Rodinsky's Room: an excerpt

Excerpt from The Princelet Street Synagogue by Rachel Lichtenstein.
The full essay forms part of Rodinsky's Room by Rachel Linchtenstein and Iain Sinclair.

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Number 19 seemed a most unlikely museum, with no plaque outside, and apparently derelict. I rang the bell anyway but there was no response. Gently, I pushed against the large wooden doors and, finding them open, stepped inside. The temperature change was extreme. I began to shiver and I put on the jacket that had been unnecessary in the heat of the summer day.

A single bulb was attempting to light up the dark-green wood-panelled corridor in which I found myself. When my eyes adjusted to the dim light I could make out a large red metal safe to my left, and behind it a locked door. To the right, worn stone steps led up to another floor. Stacked in the corner behind the entrance doors were boxes of empty beer bottles, their staleness adding to the odour of dampness and dust. I could hear muffled voices ahead, and a light seeped under the door at the end of the corridor. I moved to call out, but the words stuck in my throat. The atmosphere still retained the oppressiveness of a religious space; it seemed natural to speak in whispers. I felt my way along the corridor and opened the door at the end. The peeling paintwork of the synagogue was lit by warm yellow candlelight. The faded purple cushions on the bimah were covered in tattered prayer shawls that looked as if they had been sitting there for decades. The wrought iron balcony was thick with dust and cobwebs. Various artefacts were strewn around the floor. I cried. I had spent the previous three summers in Poland, travelling around the country with a guide book attempting to locate former Jewish sites. During these trips I had visited numerous similar buildings and it appeared to me then as if the Princelet Street synagogue had been transported directly from Eastern Europe. In fact, I later learned, this was almost exactly what had occurred. The ark had been hand carved in Poland and brought over, along with the brass chandeliers and other religious items, by Polish and Russian refugees intent on resurrecting their community in London.

...[Rodinsky’s room] no longer existed in its original state, as an abandoned tomb. The room had been dismantled, the contents boxed up by the museum of London, then taken to storage rooms to dry out in stable conditions before being returned to the synagogue. When I first saw the room, Rodinsky’s belongings were neatly piled away in archival boxes lining the walls in large stacks. At frst, outside the boxes, the room seemed little evidence of Rodinsky’s long term residence. But gradually I began to uncover the clues. I found his old gramophone records lying under his bed, and a large collection of dust covered beer bottles in a cupboard in the corner. Stiffened pyjamas and fossilized blankets still remained in his wardrobe. While fondling his piano one day, I lifted the lid to discover faint traces of pencil on the ivory keys; strange indecipherable symbols, written in his own hand… In the centre of the wooden ceiling was a rusty gas lamp, surrounded by a charcoal halo from constant use. The peeling wallpaper behind the door had also been marked, with faint traces of handwriting hidden beneath the sodden edges. The floorboards were bent and cracked next to the enamel sink where I presumed he had washed every day.

His table stood in the centre of the room covered by a green baize cloth, and it was here that I would perform my daily ritual of excavating his remains. Wearing protective cotton gloves, I would slowly remove his belongings form the archival boxes, gentle unveiling them from their acid-free wrappings, before photographing each one and attempting to define and catalogue it.

At first this seemingly arbitrary archaeology revealed little, the objects appearing mute with the loss of their originator’s voice to explain them. I spent countless hours in his room. Heaps of inaccessible, rotting material piled up around me. Most of the languages in which he wrote I could not read. A large amount of Rodinsky’s clothes, saucepans, shoes and other personal items were thrown away. I arrived one day to find them bagged up on the street, and sneaked them back upstairs.

More often the cold, or the overwhelming feeling of being watched would drive me out of the room, with the hairs on the back of my neck prickling. But every day I would be back at the table, fascination overcoming fear.