COVID-19 Series: Archives on Lockdown

Archives on Lockdown: The Pius XII Papers at the Covid-19 Age by Maria Chiara Rioli

When he announced the opening of the Pius XII Archives on March 4, 2019, Pope Francis could not have known that the date scheduled for this event a full year later – March 2, 2020 – would coincide with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe.

The Vatican Apostolic Archives, formerly Vatican Secret Archives, Sala dei indici (Index Room)

Historians welcomed with great interest Francis’s speech about access to the Vatican archives related to the Eugenio Pacelli’s pontificate (1939–58), which have not been accessible until now. The opening of these archives inaugurates unprecedented possibilities of enquiry for scholars.[1] The full scope of what the archives reveal – both about Pius’s wartime role as well as much else – will only fully emerge after years of study. This documentation will open up new questions, reframe hypotheses, and challenge former interpretations.

At midnight sharp in the Vatican City – 6pm at my New York desk – on October 1st, 2019, I reserved my place in the reading room in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, as dozens of other scholars in the world did as well. In the following months I contacted other Vatican archives – in particular the Archives of the Secretariat of State and the Archives of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches – to ensure the possibility that I would get access to this newly released documentation, essential to my Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral project on the history of a community of Jewish converts to Catholicism within the Latin diocese of Jerusalem in the early 1950s.

In the weeks before the opening of the Pius archives, the spread of the Covid-19 in Europe, with its epicenter in Northern Italy, made many scholars doubtful about the possibility of opening the archives in those conditions. Some historians preemptively cancelled their research journeys. The archives opened as scheduled, immediately accompanied by some polemical jabs between Johan Ickx, the director of the historical archives relating to the Vatican’s Section for Relations with States, and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, about Pius’ role during the Shoah and the risks of an apologetic use of the documents.[2]

In the first week of March, the spread of Covid-19 accelerated. On Friday, March 6, the first case was registered in Vatican City. Around 10am that morning, scholars were informed that the reading room of the Secretariat of State archives was closing that day. The other Vatican archives shut down too. On Sunday March 8, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the lockdown of the whole country. The critical situation in Italy means that any provision for reopening for libraries and archives, including in the Vatican City, is still uncertain.

In those first days after the opening of the archives, historians had just confronted a small part of this new documentation: in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, scholars can request a maximum of 5 boxes per day, while in the Archives of the Secretariat of State, whose digitization could allow quicker and more efficient research, the access is limited by the closure of a part of the documentation, particularly from the years 1949–58. Now, much of their research is on hold or much delayed. The first conference, scheduled for June 2020 at the French School in Rome, that was aimed at revisiting the Pius pontificate in light of the newly-released documentation, has been postponed to Spring 2021.

For my research, however, these days have been indeed precious and fruitful. I am able to consult documents on the premises of the establishment of the Association of Saint James, the correspondence between the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Oriental Church, the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem and Palestine, and the Church of Jerusalem. These records allow the historian to reconstruct a much more complex narrative of the relations between the Rome, the Jerusalem Church, the State of Israel, and the Jewish world, often represented only in terms of “conflict,” “opposition,” and “absence of contacts.” I made use of this archives in my book Tribulationis Tempore: The Latin Church of Jerusalem in the Palestine War and Its Aftermath, 1946–56, forthcoming with Brill.

At the reopening of the archives, an attentive examination of the documents contained in the section “Ebrei” at the archives of the Secretariat of State, the correspondence of the Berlin and Paris Apostolic Nunciatures deposited in the Vatican Apostolic Archive and other collections will certainly contribute to a more accurate appraisal of the role of the Holy See during the Shoah. At the eventual end of the lockdown, unlocking the archives will allow new narratives to be constructed and to circulate.

Maria Chiara Rioli is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at the universities of Ca’ Foscari in Venice and Fordham in New York within the REL-NET project: “Entangled Interfaith Identities and Relations from the Mediterranean to the United States: The St James Association and Its Transnational Christian-Jewish Network in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”


[1] David I. Kertzer, “What the Vatican’s Secret Archives Are About to Reveal,” The Atlantic, March 2, 2020 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/what-vaticans-secret-archives-are-about-reveal/607261/

[2] See Rossella Tercatin, “Is the Vatican trying to distort how Pius XII behaved towards Jews?”, Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/is-the-vatican-trying-to-distort-how-pius-xii-behaved-towards-jews-619644

Passover 2020 and The Iconography of the Plagues

The Golden Haggadah, second quarter of the 14th century, Spain, British Library MS Additional 27210, 12v. Four plagues: frogs, lice, “arov” (wild beasts), and murrain.

As we endure the pandemic of COVID-19, the plagues from the story of Exodus and the Haggadah acquire a different meaning. The iconographic representation of the plagues can already be found in medieval illuminated Haggadot, like the 14th-century Spanish haggadot: Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah,” now at the British Library. Both begin with a sequence of magnificent illuminations depicting the story of Exodus.

The “Brother Haggadah”, third quarter of the 14th century, Spain. British Library, MS Oriental 1404, fol. 5r. Plagues of boils (top) and hail (bottom)

The “Brother Haggadah” has depicts eight of the ten plagues, skipping the first (blood) and the last (the killing of the first born). Both the Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah” were were commissioned by affluent Spanish Jews. These are two of several surviving illuminated haggadot from Spain. Among the other known Spanish haggadot are the so-called Sarajevo haggadah and the Rylands haggadah from the the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS M.526, fol. 14r

Christian illuminated bibles, especially the so called moralized bibles, also included illustrations of the plagues. Here is a late 14th century French bible, now at the Morgan Library, Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400 (MS M.526). Folios 12r-14v depict the scenes from Exodus relating the ten plagues. Here is the plague of locust. On top right Moses speaks with Pharaoh, depicted as a king, and at the bottom right Moses speaks to God, who is depicted as Christ.

The iconography found in many modern haggadot does not draw from these medieval examples, but rather from the iconography developed in the printed haggadot of the early modern era. This is the case for the 1946 Haggadah from Cairo. Below are images of the first five plagues: blood, frogs, lice, ‘arov (wild beasts/swarms), and murrain.

Below are images from a haggadah issued for the first Passover after the end of World War II. It was published in a Displaced Persons Camp in Fernwald in 1946. The Haggadah’s wine stains show it was used for a Passover seder (below). The pages below illustrate the dependence of modern haggadot on premodern iconography. The bottom image, marked by wine stains, shows the section shefokh ha-matkha (“Pour forth thy wrath”) section of the Passover Haggadah, which must have been particularly meaningful in 1946.

The break away from that “traditional” imagery came only from the more artistic modern haggadot, such as the 1969 El Al Haggadah.

Haggadah shel Pesah (Hagada for Passover) edited by Shaham Lewenson, Printed for El Al 1969. Fordham University, SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1969 1

To see more –though not all– examples of Haggadot from the Fordham collection, see the catalogue of the exhibition “Haggadah and History,” which was on view in 2019.

“Sarasohn vs. The Workingmen’s Publishing Association”: Socialism, Capitalism, and American-Jewish entrepreneurs in the Yiddish Press in 1890’s New York

By Yael Levi, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On August 22nd, 1898, the Jewish-Russian journalist Phillip Kranz, pseudonym of Jacob Rombro, received a subpoena from the Supreme Court of New York City. Kranz and other writers and editors of the “Workingmen Publishing Association” learned that “the action is brought to recover damages for libel, for a willful, reckless and atrocious libel.” The plaintiff was Kasriel Hirsch Sarasohn, the most important Yiddish and Hebrew press publisher in New York at the time. Sarasohn was represented by his son Abraham, a young and successful lawyer.

The trial revealed some of the most fundamental tensions in the Yiddish press in 1890s New York: orthodox versus secular; capitalism versus socialism; a family business versus a workers‟ organization, popular journalism versus cultural elite journalism, etc. All of these tensions presented themselves openly.

Dos Abendblatt, 1898, NYPL-Dorot Jewish Division

The cause for Sarasohn‟s complaint was an article from the socialist Yiddish daily “Dos Abendblatt” (The Evening Paper; founded in New York on 1894). The socialist daily had been attacking Sarasohn for months, publishing one investigation after another about his misuse of charities, as well as misrepresenting himself as a friend of the workers‟ class supporter, a supporter of the Zionist cause, a charity organizer – thus gaining support, good reputation and capital – while using them eventually for his own profit. Sarasohn demanded 20,000 dollars for the damage to his reputation within the Yiddish speaking community in New York.

Sarasohn was born in 1835 in Paiser, Suwalki County in North-Eastern Europe. His brother in law, the typesetter and editor Mordechay Yahlomstein, escaped to America in 1861, and on 1865 he wrote back to Sarasohn, recommending him to immigrate to America and to found a printing business. Sarasohn settled in New-York in the early 1870s and opened a small printing house. The business grew successful, and the Sarasohn family would later become a prominent force in the Yiddish and Hebrew press in America.

The defendants in the trial, Phillip Krantz and Bernard Feigenbaum, were also Jews from an East-European origin. They came to America in the early 1890s with a solid socialist ideology. After arriving to New York they were involved in writing and editing the socialist weekly “Arbeter Tsaytung”, and later the socialist daily “Dos Abendblatt”, both of which funded by the Socialist Labor Party.

The articles against Sarasohn were originally published in Yiddish; the plaintiff provided a transcript and an English translation to the court. Soon enough the trial shifted from Sarasohn‟s misdeeds to the political affiliation of the defendants. In an article which was published in “Dos Abendblatt” during the trial under the title “Sarasohn informs the court on us as anarchists”, the paper claimed: “Sarasohn writes in his prosecution that we are heretic socialists, „anarchists‟, „demons‟, hoping thus to convince the American jury”. According to the journalist, Sarasohn aimed to put “socialism on trial.”

On his final address to the jury, Sarasohn‟s lawyer – his son Abraham – accused the defendants of being “socialists, anarchists, nihilists […] He told the jury that we are coming from a country (Russia) when every written line must be signed by a policeman, and because of that when we came to this free land – where there is freedom of the press, we misuse this freedom”. The verdict of the trial, given on March 1901, was in favor of Sarasohn; the jury accepted his claim and decided that the “Workingmen‟s Public Association” will pay him 3,500 dollars plus trial expenses.

The fact that Sarasohn was accusing the socialist journalists of being Russian is counterintuitive: after all, he came from a not so far region three decades earlier; he surely didn‟t think any of his newspapers were misusing the very same freedom of the press. However, by using this argument, Sarasohn was able to differentiate between himself, the “good” immigrant, and the socialists, the “bad” immigrants – a very useful differentiation in Fin-de-Siècle America.

This legal case can serve as a key for understanding the ideological and political trends of Jewish immigrants from Eastern-Europe in the first two decades of mass migration. It can also shed light on two major types of economic immigration and Americanization. These types represent different aspects of American capitalism in the 19th century: the worker(s) and the entrepreneur(s).

Sarasohn was different from his opponents in the type of the project each of them ran: “Dos Abendblatt” was an ideological and political project, rather than a profit-oriented business. Sarasohn on the other hand had a family business, not very different from other immigrant entrepreneurs in the late 19th century: it was a small scale project, ran and operated from his home at 175 East Broadway during the first years; his children were his typesetters and later became his business partners; and he didn‟t have any local background both financially and administratively. Put it this way – Sarasohn was an immigrant and an entrepreneur.

Sarasohn’s enterprise – a weekly and later a daily newspaper in Yiddish – was indeed an early form of American Jewish entrepreneurship. He had to count on family labor, communal support and home-based production. But Sarasohn‟s sweatshop was different: his product was a “Jewish” product. Unlike a pair of pants, a tie or a box of cigars – it couldn‟t have been produced and couldn‟t have been bought by non-Jews. Sarasohn needed typesetters who could read the Hebrew Alphabet, and he counted on Yiddish readers to buy his newspapers. The type of the project can also explain why Sarasohn was so worried about his reputation in the Yiddish speaking world: it was his clientele.

The 1890s New York Yiddish press represented vividly the Yiddish worlds of the city, and the main ideological debates were represented in its papers both as a subject and as an object. As the Sarasohn case shows us, understanding the role of the Yiddish press in the Jewish community of the East Side is crucial for portraying the historical and political context of the era.

Yael Levi was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in Jewish Studies in the spring of 2019. Below is the lecture she delivered at Fordham University in April 2018.

“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.