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February 28, 2019 3:04 pm

In Downtown New York City, YIVO’s Archive Uncovers a Lost Jewish World

avatar by Ben Cohen


From the YIVO archive, a detail of the 5702 (1941) Rosh Hashanah tribute presented by the children of the Lodz Ghetto to Chaim Rumkowski. Photo: Algemeiner.

One morning in June 1922, a letter arrived at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Morris Feldberg of Accord, NY, bearing the elegant crest of the Mountain House hotel in nearby Lake Mohonk.

Much as is the case today, back then the Mohonk Mountain House was a popular upstate resort, and the Feldbergs had written to its management seeking employment there. “Dear Mr & Mrs Feldberg,” the typewritten response to the couple began. “We are in receipt of your letter to Mr De Witt and wish to state that we do not employ people of your race. Trusting that our delay in answering you has not caused you too much inconvenience, I am, Very truly yours.” The letter was signed by one J.W. Smith on behalf of the establishment’s proprietor, Daniel Smiley.

This priceless specimen of Anglo-Saxon antisemitism — courteously informing the Feldbergs that they were, in essence, less-than-human — is one of millions of documents, books, photos, paintings and artifacts stored in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in downtown New York City. The letter to the Feldbergs is hardly the most special item in this vast collection, but it is one certain to enrich any discussion about what has (and what hasn’t) changed in the century since that envelope dropped onto their doormat.

On the day in late January that The Algemeiner visited the YIVO archives, in the company of Jonathan Brent, the institute’s director, and Dr. Stefanie Halpern, its chief archivist, a brief glimpse into its contents revealed the rich physical remains of the Jewish culture that preceded the one we live in now.

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In one box lay a notebook, its pages filled with observations and comments written in a neat, steady longhand script. This was the diary kept by Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, between 1882-87 — when he was still in his 20s and saw himself as, in the words of his biographer Ernst Pawel, “a high-minded dreamer, a sensitive and poetic soul struggling to safeguard his ideals in a world awash in greed and corruption.”

From another box alongside, Dr. Halpern pulled out an ornate manuscript that glowed with color. This painstaking copy of the Talmudic tractate “Baba Kama” was the Bar Mitzvah project of Anshel Moses Rothschild, the founder of the Rothschild dynasty, dating from the early 1720s. (“Before he was ‘Rothschild,'” Brent commented.)

As one would expect with a Jewish archive drawn from eastern Europe, the shadow of the Holocaust looms large. On the rare occasions that we get to see the personal effects of Holocaust victims, it’s normally in a museum environment and we glance at them quickly. In the YIVO archive, one is compelled to mourn the men and women who carried the crumpled, Soviet-manufactured cigarettes before you in their own pockets. So too with the children whose traditional rattles to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim were defiantly marked with the Nazi swastika — the most pertinent symbol of the hatred represented by Haman, whose name is drowned out during the reading of the biblical Book of Esther in the synagogue by a sea of noise.

Dr. Halpern brought out yet another handcrafted manuscript, this time decorated with a radiant picture of a portly, congenial-looking man, his shock of white hair swept backwards, sitting in a grand chair and receiving bouquets of flowers from two adoring, rose-cheeked children. The authors of this particular book were the 14,400 children in the Jewish Ghetto of Lodz, all of whom, Brent explained, appended their signatures to a Rosh Hashanah 5702 (1941) tribute to Chaim Rumkowski, the Judenälteste (Head Jewish Elder) appointed by the Nazis to administer the ghetto.

Rumkowski’s goal had been to make the Lodz Ghetto an economic asset to the Nazi regime through the provision of forced labor. It was a strategy that kept the ghetto alive for nearly five years, until it was finally destroyed by the Germans late in 1944, just a few months before Soviet troops entered Lodz. During the years that he ran the ghetto as a slave to German instructions, Rumkowski simultaneously underlined his status as the master of the Jews. “King Chaim’s” face was even printed on the cash notes, nicknamed “Rumkis,” that were used in the ghetto for exchange.

“He was a pompous, vain, bombastic man, and you ask yourself, ‘Why are these children bringing him flowers?’,” YIVO director Brent remarked, as we looked at the volume. “They’re doing it because unlike the other ghettos, the Lodz Ghetto was completely sealed from the outside world. There was no smuggling, as in the Warsaw Ghetto or the Vilna Ghetto. The entire existence of the Lodz Ghetto depended on Chaim Rumkowski’s ability to negotiate with the Germans. This book is the children telling him how grateful they are, and pleading with him not to forget them.” The first mass deportations from the Lodz Ghetto began in January 1942, a little over a year after Rumkowski was presented with his Rosh Hashanah gift.

For Brent, the Rumkowski tribute is an important symbol of an archive that remains one of the few physical links that we have to the old Jewish world of Europe. And there is, he emphasized, an enormous amount contained within.

“We have 23 million documents and 400,000 books here,” Brent said. “Right now, we’re digitizing 1.5 million documents and 12,000 books, and it’s costing us approximately $6.5 million to do.”

Most of the costs incurred are not related to the technical process, he continued, but to the huge number of person hours invested by Halpern and her team in combing through and sorting the archive.

“What I say to people is that this is about finding the ‘afikoman,'” Brent said, invoking the custom on Passover of hiding a broken-off piece of matzah for the children at the Seder table to seek out later on. “This archive is the ‘afikoman,’ the fragment that has been broken off from our people.”

Eastern Europe, Brent reflected, represented a millennium of Jewish civilization. YIVO’s archive was composed from “a multiplicity of narratives, because it’s a whole civilization that we are talking about.”

“Part of our job,” Brent concluded, “is to break through this idea that there is just one story about how American Jews got here.”

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