On the road to Western Mass. with local survivors

By Susie Davidson

Special to the Advocate

Tania Lefman, Janet Stein and Fred Calm examine some of the holdings at the Yiddish Book Center. PHOTO/SUSIE DAVIDSON

On Aug. 10, a busload of members of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Greater Boston (AAJHSGB) and their descendants rolled out of the parking lot at Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill and headed west. They were joined by three members of the German Consulate General Boston on the earlymorning bus trip to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst and the New England Holocaust Institute in North Adams.

The group was originally formed in Dorchester by a group of survivors. They included Israel Arbeiter, who served as its president until two years ago, when upon his retirement, Janet Stein succeeded him. She is the second-generation daughter of a survivor (2G)

At the Yiddish Book Center, located in Amherst in a corner of the Hampshire College campus, the group was greeted by Saul Hankin, one of five fellows at the center. “The Yiddish world can claim three Nobel peace prize winners,” he told the group, many visiting for the first time. They are Shmuel Yosef Agnon, S. Ansky (known for his play “The Dybbuk”), and Elie Weisel.

The group learned about Yiddish theater actor Boris Thomashefsky, grandfather of conductor Michael Tillson Thomas; that Leonard Nimoy was an extra on the Yiddish stage; and how Mel Brooks would include Yiddish references in his movies. Yiddish productions of Shakespeare plays in New York City had mixed results, Hankin explained, although the Yiddish “King Lear” was a success.

During ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ when Juliet goes to kill herself, a woman in the audience stood up and said, ‘I survived the pogroms and fled to the U.S., and you want to kill yourself over a boy? It’s not worth it.’” Hankin detailed how founder Aaron Lansky’s mission of rescuing Yiddish books from extinction began, and came to fruition. “When Aaron was a student at McGill [University] there was only one Yiddish book in each class, which had to be copied,” he said. Lansky traveled the world in search of more. He went from warehouse to warehouse, even putting up flyers in Delhi, and stored the donated books in his parents’ attic prior to the establishment of the center in 1977 at the site, which sits among other museums as part of a “cultural village” in Amherst.

Hankin said that Lansky was originally told by historians that there were 70,000 Yiddish books in existence, but he ultimately found 1.5 million volumes. The Center holds 16,000 different titles, 12,000 of which are digitized. About 100,000 rare and fragile books are stored downstairs, half a million in cold storage, and others are lent to libraries, museums and schools. “We are happy to collect them and keep them safe, but we would rather that they get out around the world,” he explained.

The bus then continued to the northwest corner of Massachusetts where, in an unlikely storefront in rustic North Adams, is the New England Holocaust Institute (NEHI).

Proprietor Darrell English, a military history buff, has amassed a largescale collection of Holocaust artifacts. English said he personally owns from 6,000 to 10,000 pieces of World War II memorabilia, 250 of which are housed along the walls and corners of the small museum.

English told the group that he focuses on the build-up to the war. “In schools, they jump to D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, but they skip what came before,” he said. He collected his pieces in the United States, mainly at yard sales and in attics. “We need to get these relics before veterans die,” he said, noting that landfills have become “the greatest museums in the world.”

English said that he tries to collect living materials. “This is the stuff that speaks,” he said, citing a 44-frame filmstrip of old nitrate film that was shown to Hitler Youth: “This is some of the most grotesque propaganda that they created.

This is the stuff I try to get out.” English stressed that education is critical and timely.

A child entering kindergarten this year will see the passing of every survivor and veteran,” he said. “If you go to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or the DDay museum in New Orleans, they mostly talk about the Holocaust itself,” he said. “I want to tell the story of what happened before, what precipitated it…When you give them an artifact, something that was there, it changes them. It’s not like looking at a book, a picture, or a copy of a copy.”

He held up an example of the Nuremberg Laws restricting Jews, that had been tucked inside an innocuous cookbook.

He then produced a small personal calendar from 1941. There were no entries in it, but on the back was the custom printed name of the recipient: Oskar Schindler.

Poor people don’t create museums,” said English. “I’m not a tech person. What I am is a historian. My degree is in history. I’m like an Indiana Jones. I know where this stuff is, and I know how to get it.”

He displayed a uniform belonging to a camp commandante. “This is what he wore in Treblinka. It was going to be destroyed in a Canadian museum,” he said, adding that he had another uniform worn by the Commandante of Mauthausen.

The day ended with plenty of food for thought for the travelers, from the depths of anti-Semitic propaganda and the Holocaust to the glories of Yiddish culture.

For information about the AAJHSGB’s programs for survivors, their children and grandchildren, go to the Generations After website: www.generationsafterboston.org.

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