When Abraham and Jessica Denenholz Levin died over three decades ago, leaving boxes and boxes of family documents, their six children nearly tossed the lot. But two of the siblings, Rebecca Lubetkin of Mountain Lakes and Treasure Cohen of Maplewood, decided to save and meticulously sift through the trove.
“They were savers,” Cohen said of her parents. “If they saw fit to save, I thought we ought to find the value in what they saved, and to see if in any way their imprint could be felt.”
It’s taken 30 years. As the sisters near the end of this major undertaking, they take pride in their work, the documents sorted and saved in binders, categorized and labeled. They hope that in their nearly museum-ready state, the family archives will be valued by their own children.
But understanding the impulse to get rid of papers, as well as what is lost in doing so, Lubetkin worries that “the day after I die, a dumpster will appear outside my apartment and all my papers will be dumped.”
Helping families preserve the documents and other records of their lives is of growing interest to Jewish historians and archivists, both for the sake of posterity and a family’s own sense of identity. Organizations like the Jewish Women’s Archive, JewishGen, The Jewish Teacher Project, and Centropa offer tips and tools for preserving family memories and chronicles.
On Sunday, Nov. 9, the Holocaust Council of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ will sponsor a workshop on preserving family history at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
Archivist Stanley Bergman, who is trained in the art of preservation and has provided conservation services to the YIVO Institute and the Center for Jewish History, will lead the workshop, which is free and open to the public.
“Most young people do not have the time or the patience” to spend 30 years combing through family documents, Bergman said in an interview. “No one is interested in a box full of materials and papers when they don’t know what it is.”
Earlier this month, the Museum of the City of New York opened an exhibit based on home movies made by American Jews visiting their Polish relatives in the 1920s and 1930s.
“There is so much material that only exists within families that is not thought to be important,” said Lubetkin. “Who would have ever thought that anyone would care about a film of Grandma Yetta in Lodz?”
In cases like these, saved documents and other material can tell the story of Jewish life beyond an individual family, which is exactly what happened to Cohen and Lubetkin.
Great-nieces of Rabbi Joseph Hertz, a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, they found “chatty and gossipy” correspondence between their maternal grandmother and her sister, the rabbi’s wife, regarding the dedication of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he spoke. They also found letters, invitations, and programs relating to a conference in June 1898, of which their father, Henry Levin, seems to have been the secretary. That conference played a role in the launching of Conservative Judaism.
Lubetkin and Cohen remember their father boasting about the family’s yichus, or good pedigree. The documents confirmed his swagger.
They also found correspondence with the Bass family, originally from Vienna. “When we were growing up, there were whispers of the Bass Family, Grandma’s distant relatives, whom my mother and father had brought over from Austria in 1939,” Cohen wrote in a message to her own children. In the archives, they also discovered correspondence between their parents and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Lubetkin believes the correspondence can serve as primary source material for historians researching efforts by American Jews on behalf of their European relatives, a chapter of history she said is only beginning to be understood. A member of the board of the Holocaust Council, Lubetkin is a former administrator and professor of public policy at Rutgers University. “Those who lived through the Holocaust, either here or abroad, are aging,” she said. “The longer we wait, the more likely that stories and artifacts will be gone forever, either discarded through downsizing or lost through death.”
The sisters also found a pair of letters that revealed something none of the siblings had known about: In 1942, their parents wrote to HIAS offering to take in Jewish children from Europe during the war. Regarding this find, Cohen wrote, in the same letter to her children that she shared with NJ Jewish News, “At the time, they had five children of their own, all under the age of five, and one can only imagine the instability of life in America that they were facing themselves, as the country geared for war. We do know — as you might have intuited — that their offer was refused. In the archives, we found a response from HIAS that regretted that they were unable to release any children at that time.”
Even if family documents have no specific historical value to archives or museums, they may still be worthwhile to save.
“Although I have retained and passed forward stories from my family’s past, these primary sources have sometimes revealed surprises or at least revisions of what I thought was truth,” wrote Cohen. “In some cases, however, the paper records have reinforced and deepened the stories that I remembered. And even more important, they have shown ways in which my parents lived the values that they hoped to transmit.”
Cohen sent her note about their preservation efforts to her grown children on her mother’s 32nd yahrtzeit in September. Her son-in-law responded that the Levin tzedaka documented in the papers had inspired him to undertake more good deeds in his own life.
Cohen said, “Who would have thought that my parents’ actions in the 1940s would inspire my son-in-law to do more good works?”