The story of the Jewish people is filled with such extreme examples of persecution and displacement that it is a hard subject to broach. The Jewish museum in Camden looks at the Jewish story through social history, immigration, community life, persecution, religion, and the Holocaust.
The ‘British Story’ begins by looking at the large number of different places that Jewish people have migrated into Britain from, interspersed with examples of personal objects that they brought with them.
It then goes on to show a timeline of events in the Middle Ages. Its always striking to see how far back and widespread the persecution of the Jewish people went, with Jews in Norwich being blamed for the death of a young boy called William in 1140 and the expulsion of Jews from England by Edward I in 1290. It seems crazy now that Jews were not officially allowed back into England until 1655 during Cromwell’s Protectorate, but that is the case.
There’s also a really interesting exhibit with flip up quotes looking at British attitudes towards immigration in the press or as expressed by politicians. In many cases it’s impossible to tell whether the quote was written today, 50yrs or 100yrs ago. The same fear, anxiety and hostility is present, with the concepts like ‘opening the floodgates’ or schools ‘crowded with foreign children’ used to scare people in the past still so familiar today. It’s scary how the same attitudes continually get recycled.
This part of the museum also has a social history focus, with displays on life in the East End where many Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled while fleeing persecution. The museum looks at the trades and occupations they had, at the types of houses they lived in, what they did for entertainment and their family life.
After this, comes the Holocaust section, which as expected, is particularly harrowing. It focuses on one man’s story. Leon Greenman, a British citizen living in the Netherlands survived, but only after losing his wife and enduring six concentration camps including Auschwitz. He found out later that the papers that would have confirmed his nationality and saved his wife’s life arrived 15 minutes after they had both been moved on to a different concentration camp.
Another poignant fact is that the British government planned to take in 1,000 young survivors of the concentration camps. But only 732 such survivors could be found.
You can also learn more about the Jewish faith in a well laid out room that explores different traditions, festivals and rituals. You can learn more about the Sabbath, Passover, Hanukkah and loads more while enjoying examples of beautifully ornate sacred objects and texts.
I really liked the museum. I went there thinking about immigration and how that can be approached or displayed in a museum setting, but it also gave me a huge insight into a different part of London life that I wouldn’t see in such focus anywhere else. The museum does it well, particularly with the different areas for different aspects e.g. social history, the Holocaust, the religion. There are lots of different multi-media displays as well which is great, albeit slightly distracting at times, but overall it is a well thought out museum with a lot of interest in it above and beyond the Jewish religion.
£7.50 for adults (Free with Art Fund Card)
129-131 Albert Street
London NW1 7NB
Saturday – Thursday: 10am-5pm