London's Diamonds - and Jews - Are Forever

Hatton Gardens is best known as London's diamond district. In a new book, Rachel Lichtenstein unearths fascinating stories about its ancient Jewish community.

At first sight, London’s Hatton Garden and surrounding area presents itself as a series of anonymous streets, its identity largely defined through its historical connection with Britain’s diamond trade.

However, it is also the repository for a remarkable trove of history about London’s migrant communities − including the city’s Jewish populace − as shown in Rachel Lichtenstein’s latest book, “Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden” ‏(Hamish Hamilton‏). The second in a planned trilogy about iconic London streets, her book is a social history of London’s diamond quarter.

The book’s panoramic scope reaches back to Hatton Garden’s medieval roots in the 13th century, but at the same time maintains an intimate familiarity, replete with the half-forgotten narratives that contribute to the character of the eponymous street today. Lichtenstein says she thinks of Hatton Garden as “the fold in the map”: its past buried in forgotten archives, present locked in the stories and secrets of a vanishing community of artisans and craftsmen. The book, one could say, is like smoothing out the creases in the map and discovering a lost world anew.

A sculptor by training as well as a writer and archivist, Lichtenstein draws from these varied founts of knowledge in her textured, multifaceted descriptions of the people and places that make up Hatton Garden’s present and past. There is a clear affection, too, explained in part by Lichtenstein’s personal connections to the area. Her family owned a jewelry business on the street, and she has been familiar with the environs and its population since childhood.

Due to its location just beyond the ancient walls of the City of London, Hatton Garden has had a historical connection to migrant communities for many centuries: Italians, Irish and, in the first half of the 20th century, Jews, who found work in the diamond and jewelry trade. Lichtenstein is the grandchild of migrants herself, Polish Jews who migrated to Britain in the 1920s to escape institutional anti-Semitism. One can sense in Lichtenstein’s writing a particular sensitivity to the experience of dislocated migrants finding themselves anew. “Diamond Street,” it is fair to say, picks up something of the poignancy of their experiences: Lichtenstein finds space for the individual amid the grand tableaux.

Lichtenstein argues that these individual stories matter precisely because they map the changing social landscape, embodying a historical continuity that is often overlooked. Narratives of migration often celebrate success, the people who overcome the challenges of dislocation and relocation.

“In Jewish culture, we really revere our migrant communities that have done well,” she says. But these “boy-done-good” tales are often at the expense of less striking, yet equally human, stories. In the case of Hatton Garden, these are tucked away behind centuries-old facades and sequestered in secluded workshops.

“There are so many untold stories,” she says, “not just within the Jewish community but within all communities − of people who do not make the transition very well. They never settle in, live reclusive lives, sometimes very lonely and difficult.”

People like Isadore Mitziman, for example, a ring maker and presence in Hatton Garden for more than half a century after World War II, and to whom Lichtenstein dedicates the book. She writes about this mysterious character: “He was always dressed like a tramp, wearing shabby trousers tied up with string and a dirty old mac, but there were rumors he owned millions and lived with a young, blond wife in Essex.”

Lichtenstein discovered this was far from the truth. Mitziman’s life was tied up in his work and his tiny, run-down workshop in the Garden: “There was stuff everywhere. Files, papers, ancient equipment, boxes, rolls of gold thread, tools; it probably hadn’t been cleared in decades.” While researching the book, she could only trace a single solitary picture of “Mitzi,” taken decades earlier. Another life slips away like sand through fingers.

Unacknowledged history

Lichtenstein’s interests in the overlaps and commonalities of experience among London’s migrant communities grew from her research for the first book in the trilogy, "On Brick Lane" (‏(2007‏ − the third will trace the history of west London’s Portobello Road. As a writer, she was interested in exploring her unacknowledged history: her grandparents had met and married on the iconic east London street, and she hoped to evoke something of their beginnings in England for posterity.

Over successive generations, the Brick Lane area had morphed from a Jewish to a largely Bangladeshi community; in conducting interviews with residents past and present, Lichtenstein was struck by the similarities in the experiences of the two very different groups. “Nearly half a century apart, a lot of the young Bangladeshi people I was speaking with were having the same difficulties − at school, with their parents and in the places they lived − as the elderly Jewish people in their 90s describing their lives,” she says.

While the physical evidence of these links is often present − for those who know where to look, at least − it might be that the commonalities of experience are best appreciated in the way of life shared by successive immigrant communities. “Religious, tight-knit, sharing similar experiences in the same space,” Lichtenstein notes.

Lichtenstein’s work is sometimes described as “psycho-geography,” the approach to geographical documentation that considers the effect of environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals. She does not reject this, but prefers to see her work more rooted in Zachor, the act of remembrance. “I think it is a very core part of me,” she says. “Also, coming from a typically assimilated Jewish family from Eastern Europe, always being aware of the past being quite hidden and always having to ask a lot of questions.”

As a teenager, she discovered that her father had anglicized the family name from Lichtenstein to Laurence. It was a common enough act of assimilation for the time, but she determined to revert to the original as soon as she was legally able to to do so. Her grandfather was the only family member still bearing the original name. How did he respond? “I remember him grinning from ear to ear ... He said, ‘If you do this, there will be no one happier than me.’”

Even though Lichtenstein describes herself as happiest when up to her “elbows in dust, looking at medieval manuscripts,” she isn’t averse to looking forward. As an accompaniment to “Diamond Street,” she has developed ‏(in conjunction with Arts Council England‏) a free GPS-activated smartphone application. With the use of archival footage, photographs and interviews, she hopes it will bring the world of Hatton Garden to life in the most contemporary fashion.

“You’re coming out of the printed page almost, taking the same researched journeys that I have. You can hear the voices of the people I’ve interviewed, excerpts from literature, images,” she says. But her interests, ultimately, come back to an enduring fascination with her ancestral roots. “I think this all comes back to some kind of Jewish practice,” she says, “the idea of almost walking in the [same] footsteps as my ancestors. I do find it fascinating. That, and exploring the layers of understanding of a place over time.”

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