Serendipity, Cyberspace, and the Tactility of Documents

By July 28, 2016Migration
Front of postcard sent by Private Jacob Isak Sicherman on 1 June 1916

Front of postcard sent by Private Jacob Isak Sicherman on 1 June 1916

Remember library stacks? Browsing among books? Serendipitously finding on a nearby shelf what you didn’t know you needed? There are still stacks, though nowadays you might be crushed if someone turned the crank. Public libraries have stacks. But where do we do most of our research?

On the internet, of course. Does serendipity exist in cyberspace?

It does. At the 2016 annual Institute for Historical Study meeting, Charles Sullivan described finding a document that had seemed non-existent, simply by using the right search terms. Advised to pursue primary sources, he worried about traveling to archives hither and yon. Did he travel? Not at all: the documents had been digitized.

I am now working with primary sources in my possession: ninety-nine postcards that my mother-in-law, Matylda Sicherman, brought with her from Poland when she emigrated in 1928. Out of them, and with the aid of other primary sources, I’ve teased the stories of a mostly Hasidic community in the first quarter of the twentieth century. I’m hoping that the owners of the cards will donate them to the Center for Jewish History in New York, which is digitizing its entire archive. In the future, these cards could be read in the countries from which they were sent—Poland, Romania, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Ukraine, Russia—and by anyone anywhere with access to the internet.

But for me, physically handling these battered cards is essential to understanding them. Each one was written by a particular person in a particular place, stamped by a post office or military postal service, read by someone in a different place and circumstance. One card depicts four generals shaking hands in 1915 to signify Bulgaria’s joining the Central Powers—“der neue Waffenbruder” (“the new brother-in-arms;” in addition to German, the phrase is also given in Hungarian, Czech and Polish). The sender, Private Jacob Isak Sicherman, wrote each “brother’s” nation above his head: “BULG. TURKEI, OS-UNG [Austro-Hungary], DEUT[SCH].” He wrote on 1 June 1916 while convalescing in a Cracow military hospital. The card is stamped by the hospital and by the military postal service (there’s no postage stamp). Like most of the cards, it went to his wife, then living in a small town in Hungary because her home in Poland wasn’t yet safe. His words overflowed the space. He writes intimately, yet anyone who read his crabbed handwriting would find no secrets:

I am going to note for you who each of these high and mighty gentlemen is. You’ll also know by yourself. Let me know whether you received it. I kiss you and the dear children heartily–[also] the dear parents. Your faithful J. Isaak

Holding this card contributes an ineffable sense of connection. Years ago, in the Public Records Office in London, I pored over scraps that a colonial official had scribbled in the course of his duties. I felt his presence.

Back of postcard sent by Private Jacob Isak Sicherman on 1 June 1916

Back of postcard sent by Private Jacob Isak Sicherman on 1 June 1916

This tactile connection is only part of the pleasure of my often-serendipitous research preparing an edition of the postcards. Early on, an Institute member told me about a genealogy site, JewishGen.org, loaded with an astonishing wealth of ever-growing databases and a large and friendly community of scholars and translators offering their skills for free. The main translator of the German cards, Isabel Rincon, teaches German literature and languages at a Munich Gymnasium. There was more than her training in German philology that prepared her for the task. Her personal history impelled her to volunteer: her grandfather and his best friend (Jewish) had both been in love with a young Jewish woman. She left Germany in the 1930s for America. Tempted to emigrate with her but not sharing her danger, the grandfather remained regretfully in Germany. The other two emigrated and married; all three friends remained in touch throughout their lives. Isabel knew them all.

Besides Isabel, I have had many pen pals met through JewishGen online discussion groups. Valerie Schatzker, author of the monograph Jewish Oil Magnates of Galicia—a wonderfully readable book—sent a source in a 1917 Austrian newspaper, explained Polish words, and offered to read the manuscript. A professional translator in Israel grappled with the intolerably messy Yiddish script. Institute member Bogna Lorance-Kot translated Polish cards. A man in Ohio eagerly offered to make a genealogical chart for the book. Rabbi Avrohom Marmorstein figured out the most likely way that Jacob Isak learned to read and write German—from his fellow pupils in one of the yeshivas that he attended. Like many Hasidim, his family ignored the imperial law that required all children to go to school. Jacob and his parents preferred that he sleep on straw and go hungry, as long as he could absorb rabbinic learning.

What has been most rewarding about this research has been the human element: coming to know the people of the cards and the people of the scholarly community–discovering and being offered knowledge that illuminates the stories of these long-gone people.

This post was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of the newsletter of the Institute for Historical Study.

Author Carol Sicherman

Carol Sicherman taught English at Cornell and the City University of New York. Initially a specialist in 17th-century English literature, she devoted twenty-five years to research on anglophone African literature and history. In recent years, she has written two books stemming from family papers: “Rude Awakenings: An American Historian’s Encounters with Nazism, Communism, and McCarthyism” (2011) and “‘Dear and faithful Matel leb’: Ninety-nine Galician Postcards, 1905-21 (submitted to a publisher). Both books concern emigration to some extent: German Jews escaping Nazism in the 1930s, and Polish Jews escaping anti-Semitism following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

More posts by Carol Sicherman
  • Thanks for sharing, Carol! In addition to providing a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of multilingual Central European Jews in the early 20th century, your work is also inspiring for us sociolinguists as a model how collaborative multilingual research might work. Can’t wait to read your book!
    Do you have any idea why Jakob Isac might have chosen to write his postcards in German? I’ve always understood that the family was Yiddish-speaking so in face-to-face communication he would have spoken Yiddish with Matylda, right? Was there any requirement from the censor’s office to write in German (or to not write in Yiddish)? And how did Matylda learn German? Presumably, she didn’t attend an yeshiva where she could have picked it up from fellow pupils? It seems to me that the family may have been much more multilingual than the label “Yiddish-speaking” would suggest? Thanks, Ingrid

    • Oak

      You are right: Yiddish was the family language. There was no censorship involved. Most Jewish soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army wrote in German–my source doesn’t explain why, other than it was the lingua franca of the A-H Empire. Matylda received a card from a young cousin whose German shows signs of schooling, whereas most of the German intermixes Yiddish, as indeed most of the supposedly Yiddish cards are either actually German in Hebrew characters or Yiddish influenced by German, sometimes to such an extent that it could be labeled “dayschmerish” (daytsch=deutsch). Matylda appears to have attended a state school conducted in Polish, in which German would have been a subject; she had to leave after two years to take care of the babies that her mother kept delivering, most of whom died. Her young women correspondents used Polish almost as much as German. Pious Orthodox Jews didn’t see women’s education as important, so they didn’t mind sending girls to Polish public schools–tbe more girls enrolled, the fewer places for boys, who then could go unimpeded to Yiddish-language religious schools.Only one man of the now 104 cards wrote in Polish. The reason there are 104 rather than 99 is that five had migrated, somehow, from Oakland CA to Brooklyn NY. I am now incorporating them in the book. Carol

      • Miriam Faine

        maybe Matylda didn’t know how to write/ read Yiddish script? As girls were not sent to cheder? And 2 more points (this is a hobby horse of mine too) – how is ‘German in Hebrew characters’ distinguished from Yiddish? And where did she come from in Poland? As in Western Poland German was more likely to have been a lingua franca – i.e. under the Austro Hungarian empire.

        • Oak

          Matylda did know how to write and read in Yiddish; in fact, later in life she maintained a daily correspondence in Yiddish. She came from Boryslaw. By “German in Hebrew characters,” I meant that the language is more “German” than Yiddish. In fact, there is a continuum linking Yiddish and “German”–a version of it, such as used in this part of Galicia (i.e. not the Standard German of, say, Vienna). Just as there are many Englishes (Australian, American, Canadian, etc.), so there were, and are, many Germans.
          I should add, in response to Ingrid’s previous comment, that the Austro-Hungarian military forbade soldiers from writing in any script other than “Latin.” So Jacob had to write in German when using the military mail system, but nonetheless he mostly used German when using the civilian postal system. One can conclude that in his multilingual milieu, distinctions were almost meaningless. Later in life, he wrote theological commentaries in Hebrew and his memoirs in Yiddish.