Beyond the high wall, Alderney Road Jewish Cemetery

It would have been around 1991 that I first visited the Jewish Cemetery in Alderney Road, London E., the oldest Ashkenazi burial ground in Britain, dating from 1696\7. We came upon it, quite by chance, on our way back from the Tower Hamlets Family History Library in Bancroft Road. There was a door in a wall, a small sign, and a bell. We rang, not expecting an answer, but before long the gate was opened by an elderly woman, wearing slippers, followed by a large, mournful dog. She looked us up and down, nodded and let us in. For more than half an hour, we wandered, unimpeded, round the crumbling stones: just the two of us, under a blue sky, with the birds singing in the trees, and the deep, quiet layers of history beneath our feet. A magical experience! But not, apparently unique.
In 2001, a decade after our visit, the German author W. G. Sebald published his strange, disturbing and, ultimately, tragic novel ‘Austerlitz’. A few pages before the end of this extraordinary book, is an unidentified photograph of an old Jewish cemetery and the following text:

……… And then he gave me the key to his house in Alderney Street…….And I should not omit, he added, to ring the bell at the gateway in the brick wall adjoining his house for behind the wall, although he had never been able to see it from any of his windows, there was a plot where lime trees and lilacs grew and in which members of the Ashkenazi community had been buried, including Rabbi David Tevele Schiff and Rabbi Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London. He had discovered the cemetery……only a few days before he left London when the gate in the wall stood open for the first time in all the years he had lived in Alderney Street. Inside, a very small, almost dwarf-like woman of perhaps seventy years old – the cemetery caretaker, as it turned out – was walking along the paths in her slippers. Beside her, almost as tall as she was, walked a Belgian sheepdog now grey with age who answered to the name of Billie and was very timid. In the bright spring light, shining through the newly opened leaves of the lime trees, you might have thought, Austerlitz told me, that you had entered a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time…..”

When I read this sentence, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck! I have been back to the cemetery a couple of times since but, today, in the interest of security and conservation, all our old burial grounds are permanently locked and entrance is only possible by pre-arranged appointment : the mystery and the magic are still there, but you are unlikely to be alone and you may have to half close your eyes and ears before you can capture it.


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