“But We Survived”: The Unsettled Memory of Polish-Jewish Survivors in the Soviet Union by Lidia Zessin-Jurek

Many unhappy returns

The majority of Polish Jews who survived World War II did so in the Soviet Union, some in the gulags of Siberia, experiencing forced labor, hunger, and illnesses. When they returned to Poland at the end of the war, they often encountered hostile Christian Poles. The hostility of their former neighbors brought about  feelings of betrayal and loss, which are ubiquitously described in the accounts of returning Jewish refugees. Very few of the survivors stayed where they had previously lived. Confronted with postwar antisemitism, most of them chose to leave not only Poland, but Europe altogether, the continent that inflicted upon them wounds that could never heal.

These survivors have been easy to find. Among them are acclaimed authors, directors, economists, philosophers, linguists, scholars, estate managers, doormen, family members, and neighbors. However, few were interested in hearing about their past. Now the moment has come to hear their stories.

Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind (London ; Portland, OR : Vallentine Mitchell, 2003). Call number: DS135.P63 B5863 2003

Dancing on the Titanic

Rita Blattberg Blumstein compares the last weeks her family spent in Krakow before it all started – the war, the Holocaust, the Gulag – to dancing on the Titanic. Her beautiful, cozy life, sheltered by her parents’ love, was interrupted abruptly and irreparably. Yet, until her father died, Rita Blattberg Blumstein said in 2002, “I never thought of myself as a Holocaust victim.”

Jack Pomerantz, Run East (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) DS135.P63 P664 1997

Jack Pomerantz had never been outside his little town of Radzyń when his odyssey began: “I didn’t know how to go east. I followed people. And I walked. I kept walking many days. In a kind of stupor.” His long trip led him to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Siberia, Kazakhstan, and then back to Poland.

Joachim Schoenfeld from Lwów (Lviv) recalled how in the wake of WWII for the first time in the long history of Jewish persecution, refugees had found all the gates to the lands of the ‘free world’ closed: “The 3.5 million Polish Jews found themselves trapped. Not knowing where to go, they moved about aimlessly on the roads and highways like ants to avoid being trampled by a giant’s foot.”[i]

Life-saving deportation to Siberia

Hundreds of thousands of such lives were thus interrupted and thousands of people set on a move. Their eastward exodus began after the German attack on Poland. From the east of Poland, simultaneously occupied by the Soviet Union, the Jewish refugees were sent further to the Soviet interior and forced to hard labor, exposed to hunger and bitter cold.  Returning to Poland at the end of WWII they learned about the tragic fate of relatives they left behind under the German occupation. Torn between feelings of shock, grief, guilt, and relief, they considered their experience of minor importance and kept silent. Only recently have some of the Poland-born Jewish exiles to the USSR begun to convey the stories of their survival.

https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:3293915 Soviet Gulags, 1947 from https://persuasivemaps.library.cornell.edu/

Survivors

They were now both Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Stalinist terror. They were often the only members of their families to remain alive and by far the most numerous group of the few Polish Jews who survived the war. This difficult Soviet chapter of the Holocaust survival, largely overlooked, has recently been the core of research projects conducted by international scholars.[ii]  In the course of their work, they may achieve more inclusive re-definition of Jewish survival, normally associated with the horror of having gone through the death camps or with a difficult hideout among Christians.


Lidia Zessin Jures was a 2018 Research Fellow in Jewish Studies at Fordham University and the New York Public Library. She is currently in the Department of Modern Social and Cultural History at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Science in Prague

[i] Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind, London: Valentine Mitchell 2003; Jack Pomerantz, Run East: Flight from the Holocaust, Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press 1997; Joachim Schoenfeld, Holocaust memoirs: Jews in the Lwów Ghetto, the Janowski Concentration Camp, and as deportees in Siberia, Hoboken, N.J : Ktav Pub. House 1985.

[ii] See the work by, inter alia, Atina Grossmann, Laura Jockusch/ Tamar Lewinsky, Katharina Friedla, John Goldlust, Markus Nesselrodt.

In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s Day 2020

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day we wanted to highlight The Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah from in our Judaica collection. The Freedom Seder was held at the Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, DC, in 1969 and was attended by hundreds of participants, Jews and Christians, black and white.

Passover of 1968 came on Aprl 12, just eight days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and three days after his funeral. Days after the “Holy Week Uprising” was quelled. That year, Arthur Waskow, one of Jewish peace activists at the time and a future founder of the Shalom Center, felt that the Passover holiday spoke to the struggles of the time. As he told NPR’s Code Switch, for that Passover, “I wove the story of the liberation of ancient Hebrews from Pharaoh with the liberation struggles of black America, of the Vietnamese people, passages from Dr. King, from Gandhi.”

Saul Raskin, Haggadah shel Pesah (New York, 1941). Fordham University, + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2
Saul Raskin Haggadah for Passover (New York, 1941), Fordham O’Hare Special Collections: + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2

In 1969, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death fell on one of the days of Passover, and Arthur Waskow along with other activists organized the Freedom Seder. For that occasion, Waskow created a “new Haggadah,” one that combined traditional elements with those relevant to the times, using the Saul Raskin Haggadah, which he had been given in 1946 for his bar mitzvah, and adapting it by adding new voices, among them Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Emanuel Ringelblum, and of course Martin Luther King Jr.:

No, the moments of resistance have not been bloodless. The blood of tyrants and the blood of freemen has watered history. But we may not rest easy in that knowledge. The freedom we seek is a freedom from blood as well as a freedom from tyrants. It is incumbent upon us not only to remember in tears the blood of the tyrants and the blood of the prophets and martyrs, but to end the letting of blood. To end it, to end it! For as one of the greatest of our prophets, whose own death by violence at a time near the Passover were member in tears tonight—as the prophet Martin Luther King called us to know: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence. The nonviolent resister rises to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. Nonviolence can reach men where the law can not touch them. So—we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”

The Freedom Seder Haggadah was first published in the Ramparts magazine, and, according Waskow, this was “the first Haggadah, certainly the first widely circulated, that celebrated the liberation of other peoples as well as the liberation of the Jewish people.”

The Shalom Center, founded by Rabbi Waskow, has posted a 10 minute video of the 1969 seder:

A New Exhibit at O’Hare Special Collections: Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate

by Magda Teter, The Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies

Technological advances can lead to positive social change. Technological innovations have helped create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. In medieval Europe, the introduction of paper lowered the costs of manuscript production and record keeping. The invention of movable type and the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century made books more easily accessible. The innovations in the production of paper in the nineteenth century, and in printing methods made newspapers, postcards, and color books possible. Photography, radio, and films facilitated new forms communication of news and entertainment. In our lives the Internet has provided new ways to communicate and learn. But along positive change, technological advances have often also been harnessed to less laudable goals, allowing for access to and dissemination of not only “useful” or “respectable” knowledge, but also of hateful stories, derogatory images and stereotypes.

In June 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that “Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide.” Twenty-first century media technology has been shown to facilitate dissemination of hate–bullying on social media; chat groups that allow for racist and antisemitic individuals to find like-minded communities; bots amplifying hateful messages. But while the media technology we live with is new, the phenomenon of harnessing new technology for hateful purposes is not. Anytime communications technology advanced, hatred spread as well. The exhibition explores how different technological breakthroughs facilitated the propagation of hate: in Europe—anti-Jewish and antisemitic images and tales, in America—antisemitism and racism.

Bible moralisée/Bible de Saint Louis (Facsimile edition, M. Moleiro, 2000-2004; original, 13th century, between 1226 and 1234, now at Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada, in Toledo)+ SPEC COLL LEACH 2000 2 V.1

Derogatory anti-Jewish iconography emerged at the end of the 12th century not to channel anti-Jewish sentiments but rather to amplify Christian piety. With time this anti-Jewish imagery gained more explicit hateful meaning. Still in the Middle Ages its reach was relatively limited— church art seen only locally, or precious manuscripts seen by few, such as here the splendidly illuminated Bible moralisée—the medieval picture bible—made for King Louis IX of France between 1226 and 1234, on display here. 

The breakthrough came with the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century, which resulted in the first mass produced commodity—the printed book. Along came also cheaper pamphlets and broadsides. While the printing press allowed for the diffusion of knowledge, laws, and devotional texts, the new technology was also employed to disseminate anti-Jewish images and texts. These previously localized, or obscure, images or tales now had a broader reach. Books, even those that only tangentially discussed Jews, helped spread ideas and images—often false and spurious—about Jews and Judaism to a much wider audience. On display is the lavishly illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493, which included, among thousands of other stories, some eleven stories about post-biblical Jews, all of them spurious and derogatory. While there were books specifically focused on anti-Jewish content, sometimes books not meant to convey explicitly derogatory ideas captured the state of current knowledge, effectively replicating biased epistemological models, the works of Johannes Buxtorf or Bernard Picart in Fordham’s collection can serve as examples.

Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, originally published in Nuremberg in 1493 in both Latin and German, republished in German in a full size facsimile edition in 1933.
19th-century technology made publishing daily newspapers, postcards, posters, leaflets, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera, possible. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes.

But until the nineteenth century book production was still quite expensive: paper was made through a protracted process from rags, text had to be set from individual types, and any illustrations had to be either carved in wood to make woodcuts, or engraved on copper plates. But in the nineteenth century, wood pulp paper, lithography, rotary press, and offset printing made printing cheaper and more widely available. This facilitated the development of daily newspapers, with front-page color images, as well as postcards, posters, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes much more widely through news and entertainment.

Irene Harand, Azoy? Oder Azoy? Der Emes vegen anti-Semitism [This? Or That? The Truth concerning anti-Semitism.] (Vienna: Karl Popelka, 1933). First published in German as “So? oder so? Wahrheit über den Antisemitismus” (This? or that? The Truth about Antisemitism). The title of the publication “This? Or That?” is tied to the cover design, presenting a choice between “this,” represented as a swastika or “that,” represented by the scales of justice. It was also issued in Yiddish (on display) and in Polish. A recent acquisition.

But these hateful challenges did not go unanswered. Jews, as well as non-Jews, often became allies in the fight against hatred, turning to religious values for moral support, celebrating festivals together, and organizing for a better future.

The Common Road to Freedom Passover Haggadah (Prepared for the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1985). First edition, prepared the Shabbat Hagadol Social Action Sabbath in 1985. In English with some Hebrew. It is an example of a joint response to racism and antisemitism. A recent acquisition.

The exhibition “Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate” is on view until May 31st, 2020 at the O’Hare Special Collections at the Walsh Family Library at Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus.

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The exhibition was co-curated by Sally Brander FCRH ‘20, Clare McCabe FCRH ‘20, and Magda Teter, the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies, with contributions from students in Professor Teter’s seminar on antisemitism (HIST 4308) from Fall 2018 and 2019, and assistance and support from Linda Loschiavo, the Director of the Walsh Family Library and Vivian (Wei) Shen of the O’Hare Special Collections.

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The exhibition would not have been possible without the generosity of Mr. Eugene Shvidler, whose gift to Fordham’s Jewish Studies program helped start Fordham’s Judaica collection.

Researching Isaac Myer and His Work on the Kabbalah at the NYPL

by Boaz Huss (Ben Gurion University, Israel and a past Fordham-NYPL Fellow in Jewish Studies)

Dr. Boaz Huss from Ben Gurion University at the NYPL reading Isaac Myer’s papers.

In 1888, Isaac Myer published, in Philadelphia, a book entitled Qabbalah – The Philosophical Writings of Solomon Ben Yehuda Ibn Gabirol. It was the first comprehensive book on Kabbalah printed in the United States, and the most learned and up to date book on Kabbalah in English at the time.                                      

Isaac Myer was born in Philadelphia in 1836.   His ancestors, who immigrated to America in the 17th century from England and from Holland, were Puritans and Dutch reform.  His father, Isaac Myer senior, was a wealthy businessperson. Isaac Jr. graduated from the law department of the University of Pennsylvania in 1857. He practiced law in Philadelphia and New-York and was United States Commissioner of western Pennsylvania. He was a private scholar, a Freemason, and a member of several scholarly and antiquarian associations.

Myer published several books, which can give us an impression of the wide range of his interests. They include Presidential Power over Personal Liberty (1862); The Waterloo Medal (1885); The Qabalah (1888); Scarabs (1894); and his last book The Oldest Books in the World (1900).   He also published several articles, which include articles on Hermes Trismegistus and on Hindu Symbolism published in The Path, an article on “On Dreams by Synesius,” published in The Platonist, and an article entitled “Qabbalah, Quotations from the Zohar and other writings, treating of the Qabbalistic or Divine Philosophy,” published in The Oriental Review.

Myer’s was especially interested in Kabbalah. He presented his unique ideas about Kabbalah in his major book, Qabbalah, as well as in some of his other writings.  His views on the history and significance of Kabbalah are based on comparative and philological-historical research. However, his interest in Kabbalah and comparative religion was not purely historical. It had a theological, spiritual aim. Myer believed that the study of Kabbalah and its ancient origins will revive Christian mysticism, and will enable the formation of a new theology, that will reunite all divided religions.

Myer died in 1902 and was buried in the family lot at Laurel Hill, Philadelphia.  Myer bequeathed his rich library, and many of his own manuscripts, to the Lenox library, which became part of the New York Public Library.

Isaac Myers` papers are found today at the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the NYPL. They contain 11 boxes of Myer’s manuscripts. On November 2017, I spent a few weeks studying this vast collection, with the support of the NYPL and Fordham University grant. I have recently presented the results of my research, at the opening of the conference “Kabbalah in America,” held at Rice University.

Myer’s Collection consists of manuscripts of his published and unpublished works, as well as many translations, transcriptions, commentaries, bibliographies, and indexes related to his research of Kabbalah and other ancient religions, as well as to federalism and constitutional history. Myers’ papers also include several letters, that provide valuable information about Myers’ affiliation and networks.

Myer translated to English dozens of books and articles, mostly on Kabbalah, from Latin, French, German, Hebrew, and Aramaic. They include western esoteric and occult works, such as Franz Molitor’s Philosophy of History and works of Eliphas Levi; 19th-century German Jewish scholarship of Kabbalah, including translations from Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews and Adolph Jellinek’s Selection of Jewish Mysticism and books on Kabbalah in Hebrew, such as Moshe Kunitz`, Ben-Yochai and Abraham Baer Gotlober’s, History of Kabbalah and Hasidut. Myer also translated primary Kabbalistic texts, from Hebrew and Aramaic, such as Ibn Gabai’s Derekh Emuna, and many passages from the Zohar. The archive reveals the Myer was the most knowledgeable person about Kabbalah in the United States in his period. 

Apart from the manuscripts of his published work, Myer’s collection includes also drafts of several unpublished articles, as well as a draft of a book about Johannes Kelpius (1667-1708), the 17th-century German pietist who immigrated with his followers to Pennsylvania in anticipation of the end of the world.  The collection also includes Myer’s eulogy to his friend and patron, Eli K. Price (1797-1884), a lawyer and independent scholar, who the president of the Philadelphia Numismatic and antiquarian society.

Most interesting are the letters found in Myer’s archive, that shed some light on Myer’s networks and the context of his unique interest and perception on Kabbalah. These include correspondence with Thomas Moore Johnson (1851-1919), from Osceola, Missouri, the editor of the journal The Platonist, who was (similar to Myer), an eminent attorney, independent scholar, and an occultist.  Another interesting letter found in the archives is a letter from Merwin-Marie Snell (1863-1921) dated May 30, 1894.  Snell, one of the first scholars of comparative religion, came from a prominent New England protestant family but converted to Catholicism. He published several books, and he is known as one of the organizers of the famous World Parliament of Religions in 1893. He was interested in esotericism and was the founder of one of the most learned, and mysterious occult movement, The Universal Brotherhood.

Myer correspondent also with several Jewish scholars and Rabbis, who helped him in his research of Kabbalah. The archives include a letter which was sent to Myer by Sabato Morais (1823-1897). Morias, originally from Livorno, Italy, was for many years the head of the Orthodox Synagogue Mikveh Yisrael in Philadelphia. He was one of the most important American Jewish scholars and leaders of the late 19th century and was involved in International, American and Jewish public and political issues. In 1886, he founded, as was the first president of the original Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Another Jewish scholar who corresponded with Myer was Henri (Zvi Hirsch) Gersoni (1844-1897). Gersoni who was born in Vilnius, was a Journalist, author, and rabbi, and published extensively on various topics in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. In Myer’s archive, I found a package that contained Gersoni’s translations of Hebrew and Aramaic texts from Adolphe Jellinek’s Beitrage zur Kabbalah. It also included correspondence between Myer and Gersoni, from 1885, regarding translations of different Kabbalistic texts. Another person Myer corresponded with was Chajim David Lippe, a Jewish publisher, and bibliographer from Wien. The study of Myer’s papers at the NYPL sheds light on Myers’ wide scholarly interests and on his unique knowledge and perception of Kabbalah.  The archive reveals Myers’s scholarly and esoteric affiliations and networks, which were quite wide and interesting. The occult and scholarly networks, to which Myer belonged, helped to shape other modern forms and perceptions of Kabbalah, which developed and became popular in America in a later period. Although Myer`s erudition and interests in Kabbalah were unique in his time, many of the characteristics of his modern American Kabbalah will also characterize later forms of Kabbalah in America.