The continuity of Jewish life through the centuries is conveyed by its memories. History and memory are essential paradigms of the Jewish experience. From its beginnings, with the wanderings of Abraham told in the Tanakh, to the stories of slavery and redemption told in the Haggadah, to commentaries on Jewish history written through the millennia, Jews are a people who have chronicled their experience in oral and written form, and—with the advance of technology—through the most modern methods of storytelling.
Technology is making the most historic library of the traditional texts of European Jewry universally available. New York Jewish Life spoke with Jonathan Brent, director of the New York-based YIVO Institute (“Yidisher Vsenshaftlikher Institut”) for Jewish Research, about the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Collections Project. The conversation took place at YIVO headquarters at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.
“Jews are a special case,” said Brent, “an extremely literate people.” He noted that Jewish history in the Diaspora is multicultural, multi-linguistic and multinational. Jewish culture, said Brent, “is never pure—not purely German-Jewish or Russian-Jewish or French-Jewish. It’s a mixed heritage.” He explained that even when Yiddish was declared the “language of the people” by Yiddish-language author I. L. Peretz in 1907, multiple Yiddish pronunciations, spellings and vocabulary variations were common. “Jews were never a homogeneous people,” Brent said.
He went on to say that Jews leave few physical footprints, such as a Taj Mahal or a Tower of London. Without physical structures—concrete references to history—the oral tradition becomes all the more important. Knowledge of the history of the Jews has been transmitted through language—written and, according to Brent, stories and oral history. “Even today, Jewish history is transmitted orally,” he said. “Jews in the Diaspora, with minor exceptions, are often cut off from their abundant history. The thousand years of tradition of the Jewish people is in danger of being lost or sitting in archives in books that are read by perhaps 300 scholars.”
Brent realized that a different approach was urgently needed. Accordingly, YIVO has created online educational programs that reach a growing audience. When a six-part course by historian Samuel Kassow was presented online, 4,000 people from 53 countries tuned in.
“People cut off from their history have a yearning, a deep desire to know, but are lacking the means to satisfy that hunger,” said Brent. The online courses “are getting the word out.”
Two courses are currently available: the discovery of Ashkenazim and a course on East European Jewish folklore. Additional courses are anticipated to begin in 2018, based on YIVO resources. Brent believes that through such means “we can reach this strange group of people dispersed throughout the world, whether they are in Uganda, Idaho, Uruguay, Colombia, Hawaii or Guam.
“The Jewish phenomenon is so different from any other. The challenge is how do you reach and reconnect these people?” Calling Jewish heritage a fundamental aspect of a Jew’s identity, he said that “for many, there is a profound emptiness because they do not know….But the records survive. Through records, we can connect generations.”
With what Brent termed “the essential support” of Edward Blank, the largest project to save the heritage of the Eastern European Jewish world has begun: the digitization of as many documents as possible from YIVO’s prewar collection, which was based in Vilna, the “Jerusalem of the North.”
YIVO was established in Vilna in 1925. Texts, documents and artifacts were collected from throughout the Jewish world—including Poland and the Pale of Settlement (Russia/Ukraine)—and sent from every place of Jewish learning, including New York. In 1940, the year before the Nazis invaded Lithuania, they sent German scholars fluent in Yiddish to examine the collection. More than 500 linear feet of priceless material was confiscated and removed to Germany. The stolen material numbered close to a million documents, including some 25,000 books. A smaller part of the collection, about 100 linear feet, was hidden in the Vilna Ghetto, buried or given to non-Jews.
When the Germans invaded in 1941, Max Weinreich, the head of the YIVO archive in Vilna, was in Denmark. He was warned not to return and subsequently came to New York, where the new YIVO headquarters—“a headquarters without a library or archive,” per Brent—was established.
At the end of the war, Seymour Pomrenze, a U.S. army colonel and member of the Commission for the Restitution of Stolen Jewish Objects, found most of the material the Nazis had hidden. It was moved to New York. Part of the collection, however, remained in Lithuania. The “saved” 100 linear feet of the archive were discovered by Avram Setzkezer, who had escaped the Vilna Ghetto and survived in the forests. Lithuania’s government claimed the archive, arguing that it had never stolen it, but had in fact hidden and protected the artifacts. The archive was hidden once again, remaining in the basement of a Catholic church until 1989.
Since taking his position at YIVO, Brent has worked to warm relations between YIVO and the Lithuanian government, which remains adamant about not relinquishing its treasure. Under Soviet rule, the former Catholic church holding the “protected” 100 feet of the Yiddish YIVO archive had become part of the Lithuanian National Library.
Said Brent, “The idea occurred to me that instead of having the physical property, YIVO’s concern should be about preservation and making the content available to the world.” He proposed a joint project intended to reunite all of the material of the historic archive. Brent succeeded in making a deal with the government to digitize and publish the collection.
“The Lithuanian government loved the project,” he told New York Jewish Life. Emanuel Zingeris, a Jewish member of the Lithuanian Parliament, became the project’s patron. Brent described him as “a colorful figure, witty, full of Jewish irony and a man who loves YIVO.”
The proposed US$5.5 million cost was, however, larger than the entire YIVO budget. “I thought that if it could not be paid for, that meant the Jewish people were no longer interested in their history,” said Brent. “The prophets say the nation will perish for lack of knowledge—the inner spirit, the covenant, the spark. If the spark is gone, then the building is empty.”
The saga resulted in the creation of the Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Collections Project, a seven-year international project to preserve, digitize and virtually reunite YIVO’s prewar library and archival collections located in New York City and Vilnius, Lithuania, through a dedicated web portal. The project will also digitally reconstruct the historic private Strashun Library of Vilna, one of the great prewar libraries of Europe.
“Our history is who we are,” said Brent. “The Jews represent a vital core of cultural activity. Not every Jewish child has a grandfather to tell the story of our people. They do have a YIVO; it’s our obligation.”
He noted that some of the material is difficult for most to understand. Digitizing it is the first step toward the larger goal of building an online museum. Scholars will prepare a history and analysis of each document with captions in multiple languages. “Everyone will be able to reconnect and rediscover this vast and vastly important history of the Jewish people.”
As technology changes, so do methods of documenting history. In the 20th century, the immediacy and movement of film allowed a living connection with history. Much of the 20th-century history of the Jewish people, good and evil, was recorded.
Those who would twist history also recognized the power of this tool. The Nazi propaganda machine made historic use of the new medium, promoting itself and recording the horrors it created on the celluloid recordkeeper. However, unless it is carefully stored at very cold temperatures, celluloid very soon begins to disintegrate.
Vanessa Lappa and Tomer Eliav are the initiators of the Foundation for Preserving the Visual History of the Jewish People. They state as their mission “to collect, digitize and restore the innumerable amount of hours of celluloid film reels of historical importance that are disintegrating, and make them accessible to the public free of charge.”
While working on “The Decent One,” a documentary based on Heinrich Himmler’s mostly unknown diaries, letters and photographs, they visited more than 200 public and private archives in 16 countries, discovering films documenting “historical events in general and Jewish life in particular.” Lappa explained that those films had not been digitized, and many were in a state of advanced decay.
“If this rare and important historical footage deteriorates further, much of the visual documentation of the Jewish past will be lost to oblivion,” she told New York Jewish Life.
The Museum of Jewish History in New York was the setting for the first gala event of the foundation on May 11. Makers and preservers of Jewish history across the generations gathered to honor the preservation efforts.
Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York, noted that the restored films “will help future generations understand the history of Israel in a way that goes beyond reading….There is no other nation that gives so much importance to remembering, which may be the secret of our continuity.” He expressed hope that the film records of momentous events in the history of the Jewish people in the past century would be available for future generations to see, warning that “all would be lost…if we do not make an effort to preserve.”
Abe Foxman served as keynote speaker. From 1987 to 2015, Foxman was national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He is a leader in Holocaust education and Catholic/Jewish dialogue and reconciliation.
“As Jews,” he said, “we are a people of history, a history that teaches, instructs, protects, envelopes, enslaves and liberates us….By the oral and by the written word, we have protected our history. In a time period when we are enveloped in one crisis after another—in a tsunami of words—we are awakened that words may not be enough to protect our history and our peoplehood.”
Foxman recalled the sensitivity of General Dwight Eisenhower who, when confronted with the reality of anti-Semitism and hatred, ordered military film crews to photograph and film everything they saw in the camps. “Ike knew there would be challenges, claims that ‘it never happened,’” said Foxman. “To explain the enormity was possible only through the visual. It was seared into everybody’s mind.”
Foxman’s comments on the obligation of the Jewish people “to remember, to teach, to transmit” reflected obligations so passionately conveyed by YIVO Director Jonathan Brent. Each expressed the absolute obligation to use every means available to foster awareness and understanding of the value of memory and documentation of history.
Referring to film preservationists Lappa and Eliav, Foxman said, “They so understood. Everybody will understand the importance….Thank you for making it possible for us to impact the future of our people’s memory.”
The evening was filled with stories about Jewish history. Former Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, America’s first Jewish ambassador to a Muslim country, lauded Andre Azoulay, ambassador at large of King Mohammed IV of Morocco, as someone who has worked to build “peace between nations and peace between peoples.”
Patti Kenner and Doris Schechter, two of the caravan of Jewish children rescued by Ruth Gruber, spoke of Gruber as “a master of recording the history of the time…who taught that being righteous is the most important thing in life…to be righteous, to defy the prevalence of hate, to fight intolerance.”
And Lappa was asked which film was her and Eliav’s most exciting discovery. She responded, “Everything that you see you fall in love with. You want to know what it contains, what is its history.”
Most surprising to the two preservationists so far was a film of the first visit of Winston Churchill to Jerusalem in 1921. The never-before-seen film, found in a Jerusalem archive, had been brought from Czechoslovakia.
“The world needs to see these films,” Lappa concluded. “It is urgent. The amount of hours of film that needs to digitized to prevent its loss to Jewish history is immense. Ten foundations could work in parallel and it would still not be enough!”