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.
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.