The often tiny Jewish cemeteries dotted around the east end are exotic vestiges of a London’s lost Mitteleuropan past. Surrounded by high plain brick walls and tucked away on odd scraps of land, the rows of weathered headstones inscribed with Hebrew script are often completely hemmed in by blocks of flats, warehouses, schools, factories and other utilitarian buildings. Fear of vandalism ensures their doors and gates remain locked and visiting discouraged by the need to make appointments with impossible to locate officials from the synagogue. With no burials and few visitors they quickly revert to nature; trees and shrubs grow from windblown seeds, grass and weeds flourish and foxes, birds take up residence in the hidden piece of countryside in the centre of the city. In a celebrated and evocative passage in Austerlitz W.G. Sebald describes perfectly the slightly otherworldly atmosphere of these cemeteries when the eponymous hero offers the narrator the use of his house and insists that he;
...should not omit.. 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 ever since the eighteenth century, including Rabbi David Tevele Schiff and Rabbi Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London. He had discovered the cemetery, from which, as he now suspected, the moths used to fly into his house.…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…..
Austerlitz would have approved of Louis Berk’s five year project to document the changing seasons in the Brady Street and Alderney Road burial grounds. The photographer is also a secondary school teacher who has worked in Whitechapel, on Brady Street, since 2004. He was unaware of the existence of the burial ground until he was idly staring out of a second storey window at work one afternoon and realised that he was looking into a cemetery. As the place was always locked he expected never to get inside but then one day he heard contractors at work in the cemetery he knocked on the door and asked if he could look around. The workman allowed him in and from that moment he was smitten “It was as though I had entered a country forest in the middle of Whitechapel, complete with a fox which loped down a path ahead of me. Grabbing my camera I took snapshots of headstones with intricate carvings as I wandered beneath the cool green canopy overhead.” He approached the cemetery owners, the United Synagogue of Great Britain, and asked them to allow him regular access to carry out a project to capture the graveyard over the course of a year, photographing it in every season. His first winter on the project failed to provide weather cold enough to produce snowfall. He had to wait almost three years in fact for a suitably photogenic dusting of ice and snow. He was eventually asked by the Synagogue to photograph their older burial plot in Alderney Road.
Berk’s photographs are mainly taken on film using a medium format camera. In the spring and summer shots the graves are enclosed in a world of green; grass and flowers carpet the ground and a canopy of leaves occludes sun and sky. In one of my favourite images across almost half the photo sycamore leaves hang like a diagonal swag of heavy curtain parting to allow a view of a row of chest tombs in the foreground and trees in the distance, evoking a closed, secret world. The trees keep the outside world at bay, the buildings that surround the cemetery are effectively invisible and although photographs are silent, the silence feels like part of the image, the trees are muffling the noise of trains and traffic in the surrounding streets. In other pictures the trees stand like sentinels, huddling over the fragile headstones, protecting them from the elements. In the winter shots the denuded trees open up the photographic space and the cemetery becomes resolutely urban. In the backgrounds of the pictures we can blocks of council flats or the concrete towers of the Crossrail station being built a few hundred yards away. If the urban invades, so does the sky, the hemmed in space finally opening up to the sun. There is a beautiful shot of the sun rising into a sky that is a network of skeletal trees, flaring above a collection of grey headstones that look as monumental as Stonehenge from the low angle the shot is taken from. The natural world is everywhere in these images; trees, flowers, berries, a thrush perched on a headstone, fox tracks in the snow. But they are also a matchless documentary record of the lost world of the Jewish east end, the physical traces of which continue to be eroded and destroyed and will eventually disappear altogether. If the anyone needed reminding of this one the photographs shows two Hebrew inscribed headstones, the russet coloured stone green with lichen with a block of late Victorian workers dwellings in the background. The stones are no more; shortly after Berk photographed them a falling tree smashed both into irreparable fragments.
East End Jewish Cemeteries by Louis Berk (with an introduction to the history of the cemeteries by Rachel Kolsky) is available from Amazon and directly from the author.
All photography copyright 2017 Louis Berk