translation of "...David Rodinsky, le bedeau volatisé à la fin des années 1960..." might give: '...the caretaker David Rodinsky who vanished at the end of the 1960s...'. I chose not to translate it in this fashion since, although many have come to believe that Rodinsky was the caretaker, he was not. Iain Sinclair himself, having made connections with Harold Pinter's play The Caretaker, lays this myth to rest on p.149 of Rodinsky's Room: "Rodinsky was never a caretaker. That is a role that has, in the aftermath of Pinter's successful play, been grafted on to him."