At the end of September, before the relentless Autumn rain arrived, we began conserving a memorial at Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, North London. It was to be a fairly straightforward job for us – cleaning a medium sized Portland stone monument which had the normal staining and algae growth causing an unjust appearance of neglect.
As we were setting up the site and about to remove any loose debris prior to starting the wet cleaning, the Abney Park Trust coordinator informed us that the loose pebbles found on the monument must be photographed and retained before we removed them and reinstated when we finished. We had not had an instruction like this before and prompted us to find out more, before carefully documenting each pebble and its location and placing them in sample bags.
These pebbles had been placed there by visitors to the grave, we were told, and were therefore an important part of the memorial. The memorial commemorates the civilians of the borough who lost their lives due to enemy action in the Second World War, and specifically the 122 people who were killed in air raids in seven locations within the Borough. This includes 97 victims of the Coronation Avenue bombing in October 1940 which was one of the biggest civilian tragedies of the Second World War. The majority of these victims were Jewish, and we learnt that it is a Jewish tradition to place stones or pebbles at memorial sites.
Apparently, there is no specific commandment in Jewish scripture regarding placing a stone at memorial sites, and the historic reasons for doing so are debated. One theory (Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, director of the New York Jewish Healing Centre) is that the Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror – which also means ‘bond’. By placing the ‘bond’ on the memorial, it quite literally shows that one has visited the memorial and marked their visit, and bond, with the deceased. Another is that stone is often seen as the most robust of natural materials and symbolize the permanence of memory. Whatever the reason it feels like a fitting tradition for stone monuments.
On learning this new information, and on physically removing and replacing the pebbles, it catalysed a moment of profound reflection, and recognition, of what and who the memorial itself was for rather than what it was made from, or the conservation treatment it may require. As conservators, we can often focus so much on the materiality of an object that we can sometimes overlook the importance and intricacies of the wider meaning and significance of an object. Whilst we always physically ‘connect’ with the objects we work on, the pebbles provided a rare and moving moment to emotionally connect.
Yesterday, 13th October 2020, marks the 80th anniversary of this terrible event, and reminds us of the importance of memorials in the marking of history and the processes of grieving and remembrance in our communities. Abney Park Trust held an ‘online memorial’ event yesterday with various members of the local community contributing to the commemoration of the tragedy and exploring the importance of our communities. There is an inspiring talk by Rabbi Herschel Gluck which eloquently covers the events of the bombings and offers a hopeful look at how we can change as a society during hard times. The talk also recognised the contribution of TimeLine, the charity who funded the conservation of the memorial. The talk can be seen online here.