Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"The Peretzniks (Perecowicze)": A New Film About a Jewish School in Lodz, Poland

The Museum of Family History would like to announce its twenty-second preview of films of interest to the Jewish people.

The Peretzniks' Polish premiere screenings took place in Lodz on August 29, 2009, at the Nowy Theater, during the 65th Anniversary of the Liquidation of the Litzmannstadt Ghetto and in Warsaw on September 2 at The Jewish Theater during the 6th Festival of Jewish Culture "Singer's Warsaw."

The film tells the story of a Jewish school in Lodz, Poland. The school was closed down following the Communist anti-Semitic campaign, which took place in Poland in 1968. As a result of this, the Peretz School graduates are dispersed today between the US, Israel, Sweden, Poland, and other countries. The bittersweet memories of their youth in post-war Poland is what binds the Peretzniks together till this day.

The events of March '68 are still somewhat obscure in Poland. The political background is known, as are the film archives, and press coverage. However, little is known about how it was to grow up in Poland of the sixties as a Polish Jew, or as a Pole of Jewish origin. How it was to be a kid in the heart of a country still recovering from a horrific war, in a family severed by the Holocaust, and then to come of age and experience first loves at the outbreak of the disturbing March events. The experience of the 'Peretz School' pupils in Lodz in some way reflects the experience of the Jewish minority in Poland in the 50s and 60s of the previous century. It is the experience of adolescents nevertheless, who were much more interested in the Beatles than they were in politics. It was the latter, however, which caused for most of them to scatter all over the world, creating a peculiar phenomenon of a Polish-Jewish Diaspora integrated today in so many countries' identities.

You can view the film clip by clicking on www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/sr-22-peretzniks.htm .

Friday, September 25, 2009

Want to Learn More About Ellis Island and Castle Garden?

For those of you who wish to become more knowledgeable about the history of Castle Garden, as well as Ellis Island, this is your chance. If you read through each of the exhibition's pages, you will learn more about Castle Garden including its interesting history (P. T. Barnum brought Jenny Lind to America to perform at Castle Garden in 1850, before Castle Garden became an immigration station).

You can read about the early history of Ellis Island here: the opening of Ellis Island in 1891, the fire that gutted most of the buildings on the Island in 1897, as well as its reopening in 1900. You can also learn a bit about the hospital at Ellis Island as well as the rooftop playground that was created at the immigration station for children to play in beginning in 1904. Also there is an interesting but sad group of stories of immigrants who were rejected and sent back to the port from where they began their trans-Atlantic voyage.

This is an good augmentation of the previous Museum exhibition about Ellis Island, and is filled with interesting articles that were published in such defunct New York City newspapers as the Tribune, the Sun and the World around the turn of the twentieth century.

You can visit the exhibition at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/mfh-ellisisland.htm .

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jewish Life in the Russian Empire under Czar Alexander III (1881-1894)

Czar Alexander III who ruled over the Empire of Russia from 13 March 1881 until his death in 1894 was the second son of Czar Alexander II. As Czar, Alexander III engaged in Anti-Semitic policies, passing his "May laws" in May of 1882. His laws were supposed to be temporary but they lasted several decades. Among the restrictions imposed by these laws was the limitation of where Jews could live within the Pale of Settlement. Because of this, Jews were evicted, compelled to move to designated areas within the Pale or they would be jailed. Alexander III also restricted the occupations that Jews could attain, as well as where they could travel or study.

At the Museum of Family History, within its "Emperors and Czars of Europe" exhibition, you can read an article, or rather a letter written by an unnamed author in May 1891 from St. Petersburg, Russia to the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper. It is worth reading because, rather than giving you a dry historical account of these events during this time that deeply affected the life of the Russian Jew, you can hear someone actually give voice to their plight. Here is a short excerpt from the article:


"Since 1881, when Ignatieff promulgated the terrible Jewish laws the lives of the 5,000,000 Russian Hebrews who, with few exceptions led a pitiful, beggarly existence, have been passed in unbroken war against the frightful abuse and persecution of the authorities. Eternal lies are the cause of this; false accusations against the Jews of crimes against the State, the authorities, Russian citizens and a Draconic code of laws which robs them of the privileges of honest subjects. A late cause of this inhuman condition is the desire of dishonest Government servants to bent upon the plunder of their fellow citizens. Robbers! Men who are obliged to live crowded together paint the Jews to the Czar as terrible robbers, like so many sheep; who have no whole pieces of clothing upon their backs; men whose rags draw tears to the eyes of the beholder; whose only pleasure is the practice of the commands of their religion!"


The aforementioned article appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune on May 31, 1891. Nearly seven months later, and article appeared in the same newspaper explaining the plight of the Jews of Russia, that during that year nearly 7,500 Russian refugees were landing at the Port of New York every month, being forced to by conditions imposed upon them to emigrate. The author of this article is trying to raise funds in order to pay for the fares of the "Hebrew immigrants" who arrived in New York.


"The persecution which is driving these people from their homes continues; and the Hebrew community of the city of New York has been, and is, striving to do its utmost in the direction above indicated. It is, however, overwhelmed by the immensity of the task. It feels that the unhappy plight of these refugees, driven out from their once settled, contented homes, for no fault of their own, yet without right of protest or hope of redress, appeals to all the instincts of humanity, and particularly to the love of fair play and liberty innate in every American heart. We, therefore, deem it a duty to lay before our fellow citizens, irrespective of creed, the sad facts herein recited, believing that they will touch a responsive chord and lead many a generous hear to tender substantial assistance."


These articles can be found at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/ece-alexander-III.htm. If you follow the "next" link at the end of the text, you can also read about Jewish life in Zambrow, Poland (then part of the Roman Empire) during the reign of the Czar who reigned after Alexander III died, Czar Nicholas II.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jewish Hospitals and Societies Which Cared for the Needy in NYC (1902)


This is the title of the latest article that can be found within the Museum of Family History's "Living in America: The Jewish Experience" wing. The two-page article appeared in the New York Tribune Illustrated Supplement on October 5, 1902 .

In order to understand the Jewish experience in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, it is important to understand the nature of Jewish philanthropy. Philanthropists helped finance many projects and institutions that helped those in need during those trying times, whether they be infants or children, Jewish or not.

In this informative article you will learn about these institutions, some of which only came into existence in the mid to late 1800s.

Some of the institutions discussed in this article are:

Hospitals: Mount Sinai, Lebanon and Beth Israel.

Homes: Montefiore Home for Chronic Invalids, Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews of New York, and the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith.

Orphan Asylums: Hebrew Benevolent and Orphan Asylum, Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society and the Hebrew Infant Asylum.

Other: Educational Alliance, Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls, Gemilath Chasodim Association, and the Baron de Hirsch Trade School.

This article can be found at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/philanthropy-jewish-01.htm.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Yiddish Theatres of the Bowery, 1900

Let's take a Museum of Family History trip back in time to the Bowery of 1900.

Of course none of us were alive back then, so if we want to gain a sense of what life was like for the Jewish citizen of lower Manhattan, immigrant or not, we need to look at photographs taken during this time as well as read whatever we can about Jewish life then. This will properly feed our imagination.

One question we might wish to ask ourselves and imagine is how Jewish families spent what leisure time they might have had. It seems that for many, the Yiddish theatre was a welcome respite. Around the turn of the twentieth century, one could say that Boris Thomashefsky was the most well-known actor in the Yiddish theatre. Actresses such as Bertha Kalich also excelled on the Yiddish stage, mostly in New York City.

You might like to visit the Museum's single-page exhibition on this subject which will give you a glimpse into Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century on the Lower East Side and Bowery, and how our families and our fellow Jews spent some of their leisure time.

Here are several excerpts from the exhibition:

The Russian immigrant on the East Side has the help of his family in his work, and his family usually shares his pleasures. He has little inclination in the direction of sprees, and while some of his countrymen frequent the coffee houses where they play games and smoke, and others go to the clubs of which there are many in the district, nearly all the toilers of the sweatshops go to the theatre; and they go not singly or in pairs, but in family groups...For that reason, a Yiddish theatre audience is unlike that of any other playhouse in the city.

The storekeepers close their places of business on Friday at sunset, and after coming from the synagogue they look for amusement. The strictest Sabbatarians see no wrong in going to the theatre.

The East Side pushcart man, the little shopkeeper and the prosperous merchant, the sweatshop worker and the Divisionist milliner, the jewel and gold bedecked wife of the successful ward politician, are all represented in their true colors in these plays; but behind all, pointing a moral and reminding them of their duties as citizens and men, is the rabbi or the religious teacher, pointing out the ills that follow sin, and in some of the popular plays laying particular stress on the crime of apostasy. The "bad man," the "scheming villain," is often an apostate, whose career in the part is made unusually burdensome by the hisses which greet him every time he appears.

The opening lines of the actors are usually lost, except to those people who sit far in front, and demands for silence come from all parts of the auditorium. Sometimes these are in the form of the hissing "Pst! pst!" which one hears in all European theatres, and sometimes the more imperative "Ruhig," " 'Smaul halten!" or "Still!" are heard. Then comes the play, and close attention on the part of the audience, frequent applause and boisterous laughter and sniffles are sure to reward the efforts of the actors.

This exhibition, entitled "The Yiddish Theatre: Classic and Romantic Drama in East Side Jargon," can be found at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/yw-yt-bowery-1900.htm .

If you have more than a fleeting interest in the Yiddish theatre of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, you should consider visiting the Museum's exhibition about the posters or placards that were once used to advertise Yiddish theatrical productions on the Lower East Side and the Bowery. This exhibition, "Placards of the Yiddish Theatre," can be found at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/yt-placard-toc.htm .

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New exhibition: "Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays"

As we approach Erev Rosh Hashanah, it seems an appropriate time for the Museum to announce the "opening" of its newest exhibition, "Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays."

One of the many pleasures of building a website about Jewish history is having the opportunity to go back in time and share with our many "Museum visitors" the wonderful, the beautiful, aspects of Jewish culture and tradition. Surely the celebration of Shabbat, and such holidays as Rosh Hashanah, Purim and Passover, as well as our other Jewish holidays, has often been a source of much "simcha" and family togetherness. Whether an individual or family lived in a town in pre-war Europe, or on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the celebration of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays has always been an integral way in which we've expressed our "Jewishness" and reinforced our Jewish identity.

In this nearly forty-page exhibition of photographs and text, two aspects predominate. First, for Shabbat and for ten other Jewish holidays, a simple explanation of each is presented. Secondly, personal stories from the United States and Europe have been interspersed among the explanations, which make the exhibition even interesting and moving.

Many of us have never had the experience of living in Europe within the first half of the twentieth century. We can only imagine what it was like to live in a shtetl or town where Jewish tradition and rabbinical authority was such an integral part of Jewish daily life. Within "Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays," you will be able to read many personal stories as told by those who lived through and recall these times. You may wish to imagine that you were there....

There is so much more than can be said about this exhibition, but perhaps it is best for you to just visit the exhibition and see what it has to offer you.

Perhaps you will find some material within the exhibition that you'd like to share or read together with your spouse, your parent, your grandparent, your child or grandchild. Such stories are often rare opportunities to pass down family stories--here about the gatherings of families around holiday time. Maybe it will stir up some conversation and some telling of what occurred in your own home growing up when you were a child.

You can find the exhibition "Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays" by clicking on the following link:
www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/jholidays-main.htm. To best navigate this large exhibition, you can simply use the links within the Table of Contents. Alternatively, you may use the "next" links at the end of each page's text (to go from page to page within a particular holiday section), and use the links at the top of the page to go from holiday to holiday.

I hope that you enjoy the exhibition!

May you have a happy and a healthy new year! L'Shana Tova!

L'Shana Tova to All!

To all those who subscribe to the Museum's blog, to all those who follow the evolution of the Museum of Family History, to all my fellow Jews, I want to wish you and your family a most joyous and healthy New Year. L'Shana Tova!

I hope that this coming year brings you new revelations as you pursue your quest to gain a greater understanding of your family's history. May each memory of your family be a loving one and everlasting!

On a personal note, I am often amazed how much more interesting and relevant history seems--particularly world history--when it's seen through the eyes and experiences of our relatives, our ancestors.

Being the main force behind the Museum, I've found a great bit of perspective as I've worked these several years on the Museum of Family History website. With each piece of research I do, with each photo I see and piece of text I read, with each interaction I have with people like yourselves who are also interested in Jewish history, I become more aware of the history of both Western civilization and of the Jewish people. I realize how events can be interrelated (often unexpectedly so) and somehow connected in one great nexus.

Thank you all for your kind words this past year and your encouragement. Thank you for any material you might have sent me that has helped increase the content and quality of my site.
After several years of consideration and development (though still a work-in-progress), I have managed to create several imaginative floor maps for my virtual museum; I've increased its interactivity by making available a greater number of sound and video clips for your pleasure.

May this next year be the best one for both you and for the Museum!

Steven Lasky
Founder and Director
The Museum of Family History

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Kishinev Pogrom of April 1903

There were two pogroms in Kishinev (now called Chisinau, located in the country of Moldova). The first one, on 6-7 Apr 1903, was said to have begun because of the rumors that were spread that Jews were involved in the murder of a Christian Russian boy two months earlier. Two anti-Semitic newspapers published these rumors, one going as far as saying that the Jews killed the boy so they could use his blood to make matzoh. This was an age-old accusation made of the Jewish people.

I have just amended the Museum's webpage about the Kishinev pogrom, which is part of the Museum's exhibition about the various pogroms that were committed against the Jewish population, not only within the first ten years of the 20th century, but also after World War II in such locations as Kielce.

The amendment to the Kishinev page includes a report of the massacre then, as published by the New York newspaper, The Sun, more than one month after the pogrom. Here is an eyewitness account from a Jew from Kishinev that appears on the webpage:

The first Jewish refugee from Kishineff to reach America and bring a personal account of the recent massacres of Jews by Russian Christians there arrived in the steerage of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, which got in Wednesday from Hamburg. He is Jacob Friedman, a retail glass dealer in the riot-ridden city. He fled from Kishineff with his wife and children the second day of the disturbances, after his grandfather had been clubbed to death before his eyes. He hadn’t enough money to bring his family to this country with him, but he will send for them later.

Friedman came from Ellis Island yesterday and was taken to the Jewish Daily News office, where he told of his experiences in Kishineff and his flight.

On Easter Sunday, which was also the last day of the Jewish Passover, Friedman said he, his wife and four children and his grandfather, who was also a partner in business, were seated at a holiday dinner when they heard a great turmoil outside.

“We rushed to the windows,” he said, “and saw a mob coming down the street, breaking and smashing everything as they came. I knew at once that a bloody riot was beginning and, seizing my youngest child, exclaimed: ‘Come, they will kill us; we must hide in the cellar.’
But my grandfather wouldn’t have it so. He said the mob was harmless, that they were only drunk and not dangerous. Finally he said: ‘To show you that they will not harm any one I shall go out into the street and watch as they go by.’

He had only gone a few steps from the door when the mob rushed at him. The first to reach him knocked him down with a club, and then the others closed in around him and struck him many times. I ran out and tried to save him, but had to run for my life without getting to where he lay.

I managed to get away by running through side streets to the house of a Christian who owed me quite a sum of money. I begged him to save me and my family and told him that if he would help us I would free him of the debt.

He hid me in the cellar until the next morning and kept the mob from harming my wife and little ones. Before daylight the next day he got a wagon and took my family from the house to the house of another Christian in a neighboring village. Later the second Christian took us to the railway station and we went first to Grodno and afterward to Sepetkin, where I left my family with relatives.”

Friedman said that as he was hurrying through the side-streets of Kishineff he saw a Jew terribly wounded lying in the gutter.

“When a number of other Jews came creeping out of their houses to try to carry the man away so that he could be cared for,” said he, “the mob rushed down upon them and there was a terrible fight. Several Jews, I think, must have been killed, but I am not sure for we got away as fast as we could.”

You can read the rest of the article by visiting www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/mfh-pogroms-kishinev.htm .

Rabbi Lau's New Year's Message from Yad Vashem

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, speaks (in Hebrew, with English subtitles) about the importance of commemorating the Jews who perished during the Holocaust. Rav Lau, himself a child survivor of Buchenwald, powerfully calls upon Jews across the world to join efforts to recover the names of each individual Shoah victim by filling out Pages of Testimony in their memory and submitting them to Yad Vashem. Search for information or submit names of people you know of who perished during the Shoah on Yad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names .

Here is the YouTube video:

At the Turn of the 20th Century: Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Britain and a Fact-Finding Mission Abroad

There were nearly five million Jews who lived in Czarist Russia during the nineteenth century. They were forced to live within a specified area and were subjected to religious persecution and a life of great poverty. Many Jews emigrated during this time, about 150,000 of them immigrating to Great Britain. This wave of immigration peaked in the late 1890s when tens of thousands of mostly poor and semi-skilled and unskilled immigrants settled in the East End of London.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a public uproar about the rising tide of immigration that was often fueled by the media. During this period the British Brothers League was formed. Local politicians supported this organization; many anti-immigrant marches and rallies were organized and petitions were signed. They didn’t want Great Britain to become a “dumping ground” for the “scum of Europe.”

William Evans-Gordon was a conservative politician and PM within the British parliament. He also wrote a book entitled 'The Alien Immigrant', which was published in 1903, the year he took a fact-finding tour of Eastern Europe and the Baltic region.

Evans-Gordon travelled from St Petersburg to Krakow, visiting and photographing the major towns of Jewish settlement. It was his sentiment that alien immigration to Great Britain, especially Jewish immigration, should be limited. He called on the Parliament to set up a Royal Commission, and as a result of this, in 1905, the Aliens Act was passed.

The act for the first time introduced immigration controls and registration in Great Britain. The Act was designed to prevent paupers or criminals from entering the country and set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through. It provided asylum for people fleeing religious or political persecution. Anti-Semitic elements wanted a stop or severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Britain, but were completely defeated. The 1905 Act did not meet any of the demands of restrictionists who wanted numerical restrictions on immigration.

According to Wikipedia, “Evans-Gordon continued to campaign for further anti-immigration legislation, seeking re-election in 1906. He kept up regular correspondence with Chaim Weizmann who would later write of him:

'Sir William Evans-Gordon had no particular anti-Jewish prejudices...he was sincerely ready to encourage any settlement of Jews almost anywhere in the British Empire but he failed to see why the ghettoes of London or Leeds should be made into a branch of the ghettoes of Warsaw and Pinsk.'"

This one-page exhibition at the Museum of Family History is entitled “At the Turn of the 20th Century: The Jewish Community at Home and Abroad, Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Britain and a Fact-Finding Mission Abroad, 1903."

By visiting this exhibition (and seeing some of the photographs taken during his visit), you can read what Evans-Gordon wrote about his European travels to Dvinsk, Vilnius, Pinsk, Libau, Lodz, Galicia and Romania. It provides an interesting perspective about how others viewed Jewish life within the Pale of Settlement and elsewhere within the Russian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century.

You can visit this exhibition at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/20c-evans-gordon.htm.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Castle Garden and Ellis Island: Ports of Immigration

If you haven't already visited the Museum's small, seven-page exhibition about Castle Garden and Ellis Island, you may wish to do so now.

You may enjoy the short texts on each page, as well as some photographs which you may never have seen before. Just added today is a page straight out of the Sun, a New York newspaper that last published in 1950. The article is dated May 1887 and is entitled,

Weeding Out the Ailing and the Friendless and the Very Poor –
An Unhappy Russian Family – A Marriage in the Rotunda.

This article is one of the many one can find by searching in old newspapers, many of which would be interesting for those who enjoy "going back in time" and learning not only what such events as immigration was like for our ancestors, but also what people were likely to read in newspapers. One can only imagine what these people thought about Jews back then, compared to now. It does give one food for thought.

I am currently going through New York newspapers from the late 1800s through 1910, and I find it interesting to see what newspapers said about the Jewish people, about immigration (as well as the fear of too much immigration--especially the Jews!), etc. I will present some other articles along the way that might be of interest to you, and I hope that you will enjoy reading them.

The link to the exhibition "Castle Garden and Ellis Island: Ports of Immigration" is www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/mfh-ellisisland.htm. Just click on the "enter" link at the bottom of the first page, and subsequently, the "next" link at the end of each page's text.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Three Useful Newspaper Online Search Engines

Many of us already know of ProQuest, an online resource that offers many old editions of newspapers, especially the New York Times. Some public libraries make the ProQuest searchable database available on site, and this of course, is a free service. You may even be able to subscribe to the service for home use. You can learn more by visiting the ProQuest website at http://www.proquest.com/en-US/.

Over the last number of months, for those interested in old New York (City and upstate) newspapers, there's the Fulton History site (found at www.fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html)where you can "search over 10,258,000 old New York State historical newspaper pages."

I have recently discovered too that the Library of Congress has a searchable database, including old newspapers from twelve of these United States. The search engine can be found at http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/search/pages/.

All these searchable databases can be very useful for genealogical researchers, especially in conducting research of historical events, not only in the United States, but throughout the world.

Sabbath Preparations in Ozarow, Poland

Below is a preview of an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Family History entitled "Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays." The exhibition contains not only basic explanations of ten Jewish holidays, but also photographs of and personal accounts from those who for the most part lived the early parts of their lives in small European towns at some point before World War II.

The following passage was written by Hillel Adler, a native of Ozarow, Poland:


"Everyone knew that when Shabbos approached, it would not be a day like the others. It was a matter of marking the difference between daily life and the sanctity of that day. Even the poorest people did not depart from the tradition and tried to observe the day in a dignified manner.

We relied on communal solidarity to allow this to happen. On Friday afternoon certain charitable women would knock on the doors to collect egg rolls and bread for distribution to the poorest families. Among these women was Perel Youkef's, whom we named the 'Mother of the Poor.' But the housewives had already been hard at work since Thursday. The kitchens exhaled the pleasant aroma of baking cholents. The meat slowly stewed while the women peeled the potatoes which they would roast in the baking oven for Saturday's mid-day meal. And what a meal it was! Apart from the delicious cholent you could savour the 'dipine kishke' -- a stuffed casing garnished with pearl barley and fine slices of potato.
photo: Perel Youkef's Kestenbaum,The "Mother of the Poor,"and her husband Leibel.

Then came the moment to light the Sabbath candles. The mistress of the house would recite the traditional blessing. Night came, and after the meal interspersed with the 'zemiroth' or traditional Sabbath hymns, the 'Shabbos goy' came to put out the lights. As his name would indicate, this was a Catholic invited to perform tasks forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. In his fashion, he too played his part i the observance of the holy day. During the winter, for instance, it was he who came around on Saturday morning to light the oven which would heat the entire house, and then he would show up several times more during the day to make sure that the heat was running well. On his last visit, he would receive a large portion of challe, according to custom. He would thank everyone present and wish them, in Yiddish, if you please, 'a gut'n Shabbos,' or good Sabbath. On Monday he would return to pick up his salary. There were a few men who performed this function in Ozarow, and almost all of them expressed themselves very well in Yiddish."


The exhibition "Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays" is currently composed of thirty-six webpages. These pages provides a simple explanation and significance of each holiday and importantly some stories are told by those who for the most part lived in Europe during the early twentieth century.

Hopefully, just as the Museum's "World Jewish Communities" exhibition does, these stories 'paint a picture' of what traditional Jewish life was like in pre-war Europe--in towns perhaps very much like those our families once lived in--while there still existed many 'vibrant' Jewish communities and where such Jewish traditions flourished.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Jewish Life in a Small North Dakota Town, circa 1940s

I hope those of you who regulary read this blog have already visited the recently announced Museum's exhibition "Jews in Small Towns: Legends and Legacies." The exhibition may be found at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/lia-jist.htm .

I chose one story from each U.S. state and Canadian province represented in the Howard V. Epstein book of the same name as the exhibition. There are over one hundred stories from the Epstein book that "remain on the cutting room floor," so to speak.

One of them that didn't make the cut came from Gladys Smith of Grand Forks, North Dakota. I thought I would present you with some excerpts from her story here, as you won't find this story within the exhibition, and what she says is interesting.


"My early memories of Grand Forks and being Jewish there are happy ones. We had a synagogue in town that served the forty families that lived there, plus all the Jews from the surrounding small towns too. We were, for the most part, Orthodox, and the shul was always packed on all the holidays. We had a full-time rabbi and a cantor for the High Holy Days, Sunday school for learning Biblical history, and Cheder during the week for Hebrew lessons, and Bar Mitzvah preparations for the boys.

My mother kept a kosher home, and Yiddish was spoken at home and at both grandparents' homes. Pesach was always spent in Minneapolis (it was an overnight train ride with free train passes, thanks to my dad's job) and there was always a feeling of rightness to everything. There was a rightness to observing Shabbos, to lighting the candles, to opening the door for Elijah on Passover, and to reading the Daily Forward in Yiddish to my grandfather.

When I started school, which came at the same time as World War II and the Holocaust, life no longer felt right. From then on, my family, along with my world, fell apart. Being called a 'Christ killer' and a 'dirty Jew' were things that no one had ever taught me to deal with. It was as if Hitler's madness had reached out to touch all of us.

My parents never taught us how to deal with the anti-Semitism that was so prevalent in that part of the country in those years: the 'No Jews or Dogs' signs in motel windows, being beat up by non-Jewish children, al the things that made us feel like so much less than we really were....

As World War II progressed, and it became evident that whatever family had been left in Russia and Poland no longer existed, my grandparents lost heart. There was a great deal of sickness in the family, and life, as I had known it when I was younger, became nonexistent...

When I think back on the friends I had during my growing up years, I realize that whoever befriended me probably had no idea of what a Jew was. I can't recall any conversations about religion, Jesus, or even the Holocaust. I don't recall any discussions of the Holocaust in any school class. It was always as though what was happening in the world could never touch us and, therefore, why even talk about it. Everyone was very patriotic and danced in the streets when the war ended, but the idea of people like us being starved, beaten, demeaned, gassed, and put into furnaces was just beyond anyone's--especially a child's--conception.

My parents declined to answer whatever questions I may have had, and it wasn't until I started to haunt the library that I began to put the pieces of this puzzle together. If anything, I can recall a feeling of, 'Keep your mouth shut, hold your breath, and pray it doesn't touch you...'

...Growing up Jewish in a small town left scars that I now realize can never heal. I'll always look over my shoulder and wonder if I'll wake up some morning with a swastika painted on my front door."


Interesting food for thought, isn't it?

In the future, more excerpts from this book may be included within this blog.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Lexicon of Pre-World War I European Photographic Studios

Within the Museum of Family History’s “vault” lies a couple of hundred studio photographs, mostly taken in towns and cities in pre-World War I Europe; only a portion of these are on display. Many of these photos (mounted on cardboard) contain what could be important genealogical information, especially if one is trying to date a family photograph taken in a studio nearly one hundred years ago.

What information can be found on such a photo? The name of the photographic studio is most often imprinted under the photograph; usually a lithographic design covers most of the photo backing. Many of these designs contain attractive graphics, and include medals (with the names of the "fathers of photography" displayed on each medal) the studio supposedly won at some exposition, or perhaps medals that were awarded by a European monarch. Perhaps there will be an indication that the photographer is the "official" photographer of a particular monarch.

After World War I, however, the mood in Europe changed—especially in Eastern Europe—in such a way that those attractive lithographic designs disappeared for the most part. After 1914, these attractive designs were generally replaced with a simple, non-descript stamp imprint with the name of the studio and the studio's address.

The Museum of Family History’s collection of fronts and backs of such studio photographs is nothing when compared to the collection of over 3500 photos that can be found at http://www.fotorevers.eu/. This Polish and German language website documents the activities of photographers and their studios mostly during the years 1850-1914.

On this site, you can search for a particular photographer and studio by the surname of the photographer. If successful, you will be given a list of what photos exist on the site for a particular photographer. Then you can see if one of the surnames listed is the one you’re looking for.

There were many hundreds of photographic studios that existed during the pre-World War I years in Europe, and this website certainly doesn’t have every one represented. However, they do have a lot. Whereas the Museum of Family History only holds images of studio photographs of Jewish individuals and family groups, this site makes no such distinction.

To read more about this site and learn what information can be gleaned from this listing of photographers and their studios, click here.