Lives Behind the Stones – Preserving the Past for the Future (A Heritage Lottery Funded Project)
Guest blog post by Rosalind Adam.
Rosalind Adam is a writer and workshop leader with a particular interest in therapeutic writing. She has a history degree and was a teacher for many years. Her publications include: A Children’s History of Leicester, Hometown World Publishers (May 2011) and The Children’s Book of Richard III, The Reading Shop Oadby (July 2014). She has managed two Heritage Lottery funded projects: “Jewish Voices – Memories of Leicester in the 1940s and 50s”, 2008/9 (link for website) and “The Lives Behind the Stones”, 2013/14 (link for website). Rosalind can be contacted via her blog at http://rosalindadam.blogspot.co.uk
The story of our year’s work on ‘The Lives Behind the Stones’ clearly illustrates how exciting this Heritage Lottery funded project has been. It started out as a plan to catalogue Leicester’s Orthodox Jewish cemetery and turned into a major study of the cemetery, including the creation of a comprehensive website providing full search facilities and many researched stories about members of the community and the history of its growth. The description of the work undertaken during this project is easily written here, but each task represents days, weeks and even months of tortuous researching, checking and rechecking.
With a team of six, plus 37 volunteers, the work has been constant and varied. It began with the realization that there was no correct list of burials at the site, especially those from the early 20th century. The first burial took place in 1902 but most of the families were immigrants, many coming from areas in and around the Pale of Settlement. They would have been Yiddish speakers and this is reflected in the inaccuracies encountered in the handwritten records at the city’s cemeteries office. The workers at the Corporation of Leicester no doubt struggled to understand the broken English of the immigrant families.
The most useful next step was to photograph each headstone and use the information on the headstone as the accurate provider of data but this was hampered by the fact that there were many unmarked graves. Part of the project plan was to fix small plaques onto each unmarked plot and so, to verify the details about each of these plots, it was necessary to research using the limited information available from the written records. This alone took many months but we now have, as far as can be verified, accurate records for each of the almost 1,000 plots at the cemetery.
As with many old graveyards, the early section of Leicester’s Orthodox cemetery had fallen into disrepair. This had been the main impetus for us to carry out the project. We couldn’t allow the stones, and indeed the lives behind those stones, to be lost forever. It has not been possible to repair each stone but, as well as recording all the inscriptions, we have been able to make the cemetery more easily navigable. Row markers have been replaced. Broken kerbstones and other trip hazards have been cleared away. There are now three large information boards at the site; one is a map of all the sections and the other two contain the plot locations of every grave in the cemetery.
Recording all the basic data onto a database in order to inform the search facility on our website was one of the biggest challenges, not only because of the sheer volume of potential data available, but also because everything had to be researched and verified. Some records contain more data than others but all records now have at least some basic information programmed in so that the website is available for genealogical research. The website is still being added to as and when additional data becomes available and new burials will be recorded.
While the website manager was responsible for creating the website and database, it was my job, as project coordinator, to design the pages and produce the text. The most rewarding task for me was to write up the in-depth stories. We have seventeen stories so far and hope to add to this list over time. The stories have been researched by volunteers working alongside members of the project team. The local records office provided much needed training and support as many of the volunteers were unfamiliar with family research or using record office facilities.
Delving into the lives of families over the last century and recording their contributions to the city and community, has been a fascination and a privilege for me. Some arrived in Leicester at the end of complicated and dangerous journeys in their struggle to avoid antisemitic persecutions and we have been able to illustrate their travels with photographs kindly donated by their descendants. Some were inventors and, thanks to the records kept at the National Archives, we have been able to reproduce sections from their original patent applications. Each life had a contribution to make. We have written about active members of the synagogue, about tailors, market traders, in fact a complete cross-section of society covering over a hundred years of life and death in Leicester’s Jewish community.
The website includes additional material. There are suggestions for ways in which Key Stage 2 teachers could use the vast amount of data which is available there. We have explained how the project was carried out during the year illustrated with photographs where possible. We have written about the cemetery’s history but, most importantly, we now have a complete and searchable record of all the people buried at Leicester’s Orthodox cemetery. This is to be a permanent online facility. We hope that it will also be used as a template for other communities who are concerned about preserving their past for the future.
The website can be found at http://jewish-gilroes.org.uk